China’s ironic “open internet”

At China’s annual “World Internet Conference” held this week, Chinese government officials lauded the country’s “open internet” in front of top executives from American giants like Google and Facebook. This is despite the fact those two firms remain blocked in China, along with a host of others including Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times and even Skype. You can’t get any more ironic that, can you?

A case in point is what just happened in Beijing, when the authorities forcibly evicted thousands of residents as part of ostensibly efforts to uphold safety regulations but really was an attempt to force out poor migrants and beautify the city. Kicking out multitudes of your poorest residents onto the streets is ghastly, but it’s not too surprising as this is in line with what China has done, which is take shortcuts to becoming powerful and wealthy by taking advantage of its own people, clamping down when necessary, and censoring any criticism and bad news. As much coverage as the evictions received in the international press, local media coverage of the evictions was actually banned, and social media was heavily censored.

Censorship, control and surveillance of information, whether online, tv or print, ensures that the Communist authorities can keep its people ignorant and fearful, making them unable to openly agitate or form bonds. Unfortunately, what was once seen as backwards and crude, now looks to be the future. I won’t be as pessimistic as these writers who claim that China looks to be “winning” the internet, but it is a very worrying trend, one in line with China’s rise. The fact that the heads of Google and Apple attended China’s internet conference and had to listen to Chinese officials and tech moguls like Jack Ma crow about government policies, including more aggressive intervention, was a sign of China’s growing prowess in tech.

But I was wrong about one thing in my first paragraph. The only thing more ironic about China praising its “open” internet is that it censored social media mention about this very event where it said that. At the end of it, is this what winning the internet is?

Beijing kicks out migrant workers

On November 18, a fire broke out in outer Beijing, killing 19 people, most of whom were migrant workers staying in small housing quarters. Since then, the Beijing authorities launched a massive eviction of tens of thousands of migrant workers, claiming unsafe violations of their residences as the reason. As a result, police have simply just showed up at people’s doors and ordered them to leave within days or even hours! Many of these people were forced to leave hastily without guaranteed accommodation and in some cases, leave for their hometowns. It’s obvious the authorities have used the fire as a convenient excuse to evict these outsiders, something which some Chinese have not failed to note.

It’s a very troubling act, but it’s in line with the crackdowns the government has launched on society. Lawyers, NGOs, journalists, Christians and even billionaires have felt the brunt of Xi Jinping and his regime, and migrant workers in the capital are now the latest.
It’s also a vivid sign of the sheer power and cold-heartedness of the Communist Party and Xi. It is good to see a number of Chinese speaking up and doing things like setting up shelters. But even then, the government has already censored some of these efforts.

These migrant workers are Chinese citizens, who come from other provinces and do a lot of the manual and low-income jobs that locals won’t do and which keep society running. Basically, most deliverymen, construction workers, waitresses, repairmen and service staff in Beijing are migrant workers. When I was in Beijing, the people who cut my hair, the real estate agents, plumbers and waitresses I met were all migrant workers. Some also do white-collar and office jobs, such as a lot of my colleagues, though their living conditions are better.

The authorities have announced plans to reduce the number of people in Beijing, whose population as of a few years was at least 23 million. But the way they’ve done it is wrong. Instead of say, trying to boost development or provide more resources and funds to neighbouring cities and provinces, the government has resorted to heavyhanded efforts and outright force to force the most vulnerable people out. Kicking migrant workers out, after having benefited from their cheap labour, is a callous and flawed way of population control, doubly so given these are their own fellow Chinese. Since I left Beijing a couple of years ago, the government has closed down major wholesale clothing markets, shut down small stores on entire streets and torn down houses in hutong lanes.

This government cares little for the rights of its citizens and will continue to arbitrarily use its power to control its people whenever and however it wants. But as long as people in China accept this and don’t try to face up to the party, things will never change.

Photo roundup-Asian airports

When you travel a lot, whether as a tourist or an expat returning home, airports become a familiar place. In Asia, there are a lot of modern, large, and sleek airports. It’s even better when they are attractive or have interesting features, like the ones below.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport might be small but the slanted latticed roof of Terminal 1’s immigration hall is a very attractive and welcoming sight for visitors, especially with the reflection on the floor. Every time I see this roof, I never fail to be impressed.

I’ve passed through Hong Kong’s airport, one of the largest in Asia, so many times but it’s still one of the best I’ve been too. The Terminal One departure gates as well as the newer and smaller Terminal Two check-in hall are attractive, especially the wavy ceiling of the latter.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport is another large and attractive one in the region. But despite the throwback metal shed-like appearance of the check-in hall, the departure gate area is another story.

Beijing’s airport is one of the largest in the world but even then, it isn’t as modern as Hong Kong’s airport, as sleek as Bangkok’s, or welcoming as Taipei’s. As with a lot of things in China, size and grandeur take priority over actual convenience and warmth. It does have a cool red ceiling with a layer of stripes below it.


Kuala Lumpur’s airport features a unique brown, lumpy ceiling that is probably based on indigenous hut design.

Beijing travel- Yonghegong Lama Temple and Imperial Academy


Beijing has so many famous sites that it’s not surprising that its largest temple is somewhat overlooked. But the Yonghegong Lama Temple is still a nice place to visit, being a rare instance of Tibetan Buddhist building that blends both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist architectural aspects. Built in the late 17th century during the Qing Dynasty, Yonghegong actually was a residence for an imperial prince, before being converted into a lamasery, a monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. I first visited it during my first week in Beijing when I came to work there in 2013, then brought a friend visiting from Trinidad there. The temple is always full of worshippers and tourists, and saffron and red-clad Buddhist monks can be seen walking around as well. Unlike some other Chinese temples, the commercial aspect is toned down so there isn’t a ton of vendors and stalls in the temple ground. While the worship halls and the largest building, the three-storey Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at the northern end, are all interesting, the most fascinating aspect of the temple is the exhibit of small Buddhist statues, specifically deities wrapped up in erotic Tantric coupling, as you will see in my photos below.

Across the street from Yonghegong temple in a nearby lane is the Imperial Academy or Guozijian, a former imperial college for officials. As the name implies, it was the highest place of learning in the country and used for training and testing officials throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Built in 1306, making it older than the Yonghegong temple by centuries, the Guozijian is also worth a visit and is a quieter place than the Yonghegong Temple. Inside the ground is also the Confucius Temple, the second largest in the country.

Outside the temple, there are a bunch of fortune-telling and Buddhist paraphernalia stores along Yonghegong street, as well as sadly, numerous beggars, some of whom are handicapped and missing limbs. It might be different now, but back then, there was always a lot of them on that street.


  

After you are done with the Yonghegong Temple, head to the Confucius Temple nearby.

The famous Chinese sage

Emperor’s seat 

Rows of massive stele inscribed with Confucian classics

  


Yonghegong Temple from outside

Nearby Hutong, which may or may not still be around, given Beijing’s recent destruction of hutongs

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

Beijing’s international literary scene takes a hit

Back in Beijing, one of the events I really looked forward to were the annual literary festivals, specifically the Bookworm and Capital M. The Bookworm, located in a compound on a corner of the main intersection in Sanlitun, is regarded as an institution in the local literary scene, with sister branches in Suzhou and Chengdu. So it’s a little sad to read about how they had to suspend their literary festival for 2017 due to a lack of funds. Coupled with Capital M’s cancellation of its literary festival in 2015 and Shanghai M’s downsizing of its 2016 festival, things seem kind of bleak. These festivals brought in a lot of Western, Asian and Chinese writers and it was where I saw writers like Evan Osnos and Xiaolu Guo. As they would run for two weeks and hold events every day, you can imagine the variety and diversity of the programs.

In related developments, City Weekend Beijing recently announced it would stop publishing which is a blow to the city’s English-language expat magazine scene. I actually helped out and contributed a couple of articles to the magazine but that is not the reason I’m concerned (I readily admit That’s Beijing and TimeOut were always more interesting and fun to read). The most likely reason is financial because print publishing is certainly not a very profitable venture, especially when it caters to a small market like expats in China.

Obviously it affects Beijing expats, which some people might just dismiss as not a big deal, but it makes the city less vibrant and international. Losing major literary festivals and expat magazines makes the city less international in terms of the literary scene, not to mention the arts in general. Coupled with the crackdowns on clubs and concerts in Beijing, the increased climate of censorship and repression that has afflicted almost all of Chinese society has certainly hit the arts and cultural scene hard.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, which held its own literary festival a couple of weeks ago, the local chapter of PEN was re-launched on the final day of the festival. Led by local writer Jason Ng, who has been outspoken and written a lot about local politics including the Umbrella Movement, the PEN chapter will advocate for the right of writers and journalists to express themselves and resist censorship, specifically that brought on by the giant neighbor next door. At the panel, Ng and four other writers spoke about why PEN is needed and the increased censorship in China and Hong Kong. One of the panelists, a local poet and academic, spoke about the danger of self-censorship by telling a story of a friend warning her not to publish a Facebook photo which had a caption critical of a local university for refusing to let a student graduate because he carried a yellow umbrella to the grad ceremont. The panelist’s friend thought that someone could see that photo and use it to get her fired from her job (she didn’t take down the photo and she ended up getting her contract renewed).
Unlike its predecessor, it will also aim to become bilingual and trying to bridge the English and Chinese writing community. At a time like this in Hong Kong, this is a welcome development.

imag9089