China · Taiwan

China: great, invader, empire, pretender, threat – article roundup

It’s only the beginning of 2018 but there have been a bunch of major China articles which make some vital points about the ramifications of Chinaon the world. Some of the articles are long but they are worth reading.
Check them out below:

It is widely believed China has plans to invade Taiwan but by 2020? This writer thinks so as China might fear running out of time to achieve unification. Taiwanese, or at least 99.9% of them, want no part of being part of China and Xi Jinping seems to be very aware of this. Among the reasons for China to invade by 2020, the writer claims that “more and more Chinese are calling for unification by force,” which if true is very worrying, and that the Communist Party will mark its 100th anniversary in 2021.

From the NY Times’ correspondent Edward Wong who is leaving after 10 years covering China, he states China is trying to recreate an empire. Except it is one propped up by force and repression, not by ideas or ideology. This is a very long article that covers China’s change throughout the author’s time there, and by the end, it is clear he is not too positive. The paragraph below explains it all and might reflect the feeling of many China expats and observers.
Though unabashedly authoritarian, China was a magnet. I was among many who thought it might forge a confident and more open identity while ushering in a vibrant era of new ideas, values and culture, one befitting its superpower status. When I ended my China assignment last year, I no longer had such expectations.”

China has recently been caught attempting to influence local politics and spy on governments in Australia and New Zealand through various means. All this is part of China’s attempt to interfere, influence and even intimidate democratic countries and in large parts they have been succeeding such as getting foreign leaders to stop meeting the Dalai Lama and forcing British publishers to self-censor. Western countries are at a disadvantage, because they are competing against a country in which the ruling regime (CCP) controls everything from the government, corporations, media, courts, and even churches. By this, I mean the party, which puts itself above the country in the constitution and to whom the military swears loyalty, can utilize all aspects of society to do its will (directing companies to make investments in foreign countries such as regarding the Belt and Road “initiative”, funding foreign Chinese student organizations etc). Civil society is almost non-existent as unions and religious bodies are all affiliated with the party.

Evan Osnos, a former China correspondent, thinks Xi Jinping is making China great, thanks largely to Donald Trump relinquishing US dominance and influence in the world. Osnos is a very good writer, but citing the Belt and Road as an example of China’s greatness is flimsy, given it is largely a vague, dubious “initiative” that keeps being talked about but has few concrete benefits for countries other than China. Also, it is not so much China is becoming greater but that the US is willingly retreating, as the Chinese academic below says.
I dropped by to see one of the city’s wisest observers of America, Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University. “The U.S. is not losing leadership. You’re giving it up. You’re not even selling it,” he said. 

However, Elizabeth Economy, from the Council of Foreign Relations, says not so fast about China ascending the world’s superpower throne. China faces serious economic and environmental problems, and most of all, does not have any true allies or inspire any significant trust and respect abroad. In short, would you want your country to be like China? Would you willingly move your family to China and take Chinese citizenship? Fittingly, Economy’s conclusion is exactly how I feel about China and its claims to world leadership.


FT takes a look at ‘end of the Chinese miracle’

In what is a first on this blog, I need to point out that this is a sponsored post. I was contacted by an agency to watch and blog about the following video. However, the opinions and observations expressed are my own.

Produced by the Financial Times, “The end of the Chinese miracle” makes a bold point – the stunning growth of the Chinese economy is over, mainly because the average wage of Chinese factory workers has increased significantly, companies can no longer rely on cheap labor which has previously been the backbone of the Chinese economy. Migrant workers make up most of the workforce in the Chinese manufacturing industry and are responsible for making much of the goods that are exported, such as computers (maybe the very one you’re using now), TVs or shoes. Driven by poverty and lack of jobs at home, these workers come from provinces all over China to work in factories in the more prosperous, industrial coastal provinces. One could say China’s economic “miracle” of the past 15 years is heavily due to these migrant workers.
Now, China’s economic development has meant that younger migrant workers have bigger expectations, especially for salaries and work conditions, which is not surprising because who wants to work 6-day weeks for minimum wages at repetitive tasks, and factories are finding it harder to find workers.

Now, while rising wages may be a good thing for workers and suggest the economy is doing well, the issue is this comes amid a slowing economic growth for China, negative global economy, and an aging Chinese population which actually suggests the opposite. Rising wages means more companies are relocating from China to poorer countries like Vietnam or Bangladesh, with the number being expected to grow in the coming years.

However, there are Chinese companies which are now doing something that sounds strange for a country with 1.2 billion – bringing in foreign workers, such as from Vietnam to work in China. Many of them are smuggled across, as a woman says, to work in factories. There is an interview with a Vietnamese man who worked in a factory in China’s Guangxi autonomous region, which borders Vietnam, for 12 hours a day, but without any contract. Back on the home front, a Chinese migrant worker who returned to his home village says there are alternatives at home like farming or running a small business.

It’s an interesting video that shows how the times are changing for China’s migrant workers and maybe it is not such a bad thing for them, though it will have an adverse effect on the world economy.

The FT also has a features section on China’s migrant workers and their impact on the economy.

Books · China

Age of Ambition and Lu Xun’s stories – book reviews

A much-anticipated book on China that I had been planning to read for a long time was Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition, which I finally did thanks to the good old Taipei library. The book takes a good look at China’s development during the 2000s by focusing on people, specifically famous and everyday Chinese who Osnos interviewed during his 8 years in Beijing. Osnos details the ambition and change and resistance that springs up among Chinese. Even so, one can see traces of pessimism and wariness from Osnos regarding China’s political climate and human rights, and looking at how things are now, he is not wrong. Besides the ambitions and changes, Osnos examines the moral void in Chinese society which is best exemplified by the case of the toddler who was run over by a van and whose body was ignored by 17 passersby. As Osnos was a New Yorker writer, he got to do regular in-depth stories about China and he’s able to provide more details and nuance in his writing than your regular foreign correspondent.
Among the famous figures featured are controversial artist Ai Weiwei, blogger and writer (and race car driver) Han Han, and editor Hu Shuli covered, as well as folks like a guy who teaches himself English and has an ambition to spread his teaching methods.
Osnos is optimistic about Chinese bloggers and online netizens who used social media to spread criticisms of their government but unfortunately, recent developments such as the blocking and censorship of more and more sites and services have shown that even the Internet is not a place Chinese can feel free to voice their thoughts.

Meanwhile, a little less modern but still as pertinent is Lu Xun, arguably China’s most famous author. Lu Xun lived during the early 20th century, a turbulent time in China’s fledgling republic (ROC) era which began after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. I finally read his work which was a complete collection of all his fiction The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China – short stories and satirical novella The Real Story of Ah-Q (Lu Xun never wrote a novel). His stories range from observances of regular life to portrayals of famous ancient Chinese deities and philosophers. What is striking is that some of his observations of aspects of Chinese society are still valid in current times, as Yiyun Li points out in the afterword about Chinese gathering around to observe a suicidal person about to jump from a building with an event in the Ah-Q story. I found some of the stories a little hard to comprehend but perhaps I did not put enough effort.


Yangtze River ship sinking tragedy

China suffered what is likely to be its worst maritime disaster since the 1940s when a ship with over 400 passengers sank in the Yangtze River in Hubei Monday. Only 15 survivors have been found and while the rescue attempt is ongoing, the worst should be assumed. It’s a terrible tragedy and it’s especially sad that most of the passengers were seniors who were on a group tour to visit the Three Gorges.

The authorities are taking this very seriously, with Premier Li Keqiang himself on the scene directing the rescue. But as expected, reports from Chinese state media are full of “positive” accounts of heroic rescues and photos of Li Keqiang, which makes me wonder whether there are other Chinese officials who could be qualified to oversee a ship rescue.

The actual reported cause of the sinking is that a strong “cyclone” or “tornado” struck the ship which then sank in minutes. Somehow the captain and chief engineer escaped but they are being held as they should be.
I’m full of suspicious thoughts but whether the “cyclone” really did happen as authorities claim, I really think human error or negligence played a role. It might have been steering error or it could have been the ship’s design or safety measures were not up to par.

Not surprisingly, news reporting has been controlled, and relatives have been left in the dark by both the travel agency that ran the tour that was on the ferry, and authorities. State media did not report this last part, obviously. It will be interesting to see whether or how the authorities will continue to control the reporting.


China links – the final stages, feminist crackdown, NPC media silliness, and crazy corruption

When it comes to news about and involving China, there is always so much going on both on the domestic and international stage, which is one good thing about the country. Often, especially in these darkening times, it may not be good such as the ongoing and widening crackdowns, which extended to female feminist activists who were detained* before Women’s Day on March 8.

First off, there was a stirring piece by David Shambaugh that warns that the party is entering its final stages. The country has been going through a rough time in terms of its economy and trade, and things are not so smooth on the diplomatic front. Shambaugh sees plenty of evidence to suggest the party is becoming desperate and its rule is on very shaky ground. Not surprisingly there were a few rebuttals. The most compelling counterpoint to Shambaugh’s argument is that there is no organized group that could provide an alternative to the party, both as an actual ruling party and as a movement with popular support. This is in contrast with Taiwan during its authoritarian period in the 60s and 70s when despite a very repressive regime, it did have some form of open opposition.

Meanwhile, the NY Times has a story on how the middle class “chafes” under red tape. It describes the amazing array of bureaucratic procedures and documents necessary to get things such a hukou (resident permit), a car license plate or even a birth permit (really). While it may seem like an excessive amount of stupidity and inefficiency in this age, the main reason is of course to make things hard on people and keep them under control. The article mainly describes Chinese in Beijing, which reflects the Beijing-centric view that is one complaint I have about these type of articles. No doubt that people nationwide also suffer from these problems.

During the annual “two sessions,” (the NPC, which is parliament, and the CPPCC, an advisory committee) in Beijing, some Chinese reporters made a mockery of journalism and resorted to near sycophancy. This included running their stories by the very people they wrote about and allowing them to edit it, as well as engaging in near-idolatry when meeting with high-ranking officials.

..reporter Zhu Hong described running into NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying while walking with a colleague. Upon seeing Ms. Fu, a former ambassador to the U.K. …, the two were overwhelmed with joy, according to the account. “Today is a great day/Happiness knocking at the door/My heart pulses/Beyond my dreams/Let us fly higher,” Mr. Zhu wrote, quoting song lyrics to describe his emotions when faced with the official.

So taken with Ms. Fu were the reporters that they forgot to ask her a question, he added.

I was wondering whether there was a chance the reporter was being sarcastic, but the fact he forgot to ask her a question suggests he wasn’t.

Finally, this is long overdue but it’s a really interesting and amusing article about corruption at the ground level in China. Despite the corruption crackdown launched under Xi Jinping, the demand is still there, as exemplified by the mother running around looking for an education official to bribe so her daughter could attend a good middle school. The crackdown has had an effect thought, with a businessman claiming that the number of officials he needed to bribe went down from more than 100 to just around 20 in 2014. Another official says that bribery has become harder to spot and more hidden but is still going on. That is not surprising as long as people like this woman remain, who seems very intent on being able to bribe.
Chen Jin, the mother in Shijiazhuang, says she won’t rest until she finds an official willing to take money so she can get her daughter into her preferred school.

“I don’t believe those school officials could keep the door closed forever,” she said. “They can’t maintain their lifestyle if they forgo the money.”

*Five of the female activists, who were held by authorities because they were allegedly planning a campaign to highlight sexual harassment on buses, are still being detained.


China’s hit smog documentary – so popular it was taken offline

Last weekend, a smog documentary took China by storm, gathering over 100 million views within 2 days and over 300 million after 5 days. Then, on Friday it was taken offline, indicating the insecurity and intolerance of the government.
Under the Dome was an intense look at what, why and how China’s smog problem came to be. Presented by former CCTV reporter Chai Jing, who was also the driving force behind the film and funded it with her own money, there were revealing scenes like experts who claimed they did not know about measuring PM2.5 until only a few years ago and a little girl who said she had never seen stars in her life. Chai Jing herself said she was never bothered by the air pollution, because like many in the country she thought the smog was fog and natural (which is a frightening issue since any adult should be able to realize that black and gray shrouded air cannot be natural), until her daughter was born. Her baby was in fact the main inspiration for Chai Jing to make the documentary because she was born with a benign tumor and Chai realized her baby was vulnerable to pollution.

I’ve only watched the first 10 minutes but I think that it is very credible. Chai shows how vast the amount of air pollution in China is, no surprise to anyone who lives there of course, and among the reasons are the heavy amount of coal used, and that gas in China is not high-quality as it is not processed to the highest standards by the state oil companies, who not surprisingly fired back.

Chai is said to hold back on directly criticizing the government in the video, though the NY Times quotes a friend of Chai’s who says she did cut out a part where she did this.
An investigative journalist and friend of Ms. Chai, Yuan Ling, said by telephone that a longer early version of the film had a section in which Ms. Chai argued that the air pollution was a result of China’s development model, and that China would have to change this.

“If the film had been this way, it would have been long, heavy and depressing,” Mr. Yuan said. Ms. Chai cut that material.

What was interesting was that the documentary was initially supported by government departments including People’s Daily. The new environment minister even praised her for that. As he should, since the documentary also tells about how limited the environmental ministry is in enforcing emission limits. However, after a few days the support was pulled and all media commentary in China about it was silenced. Then on Friday, the documentary was taken off of Chinese websites.

When one wonders why the government is so intolerant, it’s not just that documentary exposes the terrible scale of the environmental damage in China, which has been enabled by the authorities over the past few decades, but also the call to action Chai makes regarding ordinary citizens, as well as the admirable example she herself sets.

She concludes that China can follow their example, and that its citizens should get involved.

“The strongest governments on earth cannot clean up pollution by themselves,” she argues. “They must rely on each ordinary person, like you and me, on our choices, and on our will.“”

These are wise words, and precisely what regular Chinese should be inspired by… which is why the authorities have tried to clamp down on it.

See the documentary with English subtitles here.


Paper’s reputation isn’t everything

It’s kind of flattering when the paper I work for, a state-run newspaper, puts out editorials and other papers write whole articles about it. I’m well aware of GT’s blunt reputation, to put it slightly, and it’s not totally undeserved. I’d even guess there’re probably some folks who take some pride in this. It’s not a bad thing for the world’s media to pay so much attention to the newspaper anytime a major event takes place in China. However, one issue with this attention is that it obscures a lot of good work done by GT journalists on local social and political issues. They don’t shy away from focusing on migrant workers, social disadvantaged people, or even the life of Uyghurs, which is especially pertinent after the Kunming train station terror attack. I hope that all those people who read GT and quote or write about the editorials are also checking out other sections like the local news and In Depth stories.

There’re stories about the situation in Wukang, a village in Guangdong that engaged in a 2011 standoff with the state over holding democratic elections, or a couple who lived through the Cultural Revolution and express their suffering through cartoons, or about life for Uighurs in Kunming after the train station attack. It’s not all about heavy issues as there’re articles about the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism or about young people willing to get married, in contrast to the contemporary trend of later marriages or not even getting married. The articles aren’t perfect and probably aren’t exactly at the same level as the NY Times or BBC, but take a chance. I know many might think of Chinese propaganda or censorship, but a lot of these articles provide good background on a lot of issues and even shine the light on some unsavory ones.

Regarding the article I linked to above in the first paragraph, it’s about the recent incident of a mainland couple being confronted by livid HKers after their kid peed on the side of the road. The tape of this incident went viral, attracting a lot of attention on the mainland. However, last week some HKers, about 30 in all, did a defecation protest, stooping down and pretending to crap, mocking the mainland children who’ve done it in public in HK. GT ran an editorial slamming these HKers as “skinheads” due to the ugliness of their behavior. The SCMP ran an article about this, which is what I linked to.

This mainland author, a Man Asia Literary Prize winner, urges Hong Kong to maintain its culture, by which he mainly means civility. He lauds Hong Kong society for its politeness and hygiene and makes a decent defense of HK:That’s why I feel very unhappy whenever I hear mainlanders talk about Hong Kong being a cultural desert. A place without culture would not produce civilised citizens, teachers or students.” That’s high praise, though perhaps it’s too much to put it all on HKers, even if talking about politeness and hygiene.  


Troubles in Ukraine

Regarding the Ukraine, which has become a showdown between the West and Russia and where tensions haven’t improved after the Crimea formally seceded to become part of Russia, an agreement has just been reached between the EU, US, Russia and Ukraine.

Whether it holds remains to be seen, but for a long time tensions have been getting worse since violence has spread to other parts of the country. Armed men have taken over government buildings in cities in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian-speaking part of the country that has stronger ties with Russia, demanding increased autonomy or even seceding like the Crimea to join with Russia. Ukraine has launched operations to retake the buildings, but their troops have “defected” and vehicles have been captured by pro-Russian militias. It’s a sign that there are many Ukrainians, in the eastern Russian-speaking parts, which don’t support the new government in Kiev or its Western-oriented views. It’s a very tricky situation, with Russia still keeping tens of thousands of troops just outside of Ukraine’s eastern borders, while the US has issued warnings, making vague pronouncements about taking increased action. The EU seems toothless and uncertain.

To me, the troubles in the Ukraine raise two questions- the integrity of democracy, and the validity of Western media coverage, especially American.

I couldn’t help thinking that all this stems from a basic issue- the overthrow of a democratically-elected leader through unconstitutional procedures, which was basically a mass protest movement, one that was pro-West and supported by the West. I understand the previous president Victor Yanukovych, had angered millions of Ukrainians by refusing to sign a deal with the EU. But does this justify overthrowing a leader because he did something a lot of people don’t agree with? Especially if there were probably millions who may have agreed with it, or at the least did not have a problem with it. I am not supporting Russia or the confrontational stance of its leader Vladimir Putin, nor am I ignorant of the possibility Russia is heavily involved with the tensions. However,  the main point is if the protesters in Kiev got their wish in causing Yanukovych to flee. If this leads to civil war and the breakup of the country, will the protesters believe it was worth it?

This increasingly turbulent state of affairs in Eastern Ukraine reveals the deep chasm in the country, between the more pro-West capital Kiev and the West and the pro-Russian East. It was something Western media seems to have overlooked during the protests in Kiev against the former leader, in portraying this image of a people who were completely against Russia and desperate to join the EU. That might have been true, but I’m sure there were many Ukrainians who didn’t agree and to which the media generally ignored. Instead there were media stories about the mass protesters in the center of Kiev, the Maidan, and their heroism, ideals  and honest and noble dreams, in comparison to the backwards, oppressed and ignorant Russian speakers in the eastern part of Ukraine. At the same time, I admit that I trust Russian media much less than Western media, though that means the latter is held to much higher standards.

Besides Ukraine, there have been recent popular protests in Egypt, Thailand and Taiwan against governments that were democratically elected. Claiming noble aims, the protests attracted huge numbers, favorable media coverage from the West, and had serious impact on their countries, even to the point of overthrowing leaders. Some people see this as people power and laud it, but I see a mockery of democracy, selfishness and chaos.


The shock of working a lowpaid job

No, it didn’t happen to me and I hope it never does.* Basically, a veteran journalist goes from covering the White House and appearing on MSNBC to living on foodstamps and having to work as a part-time salesman at a sporting goods store. Not to demean anybody’s job since a lot of people do these kinds of work, but it’s tough and doesn’t pay much. This is probably why it’s a good idea to save your money too, or at least refrain from spending too much. After all, if you have a good career spanning decades and you’re making more than US$10,000 a month**, then it’s your fault if you start living on foodstamps and staying at someone’s else’s home for free when you become unemployed.

It’s a good read, being compelling and revealing lots of interesting little details. I can see why working retail can be tough and frustrating (I don’t agree with nasty and brutish), having to put up with unpaid overtime, mandatory body checks and patdowns before leaving the store on brief breaks, and being berated for coming in a few minutes late (I’d never make it if that was me). The writer, a longtime journalist, is frank about his life, having been fired for criticizing Mitt Romney for only being comfortable around “white people,” and then having a media outlet expose a case involving alleged assault against his ex-wife right after, which led to him being unable to find another job.
It’s obvious that the writer is used to a much more higher way of life, and it’s a major shock to him to realize he’s actually working in a low-paying part-time retail job. To be honest, I’m of two minds about this article – I like the article and I feel sympathy for the people who have no choice but to work under those conditions for a long time, but I don’t really feel sympathetic to the guy himself.

* My very first fulltime job in Taiwan was quite low-paying, albeit not in retail, and I wouldn’t want to go back to that salary either. I’ve also worked for free (for family of course).

**The writer was paid $300 a week at his retail job, which is $1,200 a month. At the end he says as a communications director at an NGO, one week “paid twice as much per week as I’d earn in a month at the store,” which means he is making $2,400 a week. Then he says “That salary still didn’t come close to my Politico paycheck.” So in other words, he was making way more than US$10,000 a month before.


Brazil’s World Cup starts in 3 months, for good and bad

The World Cup will soon start in 3 months time in Brazil, probably the most fitting and fascinating nation to host it. There’s almost no need to explain why Brazil is considered the spiritual home of football (soccer), despite the sport being invented in England – I’ve linked to an article below that does explain it very well. Football is tied so strongly with the nation’s identity and culture and it’s played with a special kind of passion and style that no other nation can rival. It’s also fitting the nation has the most World Cup wins at five. Part of me wishes I could go, like I did in 2010, but I can’t just up and leave so soon after coming to China and working. It’s a pity because the next two will be in Russia and Qatar, which aren’t too appealing to me, especially the latter.

With that in mind, here’re some appropriate reading about Brazil and football- a Soccernet piece about how much football means to the nation and a Roads and Kingdoms article about the creativity in how Brazilians come up with football nicknames and terms. Roads and Kingdoms has a whole series of football articles like this one about African-European players and multiculturalism, focusing on the French and Belgian teams.

However, not everything is so straightforward and sunny because there’s more to Brazil’s upcoming World Cup than a celebration of football. Construction and preparation work are seriously behind schedule, but even more serious, the enormous spending on the event has caused social tensions to erupt into riots and protests, notably when a million marched in the streets during last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil. While Brazil is still a developing country, I was surprised there is such anger. For the past few years, I’ve only seen positive stories about the country and its economy and the millions being pulled out of poverty. Brazil is a Latin American powerhouse and one of the major emerging nations, being one of the BRICS nations. Apparently the socioeconomic situation isn’t as good as assumed, when so many Brazilians are openly protesting against a world sporting event about what is one of their most treasured national attributes. Even in South Africa, which also has serious poverty and inequality, the public outrage wasn’t so great as to have mass protests before and during the event (there were a few at the beginning of the World Cup but they were localized).