Books · China

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.

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Books · China · Travel

The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China- book review

China is a large, vast country with an area of 3.7 million square miles and though the majority Han make up 90% of the population, has over 50 ethnic groups. As a result, beyond the teeming megacities and factory zones, and the heavily populated Han-majority provinces, there is a lot of ethnic and societal diversity.

This is what former Sunday Telegraphy China correspondent David Eimer explores in The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China as he travels to the edges of modern China. A well-known Chinese proverb goes “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.” What this means is that in the outer reaches of the empire, the emperor is a remote figure and so is his rule. The modern equivalent of that saying is true in areas like Yunnan Province and the fringes of the Northeast. There, the government’s rule is not as firm as everywhere else in the country, and local non-Han minorities and cultures still thrive. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the very opposite is true as the full force of the regime is imposed, ranging from heavy army and police presence to repressive measures limiting or banning local religious practices and languages. Not surprisingly, these areas – Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and the edges of the Northeast – are often considered exotic and fascinating to both foreigners and the Han (the dominant majority in China) Chinese. But there is also a tragic element to several of the peoples in these areas as well, as Eimer examines how these minorities like the Tibetans and Uyghurs fare after decades of Communist rule.

The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, the most restive and repressed areas in China, is not surprisingly, rather bleak. Heavy-handed policing and harsh measures enacted against the locals have generated significant anger, the result of which can be seen now and again in the news with “terrorist” attacks in Xinjiang, which raise fears of an insurgency, no doubt played up by the government to justify their taking even harsher measures. Not only are Tibetans and Uyghurs not able to speak their language at schools or freely practice their religion, but their movements are restricted through measures like making it extremely hard to get passports, and they are unable to integrate into mainstream Chinese society.

In Yunnan, the province that has the most minority peoples in China and borders Thailand and Myanmar, a Wild-West atmosphere prevails in much of the borderlands. Here, the government practices a looser form of border control as there are several tribes who peoples live across different countries like the Tais. A thriving cross-border criminal trade exists, especially in narcotics. Eimer manages to travel across to Myanmar where he visits areas populated by minority tribes and controlled by drug armies, descendants of KMT soldiers who fled to Burma and stayed to cultivate opium.  The Northeast is more sedate, though the vast icy landscape belies the economic dominance of China compared to Russia just across the northerneastern-most border. In this area, Small ethnic groups, including the descendants of nomads, cling on while facing the obsolescence of their language and customs due to decreasing numbers, intermarriage with the Han, and modern-day integration. This is already the fate of the Manchus, a Northeast people who ruled all of China as the Qing Dynasty for over 250 years up to 1911. Interestingly, the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast provinces are allowed to have their own schools where classes are taught in their own language. There is also interaction with North Koreans across the border in the form of trade, people smuggling and marriages, but this is starting to get clamped down on by the government.

It is a book rich in travel, historical and ethnographic detail about a China so much different from the one often portrayed in more conventional travel books, whilst not shying away from illustrating the repressive rule of the Communist Party. It is also sad to ponder the fate of all the peoples mentioned in the book, many of whose cultures and languages are under threat in one way or the other. Simply put, The Emperor Far Away is about a China that is rapidly disappearing.

China · Travel

China links – hospital rampages, Hui-Uighur overview, Silk Road travel

China’s medical system has serious problems in helping its people and the most troubling symptom is a spate of murders and attacks on doctors and nurses by patients. The New Yorker has an indepth look at a particular tragic case where a young doctor was killed in his hospital by a frustrated patient who’d been turned away after repeated visits, something that has happened frequentlyover the past few years. It’s a good article that gives a profound account of the incident and a clear overview of the China’s health system and its problems, including a spate of attacks on doctors and nurses.

China’s society has become so full of suspicion, anger and frustration that people often resort to violent means to address their problems. It’s no different for shoddy medical treatment, whether real or perceived. Murders of doctors and attacks on hospital staff have become common, but the actual statistics, as mentioned in the New Yorker piece, are still shocking – A survey by the China Hospital Management Association found that violence against medical personnel rose an average of twenty-three per cent each year between 2002 and 2012. By then, Chinese hospitals were reporting an average of twenty-seven attacks a year, per hospital.

Some of the underlying reasons for the murder are common problems that afflict hospitals across the country – inadequate facilities, overworked doctors, inefficient treatment and excessive bureaucracy.
Facilities, staff and resources are unequally distributed, resulting in too few good treatment available to people, resulting in serious overcrowding by patients and overwork for doctors and patients. The medical system is one of China’s most serious social issues that needs to be fixed before China could ever really become a so-called superpower.

The end of the article is telling: I asked Wang Dongqing whom he blamed for his son’s death. “I blame the health-care system,” he said. “Li Mengnan was just a representative of this conflict. Incidents like this have happened many times. How could we just blame Li?

Amid turbulence in Xinjiang, here’s a comparison of China’s two main Muslim groups, the Hui and Uyghurs. There are major factors that show exactly why the two are treated and fare differently in modern Chinese society. It’s not very hard why – the Hui are ethnic Han Chinese and speak Mandarin, meaning they look and speak just like the majority of Chinese. Unlike the Uyghur, they also don’t constitute a single group or culture, though they do have their own autonomous region- Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Even then, they have no separatist or anti-party sentiments, plus Ningxia is tiny.

The Silk Road has gotten a lot of attention recently because it seems China wants a resurgence of this route for trade linking China to Central Asia and further afield to Europe. Besides economics, the Silk Road is famous thanks to one intrepid European traveler Marco Polo. Coming to the present, few people have biked along the Silk Road in modern times, but that’s what these folks did, from Xinjiang southwards to Tibet (which is not exactly part of the Silk Road though it is still a vast frontier). It is as hard and desolate as it sounds and more.

Africa · Books · China · Travel

Intriguing travel reads on Indonesia, Nigeria and more

Rather unusual in travel literature (or any other kind of literature for that matter), there’s an entire new book about Indonesia – Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani. I haven’t read it yet but it seems an attractive future choice, based on the reviews about it. I admit I’m one of those guilty of not knowing or caring much about the world’s largest archipelago nation and fourth most populated. As Pankaj Mishraj says in his review, “on our mental map of the world, the country is little more than a faraway setting for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.” The Guardian and New York Times also review it.

I’ve actually read a previous book by Pisani called “The Wisdom of Whores,” which was a critique of policies used to fight against AIDS, based on her knowledge and experience, that included working in Southeast Asia and getting to know prostitutes. Pisani is actually a epidemiologist, and before that a foreign correspondent, who has spent many years in Indonesia and decided to take a year off from her regular work to travel around the nation and experience its vast diversity and quirkiness. Indonesia Etc is the result of her travel.

Besides Indonesia, there are other developing countries which might be similarly fascinating, complex and dynamic but sadly get little attention from global media and entertainment circles. As much as I am interested by China and India and can’t get enough about books focusing on them, I wish there were more books about nations like Indonesia and similar major developing nations. Specifically, books that focus on a country and combine travel and social commentary.

Another such book is about Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and arguably dynamic country. There was a book released two years ago called Looking for Transwonderland written by Noo Saro-Wiwa. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because her father was the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Looking for Transwonderland is both a travel book and about Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria (she grew up in England) in an attempt to understand her homeland and come to grips with what happened to her father.

I’m definitely interested in the preceding books, and there have been a few other travel titles that I haven’t been able to read that cover a similar scope.

When it comes to Africa, there are several books that seemingly take on the entire continent, or rather a number of countries that are taken to represent the whole continent. Paul Theroux (first with Dark Star Safari, then this one) and South African Sihle Kumalo, a rare black African travel writer who has written 3 books covering trips to different parts of Africa, have put out books about this.

Punjabi Parmesan is an Indian author’s look at Western Europe, which seems an intriguing concept. The author Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist who also lived in and wrote a book about China, which was also a rarity – an Indian writing a travelogue and commentary on China.

About China, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China is rather self-explanatory from the title, but its scope is quite complex, ranging from the Northeast border with Russia to turbulent  Xinjiang to a “narco-state” in the jungles of southwest Yunnan province. It explores the farthest, wildest and least populated parts of the nation, which are largely populated by ethnic minorities. Another book Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands, published 5 years ago, has a similar concept, focusing exclusively on ethnic minorities.

I have to say I haven’t read any of these books, except Theroux’s first Africa book Dark Star Safari, yet so I’m doing a bit of speculating in assuming that they’re good. I trust my assumptions are correct otherwise I’d be a fool recommending books I haven’t read that aren’t much good.

If any readers have recommendations, especially on nations like Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa etc, let me know.

Uncategorized

Global musings – a world in turmoil

As the fighting settles down in Gaza in Palestine after almost 2,000 dead, one only hopes that this current ceasefire can last longer, perhaps even lead to an end. It’s not the only serious conflict going on in the world, with full civil war ongoing in Syria, fighting in Iraq, and tensions in Ukraine after sieges, ambushes and planes being shot down, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurrection, which started in 2009 and is nowhere close to ending, has spread to neighboring Cameroon.
Meanwhile, there’s an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has taken almost 1000 lives and spread to at least four nations. In China, deadly violence broke out again in Xinjiang, with the latest last week, prompting a Diplomat article to present a disturbing outlook. At least the Central African Republic has seen a ceasefire between rival factions after a civil conflict that was notorious, even in Africa, for barbarity such as daily street lynchings.

The conflicts in Gaza and the Ukraine continue something that has been a pattern in recent times. Countries don’t fight full-scale wars with each other, but fight localized conflicts with other states, or even groups within a state. For instance, the fighting in Ukraine is indeed a civil war (state fighting separatists) but the separatists are backed and may even include Russian personnel. Meanwhile, Israel’s invasion of Gaza involved tens of thousands of troops and tanks as well as air strikes, which is as close as an invasion of a neighboring “country” (Palestine’s status being somewhat nebulous). And Libya, which is going through some serious trouble currently, was the target of air strikes from British and French troops in support of rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddhafi in 2011.

Back in 2006, Israel fought a small-scale war in southern Lebanon. However, the war wasn’t with Lebanon or its army, but with Hezbollah, a militant Islamist group that controls southern Lebanon, over their abduction of 2 Israeli soldiers. This conflict went on for a month and killed hundreds of fighters and over a thousand civilians but during the whole affair, it was interesting to me how a country could invade another country and fight a war without any declaration of war between the two. Another striking thing is how part of a country could be at war or under attack but things would be normal or peaceful in other parts of that country.
Even in Southeast Asia, several years ago, Thailand and Cambodia fought several small-scale battles, over a disputed boundary surrounding an ancient temple of all things, though war did not break out. Even China’s recent standoff in the South China sea with Vietnam, when it towed a giant rig into disputed waters in May which caused confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese ships, can be considered as another instance of states fighting  in limited ways.

Basically, states can take hostile action against other states or parties in other countries, which can result in fighting and death, but they won’t undertake all-out war. Perhaps this is a result of globalization, where countries and regions are interconnected by trade, technology and other links more than ever. Combined with the existence of nuclear weapons and the devastation of regular modern weapons, war is much more destructive than before, meaning that the age of full-scale war is almost over. This can be a positive, now that I think about it, but it also raises a disturbing possibility that the future will see more of these kind of limited conflicts breaking out, with instability and rebellion common. For most of us in developed and stable countries, we’d probably never be affected (and honestly for a lot of us, life is the most safest it’s ever been), but perhaps that’s another disturbing aspect of modern conflicts – the stark contradiction of a range of deadly but limited conflicts in some places with regular materialistic and modern life elsewhere.

To try to offer a little positivity, here’re a few random links.
First off, this is a list of things that can help you in life. Items 11,13,20, and 21 are quite good.

Even in mainland China, there are young people who’ve decided to stop working their asses off in stiff office jobs and do something for themselves, like opening hostels in Shenzhen.

China

The “strangers” in China

Earlier this year I read a long article on Aeon about China’s “balinghou” (people born in the 80s) and the pressures they face. It was a great article, full of interesting details, anecdotes, and presented a vivid image of what it’s like to grow up in today’s China, mainly Beijing and Shanghai. Well, who’d have guessed I’d be calling the author a colleague. Anyways he’s at it again recently with another fine piece – this about China’s Uighur people, from Xinjiang, and their place (or lack of) in Chinese society.

China

The worthiness of work

Sometimes it’s easy to forget or ignore that work is important and essential. Work isn’t always meant to be fun or easy, which this Aeon article makes a good case for. When it comes to milennials, it’s not that most of them don’t work, but that they’re stuck in . It gets kind of fuzzy such as when the writer talks about people coping with meaningless work and then moves on to his friend describing a rigorous engineering review process at his job. The writer never exactly ties up the point that many people, including those very ones he mentions, are in jobs where they can fully utilize their time or don’t do the best they can at work, something the author admits to as well. Still it is interesting reading all the way. His main point- that work is something to value- is extremely valid and something all of us in the working world can take to heart.

To take this a little further, sometimes it is necessary to put up with bullshit at work if only to better yourself or move on up. Years ago when I started working fulltime in Taipei, I had a mediocre salary, a DOS computer (I assure you this is true and also that this was in the last decade), and a 6-day working week. Six days as in Monday to Saturday or Sunday to Friday. I had a relative who himself was just finishing university and he constantly sneered at my job. While I hated the work conditions at that job myself, I did appreciate the fact I had a fulltime job and I didn’t like anyone insulting it, even a relative. Fast-forward now and I just started work in China, with the pay and conditions a little better than my previous job, which was in turn better than the first job. That crappy (putting it mildly) first job helped me land my second job and even my current job. It’s not as if I’m doing anything mindblowing or rolling in the dough, but at least I’ve been able to do more than I expected many years ago as a clueless college student. That same relative is now doing a temp job, after having lost his last job, and his best fulltime job was basically similar to my first job except for the DOS computer.

Earlier this year I read a long article on Aeon about China’s “balinghou” (people born in the 80s) and the pressures they face. It was a great article, full of interesting details, anecdotes, and presented a vivid image of what it’s like to grow up in today’s China, mainly Beijing and Shanghai. Well, who’d have guessed I’d be calling the author a colleague. Anyways he’s at it again recently with another fine piece – this about China’s Uighur people, from Xinjiang, and their place (or lack of) in Chinese society.