Sunday, July 19, 2015

A few interesting facts about the Taiping Rebellion

Nanjing's Zhan Yuan Gardens, former headquarters of the Taiping rebels

During a recent trip to Nanjing I visited the Zhan Yuan Gardens, which date back to the Ming Dynasty. In the nineteenth century these gardens became one of the headquarters of the famed Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and they now contain an extensive museum on the Taiping rebellion. The visit inspired me to find out more about this fascinating chapter of China's past.

For those of you not too well-versed in Chinese history, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was an unrecognized state set up in 1851 as a result of a massive rebel movement known as the Taiping. The rebels, mostly disaffected peasants, were led by one Hong Xiuquan, a man who had convinced himself that he was the second son of God after having a nervous breakdown due to his failure to pass the imperial exams.

The Taiping Kingdom's capital was based in Nanjing, which was renamed Tianjing (the heavenly capital). This oppositional state managed to continue existing until 1864, when the weak and outdated imperial troops finally managed to defeat it (but only because the British and French decided to help). The Taiping ruled over a large swathe of Southern China at their peak.

The Taiping kingdom was run according to an egalitarian and pseudo-Christian ideology. The equality of the sexes and the equal sharing of resources were promoted, and the Taiping set up their own system of civil examinations, which were based on the Bible rather than the Confucian classics, and open to women. The rebel leaders however quickly slid into corruption an hypocrisy, keeping legions of concubines even though polygamy was banned.

The Taiping were finally defeated after years of warfare, which cost the incredible number of 20 million lives, especially since civilians were targeted by both sides. It is rather easy to see these peasant rebels, moved by egalitarian ideals and a half-understood Western religion, executing landlords in the areas they occupied, as a precursor of that other Chinese revolution a century later. Unsurprisingly the rebellion is now described positively in official Chinese accounts, and the museum I visited certainly made this clear.

There are some interesting but less commonly known facts about the Taiping rebellion: for one thing, it had an ethnic as well as a social dimension. A disproportionate number of the rebels were either Hakka or Zhuang. The Hakka are often compared to the Jews in Chinese history, since they are a minority who have been scattered across China, and often marginalized, but at the same time have produced a large number of famous politicians and revolutionaries. Deng Xiaoping, Sun Yat Sen and Lee Kuan Yew were all Hakkas. And so were Hong Xiu Quan and all the other leaders of the Taiping rebellion.

The Zhuang, on the other hand, are China's largest recognized minority, a people who speak a language related to Thai and live mostly in Guangxi province. The Taiping rebellion began in this province, although it did not in the end become part of the Heavenly Kingdom.  An awful lot of Zhuang joined in, perhaps because of friction with the Han as well as general discontent. The Hakka, the Zhuang and other minorities continued to feature prominently throughout the rebellion.

Another not commonly known fact, which I found out thanks to the museum in Nanjing, is that quite a number of Westerners fought for the Taiping. They were often missionaries, or sometimes just adventurers and sympathizers. They included Brits and Americans, but more surprisingly also Italians. A Corsican and a Sardinian even became officers in the Taiping army. The museum displays a list of names of foreign Taiping soldiers, including an Italian named "Antouio" (supposedly Antonio) and a "Moreno" from France (probably the Corsican). It even claims that Antonio led the "Italians and the Blacks fighting for the Taiping army". That there were even black people fighting for them is really surprising. I wonder if this is actually true.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

78th anniversary of Japan's invasion of China

Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese in the battle of Taierzhuang, 1938

Yesterday was the 78th anniversary of the so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident, known as the 七七事变 (Seventh of July Incident) in Chinese. This historical event, which occurred in 1937, is used to mark the official beginning of Japan's invasion of China (although Manchuria had already been occupied some years previously). It consisted of Japanese troops attacking Chinese ones near an ancient bridge on the outskirts of Beijing. The bridge in question was highly praised by Marco Polo, leading it to be called the "Marco Polo Bridge" in English (although it was rebuilt in 1698, long after the Venetian traveler lived).

As they do every year, the Chinese government held a ceremony near the bridge in question to commemorate the anniversary. This year however, it was only China's fifth ranking highest leader who took part, whereas last year president Xi Jinping himself participated and made a speech. Some have seen this as a sign that relations with Japan may be improving ever so slightly.

Meanwhile, these two news items from the last few days give a good idea of how hatred of Japan has become normalized in China to the point where people don't even notice it, and of how children are being indoctrinated into it.

In Shandong, a theme park for kids organized an activity in which dozens of children had to shoot with water guns at park attendants dressed as Japanese soldiers from World War II. The activity was called "the entire people attack the gui zi". "Gui zi" (devils or ghosts) is a derogatory term for the Japanese which was obviously used quite unthinkingly.

Meanwhile another theme park in Taiyuan organized a "defend the Diaoyu islands game", in which children navigated floating warship models adorned with Chinese flags via remote controls, while voices declaring China's sovereignty could be heard blaring from speakers. The Diaoyu islands are of course those little rocks in the sea which Japan currently controls, but which China claims were always part of its territory.

It's hardly surprising that amongst the Chinese hostility towards Japan actually seems to increase the further removed they are by age from Japan's actual invasion of their country. The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, this attitude is not linked to actual familial or personal memories of Japanese atrocities, but to an educational system which teaches children to be blindly patriotic and then turns hatred of Japan into a prime symbol of that patriotism, and a media which compounds this message.

Of course, it is true that Japan's occupation of China was pretty atrocious. Chin Ning Chu, the bestselling business-management author who was brought up in Taiwan and lived in America, recalls in one of her books how her mother, who came from North-East China, lived in a village which was occupied by the Japanese as a child. The village had a police station in it, and there was often a trail of blood leading to and from the station. Her mother had to walk over it when going to school. She also recounts how people were afraid of traveling, since Japanese soldiers would often check the papers of any Chinese waiting on the platforms at the local train station, and at the slightest sign of an irregularity they might well torture them on the spot.

It is a pity that the propagandistic use which is being made of this history in modern China, and the silly attitudes this propaganda engenders, make it very hard to focus on how terrible the Second World War actually was for the Chinese people. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Why Greece should leave the Euro

Now that the Greek referendum's results have come in, I would like to briefly chip in with my views on the Greek financial crisis. In a nutshell, I think Greece should default and leave the Euro, for its own and everyone else's sake.

First of all, let me state that I am not against European integration as such. I think that the whole of Europe trying to move towards common laws and standards makes sense, and allowing Europeans to travel and live freely throughout the continent is a wonderful step forward. On the other hand, I feel that creating a single currency for such a lot of countries with quite different levels of economic development and differing political and economic systems has turned out to be a real mistake.

Looking back, it might have been better if only the richer countries of Northern Europe (Germany, Austria, the Benelux countries, Finland and at most France) had adopted the Euro. All of the weaker countries within the Eurozone (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece) have paid a heavy price for giving up on their own currencies. And Greece, the poorest country to adopt the Euro, has paid the heaviest price of all.

The truth is that Greece is not, in spite of popular perception, a Western European country. Socially and politically it belongs to the Balkans, or even the Levant. That it should be using the same currency as Germany and the Netherlands makes little sense. The responsibility for the mistaken decision of allowing Greece into the Euro has to rest mostly on the shoulders of the richer and more powerful countries in the EU, and of the European Union as a whole.

It is of course true that Greece engaged in some "creative accounting" in order to qualify for the Euro. But is it really believable that the other European governments and the European Central Bank didn't know about this? Misplaced idealism and an eye on quick profits obviously took precedence over caution.

On the other hand, Greece's ruling class also has to take some of the blame. In 2002 the vast majority of Greece's elite, just like the vast majority of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese elites, where entirely in favour of adopting the Euro. It is quite understandable that the ordinary people were enthusiastic as well, seeing the adoption of the Euro as proof that their country had finally "arrived" and was going to turn into a little Germany on the Mediterranean. The politicians, on the other hand, might have seen what was coming.

Much of the public in Northern Europe takes the easy way out and blames the Greeks for not paying their taxes and being corrupt. The Greek system is indeed not on a par with Germany or Belgium in terms of efficiency and transparency, and that should have been assessed before allowing the country into the common currency to begin with. Blaming the ordinary people of Greece, most of whom have toiled honestly and paid their taxes all their lives and now find themselves suddenly tasting destitution, is unfair.

I am no expert on the Greek economy in particular or on the terms of the bailout. All the same, at the risk of sounding naive, I am going to state my opinion that the best course of action for the Greeks in the long run might well be to leave the Euro and adopt the Drachma again. They can then devalue their currency until the economy gets back on track.

As for the huge foreign debt the country faces, defaulting might be the best solution. Other European countries and the IMF have already poured a lot of money into Greece so that it could be used to pay back its debt to foreign banks. To a large extent the tax-payers of Western Europe paid to bail out their own banks. Now Greece is left with a huge debt to other European countries and the IMF, which it will keep having to borrow to repay. There will never be a route out of this crisis unless the debt stops being repaid, once and for all.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Foreigners who speak Chinese

For many years, Mark Henry Roswell (aka Dashan) played the role of the archetypal "Chinese-speaking foreigner" on Chinese television. Although his popularity has been on the wane in recent years, during the nineties and into the early 2000s Dashan was a star to hundreds of millions of Chinese, probably making him the most famous Canadian in the world, even though in his native Canada no one has even heard of him.

As much as Chinese audiences (used to) love him, foreigners who live in China long term and speak Chinese often claim that they can't stand him. Part of this may be put down to envy of Dashan's truly amazing mastery of the Chinese language. There is more to it then that though. As Peter Hessler commented in his great book "River Town", "many of Dashan's routines have more than a touch of the trained monkey to them".

That's a harsh way to put it, but not inaccurate. Dashan's route to fame has basically been to ape the Chinese, amazing people by performing xiangsheng and presenting shows with exactly the same intonations and mannerisms that a Chinese actor would use (as in the video below). The only thing that distinguishes him is his foreign face. One can almost imagine the Chinese audiences going "oh look, the cute little alien can perform xiangsheng just like a Chinese can".

Dashan recently gave a very long and reasoned reply to the question of why a lot of foreign Chinese learners seem to hate him, showing admirable self-awareness. He claims that the perception of him as a "performing monkey" responds to a Western cultural bias, and has nothing to do with how Chinese audiences actually perceive him. He also claims that in China people simply won't accept a foreign celebrity criticizing any aspect of the country on television.

He is probably right, but I think it is still fair to say that Dashan has never used his fame to do anything which could really bridge the two cultures, or lead Chinese audiences to question their assumptions about Western culture. Of course there are huge constraints to what you can talk about on Chinese television, but I think there would still have been ways to push boundaries a little, and encourage audiences to see the world from a different perspective.

Nowadays however, the internet is offering new opportunities for Westerners with good Chinese to achieve some degree of fame in Chinese society while actually saying something of substance in the process. One of them is a German who goes by the Chinese name of Lei Ke (雷克).

Lei Ke became famous in 2007, when he traveled all the way from Beijing to Urumqi, in China's Far West, and then wrote a book about it in Chinese. He also gave quite a lot of interviews on Chinese television. At the time he had a big beard and long messy hair, which must have made him look quite outlandish to all the Chinese villagers he met on the way.

His Chinese is not quite at Dashan's level, to be sure, but he still speaks it fluently and confidently. Now back in Germany, he regularly releases videos online of himself commenting on Chinese society and current affairs in Chinese. Some of these videos have been making the rounds on Wechat and Chinese websites. What is noticeable is that he has absolutely no qualms about saying it like he sees it, and criticizing the Chinese government in the process (of course he no longer lives in China).

Below is a video he released after his popular Weibo account was closed down by the website. He attacks Weibo for censoring people's posts, and claims that the Chinese government must be very happy that everyone now prefers to use Wechat, where only your friends can see what you post, and the kind of public debate which flourished on Weibo is thus impossible. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles.

Recently an American girl studying in Taiwan, named Avalon, released a video on YouTube where she explains in fluent Chinese (this time with English subs) why this video by Taiwanese pop group 911 is racist and tasteless. The kind of stereotypes about foreigners which underlie the song, and the complete insensitivity to the fact that "blacking up" is offensive, are quite recognizable to anyone who has lived in an East Asian country.

The American girl's video drew a lot of attention in Taiwan, and pushed the band to release a statement in which they denied that they were being racist, although they still show no understanding of why the song and the video might be perceived as offensive. They also released a statement on their Facebook page in which they heavily insulted the American girl in Taiwanese. Others however took her side.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Westphalian sovereignty and the airbrushing of China's history

 And so another anniversary of the June 4th incident (known outside of China as the "Tiananmen square massacre") has rolled by, accompanied by the usual eye-catching reports of security and censorship bumped up to higher levels than normal.

According to this report by a Taiwanese newspaper, yesterday the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked an interesting question by a Spanish journalist during a routine press conference: since the Chinese government keeps asking Japan to face up to its history, when will they face up to what happened in 1989?

The spokesperson replied that the question wasn't logical, because the two things are completely different, and Japan's invasion of China has already been condemned by "international society" (perhaps she is unaware that China's actions were as well).

She then added that the Chinese government has already provided a clear verdict on what she called "the political disturbances of the late eighties" (China's official name for the events of 1989), and that China's success in its reform and opening up over the last 30 years vindicate the path that it has chosen. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's official website carries a transcript of the press conference, but rather unsurprisingly that part was cancelled.

For those who follow Chinese politics, the spokesperson's words aren't new. The Chinese government has indeed provided an official verdict of what happened in 1989, but nowadays you are only likely to come across it in propaganda directed at foreign readers, since internally it prefers not to mention the incident at all. It has been decided that letting those events slip into oblivion is safer than pressing the party line on them, and this tactic has worked pretty well, given that most young Chinese know little to nothing about that page in their country's history.

The signing of the Peace of Westphalia, 1648.

On the other hand the Spanish journalist's question is interesting, because it calls into question certain deeply held assumptions. To outsiders, it does indeed seem absurd when the Chinese government officially calls for Japan to stop "distorting history" and correct its textbooks, while so glaringly doing the same itself. However, this absurdity is lost on many Chinese people, and not just because they are ignorant of their own history.

The fact is that even Chinese who are aware of the extent to which their own schoolbooks airbrush events like the Cultural Revolution and 1989 may still see no contradiction when their government condemns Japan for not recognizing the damage its army wrought in China during the Second World War. The reason lies deep within the mindset which both Chinese society and the Chinese government foster.

The way many Chinese see it, events like the Cultural Revolution and the repression of 1989 were internal matters, in which Chinese killed other Chinese, and so China has the right to remember them (or forget them) as it wishes, and this is nobody else's business. Japan's actions during World War II, however, were not an internal Japanese affair since they also involved China, and so the Chinese have a right to call for Japan to acknowledge them.

This mindset is very much in line with the basic ideology which the Chinese government promotes in international affairs. We could call it an extreme Westphalian worldview: national sovereignty is paramount. What happens in a certain country stays within that country, and no one should interfere in another nation's internal affairs, full stop. How China chooses to deal with its dissidents or with Tibet is its own internal affair, and foreigners have no right to interfere. And of course, the same goes for other countries.

This contrasts with modern Westerners' (and others) widespread belief in human rights as "universal values" which transcend national borders. There is a single human family bound in solidarity, and the "international community" has a right and a duty to take an interest and pass judgement on particular countries' "internal affairs" when human rights are being seriously breached.

In China, the government presents this sort of lofty morality as a cover which Western countries use to undermine other nations, with humanitarian interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan held up as the prime example of the hypocrisy of the Western powers. China on the other hand is presented as a benign power which never interferes in other countries' affairs, and lets every country "find its own path to development".

For people brought up with this worldview, it is perfectly logical to feel incensed about Japan not admitting its misdeeds during the Second World War, and at the same time to feel that foreigners have no right to criticize China for how it censors discussion of some episodes in its recent history. It doesn't matter if a few thousand people were killed in 1989: they were first and foremost Chinese killed within China by other Chinese, so it's no other country's business. Allowing free debate on this incident is something the Chinese will do when and if they so decide.

I personally don't subscribe to the Chinese government's worldview. I think that modern Western morality can't just be reduced to US military interventions or embargoes carried out under the cover of human rights (of course if Iraq hadn't been invaded, it might be easier to argue this point). I think the notion that we are all part of a single human family with shared values which go beyond artificial national borders is fundamentally a progressive idea, and the faster it spreads the better.

I also think it is amusing that the same Chinese government which now claims national sovereignty to be the supreme value in international affairs is still theoretically following Communism, a Western ideology which originally wanted global revolution to spread from one country to the next.

The point though is to understand that there is a clash of values, and that the Chinese government has constructed an internally coherent worldview which many Chinese find convincing. Perhaps it would have been better for the Spanish journalist to mention one of China's past foreign policy debacles, like the brief war with Vietnam in 1979. Not being an "internal affair", the comparison with Japan's history would have been more obvious.

Friday, May 22, 2015

How a war might start in Asia

Yesterday there was a new episode in the saga of what is perhaps the most potentially dangerous territorial dispute on earth - the contest over the South China Sea. This dispute pits the world's two greatest powers, China and the US, in direct confrontation with each other. Feelings run high over it in quite a few countries. Amazingly, Western public opinion is pretty much oblivious to the whole issue.

A US surveillance plane was flying over the Spratly islands, the ones which China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei and Taiwan all lay some sort of claim to (China's claim is based on the "nine dotted line"). As it approached the artificial island which the Chinese military are building in the archipelago, the Chinese navy became aware of the plane, and gave it eight different warnings to leave. The US pilots replied that they were in international waters and refused to heed the warnings. In the end they were not impeded.

It sometimes strikes me that modern Asia is a bit like Europe in 1913. It's full of hostile powers living in uneasy coexistence, nationalism and militarism are still the order of the day for the governments and the peoples, and there is an emerging power (China) which wants to challenge the regional order, just like Germany did in its day. Military spending is increasing everywhere.

Asian countries unfortunately do not have anything like the shared moral framework which Europeans finally developed after the Second World War, and which now makes it quite unthinkable for European countries to attack each other, or even to get too worked up over pending territorial disputes (which do exist, see Gibraltar).

All it might take for things to escalate would be for something like the Hainan incident of 2001 to happen again. A US and a Chinese jet colliding in the South China Sea, or even worse a Chinese and a Japanese jet colliding in the disputed areas in the East China Sea, might lead to a situation where no one felt they could back down. It might be Asia's equivalent of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

There are however reasons for optimism. Considering that most of the disputes are maritime, if a war broke out much of the fighting might well take place at sea, without affecting the civilian populations too much. It would hopefully come down to a lot of posturing over a few uninhabited islands.

What's more, a war is not in the interest of the main contenders. China's leaders may play on jingoistic feelings internally, but they are probably aware of the fact that, when push comes to shove, they do not have much hope of beating the US even now. In reality they have few allies in the neighbourhood: only the unpredictable North Koreans, Pakistan (which is also amenable to US pressure) and a few irrelevant Chinese client-states like Cambodia and Nepal.

Asia's other powers (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India) are liable to take sides against China (although South Korea would probably not want to take Japan's side in any dispute against China, because of strong anti-Japanese feelings over there). The only issue is if Russia decided to weigh in on China's side, but that is unlikely, and might lead to a wider world war, which hopefully the world is now wise enough to try and avoid. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

On the British elections

If there's one thing which this week's British elections have highlighted, it's the complete inadequacy of Britain's electoral system.

Just take a look at the results below: the Scottish National Party, with a million and a half votes, has got 56 MPs, while UKIP and the Greens, with almost four million and over one million votes respectively, have only got one MP each (not that I'm unhappy about UKIP getting a bad deal). Meanwhile Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has got 8 MPs, with less than 200.000 votes.

The "first past the post" system makes sense when there are just two parties competing for power. Any more then that, and it becomes completely unfair. It makes it almost impossible for smaller parties with a nationwide appeal to get into parliament, while unduly favouring regional parties whose votes are concentrated in a single area.

Yes, it is nice for every constituency to have its own MP to represent it, but this cannot justify the system's basic unfairness. The truth is that in this and other areas, Britain would benefit from reforming the antiquated system which it has developed over the centuries, and becoming more like a normal European country.

Apart from that, the one good thing to have come out of this election is that divisive provocateur George Galloway losing his seat in Bradford West. After his nasty campaign against Naz Shah, he really deserved it.

2015 UK elections results

Party Seats Gain Loss Net Votes Vote share (%) Change (points)
Conservative 331 38 10 28 11,334,726 36.9% 0.5
Labour 232 23 48 -25 9,347,324 30.4% 1.5
Scottish National Party 56 50 0 50 1,454,436 4.7% 3.1
Liberal Democrat 8 0 49 -49 2,415,862 7.9% -15.2
Democratic Unionist Party 8 1 1 0 184,260 0.6% 0.0
Sinn Fein 4 0 1 -1 176,232 0.6% -0.0
Plaid Cymru 3 0 0 0 181,704 0.6% 0.0
Social Democratic and Labour Party 3 0 0 0 99,809 0.3% -0.1
Ulster Unionist Party 2 2 0 2 114,935 0.4% N/A
UK Independence Party 1 0 1 -1 3,881,099 12.6% 9.6
Green 1 0 0 0 1,156,149 3.8% 2.8
Independent 1 0 2 -2 98,711 0.3% -0.2