Friday, September 5, 2014

Britain's capitulation over Hong Kong's elections

So the British government's Foreign Office has backed down on the row over Hong Kong's elections, saying that it welcomes "the confirmation that China's objective is for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive through universal suffrage." 

Calling the proposed system for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive in 2017 "universal suffrage" is clearly stretching things. According to Beijing's plan, the people of Hong Kong will only be able to choose between two or three candidates (apparently too many candidates would confuse people. Weren't the Chinese meant to be good at maths?). These candidates will have to be pre-approved by a committee packed with Beijing loyalists, and they will have to be "patriotic". Everyone understand that for the CCP being patriotic means toeing the party line, and that anyone who is basically opposed to them and their goals won't have a chance in hell of being approved as a candidate.

The Foreign Office adds: "While we recognize that there is no perfect model, the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome". The truth is that while the people of Hong Kong certainly have a stake in the outcome, it is perfectly clear that they will be offered no real choice whatsoever. 

The British government's new stance is clearly an attempt not to let the issue of democracy in Hong Kong hurt its relations with China. It also represents an abandonment of any serious attempt to exert a pressure on China to respect the terms of the Joint Declaration signed by Zhao Ziyang and Margaret Thatcher in 1984. According to Hong Kong's Basic Law, which was drawn up by the PRC's National People's Congress in 1990 in accordance with that declaration, Hong Kong's chief executive is supposed to be elected by universal suffrage, "in accordance with democratic procedures". It had already been agreed that this would be realized by 2017.

Many in Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp have of course criticized the British government for this capitulation. On the other hand, I cannot really see what else Britain should do. It clearly has no real power to influence China's decisions. What's more, any attempt by Britain or other foreign countries to affect what happens in Hong Kong will only make matters worse. 

China's government draws much of its remaining legitimacy from its supposed protection of the motherland from the evil "foreign powers" forever plotting to keep China down. Most of the Mainland population buys into this narrative to a great extent. If Britain is seen as strongly supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, this will simply allow the Chinese government to tar them as the agents of a foreign power which plundered and divided China in the past. It will also be easy game for them to point out the hypocrisy of Britain acting this way, when Hong Kong never actually had elections under British rule.

Genuine representative democracy for Hong Kong is of course a worthy goal. There is really no reason why a city like Hong Kong shouldn't have free elections (of course Singapore, in many ways Hong Kong's twin city-state, seems to manage fine with its semi-authoritarian system). On the other hand, given how unpopular the CCP and the whole of the Mainland's social system are in Hong Kong, it is very likely that genuine elections would be won by candidates who oppose Beijing's policies. This is probably why Beijing will never willingly allow Hong Kongers to choose their own leaders. 

The CCP will continue to allow Hong Kong to maintain its extremely high degree of autonomy and freedom, as long as the Hong Kongers don't rock the boat. If not, they have already threatened to revoke the territory's autonomy if Hong Kong doesn't "respect" the Mainland's political system.

What it comes down to is that if Hong Kongers want democratic representation, they are going to have to fight for it themselves. On the other hand I doubt that most of the city's inhabitants will want to risk its prosperity and stability for the sake of a protracted fight with Beijing. Unfortunately it may well be that their goal will remain out of reach, until real change comes to the whole of China in one form or another.

Another lesson we can draw from all of this is that the CCP is never going to grant any form of democratic representation to China unless they are put under serious pressure by their own people to do so. If they cannot even bring themselves to allow Hong Kongers to choose their own leaders, after promising that this would happen by 2017, I don't believe that they will ever allow the Mainland Chinese to have a say in who governs them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Democracy and Freedom among the "Core Values of Socialism"

During my time in China I have already witnessed a number of political campaigns come and go without leaving much trace. Once you can read Chinese it is hard not to notice the big red banners at overpasses and intersections, displaying the latest government slogans above a mass of people going about their business in complete indifference.

Common catchphrases from the last few years have included the "harmonious society", "scientific development", and last year's "Chinese Dream" trumpeted by Xi Jinping's new administration. The latest campaign to be unleashed on the masses is the "socialist core values" campaign. There are twelve socialist core values, now being trumpeted from the usual red banners in cities all over China. They are(in this order):

富强 Prosperity and Strength
民主 Democracy
文明 Civility
和谐 Harmony
自由 Freedom
平等 Equality
公正 Justice
法治 Rule of Law
爱国 Patriotism
敬业 Dedication
诚信 Honesty
友善 Friendship

Westerners unfamiliar with Chinese political discourse will probably be surprised by "freedom" and especially "democracy" being included in the list. This is actually not that strange. The Chinese government has always attempted to appropriate the term "democracy" (民主 or "the people's rule" in Chinese) for itself, claiming that China already has some unique Chinese version of democracy, or that the Party is striving to establish a more democratic system.

This goes right back to the talk of "democratic reforms" after the CCP took power in 1949. The famous (and catchy) propaganda song from the fifties, "没有共产党就没有新中”(without the Communist Party there will be no new China) , concludes its list of the Party's achievements with the line "他实行了民主好处多” (it has implemented democracy, bringing many benefits).

The inclusion of the term "Freedom" might be more surprising, but the truth is that such vague and abstract terms can be interpreted any way you like. Perhaps they mean freedom from the domination of foreign powers, one of the Party's main claims to legitimacy? And let's not forget the term "socialism" (社会主义) itself. By now it has been reduced to an empty shell, a completely meaningless abstraction onto which the government can graft any trite obviousness it likes (friendship, dedication and civility are core values of socialism?).

I would say that the only one of these "core values of socialism" which has definitely and unquestionably been spread as a result of the Chinese government's policies would be patriotism, usually meaning ignorant nationalism. I guess a good claim could also be made that their policies have increased China's prosperity and strength. But when it comes to "equality", "justice" and the "rule of law", it is no news that modern China could only do with more of those. Then again, it would be nice to think that this new campaign signals a real commitment to a better rule of law, more equality, more justice, and perhaps even more democracy. But I'm certainly not holding my breath.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Censorship Diary: how China cut itself off from the World Wide Web

It is relatively well known throughout the world that the Chinese government censors the internet to its pleasure, and that a number of important foreign websites are blocked in China. What is perhaps not so widely realized is that the censorship of foreign websites has got considerably worse over the last five to six years, the time during which I have lived in China. 

When I first got to China, in September 2008, the Beijing Olympics had just ended. To make a good impression with all the foreign journalists and visitors who descended on the Chinese capital for the games, important foreign websites had all been made accessible. It seems amazing now, but Facebook, You Tube and Twitter were all freely navigable from anywhere in China. At the time I wondered what all the fuss over China's "Great Firewall" was about.

Then in March 2009, the Chinese authorities decided to block You Tube. It was reported at the time that the site was blocked because someone had uploaded a "fake" video of a Chinese policeman killing Tibetan protesters. It's not like they just blocked that particular video. The whole of You Tube was made inaccessible from anywhere in Mainland China. I quickly learned how to download and use a VPN proxy server to get around the censorship, something which I had never done before. 

Shortly afterwards, Blogspot was also blocked in China, meaning that I had to switch on my VPN every time I wanted to update this blog. That summer I went back home on holiday, and when I returned to China in August, I found that Facebook had been blocked as well. Apparently this decision was taken following the unrest in Xinjiang that July. Quite unsurprisingly, groups in support of Xinjiang's independence had sprung up on Facebook, just as you would expect for any conflict anywhere in the world. 

Even less surprisingly, the folks at China's Ministry of the Interior, or wherever else these decisions are taken, reacted with all the subtlety and sophistication they are known for, and simply blocked access to the whole of the world's most popular social networking site. They also blocked access to the whole of the internet for almost a year over the entire territory of Xinjiang, a province as big as Western Europe.

Twitter was also blocked in China around this time, but not being a Twitter user I never really noticed. The situation stayed more or less the same for a few years, with Facebook, You Tube and Blogspot the only major sites I visit regularly to be blocked. Google's exit from the Chinese market in 2010 didn't really make much difference, as searches for were now simply re-routed to

Then in January this year they decided to block the Guardian, my newspaper of choice. This was in response to them publishing a piece accusing relatives of Xi Jinping, Wen Jiabao and other top leaders of transferring money to offshore havens. As always, the Chinese government makes a big deal of its anti-corruption campaigns and openly admits that corruption is a huge problem (since denials would simply be considered laughable by its own people), but it draws a line at any accusations against its top leaders. 

At a briefing on this topic, a Foreign Ministry spokesman had this to say: "I am not aware of the specific circumstances. From the point of view of readers, the logic of some of the related articles is unconvincing, and it leads people to suspect the intentions behind it."(1) So now the Guardian has become part of the eternal conspiracy by the "foreign powers", who want to sow instability and prevent China's "peaceful rise".

In the meantime, access to Google was also becoming increasingly erratic. And then a couple of months ago, even Google and all of its related services (including gmail) were blocked for good. It is now almost impossible for me to do anything meaningful on the internet without using a VPN. My favourite newspaper, Google, my gmail adress, my blog, Facebook and You Tube are all inaccessible without it, hidden behind the great firewall. 

It may be noticed how the advent of the new Xi Jinping - Li Keqiang leadership in November 2012 has not been followed up by a relaxation of the internet censorship, but quite the opposite. China has now become a country where the casual foreign visitor who doesn't have a VPN feels pretty much cut off from the World Wide Web, or at least the part of it which matters. For a country which wants to present itself as increasingly open and international, this is a huge paradox, and extremely self-defeating.

If nothing else, I hope that blocking Google will backfire. Facebook and You Tube were never really that widely used by Chinese people, who prefer their own social networking and video-sharing sites (which are of course controlled and censored). Most Chinese users also prefer Baidu to Google, but Google is still pretty much essential to search for anything foreign (Baidu's servers just aren't up to standard when it comes to foreign websites).  For many young people and companies, not being able to access Google will be a problem. The use of VPNs may shoot up as a result, at least among the young and educated, making the whole exercise self-defeating.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Chinese sympathy for Israel

So another round of the eternal Arab-Israeli conflict is upon us, and all over the Western world people with nothing better to do are arguing about it over the internet. But how do people feel about it in China?

Here in the Middle Kingdom, most people do not seem to care very much about what is going on in Israel and Gaza. Media reports have been subdued and neutral in tone. The plane crash in the Ukraine attracted far more interest among the Chinese public, perhaps because it was the same airline which had already lost a plane in the Indian Ocean with hundreds of Chinese passengers on board. On my Wechat feed, I have seen various Chinese acquaintances post comments on the plane crash, some of them blaming Malaysia or wondering if Russia is responsible, but I have not seen a single Wechat contact post anything on the events in the Middle East. 

If you search the word "Israel" on Weibo, China's equivalent of Facebook (it often gets referred to as China's Twitter, but I think it has more in common with Facebook), some posts on the issue by random Chinese netizens do appear. What is striking is that a majority of them have a pro-Israeli tone.

Here as some random ones which popped up (the word in red, 以色列,means Israel):

听风灌雨以色列建国时,并未驱逐巴勒斯坦阿拉伯人,留下的也不少。逃难的巴人有相当一部分是被参战的阿拉伯国家忽悠了。事后,这些国家又不允许难民融入本国。//@古筝-赵勃楠: 是太太奇怪了。沙特那一大堆,东南亚一大堆伊斯兰教国家,这么多兄弟都不肯接纳巴勒斯坦兄弟?

This one is in reply to a post about Palestinian refugees. It says "When Israel was created, it actually didn't drive out the Palestinian Arabs, many of them remained. Some of the Palestinian refugees were conned by the warring Arab countries. After the event, these countries didn't even allow the refugees to integrate into their countries." The post it is replying to says "It's so strange. Huge Saudi Arabia and all the South East Asian Muslim countries, are they all unwilling to take in their Palestinian brothers?"

我重新出发也@申点启: 巴平民死亡是哈马斯需要的,不是以色列需要的。以色列是误杀,哈马斯是谋杀。以色列克制,所以巴勒斯坦平民才会死得这么少。

This one says "the deaths among the Palestinians civilians are needed by Hamas, not by Israel. Israel kills by accident, Hamas murders. Israel exercises restraint, and that is why so few Palestinian civilians are dying."


"If the Palestinians had the advantage, there is no doubt what the conclusion would be: all the Jews would become feed for the fish in the Mediterranean. Israel has killed 710 people, but it could have killed 100.000 times more. Where is the good and where is the evil? Israel could receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Support Israel!"

To be very fair, not all the posts are pro-Israeli in their tone. There are also some berating Israel for killing innocent people, and the US for supporting it. Since I first looked a few days ago, the anti-Israeli posts seemed to have increased, I suppose as more and more news of Palestinian civilians being killed comes in.

Last year's meeting between the Israeli and Chinese delegations on the occasion of Netanyahu's visit to China.

All the same, the general sentiment among the few Chinese who even take an interest in such matters is certainly far more pro-Israeli than in Europe. The reasons are varied. The urban Chinese populace generally has a positive image of Jews. The one thing they will immediately tell you about Jews is that they are all "very intelligent". Jews have a reputation for being smart, hard-working, and yes, good at business too, but that is not seen as a bad thing. Everyone has heard that lots and lots of important Western scientists and cultural figures are Jewish.

Furthermore, the Chinese have a certain respect and admiration for anything seen to be 厉害. 厉害 (lìhai) can be translated as "terrific, powerful, formidable". The word implies no moral judgement whatsoever. It simply expresses admiration for someone or something that can get things done and achieve their goals. After the 11th of September incident, many Chinese were describing Bin Laden as 厉害. Currently you can hear many Chinese praising Putin for being a really 厉害 leader for Russia.

Well to the Chinese, Israel is clearly very 厉害. One day a bunch of Jewish refugees decided to get their act together, created a country from scratch, and decided that from that day on nobody was messing with them. In spite of being tiny and surrounded by enemies they have thrived and turned their country into a modern economy which has created many technological innovations and high-tech start-ups, as well as keeping all of their enemies at bay (the book "Start up Nation" ha been translated into Chinese, to a certain success I believe). To the Chinese, all this may be right or wrong, but it is clearly 厉害. And that commands respect, and suggests that the Chinese might be able to learn something from this country.

All this creates an environment where people are open to hearing the Israeli side of the story. There is also another factor which has only come about recently: it seems like some Chinese might be identifying more with Israel after the recent wave of terrorist attacks around China supposedly committed by Muslim terrorists from Xinjiang. These attacks have not improved the image of Islam in China, a religion few Chinese know much about. There are quite a few posts on Weibo making the connection between fighting Hamas and fighting Xinjiang terrorism. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Capital in the North is back!

The Capital in the North is back! After not having been able to post anything in my blog for months due to a problem with my VPN software, I have finally found a free Chinese VPN which works a lot better. Chinese firewall, suck on this.

For those of you who live in China and haven't got a good VPN yet, you should really try 自由门. It's working for me.

On the topic of VPNs, I have just discovered quite a neat protest song by Hong Kong singer Alan Tam, which was inspired by the 1989 riots. It's called 你知我知 (you know and I know). The lyrics only reference the events of '89 and Chinese politics in an oblique fashion, as is the Chinese style. The song is censored in Baidu. A search for the song's name brings up the message 搜索结果可能涉及不符合相关法律法规和政策的内容,未予显示 (the search results might contain content which doesn't conform to the relevant laws and policies, so they are not displayed)...

Here is the video:

And here are the Chinese lyrics:

眼中的意思 腦海火熨構思
敲出野性拍子 你雖不發一言
我雖不發一言 你知我知
你心中句子 我心中句子
沖擊我倆四肢 這天終結之前
有幾多遍痴纏 你知我知



I'll translate them into English as soon as I have the time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Spring Festival Road Trip 1: Shijiazhuang

This year I decided to take advantage of the Spring Festival holidays by renting a car and going on a road trip through northern China. I was accompanied by my American flatmate and a friend of his from college, who has only just arrived in China. Although I have had a Chinese driving license for the best part of a year, I had previously never done anything more ambitious than driving on one-day trips to the countryside around Beijing. This was my first time driving anywhere really far within China, and I knew that whatever happened we would be in for an adventure.

Travelling in China one must always be ready for mishaps and unexpected events getting in the way of  your plans. During the Spring Festival this is even truer than normal, and travelling at this time is best reserved for people with stamina and some experience of the country. With hundreds of millions of people on the move and most businesses and shops closed for days, China cannot be said to be working normally even by its own pretty abnormal standards.

Driving a car is a fun way to travel, but it also adds a whole new layer of possible problems, from the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere to the highways being closed because of snow (both of which things eventually happened to us). What’s more foreigners driving in China are still rare, and outside of the main cities almost unheard of. We were three foreigners preparing to drive alone through some of Northern China’s remote backwater provinces during the Spring Festival. I was thus quite ready for unexpected, frustrating and/or hilarious stuff to happen, even though I wasn't quite prepared for the amount of things which did eventually go wrong.

We left Beijing two days after the New Year. In typical Western style, we didn't manage to get ourselves together and leave before one in the afternoon. Our final aim was Kaifeng, a city in Henan province which used to be one of China’s ancient capitals, and was home to China’s only ancient Jewish community. We soon realized however that we would never get to Kaifeng in a single day, so we decide to make Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, our first stop on the way South.

After an uneventful four hours on the highway we reached the exit for Shijiazhuang. Once we approached the city, we immediately started regretting our choice. I mean no offense to its three million inhabitants, but Shijiazhuang encapsulates all the worst about Chinese provincial capitals: it is grey, boring, soulless, sprawling, and completely lacking in history or culture, since it only turned into a city about one hundred years ago. The huge buildings which dominate its skyline absolutely fail to lend the city any air of grandiosity or affluence.

What’s more Shijiazhuang suffers from a terrible pollution problem even by Chinese standards, and constantly records worse levels of air pollution than Beijing, which is really saying something. The first time we opened the car windows, we could actually smell the pollution in the air. As I drove into the city’s urban sprawl, I started cursing myself for not getting those cheap tickets to Thailand.

We stopped at a chain hotel where they told us that they weren’t authorized to take foreign guests (a common problem with provincial Chinese hotels), but pointed us towards another hotel down the road which could. This hotel seemed quite nice and comfortable, until we checked into our rooms and discovered that incredibly there was no hot water in the bathrooms.

The turtle we eat for dinner
After a while we went out to find something to eat, but given that this was 初二,the second day of the year in the Chinese calendar, most of the city was still in a state of shut down, including its restaurants. The only places open where McDonalds, KFC and other international fast food chains. We were almost resigned to eating in McDonalds, when we were lucky enough to come across an open Chinese restaurant, where we eat a really good meal. Our dinner included a turtle, which I joked was probably from an endangered species.

After the meal we decided to sample the local nightlife, and took a cab to what we had been told is Shijiazhuang’s best bar street. When we arrived, we discovered that the “bar street” consisted entirely of KTVs and only a single actual nightclub.  The club followed the worst tradition of Chinese nightclubs: it was a brash, loud, chaotic and expensive affair, full of tables where groups of young men played dice games and munched on fruit. There was also a “show” consisting of a scantily clad young lady pretending to sing in the middle of the room.

Shijiazhuang's  poor visibility on our second day in the city
We quickly decided against buying drinks and rushed back to our hotel, looking forward to getting out of this poor excuse of a city the following day. After waking up the next morning and being unable to shower because of the lack of hot water, we went outside and were greeted by some of the lowest visibility which I have ever seen in my life. (seen! Ha) The entire city was shrouded in a thick coat of mist mixed with heavy pollution. Buildings 100 meters away had become entirely invisible. The PM 2.5 count was however only at the level defined as “very unhealthy” by the WHO, rather than at the “hazardous” level, so we concluded that at least some of the poor visibility was due to natural mist. When you live in China, you learn to make such fine distinctions.

Silently we drove along Shijiazhuang’s boulevards, in a post-apocalyptic scenery. We could only see the vague silhouettes of the giant grey buildings on both sides of the street, while unfortunate locals rode bicycles around us. We reached the exit to the highway, eager to get out of this hell-hole, when we saw that all the entrances had a big red X above them, indicating that they were closed. Fearing the worst, I got out of my car and went to inquire. A guy smoking next to his car told me that the highway was closed because of the poor visibility, and he had no idea when it would open up again. There was a whole queue of cars patiently waiting for the highway to reopen, but we thought better of just sitting there for what could be hours, and decided to take refuge in a nearby Burger King instead.

We spent a couple of hours in Burger King, munching on chips and reviewing our options. We had pretty much resigned ourselves to the idea of spending another night in the area, but once we got out of the Burger King we found that the highway had reopened. We quickly drove through the exit before they decided to close it again, all of us vowing never to set foot again in Hebei’s grim capital city. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Ma Jian and the "barbaric one child policy"

The third plenary session of the CCP, which ended last Tuesday, produced a few legal reforms which gave me some hope that China might actually move closer to international standards on human rights under this new leadership. "Re-education through labour" was abolished, and the use of the death penalty further limited (although we are a very, very long way off from its abolition).

The measure which will probably have the biggest impact on the Chinese people's lives is the reform of the notorious one-child policy. The main alteration to the existing policy seems to be that in future, couples where either the husband or the wife is a single child will be allowed to give birth to two children. The previous rule was that both members of the couple had to be single children for them to receive permission for a second child.

This should mean that basically, a majority of young couples in urban areas will now be able to have two children by law.

The Guardian has chosen to report this item of news by publishing a piece by Ma Jian, entitled "China's Barbaric One Child Policy". Ma Jian is a Chinese author who hasn't lived in the Mainland for over two decades, and is a vocal critic of the Chinese government. He isn't at all well known within China, although to be fair that might be because his works are censored here. Even so he is not strictly speaking an exile, since he appears to be able to happily travel back to China at will.

I do not doubt that some of the facts described in Ma Jian’s article are true. Indeed, forced abortions and sterilizations clearly do still happen in China. If this were a piece of denunciation aimed at the Chinese public, it would have its worth. However, as an article aimed at Western readers who aren't familiar with China and can't put these terrible events into context, I find it rather misleading. 

What is missing from the article is any reference to the fact that forced abortions and sterilizations are just not the official policy in China, and also not the norm. Such aberrations normally only occur in remote rural areas, where local officials will resort to such measures to achieve quotas. 

In fact, in 2002 the use of physical force to make a woman subject to an abortion or sterilization was outlawed, although enforcement is patchy. At the very least, we can say for sure that there is a large chunk of China where such things would never happen. Official government policy is to fine couples which break the birth control policy, and this is what usually occurs.

Of course, the Chinese government can and should be criticized for not making a real effort to stamp out such practices for good. Reading Ma Jian's article, however, one would get the impression that China is just one big hellhole full of goon squads running around forcing women to have abortions and terrorizing families. This is just not the case, and articles like this one probably don’t help to bridge the gap in understanding between Westerners and the modern urban Chinese, who live in a very different world from the one which Ma Jian describes.