Tag Archives: Politics

Will the real China please stand up?

Q: How many Xinhua News Agency reporters does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three – one to publicly denounce everyone who saw the light bulb go out, one to delete any information pointing to the fact that the light bulb went out, and one to issue a statement saying the light bulb was never there in the first place.

Despite protestations from the Chinese that they are opening up their media, I don’t doubt that there is still a grain of truth in the joke above, which I got from Hong Kong’s HK Magazine after the trouble in Xinjiang. (Here’s a fantastic FT article about the Chinese policing of the Internet if you’re interested.)

Outside the cyberworld too, China wasn’t the easiest place to travel in. In particular, entering via Tibet and then Xinjiang gave a very particular viewpoint on the project for a new China. The rationale for the Han Chinese presence in both places is as much economic as political – waterheads in Tibet, and mineral resources in Xinjiang – and it’s true that in return there has been at least some economic benefit for the people. But the treatment of the local population by the authorities that I saw in both places (outright physical violence in Tibet, a threatening wariness in Xinjiang while I was there) stuck in the gullet.

But these things aren’t simple – as one provocative article pointed out in the self-same HK magazine, everything is relative – even if you look at China as an occupying imperial power in these territories, their record is probably a lot more palatable than that of the British in India, the French in Indochina, or the Belgians in Africa.

Ultimately of course, all this occurs in an environment where, as the joke suggests, the whole concept of truth takes on a very different meaning. Closing down Blogger earlier this year was a retrograde step (am I really that dangerous?), and ludicrously easy to get round. I just sent my posts via email to a friend in London and he posted them from there. How long China can on the one hand continue with its attempts at control of the media while on the other opening up to the world is an increasingly moot point.

Despite all that, China grew on me. It is a fascinating (if slightly puzzling) place, and I was privileged to see it in 2009 – a number of ordinary people told me that they felt the pace of change had substantially quickened this year. And how’s this for a stunning statistic – China holds roughly the same number of people as the whole of the Americas (North and South). Yet North and South America have over 50 national governments and 4 major languages; China has errr…. one of each.

So what is the real China?


I spent my last full day in China in a place called Dali, the town below the Kung Fu monastery. My guidebook dubbed it “China-lite” which is a pretty fair analysis – many travellers love it for it’s easy going feel, but in reality it’s more sanitised than a bottle of Extra-strong Dettol.

However, as I sat having a last coffee, I realised that this town is as good a lensas any through which to view China’s past, present, and future.

The tourists are coming…

In Dali, I befriended a taxi-driver called Michael (Chinese name Lee Ming). Business is booming for Michael with plenty of pick-ups from the airport 35 km away, a rail station 10 kilometres away, and expressway roads cutting a swathe through the countryside to take Chinese and Western tourists up the side of the beautiful Er Hai lake..

His eyes widened as I asked him about the pace of change – it’s all very different from 10 years ago when he first came to Dali – the railway wasn’t built, the airport wasn’t even under consideration, and the roads outside the city were dirt tracks. Horse-drawn carts were common in the town. In 2000 there were 6 hotels – named Hotel Number 1, Hotel Number 2, etc; now there are hundreds of hostels, guesthouses, even boutique hotels catering for an increasingly well-heeled Chinese crowd.

Internal tourism is the big boom business in China – the emerging middle class taking advantage of a massive transport infrastructure push to experience places in this vast country that until recently were hardly even accessible. Backpacking among Chinese youth is taking off too.

Michael’s eyes narrowed, however, as I asked him what would happen in the next 10 years. “We have problems, many problems. I have moved out of town. Pollution very bad for my daughter. And is very crowded. Many many tourists…”

The new accessibility is also accompanied by what is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of China – the wholesale re-creation of the country’s past after years of neglect. All over the country, Pagodas, Temples and other tourist sites are being restored, rebuilt (in some cases even built from scratch). And in nearly every case, they are smothered by concrete walkways, huge (currently empty) parking lots, and awful shopping malls complete with pushy touts.

I found this sad, but in reality I don’t matter (and anyway, how different is it really from Aviemore…). For the Chinese tourists, being able to experience their history afresh is reward enough. That’s the market that counts – and the infrastructure is being built at a dizzying pace. As long as the economy is stable, the internal tourism market will be a major feature of how this country appears to Western eyes in 10 years time.

Look at me, I’m ethnic

In Dali it’s not unusual to see women, dressed in pristine outfits of the local Bai ethnic community, guiding middle-aged Western couples through the streets. But there’s a problem with this picture. Most of them aren’t Bai at all – they’re mainstream Han Chinese dressed up to look like Bai people.

(In a wonderful twist of irony, if you hang around long enough in Dali you will meet real Bai women in genuine, and less pristine, local dress – they’re the ones whispering “Ganja? You want weed?” to every passing traveller in an effort to earn a crust).

Ethnicity is a fascinating issue in China. In 1989, after spending 40 years assiduously erasing the hard drive of the nation, the government realised that some form of recognition of the ethnic diversity inherent in a nation of this size was necessary – in fact, essential. As a result, there is now a kind of forced “celebration” of ethnic people in the provinces, which leads to bizarre contrasts like the one above.

One researcher that I met pointed out that the result of all this top-down Ethnic pushing and pulling is that the people just go with the flow…in a display of “economic subjectivity”, most Chinese residents in Yunnan for instance will happily switch between Bai and Han ethnic identities dependent on what brings most economic benefit. Hmmmm… we’re all globalised now….

There is, however, one big elephant in the room. One of the surprises of my journey though China was the prevalence of Islam – there are 200 million Muslims living here. Where religion gets involved, ethnicity becomes a less malleable issue, as recent events in Xinjiang show. The attempts to be more open in reporting those disturbances show that, when it comes to religious ethnicity, the authorities realise they will have to tread a fine line between managing diversity and promoting homogeneity. A big issue.

Cultural baggage? What cultural baggage?

In Shanghai, I asked a businessman I had been introduced to the archetypal impossible question – how do I get to know China better? The answer was one that I‘d hear versions of before – “If you want to really know the Chinese character, you must understand three concepts well – Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Then learn China’s 20th century history and you’ll understand where we are today.” I spent a good few weeks thinking this was the final word.

But while Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius do provide some context (and are certainly still important for an ageing population), I’m not so sure that the youth of China give a toss about the old boys; and they‘re fast catching on to the idea of Mao as a pop-cultural icon rather than an inspiring sage.

Computer games, booze and other intoxicants, and (above all) money seem pretty important too. I wrote about the computer-game addiction before – and the sight of a group of Chinese teenagers carrying one of their slobbering-drunk friends along the street in Dali may still be rare up there in Yunnan province, but it’s increasingly common in the cities. More Confuse-us than Confucius. China-lite? Hmmmm…

So I wonder if, more than anything else, it might actually be the lack of cultural baggage that will mark China out in the 21st century. After a 200 year blip, during which the world could easily categorise China (first as a colonial outpost, then as a communist ogre), the Middle Kingdom is back, and this time it’s engaging with the world. Money can be made by anyone, sanitised urban environments can be created, the past can be re-presented at will. (It’s kind of like someone saying “Categorise that!”)

In the tradition of all interesting change in the world, it is, of course, one massive economic and political experiment – probably the biggest in history. One things for sure – in Chinese terms (think centuries, not decades), the ball will keep rolling one way or another, even if things crash in the short term as this article suggests.

It’s my blog and I’ll pontificate if I want to

Right, so that’s that off my chest. The wonderful thing about a blog is that you can write what you want (although I realise that the above is probably stretching a point, and may well fail the “entertain-me” test). I suspect, however, that no-one has got this far, so it won’t matter much anyway.

I am currently recovering in Laos before heading to a beach in Thailand for a few days, and then off to Malaysia for a date with some Turtles that need help breeding.



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Banter at the Border – and a new Lingua India?

In the last week, my travels have taken me to two of the great mosques in India (Agra and Fatehpur Sikri), to “play” in the Hindu festival Holi, to the Sikh Golden Temple, and finally to Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile. It’s enough to confuse even the most committed agnostic.

The Golden Temple was particularly stunning, meriting three separate visits, including one at 4am. The sight of thousands of circumambulating pilgrims combined with the sound of the recitation of the Sikh holy book the Adi Granth (read continuously 24/7/365) was unforgettable.

Amidst this spiritual sensory overload, I took a trip over to the India-Pakistan border on Sunday, for a bizarre display that highlights the contrasting fortunes of these two countries. On this most arbitrary of borderlines (drawn on the map in 1947), the “lowering of the flags” at Wagah has become something of an attraction for patriotic Indians and intrigued foreigners alike.

Driving out through the super-organised Punjabi fields (this area is the breadbasket for the country and has a prosperous feel to match) I noticed an advert painted on a building wall – “BHATIA GUN HOUSE Licensed for pistols and Gun Cartridges”. I wondered briefly if Wagah might have a touch of the Waco about it. In the event, it was all pretty good-natured.

I arrived at the border at 5.30, walking the last kilometre with thousands of others for the prequel to the sunset ceremony.

On the Indian side, in a large, incongruous stadium-style hemisphere of concrete seating, a few thousand colourful over-excited spectators were being whipped into a frenzy by a scary-looking ringleader in dark glasses. The screams – of “HIN-DU-STAN!” and “VAN-DE MA-TA-RAM!” (Hail to the Motherland) – were deafening. One of my neighbours was quick to assure me that everyone loves everyone really.

The view on the Pakistan side might be a bit different. The contrast with the happy-go-lucky growing-at-5%-a-year Indians was stark. The Pakistani side looked dismal. A paltry couple of hundred sat in a similar sized amphitheatre. This lot looked dour, sad, dressed in bland greys and blacks, the women in burkhas against tatty white-washed seating. It was all a bit sad.

The ceremony itself – choreographed in advance by both sides and involving copious chest-puffing and goose-stepping – was greeted with whoops, cheers, and more flag-waving and foot-stomping than a crucial Celtic-Rangers head-to-head.

It was a vivid reminder of the continued blurring of the lines between politics, the military, warfare and sport – and of the strange relationship between two countries created out of the back-end of a failing imperial adventure in 1947.

A new Lingua India?

There’s something interesting going on within India itself too. Despite apparent frequent displays of pan-national pride like the one above, regionalism is definitely rearing its head for the April/May elections. I noted the huge diversity of languages across India in an earlier post, that diversity is now being reflected by a rise in the power of locally attractive politicians. You might even see one of them – Mayawati, a powerful Dalit women who looks like she could pack a punch – becoming a critical power-broker when the time comes to appoint a PM…

A common language is, in many ways, the glue that keeps a country together. So it is interesting to note that English is giving Hindi a run for its money. Consider these facts:

1. If a North Indian from Delhi wants to communicate with a South Indian from Kerala or Tamil Nadu, he will most likely do so in English. (If he tries Hindi, he will probably get a blank look from the Southerners, whose own languages of Malayalam and Tamil are worn as a badge of honour)

2. The huge adverts for private schools everywhere always say “English medium” or “Hindi medium”. If the relative number of each is a reflection of market demand, India wants its children speaking English first and foremost. .

3. At the showing of Smile Pinki that I attended in Varanasi, everything (except the film) was conducted in… English. And that despite the fact that the audience was (with the exception of me and one other) entirely Indian.

It’s all rather interesting. After a long period after partition where English was lingua non grata (while Hindi was being pushed forward), market forces may be shifting things. Most people here are also clear that English gives India something of a business advantage over its arch-rival China.

Meanwhile the way English is used by Indians continues to be as flowery as ever. Reading the cricket reports in the Times of India or the Indian Express (both English language) is sometimes like reading McGonagall at his worst. This from the Times of India after they lost a couple of games in New Zealand (the emphasis is mine):

“The Indian cricket team is like a sleeping ocean, or a dormant volcano, if you please: One just doesn’t know when it will wake up and take the shape of an all-consuming storm or erupt into a flame-throwing monster. New Zealand heard the first roll of thunder, saw flashes of lightening too, on Tuesday afternoon; they also felt the earth growl from deep within as India’s batting all but exploded in unison. They are clearly worried, if not scared.”

The article goes on to talk of fighting “ripple-to-ripple, wave-to-wave”, of “follow-up Tsunamis”, of “getting past other brooks, creeks, and even seas”. There’s nothing like taking an analogy too far. Read the whole, wonderful, article here.


Despite the attractions of feeling cold rain on my face for the first time in 4 months (Mcleod Ganj a.k.a Dharamsala is at 2827m), I am moving southwards from Dharamsala tonight so that I can get East before my visa runs out.

Toodle pip!

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Varanasi: Shining Oscars, burning bodies, grasping politicians

I arrived in Varanasi (a.k.a. Benares, Kashi etc) on Wednesday morning, from Delhi. There are many stories to tell from 2 days of random meetings in Delhi, but since then I have had two intriguing and contrasting days in the City of Light.

Grasping the Golden Lady

We were travelling on a cycle rickshaw in the University area when I saw the sign out of the corner of my eye.

Smile Pinki
Felicitations to the Smile Pinki Oscar Winners
Today 5 March. 4pm”

It was 4.15pm. Despite not knowing anything about “Smile Pinki” (other than that it was the other Indian Oscar winner – a documentary), the temptation to follow our noses was too great. We pulled over and joined the crowds heading for the University’s Medical Department Auditorium.

At the front of the stage, 1 Indian woman and 6 Indian men, one of them with a small Golden Oscar statuette in front of him, sat behind tables.

The 300 seats were taken. We found space and perched in an aisle. In no time, there were about 400 in the hall, crammed into every spare space.

We were still unaware of what we had stumbled upon. But as we listened to numerous laborious speeches, it dawned on us that we were witnessing the homecoming of the two main stars of the documentary, a surgeon Dr Subodh Kumar Singh and an anesthetist Dr AN Singh, fresh from their remarkable success at the Academy Awards.

The documentary deals with the Cleft Palate problem (more prevalent in India than most over countries in the world) and a remarkable project to deal with this at Benares University Hospital.

In rural areas of India, children born with Cleft Palate are seen as a curse on the mother, who will blame something like an Eclipse during pregnancy for the deformity. The children often end up ostracized by their communities, and even by their families.

The documentary follows the amazing work of the Smile Train Team at Benares University, as they go out into the surrounding rural areas to convince people that their children are not “monsters” and perform the operation on many children in one of their regular sessions. One of the real insights from the documentary was the practical reason behind the ostracising – prospects of marriages for Cleft Palate children hovered belween slim and nil.

Dr Subodh Kumar Singh was the last to take to the stage. He looked admiringly at the statuette in his hands.

“I feel privileged to be among the few in the world to grasp the Golden Lady!” he said with obvious emotion. “As a doctor, I never thought I would get a chance to walk on the Red Carpet!”No-one could begrudge him his pride. He gave thanks to every member of the teaching staff, auditorium staff, auditorium cleaning staff, family members, ancestors etc. It was a speech worthy of the famously emotional, if lengthy, Oscar monologues.

After an hour of speeches, the crowd were getting restless. When the compere suggested refreshments before the film started, a full-blown revolt seemed possible. The compere wisely took to the stage. “OK, we have heard you. The film starts now!” The 39-minute film (from a mere 100 hours of filming) did not disappoint. After an impassioned rendition of the Indian National Anthem, the famous Varanasi Ghats came into view. There were proud gasps from the crowd. It is a remarkable documentary with no narrated voice-over and no major production work. If you get a chance to see it, do so.

Despite the fact that we were clearly gatecrashers, we managed to wangle our way into the post-film refreshments, and meet the stars themselves. It was all, once again, most bizarre – but then I am starting to realize that is the norm in this country, and certainly for this trip.

Swimming with the Ashes

The contrast with the previous day was stark. I had arrived off a night train, and after a restorative Puri Masala, we headed down to the Ghats, which are the 88 separate series of wide steps leading down to the sacred river Ganges.

Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, you achieve instant Moksha (enlightenment). Most are cremated, with their ashes scattered on the river. Pregnant women and children are dumped directly into the river.

We sat by one of the Ghats where bodies are cremated by the side of the river in stacked piles of wood. An interminable stream of bodies were brought to the river wrapped in cloth, dipped in the Ganges, placed on the pyres, and set alight, while others were rowed out to the centre of the river for the final passage. The whole place is suffused with a strange combination of gentleness, spirituality, and matter-of-fact practicality in the face of death. When you believe that we are all spiritual beings merely on a human journey, death becomes a mere passage. There is no need for weeping or wailing – these are solemn, but not unhappy, occasions.

Look around and you notice the dogs defecating nearby, the children urinating in the street, the cows munching on the unidentified flotsam and jetsam at the edge of the river, the half burnt legs and arms being raked back into the pyres, even 21st century intrusions as mobile phones are answered at the side of cremations. It is also challenging to see people bathing in the same river where dead bodies and half-burnt body-parts are floating – the Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges remits your sins. Strangely, none of this takes away from the essential spirituality of the place.

As a major Hindu religious site, the temples in Varanasi are patrolled by endless bored-looking policemen in the run up to the General Election. Uttar Pradesh will be a fascinating battle-state, and attracts colourful politicians like Mayawati and Mulayam Yadav, both promising endless money for investment in Varanasi and making impassioned denunciations of the other in a rivalry that stretches back more than 20 years.

But with a spiritual tradition that stretches back longer than any city in the world by some accounts, you get the feeling that the people of Varanasi can’t be bought. Somehow, Varanasi’s Oscar award, for a project imbued with such generosity of spirit, says so much more about this city and its potential future.

We head towards Agra tomorrow.

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