Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Great Wall...

To continue a theme from yesterday, here's a pic of a Qin warrior statue guarding the Great Wall of China from my visit there today...

The hapless foreign labour/slaves in the UAE can be pleased they weren't stuck on this particular construction project - the Lonely Planet says hundreds of thousands of workers - including a lot of prisoners - had to shovel 180 million cubic metres of rammed earth together for the wall and the bones of workers who died on the job are also in there, it is said...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Taking it from the Qin

Wow - this is entitled "The state of Sino-US relations" and depicts a Chinese Qin warrior having his way with the Statue of Liberty - I got it via Shanghaiist, where there is some lively discussion about how to interpret it, including the significance of the little girl in the background, which someone suggested represented Taiwan.

The warrior seems to represent a strong, unified, virile, powerful and potentially violent China and a swooning, acquiescent US, which depending on your point of view could be either a good or a bad thing. Perhaps this would not be unflattering to some Chinese people, given perceptions of having been humiliated by foreign powers in the past and most recently taking a pasting in the media over Tibet/human rights etc (even as carnage unfolds in Iraq etc). On the other hand, the "Trafalgar Square is not Tian'anmen Square"-type hysteria in the West belies real fear about the rise of China and spread of perceived illiberal "Chinese values" across the world. In this sense, the values represented by the Statue of Liberty don;t count for much in the face of China's huge economic power...

Whatever - it's a great and punchy piece of political art.


Add - Roger Cohen in his terrific Passages blog at the IHT writes that while Europe is blue - Democratic-supporting - Asia would prefer the Republicans to win in the US. He says:

But China and India rising see the world more in terms of classic balance-of-power equations, driven by the might and self-interest of nations, than through the post-sovereign European prism of international institution-building and soft power.

In Cohen's view, rising China would see itself as a 'giver' rather than a 'taker' - in the soap-on-the-prison-washroom-floor sense, not the altruism awards sense...

Friday, April 18, 2008

798 - DaShanZi art district

Spent the last couple of days in the 798 DaShanZi art district - a former munitions factory area way out in NE Beijing just off the Aiport Expressway - for a travel feature I'm writing.

The top picture was the first thing I saw - great fun and also a bit of a jolt becaus although Beijing is a modern city in which people live wild, lurid, raucous lives and although the city is quite a sexualised space, with girls cutting around in miniskirts and this kind of urban grimy feral quality, it isn't punk at all. These irreverent tits were on a different plane to what I've been around for the past month or so, a reminder that there is more space for expression. They set a different tone.

The place is packed with galleries, workshops, cafes, shops, all looking great and containing some really exciting art. I saw the Hong Yong Ping retrospective at the Ullens gallery, which was pretty special. Hong Yong Ping is based in Paris and he deals with big big ideas, interesting and clever concepts nicely executed. I liked all of what I saw. I also found this alternating Ping Pong sign quite amusing. I couldn't find the caption for it so can't be sure it was actually part of the exhibition...

But I was more interested in seeing how Chinese artists were responding to the contemporary China around them. Saw a whole range of stuff - photos of youth culture, photos of people wearing scuba masks in towns to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam project, many a painting of Lolita-type young but sexy Chinese girls with school uniform/toy/cigarette motifs, showing a lot of thigh etc, a Chinese water torture cage, various videos, graphics work etc - liked it a lot.

I also had a chat with Robert Bernell, who runs the Timezone 8 art bookshop and was one of the first businesses to move into 798 back in 2002. Most of the artists who were there at that time have now moved out again because rents have tripled. He was saying that in 2002 it really wasn't easy to find contemporary Chinese culture. The art scene was very dispersed and modern China was really reduced to a lot of empty new office buildings and imported cars and not much else. So when 798 got going, thanks to some well-connected and determined people, there was a lot of interest, not least from foreigners.

Meanwhile the authoriies took the decision that they wanted to foster creative industry in China, and to do that they had to allow a certain freedom of artistic expression. So 798, way out from the city centre, was allowed to flourish. He was pretty interesting and I may try to make a podcast out of his quotes...

These were some of his tips: The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, The Long March Space, Commune, Continua.


2 really interesting things from the web: The Asia Times has this informative article on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Autonomous Region - it's the most fulsome thing I've read about the situation there.

And the Russians are reportedly anxious about Chinese migration into Eastern Russia:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians in Siberia, the Far East and European Russian have been concerned that Chinese guest workers and traders will move into Russia beyond the Urals in such numbers that Moscow will not be able to hold the region within the borders of the Russian Federation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

From Russia on skis

Russian is more difficult than Chinese, my Russian former flatmate told me (in German), because it has a billion cases, suffixes and forms for different types of whatever action you happen to be doing and how long/often you are doing it for.

So it may be an arse to learn - but you need this complexity, another Russian told me (also in German), in order to be able to communicate properly.

But this is clearly a language touched by genius.

In which other tongue could the English phrase "out of the blue", meaning something completely unexpected, be rendered as kak iz pizdy na lyzhakh, which translates as “like out of a cunt on skis.”

I can;t think of anything more unexpected - both in terms of the nature of the event and the speed with which it would take place. Geniuski! Respektovich!

Read this at an Economist blog by a correspondent who has learned Russian/Hebrew/Spanish/French while on the road - the blog even has a cheeky picture of Russian roadsigns in the shape of skis with the caption: "Where do you take your skiing holidays?"

The blog also mentions that in Slavic and Semitic languages, the root forms of most concepts (as expressed by nouns/adjectives etc) are verbs. Thus, anything related to writing is, in Arabic, some form of the root Kitab - to write. This means there are some unfamiliar kinds of verb in Arabic for English native speakers. For example, "he was angry with me" could translate as "zarla ma'iy", literally "he angered with me". The Arabic adjective - "zarlan" - means "angering/being angry".

I was chatting to a German student in Berlin about this and he said the same of German. For example, the word for life - das Leben - translates more accurately as "the living", or "the process of living".

His idea was that, politically, this kind of language is a good thing, for if everything is process rather than static situation, people's ideas of property are different - in fact, concepts of property have less of a place in such a system. Thus, instead of saying "she is my girlfriend", I might say "I am with her", which is both a more equal relationship and a more fluid concept as it only describes what is happening in this moment.

It's a bit like the maths of not being able to calculate both the speed and position of a moving object.

Of course, no one's saying Arabs/Israelis don't like property - that's clearly not true - and communism didn't end up working completely for the Slavic countries. But it's a nice idea.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Yellow Peril for 2008

All Blogger blogs are now blocked again, which means I can no longer see my blog, although I can post to it. I'd love to know which blogs the Chinese government deems so dangerous that it can't allow for the possibility of some Chinese actually wanting to read them. Or, if it's not about individual blogs, then what actually leads the government to block/unblock.

Anyway - it;s not my intention for this blog simply to link to really good stuff that other people are writing, but there are some great comments looking at racist undertones in the China-bashing in the West following what happened in Tibet last month.

My initial view was that a) the US sees China as serious competition and would like to prod and weaken it as much as possible to maintain itself as No.1 and b) Europeans are still suffering Empire hangover and want to lecture brown-skinned people as much as possible to let them know they remain uncivilised, even if they are nominally free.

But it is perhaps way darker than that.

"Trafalgar Square is not Tiananmen Square"

Brendan O'Neill goes postal with his "The invasion of the robotic thugs", which unpicks the British media's treatment of the blue-tracksuited Chinese paramilitaries who have been designated by the Chinese government to protect the Olympic Torch. He sees it as an update of traditional fear of the "Yellow Peril". Although it was the British police who were armed, making arrests left right and centre and banning certain kinds of t-shirts, the media jumped on the Chinese, describing them variously as "robotic", "mysterious", "flame retardants" (read: retards) and "thugs".

Tony Arbour, a Conservative member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said ‘the Chinese security men seemed to be managing events [in London]’ (which was patently not true) and then insisted: ‘Trafalgar Square is not Tiananmen Square.’ This hysterical statement captured the dual fear and loathing behind the attacks on China’s robotic thugs: fear that a weak and ‘supine’ UK (as Free Tibet described Gordon Brown’s Britain) is being overrun by Chinese, and loathing of those unsmiling, retarded foreigners who have of course never done anything of note except massacre people in Tiananmen Square.

Less strident but no less on the button is Shanghai Scrap. He notes that the Chinese current 110m hurdles champion Liu Xiang said of his victory that it "proved that athletes with yellow skin could run as fast as those with black and white skins".

The Chinese narrative claims that the games are about sport and harmony; the Western narrative insists that they are about politics and human rights. To be sure, both narratives are legitimate, but I think it’s fairly obvious, especially after the last two weeks, that race (and the emergence of a non-white superpower) is becoming the central narrative of Beijing 2008.

So who's winning the argument? The NY Times says the Free Tibet supporters are better at PR than the Chinese, but Danwei counters by saying that the protests - and particularly the attack on a one-legged Chinese athlete holding the torch in Paris - have been big PR victories for the Chinese government in that they have rallied the population.

The Chinese government appears to be winning the user generated propaganda war.

A US-based Chinese academic writes:

what we are witnessing is an emerging synergy of cybernationalism connecting many Chinese at home and abroad.

And in another NY Times piece, Matthew Forney notes that because educated young Chinese people have benefited the most from China's economic progress, they are among the most patriotic people in the world and have little patience for Western lecturing about human rights etc.

Educated young Chinese, far from being embarrassed or upset by their government’s human-rights record, rank among the most patriotic, establishment-supporting people you’ll meet.

As is clear to anyone who lives here, most young ethnic Chinese strongly support their government’s suppression of the recent Tibetan uprising. One Chinese friend who has a degree from a European university described the conflict to me as “a clash between the commercial world and an old aboriginal society.” She even praised her government for treating Tibetans better than New World settlers treated Native Americans.

It's certainly true that the very few Chinese people, mainly young, that I've had a word about Tibet with (always in English), have all expressed support in the government in words you would be unlikely to hear anywhere in the West. "Our government is very strong and I'm sure they will manage the situation," said one young woman. "I support our government," said another.

Who knows what's next. Whatever it is, it's sure to be fascinating...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pengyou to Zhengyou

Chairman Mao, originally uploaded by Langoustine.

Aussie PM Kevin Rudd appears to have pulled off something of a coup during his Chinese-language speech (text here) at Peking Uni, according to these expert commentators.

China - government and people - is getting way hacked off with being lectured by the West (see China expert John Pomfret's post here) over Tibet/anything else, yet the alternative might be simply to have to shut up, thus avoiding any Chinese loss of face, and perhaps have a quiet word behind the scenes, which can then be easily ignored. This latter course, apparently, is how a Waiguo Pengyou - foreign friend - is expected to behave. But, in words not reported by the China Daily, Rudd told his audience straight that he had a problem with human rights in Tibet.

Rudd, with his knowledge of China, was able to do this by casting himself as a Zhengyou rather than a Pengyou. A Zhengyou is the valuable friend who tells you the truth, unpleasant as it may be, and thus truly helps you rather than just saying what you want to hear. Pomfret is good on this here, suggesting Rudd could be the West's "secret weapon" in dealing with China, while an Oz China prof goes into more detail here, saying finally:

By introducing the term zhengyou with all of its liberating connotations into our dealings with China, Kevin Rudd has achieved something of considerable significance.

Riveting stuff...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New photos...

Spent a happy afternoon uploading a load of pix to Flickr. Actually took way too long, but still - this and many more are to be found here.

I've been in this Starbucks cafe far far too long now so that's the lot for today.

Finally - have a look at the Twitter bit on the top right of the page. Essentially Twitter is blogging from your mobile phone by text message. There's lots more you can do with it but I'm yet a novice and have no idea. Quite exciting though. My Twitter page is here.

A huge amount of really intelligent comment and discussion on China. I'll get beyond the big newspapers soon but meanwhile this form the IHT was interesting - suggesting that ruining China's "Olympic coming-out party" will simply be counter-productive and will see the country simply retrench into a previous anti-the rest of the world rhetoric and stance... True enough, but being part of the world involves exposing yourself to it. Bush and the US is also the focus for a lot of protest. On the other hand - China is big big big and it matters to the world.

Australia's Kevin Rudd spoke to Peking Uni students in fluent Mandarin yesterday. According to the China Daily (hard copy - can;t find the article on the web), Rudd said: "Some have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of recent problems in Tibet... I do not agree... I believe the Olympics are important for China's continuing engagement with the world."

But the China Daily did not mention Rudd "talking tough" over Tibet, comments that can be seen (by those outside China - not me) here.

先在 - 晚饭。


Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Great image (AFP/Getty via The Guardian)- China is going to have its work cut out to stop this kind of thing defining the Olympic feel, at least until the flame arrives in China (and Tibet). Hard to see what even a crack mercenary Western PR team can effectively do against such a brilliant twist to the Olympic icon.

Having recently spent a year in Israel/Palestine, it's impossible for me not to compare the conflict there with the current Tibet blowup, which claimed 18 civilian lives, including some Tibetans, according to the Chinese media, and in which around 150 Tibetans were killed by Chinese security forces, according to Tibetan sources quoted by Western media. Western bigwigs are up in arms and demanding an Olympic boycott.

One key difference between Tibet and Palestine is the former's geographical isolation, which the Chinese authorities are actually able to enforce, as the Guardian's Jonathan Watts found out. He travelled more than 6,000 mils to try to get the story, even considering taking a donkey at one point, but was blocked at every turn. An Aussie cameraman who was there told me that big agency journalists were only able to get into Tibet by hiking around the checkpoints and rejoining their drivers on the other side. Palestine on the other hand is crawling with journalists and, aside from the occasional "closed military zone", Israel lets them do what they want.

But Tibet is the kind of cause the West is able to fall in love with - a remote mountain kingdom of enlightened peace-loving people led by a romantic figure of an exiled leader, popular destination for travellers and nothing to do with Islam at all (very important). Not being able to get hard reports may simply make it more tempting to believe the most lurid accounts, since why else would the Chinese behave as if they were covering something up?

Israeli activist Uri Avnery is quite good on all this. Contrast to the attention given - zero - to the situation in neighbouring Xinjiang, a vast area, populated this time by Muslims, some of whom also have a separatist agenda for an independent "East Turkestan" and where the Chinese authorities also reportedly behave harshly.

So the Chinese are angry about what they see as Western media bias against China, particularly given some Western media - particularly in Germany - appear to have used images of Nepalese police beating demonstrators in Kathmandu believing them to have been Chinese police in Lhasa. If true, and he pictures look convincing, it's breathtakingly incompetent and suggestive of a desire to believe the worst of China.

There are some slight echoes of Palestine in Tibet - both some Han Chinese and some Jewish Israelis claim historical legitimacy for occupying and settling territory. The Chinese say Tibet has been an integral part of China for longer than the combined histories of the USA/Canada/Australia/New Zealand, while some Jewish people say God gave all the land between the river (Jordan) and the sea to the Jewish people and they were there first anyway.

But one of the key differences is that China is very big and there are only 2.6 million Tibetans, while in Israel the picture is almost the reverse if you take into account the mass of Arabs around Israel. Even if you don't, there are roughly the same number of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

Resources also come into the picture - Israel gets a lot of its water from the aquifer running under the West Bank. Israelis live a Western lifestyle and use far more water than the Palestinians. Israel has proposed selling Palestinians desalinated water from the Med. Presumably if Palestine were to become a sovereign state it would have to have access to what would be its water. Jonathan Cook suggests this as one reason why there is no peace deal as yet and why there will not be one, despite the fact that everyone knows what a workable deal more or less looks like.

In Tibet, China reportedly has its eyes on natural resources, as it also does in Xinjiang. If Tibet were to split off, then the Tibetans in Sichuan, the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia might fancy their chances too. That's more or less a quarter of China's total area. It ain't gonna happen.

But the most interesting thing I've read about Tibet is in Foreign Policy magazine, where a Tibet expert interviewed says that China is aware that "nationalism is no longer a tameable force". Robert Barnett says that what happened in Tibet was really, really big.

The most significant of the 50 protests are the rural peasants taking over the countryside. These are people who get on horseback or march down to the local government office or police post, burn it to the ground, and raise the Tibetan flag. You can be shot on sight for having a Tibetan flag in Tibet in a non-Olympics year. Nothing like this has been seen in Tibet for decades, and it has untold political significance for China.

This must have significance for everyone - Tibetans, Palestinians, Kurds, Basques etc. Perhaps in a post-national world it won't matter anyway. The Catalans no longer need independence - it would cost them too much money and in a borderless Europe what would it be worth anyway? They have control over their taxes, education, all their .cat domain names, Catalan language promotion anyway. In peaceful times perhaps it's natural for big blocs to break down into smaller Luxemburg-style fiefdoms. But the background of a worldwide scramble for limited resources doesn't bode well for peace...


Monday, April 07, 2008

The Classic Tianjin Flying Pigeon Bicycle

Here it is - the Flying Pigeon. I still haven't seen one myself because for some reason all this Flickr user's pix are unviewable to me here in Dongzhimen, as were all the Google image results for Flying Pigeon. But I've no doubt it's a beauty...

Launch of the Flying Pigeon


How cool is that? The ITABC keyboard version of Mandarin lets you type in Pinyin - Mandarin in Roman script - and then lets you choose from the range of pictograms represented by the words sounding like the letters you have typed. It means even a halfwit novice like myself can type the handful of words I know quickfast...

So this is my first real posting from Beijing, courtesy of the Chinese government. According to this post at Danwei (a Beijing-based media site), the IOC has demanded that the internet "be open" during the Olympic Games - if not it would "reflect very poorly" on the host nation. So Blogger and Wikipedia can now be accessed from my local Pacific Coffee (the Asian Starbucks) without recourse to VPN (which would allow me to experience the internet via a server in somewhere like Texas, but which I don't yet have). As Danwei points out, this will only last until everyone goes home at the end of the Games, when as far as the IOC is concerned China can go back to its censoring ways.

I've changed the title of my blog from Freelance On The Road, which is a bit generic, to The Flying Pigeon, which is the name of China's most famous brand of bicycle. I may even buy one, or something similar - I was looking at some of the newer bikes on offer and they appear to be made out of featherweight metal, are too small and at the same time look new and thus worth stealing (the Chinese lock their bikes but don't attach them to anything. A huge number are apparently stolen). The older bikes are real brutes but look satisfying and worn. I've wanted to change the blog name for a while now and I may even migrate to a new URL at some point. The Chinese characters on either side of the title say Zhong Guo (left), or Central Country, which is how the Chinese refer to China, and Beijing (right), which means Northern Capital (Nanjing is thus Southern Capital).

I've spent my first month here studying, carousing, getting ripped off, worrying about money, trying to sleep, an erratically vibrating atom among Beijing's 15 million. Now comes the time to start looking for real work. There are some good jobs on offer here, but you have to have Mandarin skills. A really good way into this kind of thing is to teach English for a couple of years somewhere in China (try Harbin, where the temperature plunges to -35C in winter), learn the lingo and get a sense of the country and then head to Beijing or Shanghai and make good. A friend who has been in China for 7 years now says Shanghai is filling up and he would not now get the job he landed a few years ago - instead he would find himself heading inland to cities like Chongqing or Chengdu.

I'm also taking a few photos - the one above was taken in Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) Square and is a relief of the Chinese state logo on a fence post. At the weekend I met up with a group of photographers organised through a popular online forum here. The idea is to put together an exhibition based around the theme Hot Pot, a Beijing meal involving throwing ingredients into a bubbling communal pot on the table and then eating. I took this to mean it would be a selection of all our best photos and put together a set based around the Middle East. Where I might fall down on technical ability, so my images would be interesting for their subject matter and I thus would be able to hold my own. But the prevailing opinion among the assembled group was that we should pick a theme and see how we all shoot it, which removes in one fell swoop my comparative advantage and, as someone who knows nothing about Beijing or China, leaves me a little exposed. But after a few minutes I began thinking it's an exciting idea. Looking forward to seeing he sugestions. Some brilliant snappers in the group doing all sorts of photography, way out of my league...