China: How to discuss politics without causing offence (or worse)

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I lived in China from September 2004 to June 2005. At the time the invasion of Iraq was turning into the catastrophe we had all predicted, and I often took affront when people would even suggest that the whole debacle was something to do with me. After all, I’d been living outside ‘my country’ for more than ten years at that point, so didn’t feel that what its government did was my responsibility.

For some of that time I lived in Dublin, making semi-regular trips back to the UK. On one of those visits I took my then girlfriend to meet my family. My dad was particularly fascinated to learn that her father was 70, ie a little older than one might expect of someone with a twenty-something daughter. Throughout an extremely uncomfortable and exasperating evening he asked her again and again how old her father was, way beyond the point at which she was visibly upset. I asked him bluntly to drop the subject but there was something about it that compelled him to go on causing us all profound embarrassment.

The Chinese Communist Party has been in power for 70 years. It has often been said to have a paternalistic attitude towards its subjects, which involves much more than making sure there’s food on the table. It also takes a strong interest in the educational and moral well-being of the Chinese people. Over the last year or so there have been reports about the way the State treats potentially disobedient offspring: by grounding them, in a massive network of camps throughout the west of the country. This BBC report is one of many documenting the system of incarceration that may be holding up to a million Muslim Chinese people. It almost defies description, with many similar characteristics to the Russian gulags. People are locked up for indefinite periods of time just for being Muslims. Owning the Koran, praying or going to mosque can get you and your family locked up. The only way out is to convince the educators that you love the Chinese State, at which point you are set free and rewarded with a plaque outside your house identifying you as a loyal citizen.

When I lived in China I worked in a university. Although there was already a considerable age gap, I did make some friends among my students but never got to talk about the things that I wanted to find out, specifically how they viewed the State, the party, etc, what they knew about Tiananmen Square, etc. My assumptions were skewed, and I had an extremely simplistic and superficial view of the profoundly complex society that surrounded me. People may acquiesce or resist in all sorts of ways that are certainly not apparent or communicable to an outsider who can barely order a meal. There were certain taboos it would have been impossibly awkward to break, and it would be deeply unfair to insist that an 18-year-old from a peasant background share their private feelings about a changing public reality they themselves were presumably struggling to get used to with an authority figure in a foreign language. Had I stayed longer and developed deeper relationships with people I might have learned more. Or I may have just adjusted to a very different reality, found an acceptable routine that allowed me to feel at ease. As it was, my official status, that of a ‘foreign friend’ (wai pengyou), made me feel compromised. (I wrote about some of these dilemmas here.) I came to feel like I was legitimising the State with my presence. One of my English-teaching colleagues was pulled up before the university authorities for having (I think, innocently) called Taiwan an ‘independent country’ in class. He was admonished, nothing more.

Now, fifteen or so years later, I’m at a university in the UK taking a master’s course. Around a third of my fellow students are from China, essentially the same cohort that I’ve been teaching for the last few years on pre-sessional courses. Like all my students when I’ve got to know them, they’re smart, resourceful and highly-motivated. They’re not the only Chinese speakers on the course, as there are also some Taiwanese, and everyone gets on remarkably well. Although I’ve not exactly hidden my dissident attitude towards my own government as we lurch towards our own Cultural Revolution/Great Leap Forward, I haven’t yet spoken to them about Chinese politics.

Partly that’s because of not wanting to cause mutual embarrassment. I don’t want to be like my dad, badgering them about something that is not their concern. I’m also aware that my stance when I was in China, of disavowing my national background as a means of avoiding awkward questions and feelings, was to some extent an act of moral cowardice. However, when it comes to one of the main issues discussed in relation to China in the outside world nowadays, ie the treatment of its Muslim population, there’s a much more serious risk, and I don’t feel that I have the right to take that risk on my colleagues’ behalf by raising the topic.

The BBC article linked to above details what has happened to Chinese students studying abroad: in cases where family members have been detained, they have been recalled to China and locked up too; Uighur students have disappeared upon returning home for ‘political screening’. (Amnesty International reports on one of those cases here.) For all that international students may come into contact with radical concepts and paradigms on their academic courses, political disloyalty is not highly prized back home. Anyone wondering about how information about potential dissidents can travel from a classroom or canteen in a UK university to state security authorities back home should read up on the role of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) on campuses around the world.

I don’t get the impression that my Chinese colleagues engage much with the Western media, partly as the challenges their courses present take up so much of their time in any case. I don’t know how much news or rumours of what’s going on have spread around the world of Chinese social networks. Even if I spoke the language I’d probably be unable to find out, as in order to stay beneath the surveillance radar users of Weibo and Wechat potentially dodgy topics are usually discussed in a fast-evolving code. I’m also acutely aware that at this particular moment someone in the UK insisting on talking about political injustice elsewhere may be looked at askance.

This is a moral maze and I have no idea which way to turn, so will for the moment choose to stay still and wait for help. One obvious solution is to get on with my course, work together with my Chinese colleagues, and see if any opportunities to breach awkward topics eventually presents itself. It’s certainly better to try to discuss this with fellow students, rather than my own charges, where a different power dynamic applies. There’s almost certainly a Chinese proverb that encapsulates this dilemma. Maybe I should try to ask someone, without, hopefully, causing too much embarrassment, or worse.

My ‘linguistic repertoire’

The notion of ‘linguistic repertoires’ is not a brand-new one, but it has become fairly central to Sociolinguistics in the last few years. I’d never heard of it until this month as I’d never studied Sociolinguistics before. Now I’m doing a master’s course which includes modules in Sociolinguistics, so terms such as ‘linguistic repertoire’ form part of my…’linguistic repertoire’. So…what’s a ‘linguistic repertoire’? Well, it’s defined in this article (written by some sociolinguists) as the “totality of linguistic resources” available to an individual, so it’s much more than the answer to the question “Which languages can you speak?”. In any case, the term ‘language’ is not all that useful when trying to understand the use of…language through the lens of Sociolinguistics, especially in a global context that is increasingly ‘conditioned by’ (yay!) linguistic superdiversity. It’s impossible to define the boundaries of an individual ‘language’ and designations such as ‘native speakers’, ‘dialect’ and ‘creole’ often serve to mystify rather than enlighten, while any given interaction or text (including this one, zum Beispiel) makes use of an often bewildering range of linguistic codes, styles, registers, varieties, etc. Ya get me? Begorrah.

I was given the task of posting a description of my own linguistic repertoire in the module’s discussion forum, and inevitably my account touched on a lot of the same issues that I’ve written about here, so I thought it might be of interest to regular visitors. (There’s a better-organised and better-informed account of someone’s LR towards the end of the article linked to just above.) Mine is a bit artless and plodding in places, but as they say in Cardiff, plus ça change…. I also forgot to mention that my main ‘foreign’ ‘language’ is…Europanto.

My linguistic repertoire

One’s linguistic repertoire indexes one’s biography, argue Blommaert and Backus (2011). Well, like any biography mine starts before I was born, in that my father left his hometown in Northern Germany at the age of 17 and eventually moved to Sheffield, England with my mum, who somehow came from both Dorchester and Leicester. Thus while most people in Sheffield have a distinctive way of speaking (familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘The Full Monty’), my family didn’t share it, although we did speak (ahem) ‘English’ rather than ‘German’. I was raised with quite a conservative set of values in relation to accent*, in that it was a family trope that pronouncing words like local people did was ‘common’. I rebelled against this to a certain extent, developing a lifelong affinity for what B & B call ‘dirty words’ as part of a far more demotic form of speech outside the house, but ended up speaking with a broadly non-regional accent, although I’ve always pronounced the short vowel in ‘baeth’ and would feel distinctly silly saying ‘ba:th’. I was exposed to German and French at school but the teaching approach wasn’t conducive to learning more than the odd fixed expression and some basic grammar.

At 18 I moved to Norwich (or, as the locals say, up Naarge) to study philosophy and literature, so acquired a fledgling command of academic discourses around post-colonialism, post-modernism and existentialism, etc. I then lived in Dublin for six years, which left a seemingly permanent mark on my linguistic repertoire in that I adopted pronunciations like ‘filum’ and started saying ‘yer man’, ‘graaand’ and ‘yis’. I can still do a passable Roddy Doyle-esque Northside accent, having felt an affinity with that part of Dublin. I later, via work, developed a command of areas of discourse including IT jargon and discourse patterns particular to software corporations.

Living in the north of Portugal I discovered an appetite (and, I thought at the time, an aptitude) for learning ‘foreign’ languages. I quickly acquired a strong regional accent, which didn’t stand me in good stead later in life. Having self-taught myself (well, it was really friends and newspapers that taught me…), I decided to try German, French, and Spanish while I was at it, in what in retrospect was an attempt to expand my range of identities, building up my linguistic capital. I remember a conversation around that time with an English colleague of mine who, having mastered those languages and more while living in ‘target language’ environments, expressed bemusement at my desire to acquire so many languages which she regarded as redundant tools since I was unlikely to need to use them any time soon. That principle hadn’t occurred to me but nonetheless struck me as a mature attitude that I nonetheless couldn’t identify with – what I’d learnt was precious and I was precious about it in turn. I moved to Lisbon and was delighted to meet someone who told me I spoke Portuguese with ‘no accent’. It’s possible they were joking – I’d only been in the country for a year at that point. I realised much later that my command of Portuguese was inevitably limited to vernacular forms in that I wasn’t ever going to be working in the language. I probably also spoke like a newspaper as that was where a lot of my vocabulary came from, and the same goes (it probably is still true) for the other languages I speak. I slowly acquired a command of ELT lingo as member of the very broad ELT ‘community’.

Although my English accent was distinctly non-specific I was astonished to one day meet a particularly perceptive Chicago cab driver on vacation who after I’d said about three words asked me what part of Sheffield I was from. I started to make friends with Brazilians who found my Portuguese Portuguese dialect hilarious and so I tried to start sounding more Brazilian; on trips to Spain I tried to sound like I was from Andalucia (erm…). I began to notice that on visits back to the UK, I felt a refreshing confidence in my ‘voice’. I felt like what Bourdieu calls a ‘legitimate speaker’ rather than someone winging it in a clearly foreign tongue. Living in China, I took pride in my speedily-acquired Mandarin, which was a bit absurd as I regularly met other foreigners who had clearly invested much more in the language. Although I inevitably left most of what I’d learned behind me, I still have an ability to recognise when people are speaking standard Mandarin. I then spent a few months in Madrid, and my Spanish developed much as my Portuguese had: good at speaking informally, advanced reading skills, little else. I’d started to realise at this point that I was depending on other languages as a source of self-esteem and to try to fulfil my lifelong dream of being from elsewhere –when I moved back to London at the start of 2006 I occasionally found myself referring to ‘other (as in fellow) foreigners’. I started a master’s course (in KCL) and developed my command of Academic Portuguese and, for that matter, English. In London through mixing a lot with Latin Americans, my Spanish and Portuguese changed. Thanks to where I was living, I developed an ability to recognise Bengali and Turkish. As for my own accent, I found it remarkable when a long-standing work colleague expressed surprise that I was from the north. Through examining I developed a knowledge of the IELTS register. Outside work my online Twitter interactions had a positive impact on my ability to express abuse and sarcasm in short written form. I visited Brazil and had to make a huge amount of effort to demediavelise my Portuguese – the Brazilians regard the European variety as atavistic and I struggled to fit in.

Through friendships with students I slowly started learning Italian, starting with certain regional swearwords, which as B & B point out can be a shortcut means of acquiring a familiarity with the vernacular. When I met my now-wife (who is Italian) I went through a period of being simultaneously impressed and intimidated by her and her colleagues’ ability to mix languages, code switching effortlessly and endlessly between English, French and Spanish. Getting my brain to think in Italian and my speech organs to not produce Spanish proved a constant struggle. Her job took us to Mexico and I experienced the same struggle in reverse. I also had to master a whole new area of place names, slang, and cultural information and had to work hard to try to Mexicanise my pronunciation. After a year there we spent a couple of months in a university in Thailand where I made a pointed attempt to fail to learn some of the language. I’d put my knowledge of Thai at about the same level as the few dozen words of Greek and Finnish I picked up on various holidays**. (My French and German have been comfortably stuck near the bottom of League 1 for at least 15 seasons.)

Regularly visiting Chiara’s family near Napoli meant my Italian features a few expressions in dialect, and then same goes for Rome, where we spent a year and a half. (Now it was Spanish that got in the way of Italian again.) Through working in a university I acquired (not without difficulty) a knowledge of the formal register of university bureaucracy, and (with a lot of assistance from others) developed my writing in a way I never really had with Portuguese or Spanish. I also had to acquire a command of the discourses around pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. Now here living in London I’ve started to think of my accent as a bit of a ‘Remainer’ accent, specially when I step outside the M25. I’ve also started using the word ‘index’ as a verb, and phrases like ‘orders of discourse’, ‘dividing practices’ and ‘kurtosis’. I’m no longer as dependent on knowing foreign languages to bolster my self-esteem, and I’m also no longer sure if and where a line can be drawn between knowledge of the world and knowledge of language, between knowing a few Greek expressions and knowing where Athens is in relation to Thessaloniki, remembering who the Prime Minister of France is and being able to identify a Colombian accent, or having the command of the necessary discourses to fake it in the world of Applied Linguistics. I can now appreciate that language competence is, as Blommaert and Backus point out, dynamic rather than fixed, and that it’s not a case of acquiring and owning a number of discrete languages but rather of using different forms of language with varying degrees of competence while inhabiting specific roles in diverse situations. Here endeth my linguistic repertoire***.

*And vocabulary – my mum, who we, despite not being officially posh (and absolutely not being rich), kept addressing for far too long as ‘Mummy’, insisted on prohibiting the word ‘wee’ and imposed ‘wee wee’ as a euphemistic alternative, which is…odd because (as any expert in linguistics will happily confirm) the term ‘wee wee’ consists of nothing but the word ‘wee’, twice. This single fact more than any other explains why I still find it I important use so much bad fucking language. N.B. I didn’t include this bit in the module discussion forum post.

**As I’ve mentioned here before I happen to know some staggeringly offensive things to say in Finnish. I once offered to share them with anyone who contacted me via the Contact link. Two people did so, I sent them the expressions complete with fully idiomatic transactions, but oddly enough neither of them ever thanked me. Kuradi pärast!

***Here I drew upon a Biblical register. Thank God I didn’t follow it with ‘Amen’. Amen to that.

In which I teach my Chinese students (and myself) all about Welsh

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There’s a cliché that the ‘best English’ is spoken in Dublin. I’d like to put a new one into circulation: the friendliest variety of the language is that of the Welsh. When I left Cardiff a couple of weeks ago I felt genuinely sad to be moving away from a place where everyone I met in the course of two months greeted me in a helpful and engaging manner, even though I couldn’t speak a word of their official language. Well, one of their official languages. We managed, for the most part, to get by in English.

I spent eight weeks teaching almost exclusively Chinese students on a presessional course at Cardiff University. One reason I chose Cardiff is because I’m very interested in issues of language and identity, particularly national identity. I also thought it would be an opportunity to challenge my long-held patronising view of the Welsh language, which has occasionally caused me to use its very existence as a punchline whenever the name of a slightly absurd language is called for. Force of habit meant it was hard for me to overcome my slight amusement at finding in the university library a copy of the book ‘Business Welsh’. Surely the one phrase that would be most useful in such a setting would be ‘Edrychwch, pam nad ydym ni ddim ond yn gwneud y cyfarfod yn Saesneg?‘.

Things are, inevitably, considerably more involved, as is always the case with minority languages. The point of a language is not merely to communicate, after all, but to maintain and represent a particular culture and identity. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the role of Welsh is a way of rethinking other such languages. Besides, as this wonderful poem by Nayyirah Waheed implies, who wants to speak bloody English all the time? Nevertheless, in the relationship between Wales, Welsh, and English, contradictions abound. Reflecting on the role of Welsh in state school education put me in mind of a lengthy conversation I had with a young Spanish speaker in San Sebastian a number of years ago, who was frustrated that the Basque language was used to exclude people from other parts of Spain from public service jobs. On the one hand, I could relate to his annoyance. When I lived in Dublin I was prevented from applying for a civil service job by my total lack of Gaelic, and given the Welsh-English border is so fluid and that so many Welsh people don’t speak Welsh, it’s easy to understand why such exclusions, when and where they do exist, might create resentment. On the other hand, to complain about the imposition of such requirements is to ignore questions of historical injustice around identity which cannot simply be repressed. There are very good reasons why stickers reading ‘PARLA CATALAN!’ can be found on lampposts around Barcelona. The Spanish attitude to Catalan identity is exemplified in the nickname some speakers of castellano call Catalan: polaco (Polish), supposedly a language that few want or need to understand. Such attitudes are, as I write, provoking a potentially world-shaking response.

I suspect that Cardiff’s relationship with Welsh is rather like Dublin’s relationship with Irish. When I was living in Dublin, I barely noticed the existence of its second official language. Back then, as a confirmed monolingual, I didn’t spend much time thinking about languages. When I visited places like Singapore and Malaysia, I experienced and thought of them as essentially English-speaking countries. I must have just blanked out those portions of street signs and official notices that weren’t written in English. When I went to live in a non-English speaking country I became, as the young people like to say, woke, to the point where the role of languages and dialects became something of an abiding obsession in whichever country I happened to be living.

Wales is, of course, not as linguistically diverse as China (where I spent the academic year 2004-2005) or Italy (where I live now), but the Welsh language does have two distinct varieties. North and South Walians often don’t see tongue-to-tongue*. Those who have made the effort to learn the language (many of whom are from the south) are often disappointed to be responded to in English by ‘native speakers’ (who are more commonly found up north, and are (derisively, I think) known as Gogs)**. Nevertheless, the language has, since devolution, gained massively in prominence and official status right throughout the country. Many non-Welsh speaking-families now prefer to send their kids to Welsh language-schools, because Welsh medium institutions tend to achieve better Ofsted results***. The knotty implications of this are explored in a documentary called ‘The Welsh Knot‘, the title of which refers to a time in which the use of Welsh at school was severely discouraged.

Being in Cardiff in English meant I wasn’t exactly immersed in Welsh-speaking culture. In effect, given my level of exposure to Mandarin Chinese, I felt I was going to work in China every day, to the point where I started to feel I should be speaking it myself (I’d say my vocabulary, which had gone down over the years, made a sudden leap up from A1.1 to A1.1003). It was a conversation with a typically chatty Cardiff taxi driver that made me start to wonder about my students’ perceptions of the Welsh language. After all, although they were all effectively Mandarin native-speakers, some of them, particularly those from places like Sichuan, probably spoke different dialects at home. How did they think of Welsh? Did they recognise its existence? Did they think of Cardiff as a Welsh-speaking city?

Given a whole morning to work on my students’ note-taking skills through the use of an extended text, I decided to explore and develop their understanding of the role of the other official language of the country where (most of them) will be spending the next year. (I also thought that exposure to a totally unfamiliar language would help consolidate their understanding of English.) The first documentary I showed them followed younger learners from a range of countries going through a transition similar to my students, viz doing a crash language course in preparation for attending a (North) Welsh-medium secondary school. We also watched part of the one of I mentioned earlier, which centres on introducing a North Walian schoolgirl to a South Walian one; both of them study in Welsh medium schools but language plays a very different role in their lives outside the classroom. (The programme is described in detail here.) I introduced the topic to my class by saying a couple of Welsh greetings I’d taught myself (it was a unique situation in that it was the first time I’ve been the most proficient Welsh speaker in the room), and then asking them to do a short survey which I had prepared but have subsequently lost. (The results are thus not available for peer review.) They found answering the questionnaire entertaining, as they’d recently put together a similar survey of their own. In response to a question about which parts of China they thought similar to Cardiff in linguistic terms, many chose a region geographically close to their own where a substantially different dialect was spoken: Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai were mentioned. Their estimate of what proportion of the local population spoke Welsh was 80% (it’s actually 20%). Asked for their opinion as to whether I spoke Welsh, about half guessed yes, which I thought was interesting as they know that I’m not from Wales. I also asked them if they could think of any words they’d learnt in Welsh, and a couple of them wrote down ‘prifysgol’, a word they’d seen hundreds of times over the previous few weeks for fairly obvious reasons.

While the results of my research were inconclusive, they did help me think about the ubiquity of linguistic diversity, and they both confirmed and challenged my assumptions that my students would automatically transfer their perceptions of their own country’s minority languages onto Welsh. Had I hung onto the results, I’d have more of value to impart. (Apparently the Welsh phrase for ‘sorry’ is ‘mae’n ddrwg’.)

Languages are multifarious, lithe, fluid creatures, filling up all available spaces to fit snugly into the social form. I suspect that my class, indeed the whole cohort of pressessional students in Cardiff, will, in the course of their courses, start to develop their own codes, relative to their new environment, mixing in English words and names and possibly even Welsh ones. Language creates and affirms shared identity: wherever new identities are being formed, new forms of language emerge to satisfy the collective need. That’s how classes, tribes and cultures are formed, and that process in some important ways reflects a more significant function of language than mere communication. When I first began to learn about the role of dialects in other cultures, I’d badger representatives of those cultures with a question which I now understand to be irrelevant and misleading: if you go to part X of your country, can you understand what people say to you? It’s a daft question, because the answer is almost inevitably: yes, because if, for example, a person from Rome goes to Napoli, or if someone from Sichuan visits Shanghai – or, for that matter, when someone from Cardiff finds themselves in Caernarvon – the locals will automatically communicate with them in their mutually understood language, not in the specific local variety. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are no such things as languages, only language – in other words, that borders and boundaries between languages are artificial****. However, acknowledging that reality doesn’t help to resolve the status of different dialects and languages. The State has a responsibility to recognise the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the population.

When people migrate to areas where a strong local dialect prevails, a variety of things can happen, depending on their kind of interactions they develop. Some assimilate, some develop hybrid varieties, some remain at a linguistic (and, presumably, therefore, social) distance from the local culture. Then there are very particular expressions and pronunciations which give the speaker the status of insider; code-switching, i.e. swapping between languages or varieties of a language in the course of a single conversation or utterance, is, after all, a ubiquitous feature of human speech. We all do it within our own languages, mimicking other social actors in order to take on or discard particular social roles. To switch between languages or dialects rapidly can take very great skill, but can be extremely useful. (On a side note, the fact that I look German means that in speaking German in a German-speaking country I get away with using a great deal of English vocabulary.) It would be interesting to know how this operates with regard to Welsh and English. As I said to the taxi driver, I can’t imagine that sort of thing is actively encouraged at the Eisteffod. One curious detail I found about about some of my students’ perceptions of Welsh is that when they didn’t understand what (for example) a shopkeeper was saying to them in English, they just assumed they’d started speaking Welsh, which some, it turned out, thought of it as a mere dialect of English. Such mortifying linguistic confusion may explain why some students included in the bibliographies of their final essays seemingly random references to texts published in Turkish and Portuguese . Oddly enough, however, none of them cited any works written in Welsh. Byddai hynny’n fucking hyfryd!

*Thanks to Terry for teaching me the English word ‘Walian’.

**According to my mum, an English speaker can learn French in half the time it takes to learn Welsh. (N.B. My mum doesn’t speak Welsh, and may well have gleaned that information from the Daily Mail, so it might be ceilliau.)

***More thanks to Terry for pointing out that the local equivalent of Ofsted is actually called Estyn, which, to its credit, sounds a bit less like the name of a character from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

**** Someone who’s demonstrated this is Diego Marani, the inventor of the ‘language’ (actually more of a game) Europanto.

Denial 2: On Blinkeredness

filterbubblesI noticed a couple of years ago when living in a fairly nondescript part of East London, in the kind of Olympically lifeless area where absolutely everyone comes from everywhere else and no-one sticks around for long, that in some parts of the country, and maybe the world, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a shop where get your hands on a physical newspaper. Conversations with my international students confirm this: the regular purchase of a newspaper is increasingly a minority pursuit, an odd and probably slightly quirky habit of people over 35 or so. Younger people inevitably get their news online, if at all – the news might simply consist in what their friends are up to on Facebook or maybe a glance at Google or Yahoo headlines. Given that so much of what we perceive of the world is mediated in some way, what does this imply about our collective experience of a shared reality?

A few years ago I remarked on my Chinese students’ reluctance to engage with information which might conflict with what they had grown up and been taught to believe about their own society. Despite the opportunities presented by the internet, they continued to prefer Chinese sites and to steer well clear of alternative sources of news, ideas and information despite having the language to make sense of what was being said. At the time I tended, rather patronizingly I now see, to regard this as a symptom of ideological brainwashing by the evil Chinese Communist Party, but since then I have come to see this kind of instinctive and wilfull blinkeredness as more generalized and not remotely restricted to authoritarian societies.

Now obviously my Facebook news update page and Twitter feed are different from yours. I chose to follow or to be friends with certain people, and am of course aware that the information I receive in this way does not give me a particularly comprehensive view of what is going on in the society in which I live or around the world. However, news sites tend now to work in a similar way, or at least offer to let you have your news your way – just business and sports headlines if that’s what you’re interested in, with none of that bothersome stuff about earthquakes and floods and generally what’s been happening to people you’ve never even met.

To go back to when I was in the authoritarian society of China, it caught my attention that the results I got from Google searches tended to be quite different from the results I got outside China. This has been quite ably demonstrated elsewhere – if you type Tiananmen Square into google anywhere else in the world, you are confronted with the famous picture of the guy standing in front of the tank, whereas if you do so in China. you get some American people’s holiday snaps (and if you look for human rights in google in China, your internet connection goes down for five minutes). In China, then, we are dealing with a formal kind of censorship, acknowledged or not. Whether or not google colludes in this is not generally known. But what is clear is that, these days, something similar happens wherever we are in the world.

In the interview below Eli Pariser shows us what happens when he types Egypt into google: he gets a page of results which pertain to recent developments: the fall of the dictator and the ongoing revolution. He then shows us what happens when a less socially conscious friend did the same thing – the results he received were mostly related to holidays. Google uses a series of filters to show us what it thinks we as individuals do and do not wish to know. It does so automatically and for our own benefit – just as the authoritarian Chinese Commmunist Party does.

The kind of people I teach here in London are about as likely to type human rights into google as they are to buy a copy of the Guardian.The same is certainly true for climate change – any attempts, even in the most underhand and careful of ways, to raise the topic result in what George Marshall describes as a ‘spinach tart’ moment. Not only are they very unlikely to seek information on the impending annihilation of the human species or indeed on what we individually and collectively can do to prevent it, they are also, these days, extremly unlikely to come across any information on it, given the way that they, and we, increasingly experience the world through a tighter and tighter set of filters, for our own benefit and convenience.

However, for all that we may be inclined to hope that we can hide from the four horsemen in our own private and sealed utopias online, it transpires that this is not the case. According to a recent government report, it is predicted that climate change will play havoc with our internet connections: ‘higher temperatures can reduce the range of wireless communications, rainstorms can impact the reliability of the signal, and drier summers and wetter winters may cause greater subsidence, damaging masts and underground cables’. Maybe our best option would be to challenge climate change to a game of (offline) chess.

by Rich

The First Emperors of New China


The current exhibition at the British Museum, The First Emperor, is a tribute to the man who ordered the building of that huge monument to himself, the tomb of the Terracotta Warriors. The focus of the exhibition is a small selection of artefacts from the tomb, including a number of statues of the warriors themselves. It is a blockbuster exhibition which attempts to match the scale and ambition of its subject.

A short film which precedes the main part of the exhibition shows how Emperor Qin managed to conquer and unite what is now the territory of China. At the end of the film we see the map rapidly turning crimson and the word ‘Qin’ appearing on the map. ‘Qin’, we learn, gave origin to the western word China to denote what was called in Chinese the Middle Kingdom – or the centre of the world.

The exhibition was partly criticised in the Guardian for offering an uncritical and revisionist account of the achievements of a man who history has generally remembered as a brutal tyrant who ‘massacred prisoners, burned books and slaughtered scholars’. The words ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal’ are absent from the exhibition. The key message of the exhibition, signalled clearly in that introductory film, is one that the Emperor himself would have been happy with: He was on a celestially-inspired mission to unite ‘All-under-Heaven’ and so to bring China into existence. The existence of China is, therefore, no historical accident: It was written in the stars.

However, historians have on the whole ceased to regard all human history of the great achievements of supreme individuals equipped with armies and visions of a future world reshaped according to their ambitions. Also, it would, or at least should, be very hard in 2007 for any serious thinking person to sustain the belief that nations and states have a historical mission to exist, that they are the result of destiny and not of chance.

We learn very little in the exhibition about the lives of those who actually built the tomb. There are some references to convicts being used, to the huge numbers of slaves whose lives were sacrificed to its construction. But the overall message is that this was the work of a visionary, an emperor creating a coherent and sovreign empire which has survived intact up to the present day.

One key theme or, I would argue, purpose of the exhibition is that of continuity. Qin established the systems of weights and currency and was also largely responsible for establishment of the writing system, as well as beginning the building of the Great Wall. This grants legitimacy to the subsequent rulers of China: a series of dynasties have maintained China’s unity and preserved and guarded its treasures. The rulers of this empire have now generously allowed those who cannot visit the Middle Kingdom to enjoy at first hand a glimpse of its profoundly rich and mysterious cultural legacy.

The way in which China chooses at different times to regard its previous rulers is very instructive. This is particularly true of representations on TV (1). According to the Asia Times:

‘It has been a tradition in China, both under the communists and long before, to criticize Chinese leaders indirectly but deftly by comparing them to misguided, wicked or weak emperors, ignoring the welfare of the people, or by comparing them to the wise and benevolent rulers of the past. Chinese readers – and today’s television viewers – are savvy enough to read between the propagandists’ lines and understand 2,000-year-old contrived allusions to current politics.’

The Chinese people, then, understand the significance of the different dynasties. Some of them represent more insular styles of rule, some more outgoing, some more brutal and legalistic, some wiser and more benign. Visitors to this exhibition are left to make their own connections between the great rulers of the past of the great rulers of the present.

The current Chinese emperors, then, are laying claim to a heritage which goes back way before 1949, when Chairman Mao told the Chinese people to stand up. Mao was a great admirer of Emperor Qin, by the way, allegedly claiming “He buried alive only 460 scholars, but we have buried alive 46,000”. The exhibition makes a claim on behalf of the current Chinese regime on a inheritance which goes back 2,000 years, and which is ultimately divinely derived. What we are being shown in this exhibition are some of the more treasured family heirlooms.

So what is the problem? Every nation and state in the world seeks to demonstrate that its existence is the inevitable product of all earlier stages of history, and to this end adapts, adopts, invents and constructs myths, legends, historical figures and movements, not to mention pre-existing monuments, in order to prove its rightful legacy. ‘China’ is no more or less artificial an entity than any other nation.

China as a country, if not a nation, has, in broad terms, been around for a very long time. But my question is: How much legitimacy are we prepared to concede the Chinese Government? It consists of an unelected oligarchy of bureaucrats who govern by means of repression and corruption. The subjects of the Chinese Communist Party regime enjoy little in the way of human and democratic rights. It is the world’s largest dictatorship, and its claims to legitimate authority are contested, or at least questioned by a large proportion of the world’s population, including in China itself.

Would the British Museum, and by extension the British state, be prepared to host a similar exhibition on behalf of the Government of Burma? Or North Korea? (2)

In the exhibition bookshop you can buy a seemingly fairly random selection of things related to China. One thing that may be useful to anyone vaguely interested in Chinese history is a book giving a broad outline and a timeline of Chinese history for children. The book makes a brief reference to the Cultural Revolution, a period when a previous generation of Communist Party leaders ransacked their own country and tried as hard as they could to destroy the country’s cultural legacy: it was reportedly only through the direct intervention of Zhou Enlai that such crucial sites as the Forbidden City, the Potala Palace in Lhasa and even the site of Terracotta Warriors were saved. It would be strange, to say the least, if a brief guide to Russian or German history made such scant reference to the Stalin and Hitler eras. There is no mention of the single most prominent recent event in Chinese history in the eyes of the world, the events of June 4 1989, when the previous generation of leaders again murdered thousands in a desperate attempt to hold on to the reins of power, an event which the current leadership refuses to acknowledge on any level.

The culmination of the book’s timeline and, presumably the mental timeline of the exhibition’s visitors, is, inevitably, summer 2008, when the Chinese capital will host the Olympic Games. This is a key moment for the Chinese Government, a coming-out ball which will confirm beyond any doubt that China is, despite its continuing refusal to grant basic democratic and human rights to its population, a nation whose sovreignty and authority is beyond question (3). It will be a coronation ceremony for the emperors of New China.

This seems to be an apt term for what has previously been known as the People’s Republic; given that the only two pillars of CCP ideology for the last number of years has been nationalism and ‘we can make you rich!’; a name change, beloved of despots in desperate need of a fresh new image, seems well overdue. The PR in China could stay, of course, but with a different meaning, and given the success of our own beloved former leader in rebranding his party with the facile addition of the word ‘New’, it seems entirely appropriate for the CCP’s attempt to remake itself for internal and international consumption. ‘Xin Zhonghuo’, anyone?! (4)

The message of the Olympics is, to borrow a phrase: China’s Coming Home. And just as the slaves dedicated themselves selflessly to building the stunning monument to vanity that is the tomb of Emperor Qin, the Chinese people are wholeheartedly and voluntarily putting themselves hard to work. A recent Guardian special collected some very revealing comments regarding the importance that a lot of people give to the Olympics, and the effect a successful games will have on ‘national pride’: ‘”I don’t have any religious or political convictions. So you can say that the Olympics is my main belief,” says primary school teacher Zhou Chenguang. According to the taxi driver Xia Shishan: ‘We will finish top of the medal table. And when we win, I will be so excited my blood will boil.” In Beijing projects are being completed at a furious pace and on a meglomaniac scale in the attempt to turn the host city into a place suitable for international visitors such as sports people, journalists and tourists, even if in the process making it into a city which will be pretty much unaffordable to the people who acually live there (4).

The current exhibition at the British Museum is a PR coup for the Chinese Government, and simultaneously an advert for the much greater showcase event next summer. It can to some extent be regarded as propaganda, rather than history.

Of course, a great deal can happen between now and June 2008, and a great deal could happen during the games themselves. What will happen if the very tight control that the authorities are trying to exercise over the event doesn’t work? What if there are protests? What are the Falun Gong capable of? And how will the world react?

1 – The Qin dynasty was very positively portrayed in the 2005 film hero, regarded by some viewers as an outright piece of CCP propaganda. See also http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Observer_Film_of_the_week/0,,1312773,00.html.

2 – Unfortunately I didn’t see the Ancient Persia exhibition two years ago, so have little idea of how that may have related to the question of Modern Iran, beyond what I managed to glean from various websites. There is obviously a significant contrast between the Forgotten Empire, which no clear connection with the present, and the First Emperor, which implies continuity. According to the New York Times, the exhibition ‘give ancient Persia its proper place — between Assyria and Babylon on the one hand and Greece and Rome on the other — in the chronology of early civilizations. In that sense, ”Forgotten Empire” is also highly topical…John Curtis, the show’s curator and keeper of the museum’s ancient Near East department, added in a statement: ”It may also be important at this time of difficult East-West relations to remind people in the West of the remarkable cultural legacy of a country like Iran.” ‘. Personally I find such aims perfectly laudable, but whatever the stated aims of the exhibition under discussion here they are not nearly as commendable. Plus, Iran is actually, strictly speaking, a democratic country…

3 – This contrasts with the status of little Taiwan, officially known as the Repuplic of China, which will once again compete under the name of Chinese Taipei, owing to the demands of the Chinese in Beijing. See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/china/story/0,,2174496,00.html.

4 – I’d love to read an analysis of how Beijing’s rebranding of China as a dynamic forward-thinking business-friendly place matches Blair’s project to ditch the Labour Party’s ideological and historical baggage in the mid-nineties. I remember reading some time ago that one of the many foreign politicians to lecture the Chinese leadership in the 1990s was Peter Mandelson.

5 – Obviously East London is now starting to go through the same process. See http://www.redpepper.org.uk/article555.html.

Will China one day become a global cultural superpower?


Another profoundly idiotic, craven and predictable article by Martin Jacques in the Guardian about the inevitable and glorious rise of China gave birth to an interesting thought.

In contrast to five years ago, the likely identity of the next superpower has become crystal clear. It is no longer just a possibility that it will be China; on the contrary, the probability is extremely high, if not yet a racing certainty. Nor does the timescale of this change have us peering into the distant future as it did five years ago. China is already beginning to acquire some of the interests and motivations of a superpower, and even a little of the demeanour. Beijing feels like a parallel universe to the US, and certainly Europe. There is an expansive mood about the place. China is growing in self-confidence by the day.

And with good reason. There is no sign of China’s economic growth abating, and it is this that lies behind its growing confidence. The massive contrasts between China and the US, both socially and economically, are enjoined in the argument over America’s trade deficit with the China. The latter is deeply aware that its future prospects depend on the continuation of its economic growth and this remains its priority. But no longer to the exclusion of all else: China is beginning to widen its range of concerns and interests.

So far so predictable: China is growing at an exponential rate and is beginning to challenge the global power of the US. My idea concerns this parallel between Chinese and American power, but at the level of culture.

It’s clear that the US as a global cultural superpower foments opposition to itself by crushing or buying off any attempts at cultural independence, so that you increasingly see the same films advertised at the same time in the centres of cities all around the globe, for example, and so many people’s free time is spent watching films from Blockbuster video, not to mention eating at McDonalds and shopping at Wal-Mart and so on. This makes the United States a very obvious target for anger against injustice and inequality.

China, on the other hand, has almost no cultural influence on this level, give or take the occasional martial arts epic, which is itself effectively a product of the Hollywood system. There are no global Chinese music stars, and very few if any recent global household names in any field. There is, thankfully, no global Chinese equivalent to McDonalds or Pizza Hut; in fact, the brands most beloved of young Chinese people seem to be American or European ones – NBA, KFC, the Champions’ League etc. Aside from a few satellite Chinese speaking parts of the world, China has little or virtually no cultural influence to match its growing economic clout.

Doesn’t this mean, then, that its increasing international economic power will attract less notice and therefore less opposition? I’m thinking in terms of other developing countries, specifically Africa, the Middle East and South America, where the locally damaging effects of China’s involvement are becoming more and more unavoidable (I wrote about some aspects of this here), as well as the catastrophic effects on the environment if every Chinese peasant did ever get to live the Chinese Dream. What China lacks, though, is anything like the very clear focus for opprobrium that US cultural products and brands represent.

I don’t know if there will come a point where China will need to start marketing its cultural products to a non-Chinese audience. There is certainly a long way to go before the country that brings us CCTV will be able to produce convincing English language films, for example. But I don’t think in fifty years’ time we’ll all be speaking Mandarin either, as China Outside China – the current expansion, rather than the results of past emigration – is very much an English-speaking project. I’m just interested in what happens when, as we’re beginning to see now in some African countries, political opposition to Chinese economic influence starts to deepen and widen. What form will it take? Will people just turn on their local Chinese shopkeepers, as has happened a few times in Indonesia in the last couple of years?

Many young people around the world grow up hating McDonalds and Tom Cruise’s face almost by instinct, on their way to developing more informed and complex oppositional ideas about the world. Certain faces and symbols have come to represent the worst excesses of American power. Will there come a point at which individual symbols and faces represent what we hate and fear about the economic power of China? Or will we at some point start to witness a reaction that targets Chinese people, rather than the symbols that have, whether they like it or not, come to represent them?

One of the comments posted in the discussion following the Martin Jacques piece stated baldly ‘The Chinese have little regard for freedom, justice or human life for that matter.’ Not, it should be noted, the Chinese Government, but The Chinese themselves. I have a feeling that five, ten or twenty years from now this kind of racist attitude will be commonplace – and it will come as quite a comfort to the Chinese Government, which would far rather see the anger of the world at its expansionist policies targeted at the Chinese people rather than at itself.

Ni shuo zhongwen ma?


I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that people pay (often lots of) money to sit in a class and practise speaking foreign languages. Everyone on earth already has at least one language at their disposal and it’s not too hard to track down someone who wants to learn that language and in return will help you as your try your hardest to make yourself understood in their language. It’s just a case of tracking down that someone, which these days, what with the gumtree and whatnot, is not a very difficult task at all.

Of course occasionally you may, especially if you’re a woman, meet people with ulterior motives, or who are actually just really boring, or who laugh pitilessly every time you try and put a sentence together – or in the case of Mandarin Chinese, look at you with such puzzlement that you’d think you’d just told them there was something wrong with the Communist Party, whereas in fact you were simply trying to let them know that you come from Sheffield and you prefer broccoli to spinach. But on the whole it’s preferable to and a lot more effective than, say, paying €50 a month to some unscrupulous bastards who will continue fleecing your bank account long after the school has gone bankrupt and the teacher has fucked off back to London in poverty, or, if you’re Brazilian, will stick you in a tiny classroom on Oxford Street with eighteen of your compatriots so you end up speaking less English than you would back home.

Now I come to think of it, language teachers spend so much time trying to make their students pretend that they are not actually in a classroom at all that it really makes you question the point of being there in the first place.

Whateva. After I’d put an ad on the gumtree for people to practise my own rudimentary polygoticism with, I exchanged a couple of emails with someone who said they could help me with my Chinese, which would be nice, although somebody helping me with my Chinese is a bit like teaching my great-great German grandmother to speak Brazilian Portuguese, because my Chinese is hen bu hao. I was a bit busy at the time what with holidays, work and the problems on the Hammersmith & City Line to deal with, so I didn’t reply for ages, but when I did I realised that he must have been a very interesting guy to talk to, because he happened to mention that he had come to Britain to study in 1967.

Now obviously 1967 was the Summer of Love in the West, but in China, if anything I’ve ever read about that era is true, gangs of young people in uniforms roamed around the country kicking people to death simply because they had been known to wear glasses from time to time. Jung Chang, the writer of ‘Wild Swans’ and ‘Mao: The Untold Story’ was only allowed to leave in 1978 after extensive political preparation. Whoever this guy was, it was fairly clear that his eyesight, not to mention his devotion to the Party, must have impressed the Red Guards a hell of a lot in order to be allowed to escape the fate that befell millions of his contemporaries; sent away from the cities to harvest stones in the backwoods of absolutely nowhere for the greater glory of the Great Helmsman.

He must have had some experiences along the way which caused him to at least question Party rule. One of the guys I live with is I think quite typical of more recent generations of overseas Chinese in that he doesn’t particularly want to live in China but doesn’t think the Party is doing a bad job and sees Mao as generally one of the good guys. I haven’t met anyone who dissents from this point of view, or at least if I have they’ve had no good reason to tell me about it – although I did once have a short conversation with Harry Wu about teddy bears, and I mentioned my first shameful encounter with a Chinese political dissident here. I would really like to have the opportunity to meet some Chinese people who are explicitly not happy about how their country is run, and am wondering how to go about it.

I don’t want to just march up to the protestors outside the Chinese Embassy and offer my services to the Falun Gong, which seems to be the most prominent organised political opposition outside China. I have no great wish to set myself on fire in Tiananmen Square. But I guess if I can’t make contact with Chinese dissidents in London, then where can I? Does anyone have Wei Jingsheng’s email address?

The Scramble for Angola


The Portuguese generally take a lot of pride in the fact that Brazil, a country they discovered, has become one of the most vibrant and varied countries on earth and a true cultural superpower. That diversity, of course, came into being largely because of the slave trade. But slavery is a word seldom mentioned in discussions of Portugal’s glorious age of expansion and empire.

A current exhibition in the museum in Lagos makes a laudable attempt to promote Portugal’s own multicultural heritage, talking at length about how successive migrations of humanity have culturally enriched European societies and made them much more ethnically diverse, but fails to mention how forced migrations of people created economic riches, or even the remarkable fact that Lagos itself would give its name to the capital of Africa’s most populous nation, as many of the slaves traded in the Algarve originated in that part of Africa.

Portugal first arrived in what would become its largest African colony, Angola, in 1483, and they would stay there for almost 500 years. Like any colonial relationship it was one of brutality and forced obedience:

Until the late 1900’s Portugal used the area as a “slave pool” for its far more lucrative colony in Brazil and to benefit from the occasional discovery of precious gemstones and metals. Angola suffered from one of the most backward forms of colonialist rule. (from www.africanet.com)

According to an article by Helena Matos in Público, it always held a special significance for the Portuguese:

(There is a) word which, in Portugal, throughout the entire twentieth century was murmured in times of crisis and in the inevitable periods of euphoria that followed. That word is Angola.

Generations and generations of Portuguese people were born, grew up and died hearing stories of Angola’s riches. Of the progress of Angola. Of the potential of Angola. Of German and English geologists disguised as priests and tourists running around the country secretly excavating its wealth. About the negotiations in which Britain and France tried to placate Hitler offering him Angola. Of the sale of Angola. Of the Russians and Americans that craved Angola’s riches. Of the new nation that was going to be born in Africa.

It remained one of the jewels in the crown of empire until, shortly after the 1974 revolution, the Portuguese grudgingly packed their bags and went home.

Now the Portuguese state is sending further missions to Angola. At the start of April the newspapers and TV news bulletins were packed with stories about the Prime Minister’s impending visit to the former colony, accompanied by 300 of the country’s leading business people and with two billion euros of credit on offer. The weekly news magazine Visão highlighted stories of those of those who have returned and those few who never left. It boasted of Portugal’s extensive knowledge of the terrain, its linguistic and cultural links and shared history. It did however omit to mention that that long relationship was a massively unequal one based on forced occupation and the most brutal exploitation of the lives of countless millions of people, and ended in a fifteen-year war for independence. That war sowed the seeds of the civil war that followed, which may have recently ended – for the moment at least – but which has left the country with a life expectancy index of 37 and ranked 160th in the 2005 Human Development Report.

Several hundred years ago Portugal was competing for control of large parts of the world’s extent and population with other (equally brutal) colonial powers. Now it is returning to the scenes of its colonial crimes, it faces a new, powerful and determined adversary.

China is partly after Angola’s oil reserves – it already buys 30%, and derives most of its crude oil from the same source. It is also looking to create Lebensraum, due to the pressing need to keep creating jobs at home and overseas in order to maintain and raise its own furious economic momentum. As the LA Times reports:

A main driver in the relationship is China’s insatiable need for energy. Its oil imports are surging, and African oil now accounts for nearly 30% of the total. The China National Petroleum Corp. has invested billions of dollars to take control of Sudan’s oil production, estimated at 150,000 barrels per day and growing. Another Chinese oil company agreed in January 2006 to pay $2.3 billion for a major stake in a Nigerian oil field.

Africa is certainly benefiting. China’s demand for resources has driven up prices, propelling significant GDP gains in many countries. China has educated thousands of African university students, and it sends Africa hundreds of doctors and advisors each year. Chinese firms are building roads, rehabilitating infrastructure and bringing cellphone service to places that land lines never reached.

It is a formidable opponent – compared to Portugal’s 2 billion in credit, Chinese state banks are looking to provide double that amount. And according to Visão:

A year ago China occupied fourth place in the Angolan imports, a position that will, in 2006, threaten Portugal’s leadership. It is possible that the number of Chinese people will soon exceed the number of Portuguese. (The Chinese businessman) Li Yun’s new shop will compete with a Portuguese-owned business next door. Faced with the unbeatable prices of the Asian giant (between three and five times cheaper), the Portuguese firm has already started to import materials from the East.

The cost of Portugal’s past involvement in Angola’s development has been very clear. What does China’s concern for the country’s future have in store?

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has criticized the funding given by China, saying that Beijing does not care how the money is used. The IMF had offered subsidized loans to Luanda on condition that it allowed effective monitoring of how the money was used and that it reformed its corrupt power system, which benefits a restricted elite and leaves 13 million people in poverty. (from www.asianews.com)

Visão backs up this point:

The conditions that the IMF impose in terms of Macroeconomic policies and the the demands of Western powers in terms of Human Rights are not an ssue for the Chinese. They do business and don’t ask questions. A number of UN Security Coucil resolutions in relation to African countries, particularly to Sudan, “have been blocked by the Chinese”. And Visão has discovered that a European country has recently made a proposal to the Angolan government along the lines of that proposed by the Chinese banks.

Which might well lead us straight back to Portugal.

As I said, China’s motivations are many – including both petrol and global as well as local political influence – and they are the same motivations that have led to deepening relationships not just with other African countries but also with Venezuela, for example.

According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Chinese interests are not merely limited to petrol, but also involve the supply of food, acquiring fertile territory in Africa.The principal objective, says Santos Neves of the IISS, “is internal social stability”.

So part of the motivation is, as I say, to provide jobs and stave off potential disquiet from unemployed workers back home:

Chinese engineers work in Africa for around 100 euros a month, as opposed to six hundred paid by French companies to African foremen. This signifies that contracts with China close down job opportunities to Africans and limit their chances to be directly involved in the reconstruction of their countries” (from an Angolan university study quoted by Visão).

This cornering of the labour market comes about because of the scale of China’s investment, and the willingness of exported Chinese peasants to work for less money than the locals. All over Africa concern is being expressed about the commercial dominance and the political influence of the Chinese Goverment – a recent case from Zimbabwe shows what can happen when a little political influence is brought into play:

Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime has chosen to consolidate its recent election victory by bulldozing homes and demolishing markets, leaving vast swathes of the capital and other cities in ruins and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees with neither shelter nor livelihood. Locals are calling it the Zimbabwean tsunami.

“This is Pol Pot style depopulation of cities,” said David Coltart, legal affairs spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “It’s a sinister pre-emptive strike designed to remove the maximum possible number of people from urban areas to rural areas where they are easier to control.”

Another suggestion was that the vendors had been cleared out to make way for Chinese traders. China has become Mugabe’s new best friend, supplying commercial and military planes and sending in advisers.

12% of China’s oil comes, astonishingly, from Sudan:

It’s Sudan that’s got the closest links. 60% of its oil exports are now bound for the People’s Republic.

In Darfur, government sponsored militias have driven up to two million people from their homes. Women have been raped, men murdered. But China certainly wasn’t going to support oil sanctions or harsh UN Security Council Resolutions – the resolutions were watered down, so China abstained and didn’t veto.

“We don’t feel any interference in our Sudanese local business, or any of our traditions or politics or beliefs or behaviours. They just devote their time and their energies to their business as we planned for and agreed to.” – Awad Al Jaz, Sudanese energy minister.

The roads the Chinese built to bring in supplies should help the area develop and some people have benefited from electricity extended to their homes. But government attacks forced many more thousands out, as land was cleared of people to make way for oilfields.

The refugees now live in poverty in Khartoum. They have their own perspective on the Chinese.

“Investment is good. It will develop our land, but the most important thing is how we are treated. In the end, the Chinese must go home. This is not their country. Then this will all be ours.” – James Lei (from channel4news.com)

The week following Visão’s report about Portugal’s ‘Return to Angola’, the same magazine published an extensive article about the ‘Chinese Invasion’. It mentioned the growing disquiet among the local population about what is going on:

Despite the good relations between the two countries, in Africa rumours are often taken to be true. It is rumoured that all the Chinese in Luanda have criminal records, that they are to multiply by millions and take jobs from the local population. A recent front-page of the weekly news magazine Folha 8 read ‘Against Development and Employment – the Dangerous Invasion of the Chinese’. (from Visão).

The article ended with a comment from a Portuguese economist, who remarked:

China’s presence in Africa is a long term project.

So, of course, was Portugal’s.

Scraping the Barrel


Many of the comments on this thread in relation to what I wrote about China yesterday have revealed a less-than-surprising but still extremely discomforting ignorance about the future of our planet, especially in ..one of the world’s more powerful countries, let’s say. Impressively blinkered ideas like this:

As the article shows, many places are showing increases in a variety of alternatives as well as technologies that decrease oil-dependency. It’s slow, but I don’t see any reason to speed things up. Unless there’s some hard numbers that you’re aware of that you could show me? As far as I know, we have plenty of oil for the time being. By the time we start running out, I’ve little doubt that other technologies will have matured enough to take its place.

…reminded me of what our beloved George Monbiot had to say a couple of years ago what the declining supply of oil will mean for the lives of every one of us in the not-at-all-distant future:

The only rational response to both the impending end of the oil age and the menace of global warming is to redesign our cities, our farming and our lives. But this cannot happen without massive political pressure, and our problem is that no one ever rioted for austerity. People tend to take to the streets because they want to consume more, not less. Given a choice between a new set of matching tableware and the survival of humanity, I suspect that most people would choose the tableware.

Bottom of the barrel
The world is running out of oil – so why do politicians refuse to talk about it?

If you multiply the growth of India and China by the declining stocks of oil and natural gas, you get…a very small or large number, depending on how maths works. It’s beyond me. But especially if you factor in the glib complacency which seems to be endemic in that country I mentioned earlier, it all gets very very frightening.

Living the Chinese Dream


I did not meet one student in China who did not want to live what might be termed the ‘Chinese Dream’ – to work hard for a multinational company, live in a brand-new apartment in a big city and own their own car. Death of a Salesman anyone? Very few people who aspire to that lifestyle are going to be able to achieve it – and if they do, the consequences for China and the world are almost too horrendous to contemplate. I mean, I have tried to think about what it means for our environmental resources, but thankfully this guy has gone several steps further and actually done the maths. And while I find Maths itself pretty traumatic to deal with, his conclusions may make you want to pack up and head for Mars:

The western economic model – the fossil fuel-based, car-centred, throwaway economy – is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2031 is projected to have a population even larger than China’s. Nor will it work for the 3 billion other people in developing countries who are also dreaming the “American dream”.

The key point though, which a lot of people writing about the consequences of China’s massive industrial growth rate seem shy to confront, is that it’s not just a question of how the Chinese do things, but about the unsustainability of our own model of development, which developing countries are simply encouraged to emulate:

In an increasingly integrated global economy, where all countries are competing for the same oil, grain and iron ore, the existing economic model will no longer work for industrial countries either.

It’s a very refreshing and not entirely dispiriting article – if you happen to live in China you might not be able to find it via Google:

After holding out longer than any other major internet company, Google will effectively become another brick in the great firewall of China when it starts filtering out information that it believes the government will not approve of.

According to one internet media insider, the main taboos are the three Ts: Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen massacre, and the two Cs: cults such as Falun Gong and criticism of the Communist party.

I reckon I could do that job!