The sexy-dancing scientist

Three summers

A suitable period of mourning for its being over having passed, I can now safely mention the summer holidays without letting slip too deep a sigh. Here’s what three friends got up to:

  • Marie, home in Yunnan after a tough term – she studied up to 10 hours a day at Beida – spent about the same amount of time, almost everyday day of her much deserved break … helping her little brother prepare for his college entrance exam (the high-pressured gaokao). Did she begrudge her brother for eating her holiday like this? Was this a duty imposed on her by her parents? No and no, she says. She offered to help herself, and for something like this would have happily sacrificed more (this exam will in many respects decide her brother’s future).
  • Matilda wasn’t idle either, and used her summer more creatively: she was working on the novel which she’s been writing for some time now. It’s set in the 1940s, right at the end of the war of Resistance against Japan, mostly on university campus in Kunming – where Beida relocated to during the war. It’s a love story between a professor and his pupil … more she wouldn’t say. Nor would she tell me if this pupil who falls in love with her dashing literature professor is in any way based on herself. She did blush though.
  • William was finishing his final few months of full-time work at an online environmental magazine, before going back to school. He dropped out of university two years ago to widen his horizons, but is now going to finish the final year of his degree (he’s then thinking of aiming high and applying to graduate school at Beida), while still working part time. The cold hard reality he came to appreciate in those horizon-widening years was that to get any attractive job in China you need the record of schooling more than the work experience itself.

Well, summer is over and lately I’ve been feeling the first bite of winter in the Beijing air. Isn’t this still autumn? Not for the first time, and not for the last, I wish humans hibernated.

Happy Mooncake day all … how fast these festivals come and go. The PRC’s 60th birthday was only two days ago and already the nation has moved onto the excessive gifting of odd-tasting pastry. There’s probably a relevant Chinese saying which I could quote here – but I won’t.

On national day, I took a morning bus  (on gloriously empty streets) to Peking University or ‘Beida’ to watch the televised celebrations with students. If you’re after the parade itself, have a look at this wonderful 4 minute time-lapse and slow-mo version by Dan Chung of the Guardian.

As a Brit I have a inborn loathing of jingoism, which was rife in the parade itself. Patriotism is OK, however, and it was this that the Beida students were displaying – more than I had ever seen them show, including in the aftermath of a successful Olympics (the ping pong was all in Beida’s gym).

Below I’ll split up what I witnessed into a few liberally captioned photos. First, I asked each of the six characters I follow on this blog what they were doing and how they felt on this big day (as we know, any number like ‘6’ or 60′ is auspicious in China, so this national day was particulary special).

Tony … was watching the parade with me. He’d been one of the school kids in the 1999 fifty year anniversary parade, and seemed a little cynical of the eerily similar pomp and circumstance this time around. As ever he took pleasure in pointing out the politically significant bits, like how outside the limelight Xi Jinping was in the whole affair – a potential sign of his guessed-at leadership of China from 2012 being postponed, possibly forever.

Leonidas … got into Beida’s auditorium for the showing there (more below). When I then met up with him for noodles, he was clutching a Chinese flag and said he was almost moved to tears by the parade. This from a guy who’s head, in my experience, generally tends to be off in the clouds of classical Chinese literature more than it is on the ground of contemporary China.

Marie … was watching the internet stream in her dorm with her flatmates – one of whom was still sleeping from all the homework she was up late last night doing, even in this week-long national holiday. Earlier, I’d read a corny line in a Chinese paper: “today is your birthday too”. I’d sent Marie a text jokingly asking if this was true. I felt bad at my whimsy when she seriously replied “yes, today is also like my birthday”.

Matilda … was at a friend’s wedding, who’d evidently chosen this day as a lucky one to start a marriage on (modern China: unified until death do us part?). She texted me: “China is five thousand years old, new China is sixty years old. Let’s together wish new China prosperity!”

William … reinforced the message: “today is new China’s birthday”. New China (xin zhongguo) is a term much bandied about, claimed by the May Fourth movement as well as Sun Yatsen or the CCP (potentially by the reform and opening up era too). Normally, I’m never quite sure ‘new China’ is whose. Today, for young Chinese, new China was all Hu’s.

[groan] And finally,

Ben … was sleeping in, but with the TV on in the background.

Now for the day itself:

This guy far-right had sold forty or so flags by 9am. Behind them, Beida students line up for the screening of the parade on the big cinema screen in campus. They’d got their free tickets three days ago by queuing for (hear-say alert!) nearly 2km. Leonidas told me all of the students at this screening  stood up to give Hu Jintao an ovation.

Tony and I most certainly did not queue for 2km, and so we watched the event in a neighbouring canteen – on a decidedly inferior screen with a fuzzy top-left panel which made Jiang Zemin look like a gremlin. There was a big laugh when Hu smiled upon seeing the troupe of female soldiers in high red skirts goose-step by. I got the impression here that most students were enjoying the fun of a big parade more than being overwhelmed with love of their country. And when the canteen started serving food – an hour before the parade was over – everyone was suddenly much more interested in lunch.

Zhongguo jiayou! Go China! If this were England, by the way, this picture could only mean one thing: these students had been watching a football or rugby game, not a military parade.

A contingent of Beida students took part in the parade, wafting symbolic pink wind fans (you can see them at 3:10 in the video I link to near the top of this post). Here they are, having been shipped back to their campus by giant buses, still pumped – despite having got out of bed at 2:30am to head down to Tiananmen square, and after a summer of compulsory training sessions two or three times a week.

No, views of Britain in language textbooks doesn’t make the cut.

The firstcompulsory political thought classes comprise much too much study time – I’ve pretty much covered before. To clarify, my point has nothing to do with what is being taught in those classes. Let’s simplify things by leaving competing ideologies and above all the patronising word “brainwash” out of the debate. I only argue that the long hours students must spend in these classes every week is way out of proportion to their benefit. It’s an unjustifiable waste of study time: if a student spent two hours a month rather than two hours a week studying Marx-through-Jiang, that free time could be put to so much use.

The second: access is far from equal according to where you are and how rich you are.

This is the one criticism which an average Chinese person would agree with above all the others (that’s an educated guess … if you’ll forgive the pun). The money side of it is obvious: besides bribes and so forth, more money (or abused influence) gets your kids into the better schools and the better schools get them into the better universities.

But it’s also unfair by location: a top university like Peking University (PKU or Beida), where I study, accepts different quotas of students from province to province. Take Marie for example, who’s from Yunnan in China’s less-developed south-west. In her subject’s year, she tells me, there are 100+ students from Beijing, 100+ from Shanghai … and only 30 from Yunnan. Mind, I don’t have the figures on these quotas so this is anectodal for the moment. But it’s well known that this inequality exists, and Beida certainly takes more students from Beijing than from countryside provinces. Marie thinks the inequality is only worsening, and assumed things were the same at Oxford – she was surprised and delighted when I told her it isn’t.

Like Leonidas says, “the fact is that students in different provinces and cities have different opportunities to be educated”. He and I both wonder why the government isn’t pumping more money into scholarships and bursaries to address this problem, but I’ve no numbers to back this up so I’ll again zip up for now. I should also mention that we’re not talking about ethnicity here: in fact, students from ethnic minorities in China get an automatic percentage increase on their college entrance exam scores, helping them get into the best universities.

The third is more of a side-note than a productive criticism: the idea that China must educate its population better before it can be democratic. It’s Leonidas’ idea not mine:

“In a country whose population has [a] high education [standard], democracy is good. But if a people’s education is not high enough, it isn’t. If I’m not educated, I don’t know how to choose which opinion is right, which is wrong. … I would prefer to listen to only one opinion, and do it. Now, of course, it’s the government’s opinion.”

I disagree. High standards of education is necessary for a democracy to function well, but shouldn’t be taken as necessary to have a nascent democracy at all. And unless I’m misrepresenting Leonidas, he’s implying that until China’s education gets up to scratch (we’re mostly talking about the countryside here, which is comfortably over 50% of the population), democracy would be create more problems than it would fix. But that’s a great excuse for a single power to postpone indefinitely the ultimate curbing of its power. And surely the bigger stumbling block in choosing which opinion is right and which is wrong is not how educated you are but … there only being one opinion you’re told about.

Of course, the other point Leonidas is making is that education must be a priority for China. He thinks of it as China’s “biggest problem” and better education as the first step to freedom of speech. Well first step or no, freedom of speech tends to be more productive if the free speakers know what they’re talking about.

For the fourththe system and teaching methods it promotes can stifle creative thought – I’ll let an email from Tony suffice to begin with. He’s in America at the moment doing a summer school at Yale, taking a Foreign Policy Decision Making course taught by a Yale professor. I asked him how the experience compared to the teaching at Beida. Here’s his word or two:

There are two interactive seminars each week, quite different from the lectures in PKU, which involves more people and less discussion. In Yale, we have more opportunities to raise questions and debate. …

I appreciate the learning style here. Students step into a specific field of study through reading the first-hand publications instead of learning from powerpoints prepared by their teacher. In PKU, too many courses are squeezed into one semester (7-8 for me, maybe more for students from other schools) so that students prefer to memorize the main points during final weeks rather than read the original writings. And many Chinese students have lost their interest in discovering. They want to know “what it is” or “what it should be” more than “why was that”. I guess the education system is responsible for this. Yet there are many factors standing behind it, including a large population, a planned social framework and a big government, almost equal to the size of the society. I understand that it’s easier to blame this system than to revise it.

But blame – lots of blame – is necessary to convince a bureaucracy to revise itself. Otherwise the system, like many of the over-pressurized and under-stimulated students it seems to produce, will continue to resemble this Ming dynasty civil service hopeful:

To continue whining about the Chinese curriculum, I would like to address the pressing issue of what the enemy’s schools are teaching this generation of impressionable Chinese youth about my motherland, fair Britain. Marie has just showed me – in the spirit of cross-cultural exchange – Unit 6 Lesson 4 of her Peking University English tingli (listening) textbook, summarised in this helpful chart:


From the opinions of ‘Paul’ and ‘Cindy’, if those really are their names, I can only infer (by extension) that the 1.3+ billion population of China considers Britain really really dull – with the exception of yours truly, who as a member of ‘the young’ is both ‘alive’ and ‘on fire’: a dual state difficult to maintain, some might argue.

President Hu, I formally object to this two-dimensional characterisation of our nation. How would you like it if our educational board ran around releasing school textbooks listing Chinese interests as ‘in the past: opium. now: money; being oppressed’? Recall and pulp those textbooks, Mr Hu! Exhibit A:

Interviewer: And have you had much opportunity to eat English food?

Cindy: Yes, I avoid it, because it’s dull. I think it’s dull. And I think the English eat a lot of sweets and greasy food like chips.

Yes, our food may be dull, Cindy. Nethertheless, I got your point the first time. There’s no need to rub it in. Or just look at this libelous and oddly worded exchange:

Interviewer: Now what do you think about English people and their way of life?

Paul: The older generation of English people are really snobbish – the snob-nosed English. But the youth of England today – they’re really alive, you know, they’re more vibrant, on fire, alive. They are much more free than their parents, crazy!

I say good sir, who you calling snob nosed, man, crazy!

Marie is kindly letting me reprint an essay she just wrote on Thomas Friedman’s coverage of China in his New York Times columns. She gave a presentation on this last Friday in one of her Beida (PKU) classes.

My quick two cents: especially in the light of the hot tempers Western coverage of China often inspires here, I only wish columnists’ views of the Middle Kingdom could be put into such neat graph form as in Marie’s figure 2 below … but if they could, they probably wouldn’t be very good columns. I’ve also a feeling that a lot of Chinese might disagree with that upwards turn in positive reporting she finds in 2007-8.


China’s image in Thomas L Friedman’s reports


What has been China’s image in The New York Times in recent years? This study attempts to explore the answers to that question by examining China’s image in Thomas L Friedman’s coverage from the years 2005 to 2009.

During these five years, in covering China, Thomas has written more than 150 articles. I choose 36 from these, the most representative coverage of China, try to analyze the content and locate the reasons behind it.

The data is from the New York Times database in the digital library of Peking University. By inputing the key words: AU(Thomas L Friedman) AND GEO(China) AND PDN(>1/1/2005) AND PDN(<4/30/2009), all news which contain China in its headline, or its subject, or its leading paragraph were extracted from the database.

These news items have been classified according to their subject matter, such as Chinese politics, U.S.-China relations, etc. Then they are decoded according to their tones, i.e, positive, negative, or neutral.

1. The overall picture

As is shown in Figure 1, during these five years (2005-2009), in covering China, Thomas L Friedman carried nearly as many articles on the neutral side as on the negative and positive sides combined. Table 1 shows the relative importance of various topics in the picture.

Figure 2 demonstrates the changes that the image of China goes through in these five years. It can be seen that positive reporting has experienced an upwards turn in these years.


Figure 1 China’s image in Thomas L Friedman’s reports (2005-2009)

Table 1 A breakdown on subjects

Figure 2 The trend of China reporting (2005-2009)


2. Chinese politics

About China’s political system, especially Chinese Communist Party leadership, all reports are negative.

For instance, the building of Tiger Leaping Gorge is a huge project in China. Such a thing was interpreted by Thomas L Friedman as a means of “a still heavy-handed Communist Party”. He wrote that “China’s rigid political system leaves these farmers, who are still the majority in China today, with few legal options for fighting it. That helps explain why China’s official media reported that in 1993 some 10,000 incidents of social unrest took place in China. Last year there were 74,000.” The Chinese Government was depicted as “a tightly sealed political lid”.

Lack of democracy was another theme. One example is the lack of transparency, as he mentioned in another report about environmental protection in China. “It requires a freer press that can report on polluters without restraint, even if they are government-owned businesses. It requires transparent laws and regulations, so citizen-activists know their rights and can feel free to confront polluters, no matter how powerful.”

On the other hand, Thomas L Friedman praised Chinese leaders “because their abilities to meld strength and strategy — to thoughtfully plan ahead sand to sacrifice today for a big gain tomorrow.” He pointed out “many of China’s leaders are engineers, people who can talk to you about numbers, long-term problem-solving and the national interest”.

3. Chinese economic conditions

There were so many reports about China’s boom, enough to impress the American readers with the “staggering economic progress” which China has made. This coverage is the least negative. For instance, Thomas L Friedman wrote “The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.”

For all the achievements, economic problems remain serious in China, such as the problem of rural development, environment pollution, etc. Thomas L Friedman thinks that “Chinese officials still put their highest priority on growing G.D.P. — their bottom line. But for the first time, the costs of this breakneck growth are becoming so obvious on China’s air, glaciers and rivers that the leadership asked for briefings on global warming”.

On the other hand, the Chinese awareness of existing serious problems and their efforts to remedy the problems also found their way into Thomas L Friedman’s reports. The following coverage are good examples: “Postcard From South China”, “China’s Sunshine Boys” , “China’s Little Green Book”.

4. Olympics

The coverage of the Olympics is the most positive. It is perhaps the only major subject about which the positive news greatly outnumbers the negative news.

“China has far outpaced United States in growth during last seven years since it has been preparing for Olympic Games.” He said that wealthy areas were more interesting, advanced and sophisticated than wealthy parts of United States, and attributes this to focus on building infrastructure.

He argued: “US could learn that big, long-term infrastructure projects require intense focus and followthrough(from China)”.

5. U.S.-China Relations

Through Thomas L Friedman’s coverage, we can find that when China’s economy was on high speed of development from 2005 to 2009, U.S.-China relations were very close. He insisted that China would become a “responsible ‘stakeholder’ in the international system.” He hoped that “China and United States can build partnership to address urgent issues of energy and climate change, which affect both countries.” In addition, he points out that nowadays is a “teaching moment” for both of the two countries, which are learning from each other.


This analysis clearly shows that Thomas L Friedman hasn’t been demonizing China. Apart from some sort of distortion of Chinese politics, his reports about China from 2005 to 2009 were more and more balanced.

U.S. domestic politics and culture are different from those of China. How Americans view these differences contributed to how China was portrayed in Thomas L Friedman’s reports. China has embraced the whole world nowadays. I am confident that if Thomas L Friedman really focuses on how ordinary Chinese people live, work, and worship, he will understand China more deeply, even Chinese politics.

Somewhere in the cracks of her A.I. major, Marie takes classes in English. Yesterday, she gave a five minute presentation in English on … William Wordworth’s The Daffodils (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ – that one). She was taken with it, in her own words,

because it suggests a certain sweet peacefulness and because the image that it offers us shows a breath-taking natural beauty.

It also reminded her of a pastoral poem by Wang Wei (this is a slide from her presentation:)

And the other poem it reminded her of? The song ‘Colors of Wind’ from Disney’s Pocahontas. Listen here. Roll over, Romantics…

« Older entries § Newer entries »