November 2009

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Six photos from the Yangtze

Today, Americans all over the world give thanks that the English invented them. Bu yong xie, it was our pleasure. In completely irrelevant celebration, here are six photos from a recent trip from spicy Chongqing down the foggy Yangtze to mind-crunchingly boring Wuhan.


Everyone has time for a noodle pit-stop in Chongqing. Your worth in this city is judged by your tolerance for spice. That night, eating hotpot with friends, I held back tears at the hottest lettuce I have ever tasted.

Chongqing’s reputation is of a smog-smothered Gotham. But not far outside the city, the scenery is worthy of a classical painting. I came across this vase standing on a wall in just such a quiet spot, at dusk.

On my boat downstream, I felt like a cow being herded through over-grazed pastures. Here you may take a photo. Here you may pay an extortionate entrance fee to a temple. Here you may chew the cud.

At Yichang, we make port and the Yangtze is shrouded in mist. Behind me, I overhear a Chinese fellow traveller boasting “look, I took 409 photos in three days”. “More than me”, someone replies, enviously.

In Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower museum, I come across the most obviously photoshopped photograph ever. Brazenly displayed, with others just like it at either side. Seriously, who do they think they’re kidding?

The pagoda forest at Shaolin monastery … the only place on the grounds where fighting is discouraged. The first monk I came across in Shaolin, by the way, asked me how to say ‘shopping’ in English.

A Beida lecture on Tibet

As a kind of sister post to my last, here are a few photos from a lecture at Peking University (Beida) titled “the Tibet question”. No sensitive topic left behind at Six … next up, FG practitioners commemorating 6.4!

As you can see, a packed room (my wide-angle lens would have added another couple of dozen faces). My sweat-glands get uncomfortable at the memory. It was an open event, in the evening, but I gather an unusually big audience even for these popular lectures. It seems that Tibet attracts the interest of Chinese students, just as with their Western equivalents.

This is surely out of the issue’s importance for China’s relations with the world, but also – I’d venture - for the same reason which gets the West shouting ‘free Tibet’: the romance and mystery of ‘Shangri-la’. ‘Tibet chic’ is a well established phenomenon in big Chinese cities – a well-off family might hang Tibetan scarves or tangka on their wall and enjoy showing jealous friends pictures of their trip to Lhasa (too expensive for most).

I’m afraid I had to leave after a half-hour of so of the lecture itself. What I heard before I left, though, was the thoughtful Professor Wang saying right off the bat that ‘the Tibet question’ can’t be understood without a solid grasp of the long history behind it – and launching into a potted summary. He did mention the West’s “different perspective” on the issue, which unless I misunderstood his tone was a euphemism for ‘they don’t get it’.

But it’s true – I couldn’t possibly ‘get’ the Tibet question without a lot more reading (not to mention that oxymoron, helpful Chinese archivists). And I didn’t get the impression from the students listening that they thought they did either. (Professor Wang clearly thought he did.)

Time and again, Beida students strike me not as ‘brainwashed’ on such sensitive issues (it’s embarrassing to use the term even to refute it), but keen to learn more, with a sceptical eye to the information given them to boot. And regardless of the obvious and unforgivable propaganda which still passes for history when it comes to Tibet in the last sixty years, lectures on sensitive issues like Taiwan and Tibet in Tsinghua and Beida are a far cry from poker-faced propaganda, if still hard to swallow at times.

Q: “Why doesn’t Marx drink good tea?”

A: “Because all proper-tea is theft.”

A Tsinghua class on Taiwan

I’m back in Beijing after a spot of travelling, returning to a neglected blog and an overflowing tankard of new Chinese words to cram. As I begin to sip at the meniscus (oooh, get you with your fancy metaphor), here are two posts from classes I audited in China’s top two universities, where students are glugging diligently at their own studies.


On a wednesday afternoon, international relations students at Tsinghua take diplomacy class with teacher He (for it is he). A friend suggested I listen in on one of these, as in the past, teacher He has “shown pictures of him wearing a slightly risque Japanese robe, an animated depiction of China as a rooster eating Japan as a caterpillar, and him standing with a bunch of African girls in their native dress”. He sounds interesting.

No ‘slightly risque’ pictures this time, but a lot of holiday snaps. Teacher He clicked through pictures of his various trips to Taiwan, eating local snacks and admiring the view of the sea, while introducing various basic facts. There was even  a picture of him as a kid. And one of the Dalai Lama’s recent trip to Taiwan – the first time I have seen a public image of this personae-non-grata in China outside of ethnically Tibetan areas.

But most of the slides were packed with statistics, and I now get what Chinese friends mean by the ‘powerpoint’ style of teaching in Chinese universities – Tony often complains about this tendency to batter students with slides and facts without going into much detail on any one aspect. After this time spent in just such a class, I don’t doubt it.

As to what He was saying (the teacher, not God*), none of the content struck me as surprising or controversial – more boring than anything else. Here are a couple of the interesting moments I’ll pick out (NB at my Chinese level, a lot of the vocabulary was over my head and I was probably frowning in incomprehension at the most interesting bits):

  • teacher He tells the class how we must “love and respect” Taiwan for both their ancient culture and achievements, and their modern “economy, democracy, and system of law”. He delivers this as if the norm for his students would be not respecting Taiwan.
  • He relates an anectode when talking with a Taiwan resident, who tells him “I’m Taiwanese, you’re Chinese”. His response: “are we not both Chinese?” The way he says this – as a parent would to a child - gets a short laugh from the front of class.

While I’m listening to this, my attention is distracted by an intermittant tapping noise to my right. I look over. A grumpy-looking girl sitting next to me right at the back of class has her laptop open, and is online keeping up two QQ conversations (like MSN chat), writing a long email, and starting the homework essay teacher He set at the start of class:

Oh, and if you’re wondering what a giant missile is doing on the projection screen, Teacher He is about to explain the military build up of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan should a conflict arise. His next slide?

Not a blink from any of the Chinese students as this slide pops up, while my US friend and I exchange a raised eyebrow or two. This projection of a Chinese military strike, the class was assured, was made in Taiwan.

*apologies for excessive punning and any pronoun confusion

Coffee or tea?

I’m smelly and unshaven in an internet cafe in Wuhan, and my computer is winking at me to tell me I have five minutes left before my two kuai runs out. Just enough time to point to this post I wrote for enoVate, experts in all things Chinese youth market. The question: do students in Beida, China’s top university, drink coffee or tea?

Tony was telling me the other day some thoughts he and his classmates at Peking University have been having about China’s role outside of China. He’s been kind enough to write them up as a guest post for Six.


Right after the National Holidays, I launched and chaired one of the weekly student seminars in Beida, entitled “Becoming a responsible stakeholder? – a Chinese perspective”. Four years ago, when Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick first developed such a concept as a response to China’s “peaceful rise”, the Chinese were confused. Simply put, there is no exact translation of the word “stakeholder” in our language and the term is not widely used among the Chinese youth. Though my peers may be unfamiliar with this concept, the past four years has made almost all of us realise China’s rising global impact, ranging from UN peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation, and from expanding global markets to managing the economic crisis.

But the question is always there. A recent article in the Economist raised the issue again by explicitly pointing out that “China’s own world view has failed to keep pace with its growing weight. It is a big power with a medium-power mindset, and a small-power chip on its shoulder.” To many Chinese who care passionately about our national image, such a comment is unacceptable. “The Western list that outlines the requirements in becoming a responsible stakeholder has gone too far”, one friend said to me before the discussion.

Then how to define China’s responsibility? What are the limits of it? After several years of silence from the Chinese side, it is time to hear some responses from Beida students. From time to time, the university has played a key role in the country’s ideological shifts; and to date, an unsure China is witnessing changes in all walks of life.

If Beida students are not so familiar with Robert Zoellick or the English term “stakeholder”, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a general expectation for China’s future. During the seminar, a large number of students expressed that China needs to step out and take more global responsibilities. Western countries want China to not only accept and benefit the contemporary world system but also to sustain and nurture it. “Of course such an idea was made according to their own interests, but the identity as a responsible stakeholder is also good for our national development,” commented by a junior student from the School of International Studies. It seems undeniable that the past thirty years has helped China become a contributor to, rather than a spoiler of, the international system built mainly by Western countries. And the reasons which led to that change were decided by many students as simply being “our rational choice based on national interests”. Such interests include alleviating counterbalances against China’s rise and creating a proper regional and international environment for domestic development. This is almost the same as what Mr. Zoellick said in his article in 2005.

Some students further pointed out that China can hardly become a stakeholder if it keeps on pursuing narrow interests in a self-centered way. When students heard that some Party officials defined China’s major foreign policy concerns as “Three NOs” (no arms sale to Taiwan, no meetings with the Dalai Lama and no meetings with Rebia Kadeer), they claimed that the country’s mindset is still not broad enough and it fails to pay enough attention to issues such as global climate change, energy security and anti-terrorism. Some of them also brought up China’s sensitivity towards sovereignty and Chinese citizens’ general distrust of the international system.

However, this is not to say that Beida students are allured by the US and conform to the American definition of a responsible stakeholder. When I moved on and raised the question “should China keep a tacit attitude and accept the American definition”, the answers were diversified. A few participants held the view that by accepting it, China will have to meet the Western criteria and thus be restricted by those countries. “While China needs to develop a broader mindset to become more responsible in global environmental protection and regional security, we have our own pursuits derived from China’s global identity and cultural tradition. The US requires China to impose sanctions on DPRK, Iran and Sudan. It runs against our ways of behavior, our principle of non-intervention, and even the Chinese character,” claimed one student. When I asked him whether non-intervention has become an obstacle for China’s growing global influence, he said it is a principle written in the UN Charter and a diplomatic tradition of PRC. “We should not abandon it, but there could be many flexible approaches and adjustments.”

To my surprise, the issue of Darfur and Iran were seldom mentioned on the floor. They seemed “too far away” from the students as well as normal Chinese citizens. But it was domestic political reform and promoting democracy that raised heated discussion in the end. Mr. Zoellick once made the link between China’s political reform and the stability of the international system directly to Congress. He said that if China cannot deal with its problems democratically, its domestic issues will affect the sustainability of the entire international system. The Beida discussion was less system-oriented than focusing on the future of China. Whereas our participants were not human rights or political activists, they were well aware that these issues are in both individual and national interests. One of the speakers mentioned that “China should be more transparent in human rights issues. The country is now undergoing vast changes, a situation similar to the German Empire in late 1800s, when nationalism and a civil society were on the rise, imposing stronger influence on the government. However, we must bear in mind the history of great powers. Those that had achieved economic development but failed to alleviate domestic tensions were doomed to vanish. A more democratic China will be a healthier China and that is in our own interests.”

After all these discussions, how to describe the way Chinese looks at the word “responsible”? I remember in 2007, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had a debate. At that time, the Americans said China will define responsible stakeholder in terms of promoting multilateralism, taking an internationally democratic approach and following international consensus. In contrast, the Beida students’ points of view may be summarised as follows: in becoming a global stakeholder, China should have a broader pursuit of its national interests; it should be more closely knitted with the international community; meanwhile, a more responsible China means to preserve Chinese traditions and the national character. If I may add one more thing at the end, I was assured again by the discussion that China wants to shape the world by changing itself. Slowly but steadily, the young generation of Chinese are now motivating the country to change and answering the question “whither China?”.

Girl power on a male campus

Giving the ‘V for victory’/secretly-dissing-this-person sign (as far as I know, those are the two options for what it means in Britain, not sure elsewhere) is Zhu Hong. She’s a bubbly personality, majoring in hydraulic engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. ‘Mickey’/having-the-mickey-taken-out-of-her (oh public school, I miss you so) is the more bashful Shu Longmei, taking civic engineering. Does every Tsinghua student study engineering, you wonder? Pretty much, it’s China’s equivalent of MIT. And how many of them are girls? Not too many.

These two, and others I’ve spoken to, guesstimate a 3:1 m-f ratio here at Tsinghua, and know of one class of forty with just one girl. To them, this is all perfectly natural: Hong tells me technical subjects like engineering are “xinku” (“tough” or “hard work”) and attract the guys – I think that’s more pride at her own merits than sign of a gender-biased society. Hong (or ‘Tracy’) is a loud and bold Southerner, unruffled as the ‘minority’ gender on campus and brimming with infectious self-confidence.Has she picked up a boyfriend in this 3:1 world? “Bu yong!” “Don’t need one!”

It seems that the campus buzz-cuts are scared off by long-locked classmates who know more about suspension bridges and treble-pulleyed-pressure-gears (if such a thing exists) than Tang dynasty poetry like the pretty girls at neighbouring Beida study. In other words, the image is that Tsinghua’s girls aren’t exactly Zhang Ziyis. Another ‘engineering girl’ I chatted with tells me a long-standing student inside-joke: “There are three types of people: guys, girls and Tsinghua girls.” Sometimes, they add a fourth: “guys who are the boyfriends of Tsinghua girls”.

This is all tongue-in-cheek of course, and there’s a campus tradition to match it. Tsinghua students celebrate ‘Girl’s day’ every March 7th (the day before Mother’s Day “International Women’s Day, incidentally also the day of the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia” – thanks Chris!; ‘Guy’s day’ is October 2nd, the day after National Day). In the run-up to Girl’s day there’s a secret-Santa-esque ballot by which each girl is alloted a secret admirer who on the day showers her with little gifts and attentions. The girl who told me this exploited a loophole and had three such admirers last year. Not a bad life…