The Chinese are Coming!

During my first year in China (1984) I was an English teacher at a small teachers college in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. My students were middle school English teachers in smaller cities around the province. Many had previously been Russian teachers, but were now being re-trained as English teachers. For most of them, I was the first foreigner they had ever seen.

As is common practice in an EFL classroom, I tried to come up with activities to get the students to practice; to actually use the language (not something they were used to). Of course, asking questions that require some thought is a good technique.

I remember asking my first class of students “if you could go anywhere in the world, where would choose, and why?” and being greeted with absolutely blank stares. To me it was a rather simple question, but for them the possibility of traveling to another country was so far out of the realm of possibility, and thus the realm of what they could imagine, that they couldn’t even answer the question. I might as well have been asking them what planet they would like to visit and why.

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Not so anymore. According to an article on the travel website Skift, there were over 100 million Chinese tourists traveling abroad last year, and by 2019, that number is expected to nearly double:

Here are the numbers: 174 million Chinese tourists are tipped to spend $264 billion by 2019 compared with the 109 million who spent $164 billion in 2014, according to a new analysis by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. To put that in perspective, there were just 10 million Chinese outbound tourists in 2000.

How much is $264 billion” It’s about the size of Finland’s economy and bigger than Greece’s.

I have seen this first hand since moving back to the States from China 2 years ago. I have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit around the United States and Canada. Every single place that I have been I have heard Chinese being spoken. And I’m not just talking about the famous and oft-visited places such as Las Vegas, Pike’s Peak, Disney World, or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. I have run into Chinese tourists in some pretty out-of-the-way places, from sand dunes in Utah to ferries in Southeast Alaska.

And now, a half-dozen of my friends in Beijing have 10-year tourist visas to the US.

One of my favorite Chinese phrases is relie haunying (热烈欢迎), which literally translated is “warmly welcome.”

Here’s to hoping that’s what Chinese visitors to the US will experience!

Photo: CRI English

Now You See It; Now You Don’t

A week and a half ago as a dress and a couple of llamas were melting the Internet in the US, Chinese netizens were gripped by an online documentary. The film, titled Under the Dome, is a hard-hitting look at the effects of pollution in China. It was posted on February 28, and within 48 hours had been viewed by 100 million people. Yes, you read that right, ONE HUNDRED MILLION!

By March 6, that number had reached 200 million!

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Here’s how the BBC describes the film:

Renowned investigative journalist Chai Jing has been widely praised for using her own money – more than 1 million RMB ($159,000: £103,422) – to fund the film, called Under the Dome. She first started the documentary when her infant daughter developed a benign tumour in the womb, which Ms. Chai blames on air pollution.

Standing in front of an audience in a simple white shirt and jeans, Ms. Chai speaks plainly throughout the 103-minute video, which features a year-long investigation of China’s noxious pollution problem.

At times, the documentary is deeply personal. Near the start of the documentary, Ms. Chai interviews a six-year-old living in the coal-mining province of Shanxi, one of the most polluted places on earth.

“Have you ever seen stars?” Ms. Chai asks. “No,” replies the girl.

“Have you ever seen a blue sky?” “I have seen a sky that’s a little bit blue,” the girl tells her.

“But have you ever seen white clouds?” “No,” the girl sighs.

Given the fact that the documentary is quite critical of the government’s lack of attention to the problem, many were surprised by the fact that it was online at all, especially at such a sensitive time leading up to the National People’s Congress. Perhaps that’s one reason it went viral so fast – people knew deep down that the government censors would eventually step in; everyone was trying to see it (and perhaps download it) before it was taken down.

Well, that finally happened on March 6. With the authorities apparantly feeling that 200 million viewers were a significantly greater threat to social stability than 100 million, the order went out for its removal from the Internet. Social media sites were told to disable sharing of the video and by Friday night it was gone from China’s major video sites, Youku and Tudou. Now you see it; now you don’t!

Fortunately, however, the video is available on YouTube, and English subtitles have been added. You can watch it in its entirety here (if you dare).

For an excellent discussion on the significance of this documentary and what it might mean for China’s future efforts at tackling the problem of air pollution, I highly recommend checking out a discussion piece at China File: Why Has This Environmental Documentary Gone Viral in China?:

In a country where media is tightly controlled, it is surprising, if not unprecedented, to see the unimpeded release of a self-funded investigative documentary about one of the most sensitive topics challenging China’s growth, especially when the film is critical of more than a few government agencies and is circulating so widely just ahead of the annual convening of China’s main legislative body. Following below are contributor reactions to what has been described at China’s “Inconvenient Truth.”

You can read it all here.

Photo: Upworthy

Where Are the Foreigners From?

When I first went to China (way back in 1984), foreigners were something of a novelty. At the time, I was working in the city of Zhengzhou, in Henan Province. I was one of perhaps a dozen foreigners in the city of 2+ million people, which meant that we could draw crowds of curious onlookers merely by purchasing toilet paper in a department store. If we saw a foreigner we didn’t recognize, we would find ourselves staring, and sometimes chasing them down to find out who they were and why there were in Zhengzhou!

Since most of our students had never seen a real-live foreigner before, they greeted us with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Fortunately, both of those quickly dissipated and were replaced by warmth and friendship.

Thirty years later, things have changed. In many of the larger cities, you can hardly walk down the street without bumping into a foreigner, much less spotting one. This change is illustrated in two infographics recently published by China Brief showing the current make-up and distribution of China’s expat population.

There can be no doubt that in recent years, China’s expatriate make-up has been changing. With the country’s domestic work force steadily maturing, managerial positions are increasingly being taken on by Chinese talent, often with foreign degrees in hand and without the cultural disconnect of previous generations. The role of expats is changing as well. Where multinationals once came to China mostly for manufacturing and exporting, they are now increasingly here to access the Chinese consumer market, and are shifting their focus to logistics, warehousing and distribution accordingly.

The overall number of expats working in China has increased dramatically since the launch of “reform and opening-up” (in 1978). According to China’s most recent National Census held in 2010 – the first to record the number of foreigners residing in China – there are at least 600,000 expats working or living in cities throughout the country, broken down by nationality in the chart below.

Nationalities

 

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I note with interest that Shanghai has twice the number of expats than Beijing and that there are just 97,000 expats in the provinces not highlighted in this map. Most of my expat friends and acquaintances live in those provinces.

Christmas in China

Here is an an al-acarte of stories and posts related to Christmas in China. And as we say in Chinese, Shengdan Kuai le (圣诞快乐), which means, well Merry Christmas. The Chinese word for Christmas is Shengdan Jie (圣诞节), which literally translated means Holy Birth Festival.

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From The Economist: Oh What Fun: Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

Cities across China blink with fairy lights, fancy hotels flaunt trees and tinsel, and glossy magazine covers display festive recipes and table settings. “Joy up!” reads a sign (in English) on three illuminated trees by a shopping mall in Beijing. The Chinese are doing just that.

From the Atlantic: Why Christmas is Huge in China

There’s a joke going around: “Santa Claus was descending into China from the sky. Due to the heavy smog, he fell to the ground, but no one dared help him up. While he was still lying in the snow, his bag was ransacked for presents, and his reindeer and sleigh taken away by the chengguan. Therefore, no Christmas this year.”

While some of the humor needs context—there are digs at China’s notorious bystander effect and much-despised urban-management officials, chengguan—the larger meaning is clear. Ironic jokes about Santa’s routine being disrupted with uniquely Chinese characteristics are a sure sign that, yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in communist China.

From the Guardian: Santa’s real workshop: the town in China that makes the world’s Christmas decorations

Christened “China’s Christmas village”, Yiwu is home to 600 factories that collectively churn out over 60% of all the world’s Christmas decorations and accessories, from glowing fibre-optic trees to felt Santa hats. The “elves” that staff these factories are mainly migrant labourers, working 12 hours a day for a maximum of £200 to £300 a month – and it turns out they’re not entirely sure what Christmas is.

And a reminder of my previous posts on Christmas in China: 

The Great Manchurian Scarf Incident — an account of attempting to celebrate Christmas in small Manchurian (northeast China) town.

Some Thoughts on “Ping An Ye” (Silent Night)  — on discovering that the Chinese word for Christmas Eve is “The Silent Night”

The Silent Night — more stories of Christmas Eve in China

Santa on a Scooter — What’s not to love about that?

And finally, a few links to article by Chinese Christians about Christmas in China, from Chinese Church Voices

Preparing for Christmas — a Chinese pastor asks his congregation to make the proper preparations.

Villagers of the Chinese Christmas Village Don’t Know What Christmas Is — a Christian blogger responds to news reports about Yiwu, the town where most of the world’s Christmas decorations are made.

Merry Christmas!!!

(photo: Christmas program at Gangwashi Protestant Church in Beijing, 2006)

Escaping the Cities

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the Chinese government sent millions of city dwellers “down to the countryside,” many of them students and intellectuals. The purpose was ostensibly to have them learn about hard work and revolutionary fervor from the peasants. It was also a way to get them out of the cities so they wouldn’t (continue to) cause trouble. When the policies began to change in the 1980’s, many of these “sent down youth” were rehabilitated and allowed to return to the cities.

In the 1990’s, as China’s economy was taking off, it was the peasants themselves who began moving to the cities. They were needed as the labor force to build the urban metropolises that we see today. This urbanization has seen a caused demographic shift. In 1984, the year I went to China, 80% of the population lived in the countryside, and 20% lived in the cities. By 2011 the ratio was 50/50.

To be sure, China’s cities offer jobs and opportunities that don’t exist in the countryside. But as the cities grow (Beijing is now 20+ million), many urbanites are beginning to lose interest in the busy-ness of life, not to mention the traffic and pollution. Their response is to get away from it all and voluntarily go “down to the countryside.”

China File recently posted a short film, titled “Down to the Countryside,” about an urban family that made this choice: Here’s the description:

The world has heard much of late about the scale and scope of China’s mass migration from the poor rural countryside to its booming cities. Some think the number of these migrant workers will soon reach some 400 million souls. They have created massive new urban megaplexes like Chongqing, which now has a population of close to 30 million.

But such precipitous, rapid, and massive urbanization inevitably causes reactions. And in this beautifully shot short film by Leah Thompson and Sun Yunfan, we are introduced to one urban “back-to-the-lander,” Ou Ning, who for all the understandable reasons has moved his family from Beijing to the countryside in the storied Huizhou region of Anhui Province. The film is a lovely evocation of how urban malaise has led one city intellectual to forsake the increasingly polluted, expensive, hectic, and crowded capital in search of a quieter, cleaner, and more sylvan setting for his family.

Whether he will prove a harbinger of things to come in China is as yet uncertain. But what does seem beyond question is that as China’s enormous and environmentally hazardous cities grow ever larger and more polluted, Ou Ning’s pioneering escape will become a tempting model for many others to follow. —Orville Schell

Here is the film. (note: if you receive this post by email, click here to view the film.)

Related Post:

Where Have All the Villages Gone? 

 

Happy Constitution Day! Don’t Mention the Constitution!

China just celebrated a brand new holiday: Constitution Day (December 4). The government has put forth this holiday as a way to signal it’s commitment to “rule of law,” something that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been promoting with much gusto as of late.

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Image source: Xinhua

Here’s what the Global Times had to say about the holiday:

“Constitution Day, which falls on December 4, was set up by the country’s top legislature on November 1 this year after the initiative was proposed in a key meeting of the CPC in October on comprehensively advancing the rule of law.

It is the first time in CPC history that an entire plenary session was devoted to address the rule of law as the ruling party’s policy.”

It then went on to say that nationwide activities were held to promote the Constitiution.

However, discussing the Constitution online was apparently NOT one of those activities. In fact, according the site Fei chang Dao, Baidu banned users from establishing discussion forums related to the Constitution.

In other words, “Happy Constitution Day! Don’t mention the Constitution!”

For some reason all I could think of was the classic Fawlty Towers episode where Basil Fawlty, in a failed attempt not to offend his German guests, reminds people “not to mention the war.”

In case you’re intersested, you can read the Chinese Constitution here.

A Conversation with Peter Hessler

One of my favorite China writers, Peter Hessler, recently sat down with a reporter for Xinhua, China’s official news agency, to talk about his books, as well as the joys and challenges of writing about China.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video, click here.)

Hessler’s books are all worth a read:

Rivertown (2001)

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)

Oracle Bones (2006)

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Country Driving (2010)

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

Strange Stones (2013)

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West

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East and West and Hong Kong

Like many others, my journey to being a Sinophile began in Hong Kong. In the summer of 1979 I spent 3 months in the city on an internship, teaching English and working in the office of the Chinese Church Research Center. When not working, I explored the city, taking random bus lines to the far-flung parts of town. In the course of the summer, I fell in love with the city. I remember seeing a t-shirt in a tourist shop that I thought captured the essence of Hong Kong. It said “There’s east and west; and then there’s Hong Kong.”

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During the years I lived in China, I returned often to Hong Kong — for meetings, conferences, and to visit friends. I have the fun things I like to see and do when I’m in town: a trip across the harbor on the Star Ferry; ride Bus #6 from Central to Stanley Market (it’s better than a roller coaster); eat fried rice or fried noodles in one of the seemingly millions of mom & pop noodle shops; stroll the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Because of my love for Hong Kong (and my love for China), I am watching with great interest and unease the situation unfolding in Hong Kong this week. It’s hard to explain what is going on in three sentences, but let me try. As part of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula agreed upon by China and Britain, the Chinese government promised direct elections in 2017. Recently they announced that the candidates would be chosen by Beijing. This did not sit well with Hong Kong citizens.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that, and there are issues of economics and national identity at play as well. Fortunately there is excellent reporting coming out of Hong Kong that delves into these complexities. If you’re interested in some good reading on what is going on and what it might (or might not) mean for the future, I recommend the following articles to get you started:

Fate of Hong Kong Rests in Xi Jinping’s Hands (September 29, 2014, Toronto Globe and Mail)

What happens in Hong Kong over the coming days will tell us a lot about where China is heading in the era of Xi Jinping. A negotiated solution that appeases some or all of the protesters would suggest China finally has the kind of leader that the Communist Party’s undemocratic “meritocracy” was supposed to produce. The sidelining of Mr. Xi’s enemies – and his own genuine personal popularity among ordinary Chinese – gives him the power to surprise everyone in how he handles the Occupy Central movement.

A crackdown, particularly one that involves use of the People’s Liberation Army, would tell us China is in for another dark decade of stifling repression.

The Day that China Came to Hong Kong (September 29, 2014, China File)

Beijing has no good choices. The resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, one of the protestors’ many demands, is no longer unthinkable; the Special Administrative Region’s first Chief Executive, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, stepped down in 2004 after massive protests. But Leung’s resignation would not solve the governance problem that entombs Hong Kong, that of a wealthy, well-educated city without an accountable government. If Beijing acts true to form, and in line with what we have seen to date from Xi Jinping, sustained protests could see Beijing order the Hong Kong government to end the protests, whatever that takes. On Sunday night, the government was forced to put out a statement denying that PLA troops, who are stationed in the city, were moving tanks in for action.

Hong Kong is different now.

Hong Kong People (September 29, 2014, The New York Times)

This past Sunday — when the phalanxes of riot police moved aggressively to clear the streets of peaceful protesters — Hong Kong became just another Chinese city. It was the moment when the “one country, two systems” formula Hong Kong was promised on its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was finally laid bare as unworkable.” […] But even as the protests continue to swell, Beijing seems to hold all the cards. Yet even if it succeeds in tamping down the anger in Hong Kong — which is unlikely — its gains can be fleeting at best.The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived. 

The slogan I saw on that t-shirt 35 years ago seems even more true today.

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Bound for Hong Kong