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.

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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.

Related Posts:

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I Heart Hong Kong

Bound for Hong Kong

 

 

 

 

Finding Samuel Lowe

On September 2, the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog posted an article about a Jamaican-Chinese woman’s search for her roots.

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Growing up in New York’s Harlem, Paula Williams Madison knew she had a Chinese grandfather, even though she had never met him.

When people found out, she says, most of them would make comments such as “Really? You don’t look Chinese.” Others would laugh. Even so, she always intended to track down her mother’s father and learn the full story of her multi-ethnic Jamaican-Chinese family.

By the time she found them, her tiny American family had expanded to about 400 living members and a family tree that goes back 3,000 years. A new documentary tells the story of that journey and the discovery of a family that today extends from Shenzhen, China, to Kingston, Jamaica, and Los Angeles, California.

Ms. Madison, 62, spent much of her career at NBC, and retired a few years ago as an executive at NBC Universal, one of the first black women to achieve that rank. She says she waited until retiring to pursue her dream of reconnecting with her Chinese family.

Before, “I did know a handful of my cousins,” she says. “Now there are about 40.”

The story is told in a film titled “Finding Samuel Lowe.” Below is the trailer for the film. (Click here if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video clip.)

What a fantastic story!

To learn more about the film and it’s upcoming premiere, visit www.findingsamuellowe.com.

What China Wants

Recently, The Economist published an excellent 4-part essay exploring China’s future. The first part, titled “What China Wants” looked at some of the major drivers of China’s economic and diplomatic policies.

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“China,” the author says, “is a nation that wants some things very much:”

“At home its people want continued growth, its leaders the stability that growth can buy. On the international stage people and Communist Party want a new deference and the influence that befits their nation’s stature. Thus China wants the current dispensation to stay the same—it wants the conditions that have helped it grow to endure—but at the same time it wants it turned into something else.”

“Finessing this need for things to change yet stay the same would be a tricky task in any circumstances. It is made harder by the fact that China’s Leninist leadership is already managing a huge contradiction between change and stasis at home as it tries to keep its grip on a society which has transformed itself socially almost as fast as it has grown economically. And it is made more dangerous by the fact that China is steeped in a belligerent form of nationalism and ruled over by men who respond to every perceived threat and slight with disproportionate self-assertion.”

The main issue, of course, is how China can/will manage this contradictory desire of seeking change while trying to maintain the status quo.

The other sections of the essay are:

The Long Fall

Expanding the Bounds

Leviathan and its Hooks

Can China get what it wants? Only time will tell.

I am not teaching a course on China this fall; if I were, this entire essay would be required reading.

 

How Many USA’s Can You Fit Inside China?

I ran across this interesting map on the inter webs the other day. It divides the population of China into four different regions, each with a population roughly equal to that of the United States. As you can see, the issue in China is not simply that the population of China is so large (1.35 billion); it’s that it’s unevenly distributed. Don’t like crowds? Go west, my friends, go west!

 

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Go here to see the data behind the map.

Note: The grey areas obviously indicate areas that the mapmaker considers to be disputed territory.

RELATED POST: How Big is China?

 

 

Spray Painting Beijing

When most people think or talk about Beijing today, the focus is on pollution or the crowds Rarely do they think, “Beijing? Great graffiti!” 

But that may change, thanks to a documentary about graffiti artists in Beijing called Spray Paint: Graffiti in the Capital of China. Here’s what a report on PRI had to say about the film:

“Here in the US, we tend to think of graffiti as an illegal activity carried out by kids at night. But in China, the street art scene is quite different.” 

 

Lance Crayon, a Texas native who has been living in China since 2009, made a documentary on graffiti artists in Beijing and found just how different tagging culture is there.

 

“It’s really a middle class and up endeavor, simply based on the money factor,” he says. “For a 19-year old or even a 25-year-old to have something known as disposable income, that’s a pretty new thing in China. And you’ve got to ask yourself, do I want to spend 500 kuai — which is roughly $82 — on throwing up a piece that could easily be covered in a few days, or at some point.”

 

This leaves Beijing with only a small number of graffiti artists — nor more than 25 by Crayon’s estimate.

Here is the trailer of the film:

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Hong Kong, China. Really?

Way back in 1997 I was the director of a Chinese language program at a major university in Changchun. As the semester was coming to an end, one of the students (they were all Americans) let me know that he needed to go to Hong Kong at the end of June.

This was back in the days before multiple entry visas, so every time we planned to leave the country, we had to obtain exit and re-entry visas before we left. (As you can imagine, this made emergency departures for medical or personal reasons quite challenging!)

The tricky thing in this student’s case was that he was going to Hong Kong the last week of June, and would be returning to Changchun mid-July. During his time in Hong Kong, the city was due to be “handed over” to China after 99 years of British colonial rule.

The fact that Hong Kong was reverting to Chinese sovereignty was a matter of great pride in China, and we had been bombarded with slogans and propaganda about  Hong Kong’s “return to the Motherland” for months and months.  Let’s just say the Communist Party was milking this one for all it was worth!

As for the student, clearly, he was leaving China in June, but would he be ‘returning’ to China in July. If Hong Kong was to become a part of China on July 1, wouldn’t he then already be in China? And if he was, by virtue of the July 1 handover in China, would he need a visa to return to Changchun?

It was a great question, and one that I had no idea how to answer, so off we went to the foreign student office to see what they would have to say about the matter. Since they were the ones who handled visa paperwork, surely they would know.

I handed the passport to Mr. Y. and explained that Mr. G. was going to Hong Kong, so would need an exit visa. “But when he returns in July,” I said, “Hong Kong will be a part of China….so will he need a re-entry visa?”

My question stumped Mr. Y, so he decided to call the local Public Security Bureau, which was in charge of actually issuing visas. The conversation went something like this:

Mr. Y: I have an American in my office who will go to Hong Kong at the end of June, but return to China mid-July. Will he need a re-entry visa?

Mr. Policeman (he was on the other end of the phone, but Mr. G and I could hear him clearly): Of course. Why wouldn’t he need a visa?

Mr. Y: Because by that time Hong Kong will have returned to the Motherland.

We could “hear” silence on the other end of the line as the absurdity of the situation began to dawn on Mr. Policeman. Then he began laughing hysterically, and soon we were all laughing hysterically!

After a few minutes, we regained our composure and waited for Mr. Policeman’s response.

Mr. Policeman: That’s true, but he will still need a visa to return.

And so it is — Hong Kong is a part of China, but it isn’t. Flying from Beijing to Hong Kong is considered an international flight, and thus requires a passport — even for Chinese. And a foreigner wanting to travel from Hong Kong to China must get a visa. But remember, it’s a part of China.

Are you confused? Never fear; this short video explains it all!

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And now you know why “Is Hong Kong a part of China?” is a tricky question. 

China Divided in Half

It is often said that there are two China’s — urban China and rural China. But according to this map, recently published on Tea Leaf Nation, China can be split in half according to GDP distribution. Here’s the description:

Foreign Policy compiled GDP figures reported by municipalities across China and found that 35 cities contributed just under half of China’s GDP in 2013.

The map (below) merits two caveats. First, the definition of a “city” in the PRC includes all counties, county-level cities, and city districts it governs. (Chongqing, for example, is a megacity in southwest China with a population of just under 30 million that covers 31,814 square miles, netting in smaller towns that lie far away from the bustling, recognizably urban center.) Second, multiple regions will sometimes take credit for the same dollar of GDP, such that the sum of reported numbers exceeds the top-line national statistic. Nonetheless, the below map provides a revealing look at just how much China’s GDP growth machine depends on a few regions:

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 There you have it — the two China’s! Wow!