Sunday, October 16, 2016

How the West got China Wrong

On our last morning in HK, I was having breakfast in the hotel when I noticed a man nearby reading this article in the South China Morning Post. I found it very illuminating and emailed the author, Stein Ringen at Oxford, to ask him for a copy:


The western misunderstanding of Communist China has been called “the liberal myth.” With our mindset and experience, it is almost impossible to grasp that a country can fail to open up politically when it opens up economically. “The more we bring China into the world,” said then President Bill Clinton, “the more the world will bring freedom to China.” We have thought that the new middle class would make itself a force for liberalization. But in the socialist market economy, it has instead aligned itself with the Communist Party. We have thought that the internet would forge opening up from below. But behind the Great Firewall, it has instead become another instrument of control from above. Liberalisation has not happened, but we cling to the belief that it will. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, it was thought, with no evidence whatsoever, that the time had come for a new leadership of reform. What has followed is ever tighter dictatorship.
The Chinese model is entirely unique, like nothing the world has ever known. We simply get it wrong if we try to squeeze it into our own models. It needs to be understood on its own terms.
For those who deal with China from outside, there is a huge temptation to see it in a good light. It is a big power and economy with which we must get along. It is an ancient oriental culture which attracts interest and fascination. The west is bedazzled by China’s mysticism and bigness. Henry Kissinger, for example (in On China), pays Beijing tribute with his romantic notion of the “civilization state.” The academic literature on China is generally critical, but even much of that criticism conforms in its way with the liberal myth. We observe the absence of rule of law, but take that to be a pathology in a regime that could do better. We observe the censorship, the propaganda, the “thought-work,” and the thuggish “stability maintenance” and criticize the regime for its excesses.
The abuse of the law and the courts and the brutal clampdown on any form of active opposition are, however, not “mistakes” on the part of a confused regime. These practices are logical and necessary, given the regime as it is.
In the Chinese party-state, there is a single supreme determination that trumps all others: stability, meaning the regime’s perpetuation of itself. The post-Mao rulers have had two strategies of self-preservation: the purchase of legitimacy and the exercise of control. During the last decades of rapid economic growth, they could rely on being rewarded for economic betterment. But mega-growth is now over and people’s expectations are outrunning government delivery. The leaders are therefore shifting to relying more on controls. Behind Xi Jinping’s tightening of dictatorship lies a steely analysis of what is needed to avoid the disintegration that has befallen previous Leninist systems, primarily the Soviet Union.
A dispassionate analysis of today’s Chinese system is unavoidably despondent. Not much, if anything, can be expected of reform for the better from within. Dictatorship is here to stay.
However, the model is still, to some degree, in the balance, if only between harder and softer dictatorship. That difference matters enormously for the Chinese people and for the world.
The current leader is flirting with a new ideology of nationalism and chauvinism under his slogan of the “China Dream.” Ideologies are always dangerous and their force should never be underestimated. If the new ideology were to take hold, Xi could abandon all of the pragmatic legacy after Deng Xiaoping and embrace all-out totalitarianism, now of nationalistic rather than Marxist inspiration.
Our misunderstanding of China leads us to confusion in our dealing with the new superpower, as recently for example in Britain’s failed attempt to make itself China’s best friend in Europe. The truth is that we must continue to do business with a regime that is and will remain repugnant. It is safer to do that with open eyes than by pretending that hard dictatorship is benevolent autocracy. It is more productive to be straight with a Chinese leadership that does not believe flattery.
The outside world has very little sway over developments in China. But we do have one lever that could give us some influence to possibly hold China to at least pragmatic dictatorship. The leaders are not content with power but desperate for respect. It is in our gift to award or withhold respect. That influence cannot change China for the better, but it might do something to prevent it from getting worse.
To use this lever to effect we should stand firm on our own values and principles and claim democracy’s moral high ground. We should then engage with China on all levels, economically and politically as well as in science and culture and in other ways. By engagement, China binds itself to international rules and commitments.
We, our leaders that is, should speak out in clear language against China’s breach of human rights and rule of law. That should always be done with reference to China’s own constitution and laws, which are in these respects sound (if ineffective). And we should speak out in clear language against China’s policies of aggression. That should always be done with reference to international law.
The Chinese leaders want respect because they need respect abroad for legitimacy at home. We should let them know that if they want our respect, they must respect their own people and other nations.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hong Kong

(Written on 1st October)

Today is the 67th anniversary of People's Republic  of China, i.e. its National Day, when vast numbers of Chinese flood into HK to see the fireworks. These start at 9.00 p.m. across the harbour. I will not be going, but Val  is tempted. 

Millions of Filipino maids were milling around Central on their day off!  Some were sitting on collapsed cardboard boxes playing cards for money, others were packing up goods to send home and others were piling onto buses to go for a picnic on the beach. We took a bus to Stanley Markets and our bus was 90% Filipinos, all making a terrible din as they shouted at one another to be heard.

The bus route was quite scenic along the waters edge, past Repulse Bay and expensive high rise hotels and apartments. It was hot and humid inside the markets. The only nice things I saw were beautifully made linen clothes in extremely fine linen material, said to be made in Belgium. I later discovered they have their own website and mail order service at Vivid Linen.

HK is an example of urbanisation and consumerism gone mad. The crowds everywhere are horrendous and wearing, especially in the unaccustomed heat and humidity. But our Holiday Inn Executive Lounge is an area of tranquility. Every evening there are free drinks (just had 2 glasses of champagne) as well as lots of delicious nibbles which can replace dinner.

Our two tailors in HK, Joseph and Bowen. Val's family are longstanding customers and they took us out to lunch.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Last day in China

Last day in China

Val and I were up early to go down for a swim before breakfast. The pool was a popular venue for ladies of our age, but they soon cleared out to raid the breakfast bars. These offered more choice than I'd seen for a long time. I settled for porridge with banana and passion fruit, followed by scrambled egg and toast. There were many more Chinese dishes available.

We checked out of our hotel at 10 a.m.  The foyer was enormous but had no seats. Wave after wave of Chinese tour groups were also leaving and it was bedlam!

We spent the morning in the centre of Guilin, firstly at Fubo Park where I had my photo taken with General Fubo. Afterwards we strolled through a pedestrian street with its reconstructed ancient buildings, very tastefully done. Two newly-weds in matching red outfits were having their photos taken. We also came across 4 attractive girls in uniform who were apparently university students doing compulsory military training.

After lunch in town, it was time for a 40min drive to the airport for our 16.30 flight to HK. Val has booked us into the Holiday Inn in Kowloon for 3 nights.

With General Fubo in the park.

Wedding photo.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


On our agenda today was a visit to the Longsheng Rice Terraces, a 2 hour drive into the country, the last half hour up a very winding road with a nail biting steep drop on one side. C would be sick after 2 mins!  Our driver was expert, though the vehicle could use extra power. He relied on mirrors positioned on the roadside at the worst hairpin bends as well as tooting the horn to warn oncoming vehicles.

Then we walked up a country road through the rice terraces, with magnificent views looking down. The terraces are beautiful: the ones looking south have rice just about ready, the ones looking north still green: row after row as far as the eye can see. There were a few other crops such as sweet potatoes, green beans, ginger, tarot; in the village many hens and duc
ks in the ditches between the houses. They seemed to be pretty self sufficient.

Photo at the airport, showing the rice terraces flooded in spring ready for planting.

Local women selling vegetables


Our guide at the village entrance.

Longhi Zhuang Ecomuseum Exhibit Centre

This was an excellent museum of Zhuang minority life. It was in a traditional village in middle of the rice terraces. We had lunch in the village. The tea, served first, was ultra sweet. The highlight of the meal, though, was sticky rice baked in bamboo.

Rice baked in bamboo.

Traditional cooking and eating set up in the museum.

Embroidered flax backpack.

Snake in the grass on the way down.

Monday, October 10, 2016



On arrival in Guilin, we were driven to our hotel (40 mins) only to find that it was FULL UP with conference delegates! We had to get back into our car and go to the sister hotel (Grand Bravo 5 star) at 11.30 p.m. This was a definite upgrade, but we were too tired to appreciate the opulence. The only thing wrong with our magnificent room was the aircon (temperature reading 26 degrees: controls in Chinese). Tried pressing every button. Finally I had to go back to Reception and ask for help. No English spoken at midnight: had to type into their Google Translate! A technician finally arrived and accessed  the roof space. We could at long last have a shower and go to bed!

Our opulent room at the Grand Bravo Hotel. Note the bath with gold taps behind the screen.

We were up at 6.15 a.m. in order to leave in good time for our Li River Cruise. First a 35 min drive to the embarkation point. Hundreds, or thousands, of Chinese tourists converged on the 50-plus river boats lined up for departure at 9.30. The boats have to go in convoy down the river, not allowed to pass each other. The lower deck, air conditioned, had lovely comfy seats, just right for snoozing after our short nights sleep.

The famous karst mtns soon came into view and everyone rushed up on deck to take photos; many people wanted to have photos taken with us Westerners. We met 2 couples from NZ who had done a 3 day Yangtse River Cruise. They said the worst part was the mad scramble for meals, as the Chinese refuse to queue up for buffets. Our cruise served airline type meals, reheated from frozen; we had been warned that they were not up to much, and had purloined items from our breakfast buffet to make our own packet lunch. The boat was a relaxing way to travel, watching the rural scenes go by. We saw many small boats dredging rubbish, water police vessels going at top speed and using up petrol for no reason, as well as a few water buffaloes, goats, horses and lots and lots of ducks grazing beside the river or pottering about in the shallows. Duck is now on the menu at every meal!  At lunchtime it was 36 degrees in the shade. We don't have enough hot weather clothes and have to keep washing things.

Val on the Li River. Note the convoy of boats ahead of us.

On the Li River.

A welcome G and T in the evening.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kunming Day Two

Our hotel room on 17th floor faced west (setting sun) and was boiling hot, just like Burswood. Our guide took us to the hotel's Chinese Restaurant which was packed and noisy, with waiters hurrying about with plates of food. The huge menu was only in Chinese, and we wanted to convince the guide, Fang, to order only 3 dishes as we were still full from lunch. We can't manage 2 full meals per day!  We did manage to consume plenty of beer as we were so thirsty after walking round the Stone Forest. My waistband is now getting rather tight, but in actual fact I haven't put on any weight.

This morning's visit was to the Western Hill Nature Reserve. Val and I went up to the top of the hill by chair lift (a 20 min ride, just like at a ski resort).  The views were superb, looking down to the lake on our left. As we approached the end of the lift, there was a photographer who took snap of us and we were persuaded to buy it 5 mins later.

Chair lift photo.

Flowers outside Chair Lift Station.

In the afternoon there was a scheduled temple visit, but we had decided we'd had enough of Buddhist statues, so the guide suggested a tea exposition instead. This was a really worthwhile experience. It was at a government sponsored enterprise, where a beautiful young guide took us through the intricacies of preparing and drinking several types of Puer tea. We were able to have a nice rest in the early afternoon, thereby escaping the heat outside (24 degrees or so). Eventually we felt obliged to buy some. Actually, I was keen to obtain some, as it is said to help in losing weight (and for beautifying skin!) but only if you drink some every day for 15 years.

Our guide, Fang, explains the Ancient Tea and Horse Trail.

A cake of compressed tea.

Tea making demonstration.

Our last port of call was the Flower and Bird Market. There were cage birds, many varieties of rabbits, mice, Guinea pigs, terrapins, fish : you name it, it was there for sale. One row of stalls was devoted to succulents and orchids. Kunming is a flower growing centre, so we passed many sweet smelling stalls too. 

Succulents on sale.

Reconstructed ancient street.

Sketches for sale.

Historic pharmacy still in use.

Then we were driven to the airport for an 8.25 p.m. flight. Kunming Airport was packed and hot. Our guide say Goodbye and told us the temperature in Guilin would be 33 degrees!


Photo on the wall of Zhongdian Airport showing the scene in mid winter.

Imagine leaving Zhongdian in 8 degrees and arriving in Kunming by plane an hour later at 21 degrees! This schedule is a bit too hectic for us! We were driven straight from the airport to the Stone Forest, still wearing our winter clothes, thermal underwear and heavy shoes and socks. 

The Stone Forest is a geological phenomenon: a huge area of dark grey limestone karst formations (something like the Pinnacles but much higher, almost maze-like in places). We had lunch first in a really nice restaurant which featured local produce hanging from the ceiling: corn on the cobs, chillies, garlic etc. Then it was 3 hours walking around the Forest, up and down steps cut into the rock, until my gammy leg was just about giving way and we were all boiling hot and out of water. It's always hard to control the enthusiasm of the local guide, who is determined to show us and tell us everything!

However, we shouldn't complain as this was the first sunny day of the trip and it was lovely to see blue sky!

Stone Forest.

Lunch in a traditional restaurant in the Stone Forest.

Around Zhongdian

Sumtseling Monastery

300 hectares inside

800 monks

Built 1687

This monastery was first on our agenda this morning.  The weather was only drizzling!  The monastery complex was huge, and built on a sloping site above the town. There were many Chinese tour groups, but hardly any Europeans. The buildings were ornate, with gold roofs which could be seen and marvelled at for miles around. A village had sprung up around the complex, with many houses still under construction. I took the 100 plus steps up to the top (where the gigantic Buddha sat) very slowly, because the altitude made me   quite breathless. Many people had left offerings for the monks, items of food or small denomination notes; we saw monastery officials going round collecting the money in a large bag. You have no idea how much there was: it was being scooped up like Monopoly money in large handfuls!

Afterwards we went to visit a "typical Buddhist family home" in the village, where we were given some snacks for morning tea. Their house was quite large and featured a loft where a massive amount of turnips and hay was being stored for the winter for animal feed. The two women were busy doing the washing, with a twin tub (of which they were very proud), but doing the rinsing by hand with a running hose pipe!  Their living area was quite large, with a special fire for boiling water in 4 large pots and (hanging from the ceiling) several pumpkin-like solid balls of lard, also for feeding the animals through the winter.

In the afternoon, we drove to the Napa Lake, a nature reserve, and did a circular tour, stopping once to observe many holiday cottages which had been submerged by rising water levels. The owners seemed to be replacing them with larger structures higher up. It was still a largely farming community sound the lake, with many horses grazing on the rich grass and even more black pigs and piglets running around or asleep by the roadside.

In the evening, we persuaded our guide to let us have Western food for a change. I had a pizza with 2 glasses of red wine. M and V had chicken and chips with pepper sauce! Tomorrow we are on the move again, flying to Kunming.

We had dinner here on our first night in Zhongdian. The first floor window overlooked this square, where locals and a few visitors gathered every evening for a couple of hours dancing.


Chinese tour group arriving.

Left: in the monastery gift shop;
Right: one of the courtyards.

Inside the typical Tibetan home.
Top left: stove for boiling water;
Top right: rendered pork fat for feeding animals;
Bottom: turnips stored in the loft.

Yak meat for sale.

Copper cooking pots for sale in the market.

Submerged houses in the lake.

Lijiang to Zhongdian

Lijiang to Zhongdian

Travelling in our "people mover", we went by road 1.5 hours to Leaping Tiger Gorge, mostly following a tributary of the Yangste. We had a toilet stop en route. These were squat toilets in a row of about 20 or 30, stalls with only waist high walls, ("horrendous and disgusting" to quote Ellie).

The gorge was spectacular: narrow and deep, with the water roaring through with tremendous force. In the middle was the rock which enabled the legendary tiger to jump across. This is said to be the deepest gorge in China and possibly in the world.

Another 2 hours on the road after lunch. The altitude (over 3200m) was getting to us. I was feeling very sleepy and dozed off, missing the scenery on the narrow winding road. Eventually we reached a barren plateau with yaks and highland cattle grazing on the roadside. Zhongdian lies in a wide, flat bottomed valley.  We checked into our hotel (Zhongdian Ancient Town Hotel). This is quite large. The corridors, lobby and breakfast room in the basement are freezing cold, but our room is double glazed with very efficient heating and hot water.

View upstream from our toilet stop.

Squat toilets with no privacy.

Statue of tiger leaping.

The Gorge.

Sedan chairs are available to take you down to the waters' edge!

Lijiang at night

When the lights go on, the Old Town takes on an entirely different character and crowds flock in to see it.

Top left: Val tries yak meat.
Top right: array of meat for BBQ at our restaurant.
Bottom: scenes along the river.

We had to find our own way home.

Guess who I met along the way?

Beautiful girl poses for a fashion shoot.