Monday, 31 January 2011

The downside of not being a Fu'erdai

The UK media has been focusing, quite justifiably, upon the case of Li Qiming, the drunk driver who’s been given six years for killing a pedestrian. The case earned notoriety and aroused fury in China when Li Qiming, who had been stopped from fleeing the scene by passers-by, had shouted “Go and sue me – my father’s Li Gang!” Li Gang, as many in the city of Baoding would have known, is a local police chief.

Li Qiming’s attitude is common: there’s a breed of offspring in China today who think (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say know) that their family connections put them above the law. A quick search of Chinese websites revealed related cases that haven’t made it onto the radar of the mainstream Western media…

In 2009, a 24-year-old man named Tan Zhuo was killed by Hu Bin, the 20-year-old son of a rich businessman, who already had a record for speeding and was driving a converted high-performance car. The police initially said Hu Bin had been doing 70kmph, but later admitted it had been up to 101kmph. Hu Bin got just 3 years, for a traffic offence, though there were calls for him to face more serious charges of crimes against public security, which carry terms of anything from 10 years, to life imprisonment, or even the death penalty. Internet conspiracy theories soon had it that the Hu Bin who’d appeared in court was a ringer who’d been paid to do the time, while Hu Bin himself had fled the country. Few really took the suggestion seriously, but one gets the feeling that doubts like this are fuelled by people who are heartily sick of the Fu'erdai, or Rich Second Generation, treating public spaces like the untouchable emperors they’ve become.

Worse even than Hu Bin’s case is that of Zhang Mingbao, who in 2009 killed 5 people, one of them a pregnant woman, after he crashed his car in Nanjing while drunk. Zhang had 80 traffic offences to his name, 39 of them for speeding. Zhang (not the son of a rich businessman) was sentenced to life for endangering public safety, though the court was criticized by victims’ relatives for not handing down a death sentence.

Hmmm, capital punishment for causing death while driving under the influence of alcohol? Now there’s a thought.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

No Megacity on the Pearl River

There's been more than one report in the Western media about China's plans to merge nine cities in the Pearl River delta into a megacity of 42,000,000 people. (The Telegraph's got it here, The Week here.) It appears, though, that journalists are happy to believe anything about China so long as it's got an eyewatering statistic behind it.

The Guangzhou Daily has reported that there's no such plan. In a press conference yesterday, it seems, a spokesman refuted rumours that had been "hyped up" by the foreign media: "Guo Yuewen, spokesman for the provincial Party committee, in response to the claims, responded in a sonorous and forceful manner: 'There is no such thing!'"

In a numbingly dense example of the kind of jargon that Chinese Communist planners revel in, he then explained that...

"in order to fully implement the "Pearl River Delta Region Reform & Development Programme Outline (2008-2020)" authorized by the State Council, Guangdong province is now working hard at setting about a “Five Unifications Programme” for the Pearl River Delta, consisting of basic facility construction, industrial layout, urban-rural planning, environmental protection and basic public services, actively promoting the construction of the three economic circles of Guangzhou, Foshan and Zhaoqing; Shenzhen, Dongguan and Huizhou; and Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Jiangmen, to promote more rapidly the Pearl River Delta’s economic and social development mainly from an economic level, with the aim of, following governmental impetus, market leadership and the principle of mutual benefit, perfectly coordinating linked mechanisms, optimizing the allocation of resources and establishing a system of overall urban planning coordination with foundational facilities that are both mutually constructed and benefited from, industrial development that is cooperative and of a win-win nature, and a unified development layout of collaborative management of public affairs, to strengthen the Pearl River Delta cities' integral core competitiveness. Guo Yuewen ended by reiterating that the provincial Party committee and the provincial government had absolutely no intention whatsoever to unify the nine cities of the Pearl River Delta!" 

To be honest, I got tired of trying to relate one clause to another halfway through that paragraph, so my apologies if the translation has some of that catchy economics-speak in the wrong order. The sense is clear: they're unifying the cities of the Pearl River Delta on some level or other, but not, repeat not, creating the world's biggest megacity. Or something.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Zero Yuan Banknote

Listening to Chris Morris' item on BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent this morning, I started wondering how the Zero Rupee Note printed and distributed by the Indian NGO "5th Pillar" might work in a Chinese context.

In India (so I'm led to understand, though I've never been), paying fees to officials for services that should be free is a way of life. Sounds a lot like China to me. Apparently an Indian professor hit upon the idea as a way for citizens to register their protest at bribery by handing over a valueless note when asked for a bribe, both to make a point there and then and to send a wider message to corrupt officials that there's an organized body of people opposing corruption. Yes, that's technically the PSB's job in China, but they're not making that good a fist of it, are they?

So, to get the ball rolling, I scanned a $50,000,000 Bank of Hell note and, in what must surely rank as one of the most swingeingly effective deflationary acts in the history of Hades, revalued it. Okay, it's not the most convincing of forgeries, but I'm only working with iPhoto and Mac Pages.

5th Pillar's website, by the way, appears to be permanently unobtainable. Perhaps it's been pre-emptively harmonized by Net Nanny?

Disclaimer. As if handing over a Bank of Hell note to an official (and thereby implying their death or misfortune) wasn't enough, anybody brave or foolhardy enough to try paying a "service fee" with one of these babies would be asking for a good kicking for alleging that there'd been a bribe expected in the first place. The $0 note is a satirical device which, nevertheless, in today's China, could lead to unpleasant consequences. This blog denies any responsibility. In fact, it's been out at the shops all morning.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

A very brave little rabbit indeed

It’s hubristic and pointless to watch what’s going on in China, no matter how closely, and then pretend to have a clue as to what’s going to happen in the coming months, years and decades. That said, it’s not stopped me so far....
A few days ago I came across a link on Danwei to a video posted on a Chinese website (viewable with an excellent translation and commentary at China Geeks), but I didn’t bother watching it until this morning. My mistake. 
Over the past few years I’ve watched my share of video clips that vent a little steam with close-to-the-knuckle satire of Chinese politics and controversial news items, but Little Rabbit, Be Good is quite a different animal. Not wanting to be hubristic, still I’m tempted to stick my hand up and say that future historians of China will be including this work of political art - it’s nothing less - in footnotes to learned articles, if not writing articles about it and pondering the fate of its creators. 
Imagine the most anodyne of children’s cartoons, where a little white rabbit has been left at home and told not to open the door. A wolf knocks on the door and tells her to open up, but she refuses, and only opens up when mother rabbit gets back. Now imagine it a little bit more saccharine. There’s one of several versions here.
Little Rabbit, Be Good takes that familiar nursery rhyme and subverts it into a deeply disturbing nightmare. After falling asleep on New Year’s Eve (2011 is of course the year of the rabbit), Kuang Kuang dreams that all the rabbits in the forest (i.e., the Chinese people) rise up against the tigers who rule them (the Communist Party) and take revenge for all the corruption and violence they’ve had to put up with. There are splashes of the sarcastically violent South Park, echoes of Gerald Scarfe’s animation to The Wall (especially in its imagery of despotic violence crushing opposition), hints of the menacingly countercultural cartoons that came out of communist Eastern Europe after the failed uprisings in the 50s and 60s, and a heavy dose of Animal Farm. The dream ends with the rabbits tearing the tigers apart with their bare teeth, and lots of blood - a catharsis almost.
We had a lot of coverage in the UK media recently of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who created Sunflower Seeds for the Tate Modern and who was put under house arrest for opposing the planned demolition of his Shanghai studio. I don’t want to denigrate Ai Weiwei’s work or underplay his bravery for standing up to people who can make his life very unpleasant, but I do think that the sandalista journalists and art critics who so laud him in this country are too easily pleased and uncritical, so long as a Chinese artist does apparently “edgy” conceptual stuff and has a great beard. 
But Little Rabbit, Be Good is something apart. It is genuinely dangerous art, and if I had my way it would be projected on a big screen in the Tate’s turbine hall just to show how brave some Chinese artists can be. It would be a fitting salute to the creators, who must have serious balls to be doing nothing less than predicting and inciting the overthrow of the communist system. People have been given life sentences or a bullet for less than this.
The UK arts media ought to be ashamed of themselves if they devote another column inch to Ai Weiwei or Sunflower Seeds but fail to cover this story.

Monday, 24 January 2011

War and Peace

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in today’s Telegraph writes that the West should “treat Beijing politely but firmly..., gambling that the Confucian ethic will over time incline China to... concord.” Though he doesn’t have space to address the obvious problems with his rough analogy between China and pre-WWI Germany (to start with, the CCP has little to gain and everything to lose by invading sovereign neighbours and evinces no credible intention to do so), he makes some very worthwhile points.
In China in recent years I've been surprised by how often I've come across individuals, on the far horizon of whose world view you can glimpse the possibility (I’m tempted to say desirability) of some kind of conflict with the US. I’m going to make an exception to my unstated policy of not quoting in this blog from books I’ve written, and lift an example from The Emperor’s River:
‘ “Waiguoren hao!” he says with a big thumbs up, apropos of nothing. “Foreigners are good!” Then he adds: “Danshi wo bu xihuan Meiguoren. But I don’t like Americans. America always attacks small countries, like a bully. They wouldn’t dare to attack us. We’re a peaceful country, but if it comes to a fight with the Americans we’ll fight and beat them. It doesn’t matter how many Chinese die, there are always more. We are one billion more than them, and we’re not afraid to die.” ’
I’ve been visiting China for extended periods since the start of the 1990s, and each time I go back it seems this background hum of bellicosity gets a little louder. It’s possible to draw quite a straight line between those begrudgingly hawkish sentiments I’ve noticed on the streets and the CCP’s present need to promote rather a raw brand of nationalism as a counterbalance to the downsides of economic development: crudely put, if Lao Baixing is distracted by bogeymen overseas then he’s less likely to throw mud around at home (oddly enough, not unlike America's obsession with the threat from Islamic extremism). Of course, there’s a strong element of practicality and helplessness involved: mouthing off against the US is politically acceptable and even encouraged, while criticizing the Party is generally pointless and often dangerous. But when a regime becomes overtly nationalistic, you can be sure that it’s bound sooner or later to be riding for a fall: there’s an old saying about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Might I then throw the question of democracy into the ring? China will not be a one-party communist state for ever. There’s not space here to rehearse the arguments for a democratic shift sometime within this or the next generation, but rest assured it will happen, peacefully or otherwise. This will change, overnight and beyond recognition, the possible spectrum of relationships that China has with the US and the rest of the world. If those two powers can keep talking until that change occurs, I see good reason to be optimistic about long-term peace. The present leadership, for all its lack of accountability on so many levels, strikes me as urbane, educated and pragmatic, not militaristic or suicidal. With what I’ve learned from twenty years of studying the languages, history and culture of China, I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that of the US and China it won’t be China that fires first.
Please feel free to quote me on this if Dongfeng ICBMs start raining down.... 

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Lala Land in Zhongshan City

On the day a judge ruled that male civil partners turned away from a hotel in Cornwall should be paid £3,600 in damages, here are some observations on a recent news item from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
On January 1st, so reported the Yangcheng Evening News under the headline “A lala Wedding” (lala is Chinese slang for ‘lesbian’), 32-year-old ‘Paco’ and ‘Crystal’, 28, went through a wedding ceremony in a hotel in Zhongshan City. At 9.09pm the band struck up and the guests strewed the couple with rose petals as they entered arm in arm (in Chinese numerology, 9 is the most yang or ‘masculine’ of numbers, and also sounds like the word for ‘a long time’). 
“We’re lalas,” they announced, “and we probably won’t be accepted by society, but... we’ll be with each other night and day, and we’ll never be separated....”
Crystal had grown up in a village in Guangxi, a province which brings to mind timeless scenes of water buffalo and rice terraces more readily than it does gay weddings. Her parents had long accepted the fact that their daughter only liked women and had no plans to force her into a marriage she didn’t want. “You choose your own path,” they said. “So long as you’re happy it’s okay.”
The snag, of course, is that Paco and Crystal’s ‘marriage’ has no legal effect in China, whose statute Marriage Law defines marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. There have been several attempts in recent years to introduce laws legalizing homosexual civil marriage, and though they’ve all fallen at the first hurdle there’s a growing gay-rights lobby in China demanding change. Don’t hold your breath: a quick peek at a web forum where somebody posted a positive and thoughtful opinion on Paco and Crystal’s marriage quickly attracted a more representative cross-section of contemporary Chinese attitudes towards homosexuality. I’ve translated some typically obscure internet slang as directly as I can....
“Sofa!” (that is to say, “I’m sat on my sofa, turned on by this story...”)
“I’m still not for this - it means another two guys left on the shelf.”
“I’m supportive of homosexuality, but not gay marriage.”
“Very honest. I feel really sympathetic.”
“I can put up with gay women, but not gay men.”
“I’m totally against gay women, and even more totally against gay men. For every pair of gay men there’s a little more hope for us normals.”
That last post doesn’t seem to have realised that, by his reckoning, he ought to be all for gay men...

Monday, 17 January 2011

Trouble breastfeeding? Try pig's trotter soup.

What with the discussion in the British media in recent days of how long mothers should be breastfeeding, I thought a Chinese angle on the subject would be interesting.
In the wake of the discovery in 2008 that manufacturers had been adding toxic adulterants to infant formula, there was an understandable move back toward natural breastfeeding in China. One website, 丫丫网 (it means something along the lines of “cute little girl with pigtails” and is a rough equivalent of our Mumsnet), posted recipes for soups that would help nursing mothers to produce more milk. A mixture of homespun traditional advice and Chinese medicine, they’re perhaps not what Western mothers would swallow. Pig’s trotters feature heavily, often boiled until soft with tiny amounts of (to us) obscure Chinese vegetation such as the rice-paper plant, cowherb seed or parasitic loranthus (no, I don't know either). Women are meant to eat the entire trotter, flesh and sinew alike, then drink the soup, once a day for several days. Other popular ingredients include beancurd, mung beans, papaya, black sesame, and fish such as the ubiquitous carp. 
So far so stereotypical, but the subsequent posts on are unexpected: “I’ve had lots of this carp and pig’s trotter soup,” wrote one mother, “and they haven’t made a blind bit of difference.”
“I’ve been drinking this soup without any effect too...”
“Me too. What a downer.”
The other posts are all of a kind. Turns out that the Chinese, or at least the internet-savvy mums who post on, are far more critical of traditional Chinese cures than many in the Western media, who lap up this kind of homely oriental wisdom. 
And another thing came as a surprise when I started to look into it: nursing mothers in China have a raft of statutory rights when it comes to breastfeeding. For example, the 1988 “Regulations Concerning the Labour Protection of Female Staff and Workers” prevent employers from cutting nursing mothers’ basic wages or cancelling their contracts. For legal purposes, a child’s mother is said to be breastfeeding until it’s a full year old. Mothers of children under a year old have a legal right to two feeding sessions of 30 minutes each during every shift. For twins, they’re allowed an hour each time, for triplets an hour and a half.
As ever, China never ceases to surprise me!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Shackled for life

There’s been coverage in the UK recently of the question of prisoners’ right to vote in elections, and a similar story has appeared in the Chinese media.
The Xinhua News Agency has just reported that a prisoner in the southwestern city of Chongqing was allowed out of custody on Wednesday to register his marriage. The fact that Qiu Ke and his girlfriend Huang Ying were positively mobbed by journalists and TV crews as they arrived at Jiulongpo District marriage registry is an indication of how novel an event this was. 
Huang Ying, a 33-year-old divorcee and mother of one from the coastal city of Hangzhou, was reported to have arrived in Chongqing two years ago to find work. There she met 37-year-old Qiu Ke and fell pregnant, but when he was arrested and detained on suspicion of gang-related theft she went to the city’s Public Security Bureau to ask permission for him to be allowed out of gaol to marry. Otherwise, she argued, her child would have been born without a father.

As a legal act, getting married in China is hardly romantic at the best of times: officially at least it’s a matter of handing over some certification and photos to a civil registrar (the extravagant wedding feast normally comes later, and has no legal effect). But when the groom arrives handcuffed and squeezed between policemen in riot gear toting machine-guns it’s certainly not going to be the day every girl dreams of. That probably explains why Huang Ying was in tears throughout the proceedings.
Still, Qiu Ke and Huang Ying have made a little bit of history. It would have been an easy matter for the Public Security Bureau to refuse permission, yet somebody somewhere thought it worthwhile to send a signal that in a small way at least the issue of prisoners’ rights are being given attention. It’s hard to judge whether permission would have been granted had Qiu Ke already been sentenced, but we should remember that it was only in 1983 that statute law in the UK finally granted sentenced prisoners the right to marry. Put that way, China doesn’t seem so far behind.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Confucius faces off against Jesus

Since headlines about religion in China tend to be of the ‘latest crackdown’ and ‘human rights abuses’ kind, I’d like to offer something more positive.
In December, the construction of a 3,000-seat church in the city of Qufu was announced. Of itself, the story is unremarkable, but Qufu’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Confucius and the spiritual home of the system of ethics and ritual known as Confucianism. Building a church just two miles from the hallowed halls of its most important temple could easily stir up resentment, and indeed neo-Confucian scholars have put their names to an official objection. 
In response, Chinese websites such as Yesuwang (‘Jesusweb’) have pointed out that the proposed Holy Trinity Church isn’t a new imposition but a rebuild of one that was demolished after “Liberation”. At the same time, Christians are quite aware of the scope for opposition to its 42m spire: China’s ‘Religious Affairs Regulations’ of 2005 (unsurprisingly) require religious groups not to upset ‘social harmony’, a catch-all that could be invoked by upstaging Confucianism, which has been enjoying a revival in recent years. Just days ago, in fact, a 9.5m bronze statue of Confucius himself was erected in Beijing. And not just anywhere, but on the iconic Chang’an Avenue (remember that photo of the man and the tank? Right there) within sight of Mao’s portrait. How things change: it's well within living memory, during the Cultural Revolution, that Red Guards smashed Confucius’ statue in Qufu and vilified him as an evil fraud. The positioning of this new statue could only have been okayed at the highest possible levels, and is another clear sign that traditional Chinese religion is being fast-tracked to acceptability. 
To return to that church, I’d like to add an observation to the commentary flying around the net: there’s no requirement in Christianity for places of worship to be intrusive. The tendency for Chinese churches to model themselves on the architecture of the Midwest – unimaginative, unsympathetic, whitewashed, concrete boxes with corrugated steel roofs and high spires – might unintentionally help to fuel the same ‘them-and-us’ mentality that we see with plans for mosques in English cities (or indeed Ground Zero). A church is the people, not the building, and a low-rise, plain meeting hall might be a better long-term option. This story is far from being over, and I await Qufu’s next move with interest.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

China begins to head home for New Year

If you're fed up of not being able to get a seat on Network Southeast, or sick of queueing for an overpriced ticket at machines that always seem to be out of order, spare a thought for China.

The Beijing Daily is reporting the start of the annual rush for train tickets to travel home for Chinese New Year, which falls on February 3rd. The Chinese call this the Chunyun (春运), or "Spring transport", and it's arguably the largest single movement of humanity to be seen anywhere. It begins a fortnight before the New Year itself and continues for three weeks afterwards, and it serves to move what seems like the entire population of China (and then some!) to somewhere other than where they were to start with.

On January 10th, tickets went on sale for travel on the 19th, the first day of the Chunyun, and people were reported to be queueing from first thing in the morning in the hope of getting a ticket. Still, these are early days, as most of the people wanting to travel so far in advance of New Year's Day are either students or migrant workers who can take advantage of the earlier start of their official leave. Things only begin to get really busy when hundreds of millions of would-be travellers try to buy tickets for the days just before New Year: the date to watch is January 20th, when tickets for Saturday 29th go on sale.

And the weather isn't likely to help matters, with extremely low temperatures forecast. Remember how our transport systems ground to a halt recently with the heavy snow? Now imagine everybody in Britain trying to get on a train at that same time. Some inland regions are already teetering on the edge of disaster after a period of positively Arctic weather. The potential for disappointed travellers trapped in snow-bound waiting rooms resorting to venting their anger on the authorities has become a recurring fear, and we've even seen politicians as high-ranking as Premier Wen Jiabao taking up the megaphone in recent years to calm people down and reassure them that things are being done to get them home.

This, then, is my modest prediction for late January and early February: expect plummeting temperatures across China, Party officials sent out to calm frayed tempers, and BBC news reports showing heaving masses of unhappy Chinese. You heard it here first.

Let them eat rice

If Oliver Kamm in the Times (Dec 29th) is correct, we could all soon be paying more for our Chinese-made goods as a new minimum wage works its way through the system.
He reports that Beijing has announced rises across the board, and points out that higher wages might increase inflation (already worryingly high for basics like vegetables) and affect Western economies by raising the price of Chinese exports. This in turn might lower foreign demand for Chinese goods and stimulate domestic demand for imports, effectively the same result as if the Chinese had revalued the Renminbi upwards. So far, so good, but with my utter lack of training in economic theory I’m in no position to comment. What I can comment on is this:
Firstly, these minimum wages are still very low by our standards. In Beijing, for example, the new rate is 65p ($1) per hour, or £113 per month. Secondly, the minimum wage differs vastly between provinces and even cities (provinces are subdivided into perhaps half a dozen “grades”: imagine Leeds and York having different rules), meaning that a worker in remote Anhui (the poor cousin to Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai) might get only £50 per month. Of course, the minimum wage cannot legally take into account extras such as the “heat allowance” (for outdoor workers, or people working indoors over 33°C), extra shifts, weekend work, social security payments and so on, though the fact that Chinese government websites are insisting that these payments are supplementary is an indication that employers are in fact breaking the law by including them in the basic wage.
Thirdly, the minimum wage doesn’t in practice apply to everybody: farmers, who make up a vast proportion of the population, don’t fall under its scope; then there’s the self-employed, people who scrape a living hawking or peddling - or worse - on the streets, the “employees” who aren’t on an employment contract, the people who are given the Hobson’s choice of accepting a pittance or finding somewhere else to work...
But what struck me most reading this article is that Kamm misrepresents the general cost of living in China with examples lifted from websites catering to rich expats and TOEFL teachers. It's tempting to conclude that, whatever he knows about macroeconomics, he has little grasp of Chinese life or culture. He prices an “inexpensive meal” at a remarkably precise RMB 24.5, when in fact you can fill yourself to bursting on any street corner for half that, while the average worker would be cooking at home for a lot, lot less. What made me smile was his inclusion of a litre of milk (RMB 9.9) and a loaf of fresh bread (RMB 8): you can’t spend more than a day or two in China without realizing that the Chinese neither drink milk (they are, it’s claimed, genetically lactose-intolerant) nor eat bread (baking never caught on in Chinese cuisine). Sure, you can find a tetrapak of Mongolian milk or some tooth-curlingly sweet bread-effect foodstuff in 7-Eleven, Kedi or Carrefour if you’re in a city, but illustrating the cost of living for people on minimum wage by citing the price of milk and bread is like a Japanese journalist bemoaning the price of pre-prepared sushi at Morrisons in Whalley Range, or, more pertinently, a Chinese labourer visiting Gerrard Street and thinking “100 kuai for a plate of beancurd? That’s my weekly bleedin’ wage!”
Is it too late to pass a law requiring everyone who writes about China in the broadsheets to have at least a passing first-hand knowledge of the place?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Snow White and Santa on the Amur River

I've just read an article in Green Times, and I'm trying to digest the baffling mishmash of cultural influences. (Green Times, by the way, is the official media organ of China's National Afforestation Committee and the National Forestry Bureau, and it has a remit to disseminate (mainly positive) news about progress towards ecological sustainability. It's in for a long, long ride!).

On December 20th last year, to coincide with Winter solstice in the traditional Chinese calendar, the village of Mohe in China's northernmost province of Heilongjiang officially opened its own "Christmas World". 

Mohe, also known as Beijicun (北极村) or North Pole Village, since it's the northernmost inhabited place (of any notable size, at least) in China, is close to my heart as it was my final destination on a grand journey I made in 2001 around the country's four most far-flung compass points. Chinese tourists have for a few years now been travelling all the way to the banks of the Amur River, which forms Heilongjiang's northern border with Russia, to experience the unadulterated cold of the Siberian winter - it once fell below -62°F! - and, apparently, the aurora borealis (though, at a latitude of just 53°N, don't ask me how that works - Manchester and Liverpool are just as far north, and they're not known for the northern lights...).

Back to my point, Heilongjiang apparently invested RMB300m (£30m) in Christmas World, which includes a Santa's grotto, a Christmas shop, a skating rink, a Snow White amusement park, a deer enclosure, and a Christmas tree with fairy lights. All in all, it's "a fusion of China's polar scenery and the Western culture of Christmas," goes the report. It will, I'm sure, attract Chinese tourists by the busload.

I find it fascinating, how the officially atheist provincial authorities have taken a religious festival which in the West has become for most people little more than a few weeks of especially frantic consumerism, and leavened it with its own domestic tourist industry images of snow and pine forests to create something that is uniquely of modern China. As I say, I'm still trying to digest the result: Green Times has a picture of a Chinese man in a Santa suit with a People's Liberation Army greatcoat on top, and another of an illuminated Santa's head grinning atop a banner proclaiming the opening ceremony of Christmas World, at which the Finnish ambassador was a guest (Santa, you see, lives in Finland). To complicate matters, a stone's throw away on the far bank of the Amur the Russians living in Ignashino - the nearest "Western" community to Mohe - didn't celebrate Christmas by the Russian Orthodox calendar until almost three weeks later on January 7th. Then there's Snow White: she's called Baixue Gongzhu in Chinese - Princess of the White Snow - which explains her appearance in China's snowiest village, even though we don't hear a peep out of her at Christmas in the UK. Still, it could have been worse: a friend of mine once saw Santa crucified on a cross in a Tokyo department store....

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Of bigamists and databases

The Independent reported this week that ‘China's exploding wealth has created a culture of secret mistresses and second wives. Now officials are putting marriage records online so spouses can check for cheaters’.

It’d be more accurate to say that the age-old Chinese practice of wealthy men taking mistresses as a sign of social status has been rediscovered and given a new twist in decadent, contemporary China (‘concubines’ used to be the standard Orientalist translation of the Chinese word 姬 ji, but that sounds a touch too exotic and patronizing for my liking!).

Cara Anna, who wrote this short piece in the Indie, then goes on to say: ‘But the Ministry of Civil Affairs a few years ago said such a project would be operating by 2010 [rather than 2015 as it’s now saying]. Officials have not explained the delay... .’ This is a really niggly point, I know, but I’m not quite sure why it needed that ‘But...’ at the start of the sentence.

It’s always a temptation, when writing about China, to score easy points by showing how its state machinery so often fails to deliver (guilty as charged in my own writing, many times over), but in this case I think China deserves a good deal of recognition for what it’s achieving.

Of course, it’s fair to point out that the Ministry has been caught failing to live up to its own timescale, yet it’s worth pointing out that the UK government consistently takes years or decades longer than it plans to deliver IT projects; more pertinently, when this plan finally comes together in 2015 or whenever, China will in fact be a country mile ahead of the UK by having a public database of marriages. We’ve had civil registration procedures in place in this country since the 1830s, and all marriages (with minor exceptions) are publicized beforehand by the calling of banns or the publication of names at a register office. It’s these measures that are meant to stop problems like bigamy, but of course nobody spends their afternoons reading lists of names outside their local town hall, and with no centrally accessible database where a registrar or vicar can simply search for a person’s name (or in China’s case identity card number), it’s nigh on impossible to tell whether or not the bride or groom is already married to somebody else. We’ve had a spate of cases recently involving bigamists and sham marriages, and we only seem to have people’s honesty to rely on.

This is definitely one example of China being ahead of the curve; I hope the UK is watching to see how things work out.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Elderly couple marry in old folks’ home...

Okay, not the standard doom-laden or awe-inspiring China-related headline in the UK, but let me explain what grabbed my attention here.

For me, one of the joys of travelling in China is browsing through its local newspapers (there are officially more than 2,000). In Wednesday’s Ningxia Daily, published in the predominantly Muslim Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in the deserts of north-central China, there’s a short article below a photo of a newly-married couple that begins: “On New Year’s Eve the weather outside might have been exceptionally bitter, but the atmosphere in Yuanzhou District old folks’ home, where a special wedding was underway, was warm indeed!” The bride, Su Aizhen, has been in a wheelchair since contracting polio as a child. Aged just 50, she’d be very young to enter an old folks’ home in the UK, but with nobody to look after her she fell back on this last safety net around the same time as 59-year-old Shen Siqian, who was considered to be getting on and had no other family to support him. The home arranged for a room for the newly-weds, with a new bed and quilt. “I never thought that, being old, I could ever have such a sweet wedding,” Shen Siqian is reported as saying, with tears in his eyes. I don’t doubt his sincerity: the Chinese have a strong cultural aversion to living alone, and reaching a lonely and penurious old age is an unenviable position to be in in modern-day China.

If the two had met, fallen in love as they did, and married in a retirement home in England, say, this would be a heartwarming story to beat the post-New Year blues. But the real point of the article, though, published in what is after all Ningxia’s official Communist Party organ, is not so much that Shen Siqian took on the responsibility of cooking and caring for Su Aizhen out of love or “to relieve the burden on the staff”, but that the two provide a model for ways to relieve the pressure on China’s creaking welfare system. Just as China is officially thinking of relaxing the one-child policy to address its ageing demographic, so it’s also trying to find ways to shift responsibility for the disabled and the elderly to what we might call its own “Big Society”.