Friday, July 9, 2010

My New Blog

I've just set up my new blog about Hong Kong.

It's called The Fragrant Harbour at

Now that I don't have to deal with the Great Firewall anymore, it will be great to actually read your comments!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Xie Xie and Zaijian

Today is my last day in Beijing.

It's my last day living in the Chinese capital after three years, two months and about three weeks.

I came here in April 2007 eager to have a greater understanding of the country and to find out if it really is going to be the next superpower.

When you first arrive, you are impressed by what it has achieved so far and think it has so much potential to be greater.

The people in general are good, honest folk, but their lack of common sense and basic skills can lead to frustration. Just go to any restaurant and flagging down a fuwuyuan or waitstaff is a test in patience, as they'd rather ignore you.

The newly-constructed buildings look shiny and sleek, but after a few years they are still unoccupied, or look run-down due to the low-quality building materials or lack of management.

And then you begin to see the numerous contradictions in the country, like how in the constitution people have the right to petition the central government and many make the journey to Beijing. But once they get to the capital, they are whisked away and thrown into "black jails" where they are illegally held for days, months, weeks before being sent back to their hometowns.

People spend their hard-earned money to buy an apartment, only to have it confiscated later by government officials who have sold the land to developers in return for kickbacks. The developers take over these properties by cutting off the gas, water, electricity, and then even sending thugs to beat up the so-called owners of the place.

While the country's GDP was at double digits for several years until last year at 8 percent, and holds some $2 trillion in US Treasury bills, these mind-boggling numbers do little justice in explaining the real situation in China.

The income gap between the rich and the poor is staggering to see in person. The Liu family living on the border between Beijing and Hebei Province at the Simatai section of the Great Wall live the simple farmer lifestyle, waking up with the sun, tilling the dry patch-work fields and eating mostly vegetable dishes before going to bed early.

Meanwhile the uber rich have no qualms ordering everything expensive on the menu, force each other to drink baijiu and smoke up a storm before leaving behind several dishes barely touched. They also think they own the road, especially when they drive SUVs.

How the wealthy gain their riches is an interesting mystery, while how the majority of the population scrape by on a few thousand RMB a month is another.

There's no question that people's lives have improved significantly in the past 30 years, but at what cost? Rivers and lakes are so polluted that "cancer villages" are springing up near these water sources. Climate change has also resulted in dried up river and lake beds that decades earlier were teeming with fish.

It seems like Beijing has a strong consumer culture -- people buying up all kinds of things from clothing to cars, everyone carrying at least one shopping bag. There is so much noise pollution, hypnotically telling people to buy more stuff, or on-going public service announcements that are so vague they hardly mean anything.

But this is the way the government wants things to be run -- it doesn't want its people to know too much or to think they deserve more. It continues its mantra that China is a big country and so managing it is a big task.

However, when you look at it, the Communist Party of China has had over 60 years of experience in governing the vast country and the world's largest population. One would have thought that by now it would know how to administer the place in an efficient and effective manner.

But the only way the CPC knows how to do this is mostly by force.

This was seen in how Tibet and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region were governed and these two areas in particular continue to see repression. Instead of trying to understand and integrate cultural differences in policy, the Chinese government believes economic development will create harmony.

Ah a harmonious society. Practically everyone I know here mocks President Hu Jintao's slogan. How can there be harmony when there is such a discrepancy between the rich and the poor, environmental degradation, a persistent consumer culture and lack of respect of people's rights?

It's really all about the Party. It's not about improving the welfare of the people or creating a better environment. It's about preserving the Party's power. At any cost.

Which is why it was reported today that best-selling author Yu Jie was taken by police for questioning on Monday. They threatened to imprison him if he continued with his plans to publish a book criticizing Premier Wen Jiabao.

They warned him that Wen was no ordinary citizen and that the book, China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao would harm state security and national interests, which could lead to a prison sentence similar to rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

"People cannot tell the truth," a friend remarked to me the other day over lunch. "If you do, you get into trouble."

But some believe it is important to forgo all personal consequences and try to tell the truth for the sake of the greater society.

Tan Zuoren was jailed for five years for trying to help those who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake almost two years ago; and Liu for 11 years for helping to write the Charter 08, calling for multi-party elections among many things.

And there is also Gao Zhisheng, the human rights lawyer who was detained by police, illegally I may add, and then released, and now detained again and no one knows where he is.

The government is terrified of these people -- scared of them for saying that the emperor has no clothes on.

But it is true. How can there be any civil society in China when basic human rights are ignored, and actually trampled on? How can China ever become a great power when it cannot stand dissent or criticism?

Meanwhile we in the west cannot compare China to ourselves -- it must find its own way in establishing a just society, and looking back at its past can give it some inspiration.

So on this note I bid zaijian.

Thank you Beijing for teaching me a lot of things about China I didn't know. The country is still a work in progress and hopefully the Party leaders will make the right choices for the people.

After all, it is the People's Republic of China.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Moving On

These last several days have been hectic for me. On Tuesday I moved out of my apartment in Dongzhimen and spent the entire afternoon and early evening cleaning it.

Apparently it was so clean that my landlord was pleased he didn't have to re-clean it and gladly handed back my one-month deposit.

I really enjoyed the one-bedroom place, with its convenient location right by the subway station and bus stop, as well as other amenities nearby (including the hairdresser and favourite restaurants, not to mention a concert hall too).

Downstairs is the gym I belong to (anyone want to carry on the remaining time on my membership?) where I pounded the treadmill and raced in the pool, blowing away the local competition.

I know many of the buses at the Dongzhimen bus stop and where they can take me, and best of all, practically every other taxi driver knows my apartment building so there's no need to give directions.

In the last few days I have been living in my friend's place and for another few days before starting a new adventure -- in Hong Kong.

I've just got a new job there and will be starting there in about a week.

In addition to all this packing and moving, I've been trying to see a few friends here and there and do a few last things (last massage at Bodhi, last meals at favourite restaurants).

It's a strange feeling knowing its my last few days in Beijing, but as my job will entail travel around Asia, there is a good chance I will be back in the Chinese capital for business soon.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hoping for Calm in Urumqi

Today is the eve before the first anniversary of the Urumqi riots in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

And the government is taking no chances in compromising security.

The police have installed 40,000 security cameras in the capital Urumqi, much like the ones in Shenzhen to track people's movements from the moment they walk out of their homes. They have been installed in buses, bus stops, streets, lanes, schools, kindergartens, supermarkets, shopping malls and other places.

An extra 5,000 police officers were recruited this year and anti-riot exercises took place in the hopes of deterring trouble. A Uighur told AFP that on Thursday all their big knives were confiscated and they were told not to go out on Monday, the day of the anniversary.

Nothing will make people in China forget what happened last year, when according to the government, nearly 200 people were killed and 1,700 were injured in the worst ethnic violence in decades.

While the government blames the violence on "separatists" led by Rebiya Kadeer, it is really Beijing's policy in oppressing the Uighur minority group, while giving preferences to Han Chinese who move to the area that caused the unrest. The resentment boiled into frustration and anger that was taken out on the streets and on many innocent people.

However, the government has done little to adjust its policy in realising its blatant discrimination and instead focused on economic development, thinking money will make Uighurs happier.

Long-time Party chief Wang Lequan was removed in April and replaced with Zhang Chunxian, a senior official who has a good track record in terms of building GDP figures.

We will have to wait and see what happens tomorrow and with the world watching, the government will hope it will be a quiet anniversary.

But within Urumqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang, the resentment continues to simmer.

Those who have the resources are trying to send their children out of the region in the hopes that they will have better lives abroad.

For them it is their last resort in keeping their Uighur culture alive and giving the next generation a chance to flourish far from Chinese repression.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Picture of the Day: Cloud Formations

Yesterday at around 6:30pm this is what the sky looked like on the east side of town. The clouds were uniformly scattered across the sky as if a giant rock had been thrown into the sky and the clouds were the ripples.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Taste of Morocco

Yesterday two friends and I had dinner at Argana, a Moroccan restaurant whose chef was behind Moro, which I had tried about a year ago.

Argana is located in Xingfucun Zhong Lu, off of the bus stop from the Worker's Gymnasium, across from a Western grocery store called April Gourmet. Interestingly enough, over a year ago I had seen an apartment in the building right next to the restaurant, but didn't like it.

In any case, with the summer heat baking us all day, the somewhat cool breeze in the evening was perfect for al fresco dining.

We got a table right in front of a giant flat-screen TV for the quarter-final World Cup match of the Netherlands against Brazil (Brazil lost in a shock defeat, 2-1).

The menu is conveniently in front of you as a place mat, and we started off with the tapas platter, which was a delicious start. The rectangular plate featured roasted slices of fennel, mushrooms, roasted peppers, salad, slightly curried squid, and prawns.

And as an added bonus we got some bread to mop up the excess sauce and olive oil on the platter.

Then we had a beetroot salad with fried quail eggs and new potatoes that was underwhelming, but as it was hot out, it was a refreshing summer dish.

For our mains we shared the vegetarian tagine, of braised pumpkin, courgette, tomatoes, onions, and carrots in a tomato-based sauce heavily spiced with pepper that was fantastic. Another was the slow-cooked rabbit leg, the meat very tender.

A strange dessert is pigeon pie, minced meat in layers of pastry with rosewater and icing sugar dressed with finely sliced almonds. The small cake cut into quarters was plenty for each of us.

We also got some free entertainment courtesy of a magician named Rock, a young Chinese guy with faltering English but had quick hands. He transformed ordinary pieces of paper into 10RMB notes (we asked if he could change them into 100RMB notes), and could pick out the cards we had chosen from the deck of cards.

However, the service was very inconsistent, with some waiters understanding English, and others not knowing English or Chinese. Obviously some training is in order as these incompetent staff would try to hide or ignore diners flagging for their attention.

Nevertheless, the manager of Argana, a rotund boisterous fellow did his best to make his guests feel welcome, many of whom are regulars who came out to watch the exciting football match.

55 Xingfucun Middle Road
8448 8250

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Picture of the Day: Hitching a Ride

Many Beijingers have small dogs that they either have on a leash or carry in their arms.

Some like to transport them in their bicycle baskets too.

But this little pooch seems to have a cool ride from his master, who seems to need the exercise more than Fido does...