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The Communist Party capitalises on foreign interest in Chinese culture

Economist - Thu, 02/07/2019 - 16:53

LUO YUQUAN can barely hide his glee. The Chinese new year jamboree thrown by the China Cultural Centre (CCC) in Tokyo, which he heads, has gone swimmingly. Ethnic-Tibetan singers flown in from China enchanted the audience, many of whom danced along to the catchy tunes. Copious Tsingtao beer helped sustain the high spirits. An exhibition in an adjoining room featured paintings with Buddhist themes, also shipped in from China. “We are proud to show off 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation!” beams Mr Luo, “As more Japanese come to appreciate Chinese culture, they will naturally grow to love China.”

Chinese officials often declare that China has a 5,000-year history. In truth, that is overstating things by about 1,000 years. Yet the myth serves a useful purpose for the Communist Party. At home, it is a source of national pride. Abroad, it justifies a sort of Chinese exceptionalism. Xi Jinping, the president, told the visiting Donald...

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Can baijiu, China’s sorghum firewater, go global?

Economist - Thu, 01/31/2019 - 16:43

DISTILLERS AT Kweichow Moutai, the world’s most valuable alcoholic-drinks firm, like to tell an old story about their company’s first big break. It relates how, in 1915, Chinese officials chose to exhibit Moutai’s sorghum-based spirit at an exposition in San Francisco. When the doors opened the snooty American audience sneered at the delegation’s plain earthenware jars. Fearing disaster, or perhaps simply by accident, a Chinese delegate smashed one on the floor, releasing its aroma to the crowd. The scent and the commotion attracted the judges, who eventually awarded it a top prize.

The tale is told with relish to visitors in Maotai, the pretty riverside town in the south-western province of Guizhou that gave the company its name (the spelling of Kweichow Moutai is based on old-style romanisation). The medal the liquor won in San Francisco hangs in a corporate museum, next to a video-wall showing a re-enactment of the incident. That was the day, explains the...

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A swine-fever epidemic like China’s would enrage farmers elsewhere

Economist - Thu, 01/31/2019 - 16:43

UNTIL NOW links between social-realist cinema and “Peppa Pig”, a sweet British-made animated television series for children, have been hard to spot. Then came “What is Peppa?”, a beautifully crafted film about China’s rural-urban divide, family ties and the sadness of old age that has accumulated hundreds of millions of online views over the past few days.

Officially, the six-minute short is an advertising trailer for a children’s feature film made for the China market, “Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year”. It is timed to cash in on the festival: day one of a pig-year in the Chinese zodiac falls on February 5th. Yet many grown-ups felt a pang of recognition as they watched the trailer’s bittersweet, live-action depiction of Li Yubao, a gruff-but-loving Chinese villager striving to please his city-dwelling grandson, notably by puzzling out the toddler’s request for a Peppa-themed gift. Filmed in the village of Waijinggou, in...

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Why China is lavishing money on foreign students

Economist - Thu, 01/24/2019 - 16:46

IN A RESTAURANT in the backstreets of Beijing, 12 Pakistanis and Afghans studying at the China University of Communications tell stories of their arrival in China. No one came to pick them up; none of them spoke a word of Chinese. They have plenty of tales of getting lost, disoriented and ripped off by taxi drivers.

The students, all but two of them ethnic Pushtuns, roar with laughter as they swap yarns and savour the cuisine from Xinjiang, a Chinese region that borders on their home countries and has cultural bonds with them. Any ill feeling about those early days has long since dissipated. They agree that, apart from some taxi drivers, the Chinese are very helpful. Friendly relations between their countries and China mean they are welcomed as brothers. Most important, they are all on full scholarships—free tuition, free accommodation and a stipend of 3,000 yuan ($441) a month, more than three times Pakistan’s GDP per person....

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A celebrity blogger in China shines a light on political intrigue

Economist - Thu, 01/24/2019 - 16:46

Cui’s words have power

IT SEEMS LIKE a story straight out of a legal thriller: powerful figures conniving in the shadows at the highest level of the legal system to tip the scales of justice in a dispute over billions of dollars’ worth of mining riches. Also featured are sabotaged security cameras, missing court documents, the apparent disappearance of a supreme-court judge and the downfall of a provincial Communist Party boss. Twists in the plot are being recorded by China’s state-owned media. But it is a celebrity television-host and blogger, Cui Yongyuan (pictured), whose tweets have been keeping the story moving.

It involves a legal battle waged by a private firm against a state-owned one over rights to a coal mine in the northern province of Shaanxi. The dispute involves a deal worth 100bn yuan ($15bn). In 2017 the Supreme People’s Court ruled in favour of the private company. But in December, in...

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If it is serious about defending the environment, China needs to embrace global norms

Economist - Thu, 01/24/2019 - 16:46

DURING THE last ice age, when glaciers blanketed most of Eurasia, the peaks and plateaus of the Hengduan mountains in south-west China were spared. So many animals, birds and plants found a refuge there that, to this day, a quarter of China’s mammal species live in that remote corner of Yunnan province. Strict laws protect a park created at the heart of the mountain range, embracing many varied habitats, from alpine woods filled with snub-nosed monkeys to the parallel gorges down which thunder the headwaters of three great rivers, the Yangzi, Mekong and Salween.

Chinese officials are justly proud of this lovely place, and are clear that only high-quality administration can keep it safe. No detail was too small when they drew up a master plan for the park, now dubbed, not very poetically, the “Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area”. That plan included airborne and satellite monitoring to enforce rules, caps on tourist...

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Hong Kongers could be jailed for disrespecting China’s anthem

Economist - Thu, 01/17/2019 - 16:52

THE BOOS can be heard around Mong Kok stadium, the home of Hong Kong’s football team. Some young supporters clad in red home jerseys cup their hands around their mouths, amplifying their displeasure. Such scenes are common anywhere when a player is penalised. But the rowdy fans on this brisk October evening at the club’s most recent home match are not angry with the referee. They are trying to drown out China’s national anthem, which is played before every game featuring Hong Kong’s team. At some matches locals have turned their backs or waved banners reading “Hong Kong is not China”.

Embarrassingly for the central government in Beijing, local fans did not boo “God Save the Queen”, Britain’s anthem, when it was played at fixtures before 1997, the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty. Why such outrage over China’s song? It stems from the failure of the “Umbrella Movement” of 2014, which, among other things, demanded...

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In China’s feud with Canada, the gloves are off

Economist - Thu, 01/17/2019 - 16:52

Schellenberg, back in court

WHEN EUROPE’S medieval princes met in battle, a grim change could be signalled by raising a red banner, revealing that bellum hostile—during which high-ranking prisoners could expect to be ransomed and returned unharmed—had become guerre mortelle, or a fight to the death. China’s modern-day rulers appeared to send a similar message on January 14th, when a Chinese court sentenced a Canadian man to die for drug-smuggling after a one-day retrial, organised after Canada arrested a well-connected Chinese executive.

The court in Dalian, a northern port, deliberated for only about an hour before imposing the sentence on Robert Schellenberg, a 36-year-old former oilfield worker who says he was framed. He was convicted of trying to smuggle 222kg of methamphetamine to Australia, hidden in tyres. Mr Schellenberg’s first trial, which saw...

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History shows the folly of China’s paranoia about Islam

Economist - Thu, 01/17/2019 - 16:52

IT IS A shame that so few Chinese remember General Bai Chongxi, a brilliant tactician during the war against Japan in 1937-45. He showed China that it is possible to be at once a patriot and a devoted Muslim. Bai was a complicated figure. A warlord capable of ruthlessness, he was also a reformer who wanted education to free his fellow Chinese Muslims from isolation and poverty. As a commander of Kuomintang (or Nationalist) troops, he was involved in massacres of Communists. Still, when Chaguan this week visited Bai’s home town in Guangxi province, in the south, locals praised his victories over the Japanese. The Bai family mansion is a protected historical site. Austere and grey-walled, it sits amid rice fields and limestone peaks straight from a scroll painting. Its empty interior offers no explanation as to why Bai matters.

He was once one of China’s best-known Muslims. Under the autocratic Nationalist rule of Chiang Kai-shek,...

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Why young Chinese are sporting 1,800-year-old fashions

Economist - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 16:51

LIKE TEENAGERS the world over, Chen Bolin, a Chinese university student, feels a need to belong. Unlike many of his peers, Mr Chen has found a spiritual home: China of the Wei and Jin dynasties, about 1,800 years ago. So deep is this bond that on special occasions he wears flowing, wide-sleeved robes inspired by third-century dress. One moment of connection stood out, when he wore robes to a museum in Shaoxing, the eastern city where he studies. There he found a sculpture depicting sages from the Wei and Jin era. His own clothes were “exactly like theirs”, he recalls happily. He saluted the statues and told them: “Dear ancestors, I’ve heard so much about you. It is my good fortune to see you today.”

The teenager developed his passion at high school in Pingliang, perched in the hills of Gansu, an inland province. Though a rather small, sleepy spot, Pingliang is home to a Han culture association. Such clubs are spreading fast. They...

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Reported cases of HIV in China are rising rapidly

Economist - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 16:51

WANG XIAOSHUAI, a gay man in the central city of Hefei, used to believe that only people who injected drugs could contract HIV. But then a man he had sex with revealed that he had tested HIV-positive. Mr Wang visited a local NGO and took a pinprick test to determine whether he, too, was infected. Happily, he was not. But the experience was terrifying. “It never occurred to me that someone around me could actually get HIV,” he says.

Many others are less fortunate. In November China’s Centre for Disease Control said that 850,000 people were known to be HIV-positive, 12% more than a year earlier and almost three times the number in 2010. An official study found that new cases of HIV among students aged between 15 and 24 rose by more than one-third every year in 2011-15, mostly as a result of gay sex.

The virus may not be spreading as fast as these figures suggest. The rapid increase is largely the result...

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Worries about unemployment mount as China’s economy slows

Economist - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 16:51

THE FACTORY town known as iPhone city used to pulse with life as workers got off their shifts. These days the complex that churns out roughly half of all Apple smartphones is quieter. A staff dormitory just beyond its gates is empty, its entrance sealed with barbed wire. A barbecue restaurant, a noodle shop and, fittingly, a mobile-phone outlet have all closed. At a karaoke bar where workers would croon into the wee hours on rest days, the owner was recently seen packing up his speakers.

The giant complex on the edge of the central city of Zhengzhou is run by Foxconn, Apple’s Taiwanese manufacturing partner. It remains one of the world’s busiest factories. But it is well off its peak, when as many as 350,000 people kept production humming around the clock. Workers say they are down to eight hours a day, five days a week. That means they are not doing the overtime that accounts for much of their pay. “It feels like they’re forcing...

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China plans the biggest garden show ever

Economist - Thu, 01/03/2019 - 17:31

BEYOND THE Great Wall and the chain of rugged hills through which it snakes, workers are putting the finishing touches to a colossal edifice. The beams of its roof are curved, with golden tiles reminiscent of those that adorn the Forbidden City, 70km to the south-east. The building itself curves, too, in a shape that its architects say resembles a ruyi—a traditional Chinese talisman (pictured is an artist’s impression). They say it invokes a longing for fulfilment of the “Chinese dream”. That is a cherished slogan of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, whose wish is that China should emerge as a global giant. As a state news agency puts it, the building conveys the “imposing manner of a great power”.

The China Pavilion, as the structure is called, is for an international flower festival in Yanqing, a satellite town of the capital. The show will open on April 29th and last for more than five months. It...

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China picks the most popular terms of the year

Economist - Tue, 12/18/2018 - 17:11

EVERY DECEMBER millions of Chinese netizens vote for a word and phrase that best capture the spirit of the preceding year in China. The Communist Party’s hand is highly visible. The competition is jointly organised by the website of the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece; Commercial Press, a state-backed publisher; Tencent, an internet giant; and a think-tank under the education ministry. Internet users are invited to propose candidates. But the shortlists presented to voters comprise terms that the party itself endlessly repeats or that it deems sufficiently anodyne.

In 2017 the winning Chinese character was xiang, which means either to enjoy or to share (the fruits of China’s prosperity, naturally). In 2016 it was gui, meaning rules (the party uses them to strengthen its control). Repeat winners include zhang, meaning grow, which...

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The US and Chinese armies struggle to learn how to talk to each other

Economist - Tue, 12/18/2018 - 17:11

“YOU ARE on dangerous course,” barked a Chinese sailor aboard the Lanzhou, a destroyer, over the ship’s radio on September 30th. “If you don’t change course you will suffer consequences.” The vessel picked up speed and overtook the USS Decatur, an American destroyer, which was conducting a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP, in Pentagon jargon) near reefs in the South China Sea that are claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. “We are conducting innocent passage,” insisted the Decatur. She sounded five short blasts with her whistle as the Lanzhou closed in, passing within a hair-raising 41 metres. “They were trying to push us out of the way,” notes an American sailor, narrating a video of the incident. Had the Lanzhou misjudged and smashed into the Decatur, lives might have been lost...

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China should worry less about old enemies, more about ex-friends

Economist - Thu, 12/13/2018 - 16:44

TO FIELDMICE, rabbits and voles, every shadow overhead is a hawk until proved otherwise, condemning them to lives of needless panic. Chinese nationalists seem intent on ignoring that lesson from nature. Behind rising tensions with the West, they see dangerous anti-China hawks everywhere. Specifically they feel under attack from hardliners with President Donald Trump’s ear, who are intent on keeping a rising China down.

Rather than hawks scheming to contain China, jumpy nationalists should be worrying about a different group: Americans and Europeans who were once advocates of engagement, but have been disappointed by illiberal, aggressive choices made by Chinese rulers. They are not so much hawks as unhappy ex-doves.

That runs counter to an official Chinese narrative that casts China as the peace-loving victim of Americans with a cold-war mindset. In the words of a Chinese speaker at a recent policy forum: “[Cold-...

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The West once flooded China with opium. China is returning the favour

Economist - Thu, 12/13/2018 - 16:44

WHEN POLICE raided an apartment used by a chemicals exporter in the northern city of Xingtai just over a year ago, they found a team of English-speaking saleswomen hired to advertise illegal wares on foreign websites. Last month their boss was among nine people who pleaded guilty in a Chinese court to producing and mailing narcotics to America. The drugs included fentanyl, a potent opioid painkiller that has killed tens of thousands of people. The investigation began with a tip-off from American police, who were investigating one of the gang’s customers. They said the joint Chinese-American effort had prevented 20m doses of fentanyl from being sent abroad.

On December 1st China gave another hint that it was getting tougher on the drug that has blighted America (see article). The country’s president, Xi Jinping, agreed to close loopholes that allow some...

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To curb pollution, China has appointed over 1m “river chiefs”

Economist - Thu, 12/13/2018 - 16:44

In proud fulfilment of a great, noble call

HUO YAN, the Communist Party boss of a small district in north-east Beijing, was recently ordered by her bosses to take on a second job. Now Ms Huo must find time in her busy schedule to conduct weekly patrols along the Bahe river—an ancient canal that flows through her patch. She is responsible for protecting the waterway, scooping out garbage (or hiring others to do so) and keeping an eye out for pollution-causing activities on its banks. The side gig comes without extra pay.

The “river chief” system began more than a decade ago in the eastern province of Jiangsu. In 2016 the central government decreed that every lake and river, or segment thereof in the case of larger ones, must have someone tasked with keeping them free of visible pollutants. By the end of June every river had at least one local official designated as its supervisor.

There...

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How Russians and Chinese see each other

Economist - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 16:42

THE HIGH SPEED train from Changchun to Vladivostok would be a fine symbol of Sino-Russian friendship, if someone would finish it. The line’s Chinese leg is a modern marvel: a silk-smooth ride through a blur of birch trees and red-roofed farms. Then the line ends at buffers in Hunchun, a border city near Russia.

At first Hunchun’s residents are wary of discussing why their home town—a drab but friendly city of fewer than 230,000 people—is the terminus of a high-speed rail line from Changchun, the nearest provincial capital. The line, which cost 42bn yuan ($6bn), opened in 2015. Public records show that the surrounding province, Jilin, invited Russia to help lay the track as far as Vladivostok, the Russian Far East’s largest port. Russian selfishness scotched that plan, Hunchun’s residents mutter. “Russia said, ‘If you want it, you can build it,’” alleges a Chinese business owner. It will take 20 years for high-speed trains to...

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Forty years after Deng opened China, reformists are cowed

Economist - Thu, 12/06/2018 - 16:42

THOUGH IT DOES not believe in saints, the Communist Party of China came close to canonising its former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, back in 2004. On the centenary of his birth, Deng—who died in 1997—was hailed as the immortal “chief architect” of reforms that had made China prosperous and strong. The eulogies had some basis. Thanks to his support for policies dubbed “reform and opening up”, Deng can take credit for a secular miracle: the greatest economic recovery in history.

With cunning and pragmatism, Deng and his aides dismantled a broken economy and dystopian society left behind by Mao Zedong. They re-awoke the country’s slumbering genius for capitalism and found a way to call it socialism, albeit “with Chinese characteristics”. By 2004 the economy was 44 times larger than it was on December 18th 1978 (see chart 1). It was on that date that party leaders began a meeting that is now officially called the start of the era...

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