If you are wondering where I have been, the answer is China, stuck behind what is called the Great Firewall of China. In all the time I have been involved with the country, I don’t think the government has ever blocked so many web sites or web searches. As one example, using Baidu, the most popular domestic search engine, it is currently not possible to do blog searches based on the names of 19 of 25 current members of the Politburo, including the president and prime minister (no idea why you can search the other six). The whole of WordPress, which hosts this blog, is blocked in China. As are thousands and thousands of news outlets, service providers and often seemingly innocuous sites which hardly seem capable of upsetting anybody. The censorship is always severe, but it is particularly severe at present because of the riots in Xinjiang in the west of China earlier this year, the passing on June 4 of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and the still to come 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in October.
It is possible to go around, or over, the Great Firewall, using a ‘proxy’ server. If I have understood correctly, this routes all your traffic via an additional server which makes Chinese censors think your destination is one place when in fact it is really somewhere else, the true destination being hidden behind the proxy server. I tried one free proxy for a while and it worked only patchily. People who follow these things say that the free proxies are under constant electronic attack from China’s cyber-police; I have no idea how they conduct their electronic warfare, but I do know they have very substantial resources. So before I left I shelled out US$60 at www.witopia.com for a Virtual Private Network service – a sort of Cadillac proxy – that allowed me to view and access anything. The problem is that this necessarily slows things down, involving as it does both encryption and routing via a proxy. So I found the best way to operate is to surf with the VPN off and when you hit something that is blocked – the message on google is typically that the link was ‘broken’, on Chinese search engines you are told you may have infringed some unspecifed law – you turn on the VPN (which boots up in half a minute) and revisit the page. George Orwell would have loved it.
Witopia means I could have blogged from China, but by the time I was sorted out I had lost the habit and was charging round trying to finish the work I had to finish before we left. So here is a very brief review.
This was the longest period I have spent in China for about seven years. You wonder what has changed. Well, apart from the 24-hour construction and the unbelievable pollution, both of which have been constants since I first went to China in 1991, I think there are four fundamental differences between the start and end of this decade:
1. Almost everyone has a small dog. This may seem like an eccentric observation in ‘the world’s fastest-growing economy’, but it knocked me backwards. The small dog population of Beijing surely now numbers in the hundreds of thousands, if not a million-plus. Ten years ago, dogs were exceptional things. In the traditional Communist view, they are bourgeois pests. Even today, there is a rule in Beijing that dogs inside the fifth ringroad cannot exceed 30 centimetres at the shoulder, hence the plague of Pekinese, miniature poodles, the ones that look like anorexic foxes, and other assorted rug-rats. Even my friends have got these little dogs. But being liberal ne’er do-well types, they have rescue dogs and runts and so they provided few insights into the thinking of the owners of the standard pure-bred micro-pooch. I developed three theories, but had no time to test any of them through interviews with the general dog-owning public. The theories about the dog phenomenon: a) it is a foreign-funded act of counter-revolution, and will be crushed by a Tiananmen dog massacre that drives back the forces of splittist canine adventurism b) it is not counter-revolutionary, but instead the populist leading edge of Chinese market socialist civilisation and Chinese leaders including the president will soon appear an international meetings with a rug-rat under each arm; in turn, Obama’s purchase of a small dog for his children reflects his acknowledgement of the superiority of Chinese socialism c) Chinese society remains so whacked-out after the depravities of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, etc, that talking to small dogs about how you flayed your primary-school teacher is now an important form of national healing/therapy. Whichever of these theories has more merit, I can report that thankfully – unlike Paris – there is very little dog shit on the street.
2. Lots of people wear fou zhu. This translates as ‘buddhist pearls’ and refers to bracelets of (I believe usually 12) small balls worn around the wrist, which one fiddles with in the manner of Roman Catholics with their rosary beads. The number of these in Beijing is perhaps less than the number of small dogs, but whereas the latter are preferred by vacuous young women and garrulous grannies, the former are also very popular with men. I was impressed by the degree to which the Buddist pearl thing has invaded society’s deeper recesses after a meeting with an official at the National Development Reform Commission – the country’s central planning agency – where the gentleman concerned couldn’t leave his little balls alone. I immediately went out and got some for myself. The possible explanations for the rise of the Buddist pearl fashion, I suspect, are variants of a) through c), above.
3. In some respects the economy is now genuinely quite big. China is still a poor country, with an annual GDP-per capita in 2008 of US$3,300. But the sheer force of numbers – specifically, the 1.3 billion population number – means that some markets are very large. China has 2,600 Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, it will likely be the world’s biggest car market this year, it is set to install 200 gigawatts of wind turbines by 2020 (the total installed electricity generating capacity of the UK is 80 gigawatts). Of course the usual caveats apply: even KFC, with a product poor-ish people can afford, is finding it hard to shift more drumsticks as it pushes into the poorest part of the hinterland; the cars made by domestic Chinese firms could not be sold elsewhere in the world because they cannot not pass the safety tests; and the Chinese-made wind turbines are noisy, inefficient and occasionally catch fire. Nonetheless, unlike the 1990s when we lived in Beijing, some things are being done at serious scale. I wrote an article for the September issue of The Far Eastern Economic Review (sorry, subscription only) about goings-on in the steel industry, which is one business that is definitely done at scale (36 percent of global output last year).
4. The place is significantly more cosmopolitan. You still don’t get much change out of China if you do not speak the language. But people are trying to speak English, and the number of returnees who have lived, worked and studied overseas is giving a different feel to the biggest cities. They (try to) run interesting companies and do interesting things. I reckon their future is, if not the future of China, then at least its key barometer. More of this anon.