The Diplomat has a piece on the backlash in South Korea against Chinese undermining of Korea’s cultural authenticity.
I noticed when I lived in Beijing a distinctly paternalistic air would come from Chinese people when the subject of Korea — North or South — came up (but especially South). There’d be a tone of incredulity in their voice and a look of skepticism would come across their face, as if to say, “You don’t really take our little Korea seriously, do you? They’re not even a real people; they’re just a wayward band of Chinese from the old days.” There’d sometimes be comments to that effect to go with it, as though Korea were a renegade province.
They waved off mentions of the accomplishments of South Korea, too. Never mind that it takes a lot more effort and responsibility of a country’s people to run a democracy, much less one of the most successful democracies in the world, one that kicked its corrupt president out of office and then had one of the most effective responses to COVID-19 in the world, despite — like Taiwan — being on the doorstep of the country where the outbreak started. It riles China to have these awkward counter-examples to its authoritarianism right next door.
You probably have heard of China’s “Great
Firewall” that blocks outside news sites and social media. But somewhat to
my surprise, I saw firsthand that the country also censors print publications.
My surprise wasn’t in the censoring so much as it was in the
method: physically removing stories from print newspapers. I had a print
subscription to the weekly newspaper The Economist, and the copies would show
up with stories on China removed. Often the entire section on China had been
It’s very satisfying to at last be able to put up this post. It is full of — gasp! — messages against China’s central government. I visited Hong Kong in late November, about a month before leaving China for good. There I was able to take many photos of graffiti and other anti-government messaging put up by protesters.
This building has become in my mind a symbol of my time in Beijing. It’s the first thing I found myself absorbed in when I first arrived. It’s across the street from where I work and was right outside the window of the first place I sat down at there, at a little hallway table meeting with an HR person. It was visible from the roof of the first apartment building I lived in, where I’d go at sunrise to stretch and drink coffee. It’s visible from my current apartment.
Seeing a new strain of wheat being touted in the
same room as the spacesuit of China’s first astronaut was the moment that
awakened me to the country’s perspective. It went from being the backward
agrarian country American parents once used to guilt their kids into eating
their vegetables (“People are starving in China, and you won’t even finish
your plate!”) to being an economic powerhouse, in just a few decades.
This came during an October 2016 visit to the National
Museum on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and was surely the reaction curators hoped
to elicit. The Chinese people are coming from a point of view the rest world
overlooks, underestimates, or is just plain unaware of.
Stuck an old iPhone in my shirt pocket and hit record for my commute to and from work. That’s it. Raw, simple way to preserve a period in my life and to give the curious an idea of what it’s like to commute in Beijing by shared bike.
My second apartment in Beijing is, despite its sometimes prison cell-like feel, much better than my first. It’s tiny but was redone from floor to ceiling before I moved in. The floors are covered in big marble-like tiles that are so polished and new they have a mirror effect. The cupboards and sinks and windows and everything are new.
Many times I have ridden a bicycle from my apartment past the Palace Museum (Forbidden City). After three years living in Beijing, it was time I went inside. And I finally hit another spot I long needed to see, the Olympic Park in Beijing.
In late January, CGTN sent me to Yunnan province in southwestern China. This was as part of a “grassroots trip” to “bring foreigners a better understanding of China”. I was on a four-person crew — cameraman, planner, producer, and myself. We were joined by crews from CGTN’s other foreign language channels: Russian, Arabic, Spanish, and French. There were about 25 of us in total.
CGTN regularly holds these trips to China’s farther-flung regions, such as Xinjiang and Tibet. The tours are meant to give the impression that they in involve genuine in-the-field reporting. Not coincidentally, these regions are where China draws the sharpest rebukes internationally over its oppressive policies. They are home to many of the country’s “ethnic minorities”, as opposed to the main Han ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the population.
Yunnan has a natural, exotic beauty. It abuts the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam and is known for its rich diversity of plant life. We traveled mostly by bus through the mountains and lush valleys of this subtropical region.
Our job at CGTN is to tell a “different narrative, from a Chinese perspective”. In Yunnan, we would gather a trove of cheerleading propaganda material. Look at how wonderfully “upgraded” these ethnic people’s lives are under the able and benevolent hand of the Han-led Communist Party. They have been lifted out of an elemental existence, with their colorful cultures intact.
The organizers took us to see economic and infrastructure improvements in villages, markets, farms, and factories. All carefully managed. The crews get footage of anodyne cultural performances and traditional life while smiling foreigners talks about how charming it is. Pure propaganda. This is to better ensure that the foreigners on staff actually believe the Party line. Presumably, they also hope we will carry these positive observations back to our homelands and media jobs someday.
We intruded on people’s lives everywhere we went, even in their homes in some instances. Local officials awaited us at each spot to help orchestrate the coverage. We filed off the bus to watch people weaving, making wicker, tending to donkeys, working sugar cane. Villagers and officials dutifully showed us their traditional ways and said what they were supposed to say. Their lives are great and their way of life protected thanks to the central government.
The Chinese staff, it is worth noting, largely are not fooled by any of this. Some of them seem to take it harder than the foreign staffers do, cringing at the euphemistic “grassroots”. The Chinese word jiceng (基层) could also be translated as “basic level”, conveying typical central government paternalism. If it had a symbol it would be that of a Beijing official patting a peasant on the head. When they say “grassroots” in English to me, they do so with a pained expression as though expecting a disapproving reaction. Not all Chinese, even those who work in the propaganda machine, mindlessly swallow the state’s messaging.
Despite my jaded view, the trip did provide me with memories that will last a lifetime and a view into a different part of China, if for no other reason than it finally got me out of Beijing. A big part of that came from two days at the ancient salt village of Nuodeng, for which I have made a separate gallery.
Beijing’s only real street food worth mentioning, the jianbing is a worker’s breakfast of tasty, greasy, slightly spicy, fried batter, egg, meat, and other fixins. I got a video of it being made on my way home from visiting the Public Security Bureau in Dongzhimen to pick up my renewed work permit for my second year in China. This street vendor was right outside the entrance to the Dongzhimen subway station.