Beyond the Wings July 2019

This has been a month of completed drafts. I completed the first draft of my novel, a continent and millennia-spanning epistolary thriller, and have sent it off for its first beta reading. I also completed the first draft of my MBA thesis, which asks the question “Are diversity drives proving productive for UK publishing?”

Activities

The first draft of the MBA has been a struggle. It has involved a lot of reading and quantitative research. “Diversify” by June Sarpong proved massively helpful when it came to accruing data.

Thesis Draft

There have also been more live music performances, a side-project that continues to grow. I am building up to giving a full-length set that will hopefully materialise this year.

Output

There have been new MVs, including a higher-quality version of “Self-Doubt”, that has proved popular on Manchester’s open mic scene.

There is also “The War of 1812” (I underestimated how difficult it would be to sing), and another version of “The Happy Birthday Song”.

My review of “Life” by Lu Yao, translated by Chloe Estep, was also published by The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing.

Life

Wider World

When writing my MBA thesis, my main goal is to try to ensure that its conclusions are somewhat less weaselly and evasive than those of The Mueller Report. The left’s worst nightmare has come true, with Trump in the White House and well on course to win a second term, and Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street and committed to delivering Brexit, deal or no deal.

There are reasons for optimism though. Boris Johnson does not believe in Brexit with any conviction. Trump continues to show himself to be an ignorant fool with every utterance, which means the Democrats have a reasonable chance of inflicting the first real defeat on an incumbent since 1980 (1992 barely counts because the late Ross Perot split the centre-right vote).

With the situation in Hong Kong, it is more important than ever for liberal democracy to show that it is the superior form of government.

Beyond the Wings: June 2019

After a record-breakingly hot summer last year, this June had some mercifully miserable weather. I also managed to be productive.

Activities

I have started frequenting open mic sessions at The Old Pint Pot in Salford. Performing my songs and getting an enthusiastic reaction is one of my few activities that is ego-stroking.

Things for which there is no instant gratification, but my future self may thank me for include strong progress on my MBA thesis on diversity in the UK publishing industry. I am also 25,000 words into the first draft of an epistolary novel that contains elements of historical fiction and fantasy. I have also finished the final Beginner-level module of Spanish at The Cervantes Institute in Manchester.

Output

I bought a new electric guitar and have recorded an instrumental I wrote called “In a Lonely Hour”. I look forward to making more MVs with it.

I have also read and reviewed “Life” by Lu Yao, which has been brilliantly translated by Chloe Estep. My review will appear shortly.

Wider World

The debates for the Democratic nomination have begun. Kamala Harris was a standout performer, but Tulsi Gabbard may be the most impressive person they have.

Still, I think Trump is the favourite by virtue of his familiarity, and that he is America’s id.

Beyond the Wings: May 2019

Being busy is hardly anything to be proud of, but despite still being underemployed (I missed out on a book translation gig I really wanted), I am managing to fill the days with activities I find meaningful or expect to bear fruit in years to come.

Activities

Every day I plug away at Spanish and can now make out bits and pieces of conversations I hear. I am also exercising regularly and keeping abreast of dreams and reflections in the manner of ‘A Life of One’s Own’ by Marion Milner.

This is all very therapeutic. It’s a cultural taboo, but to suggest that psychotherapy is only for mentally ill people is like saying only unfit people should go to the gym, or only stupid people should read.

I also turned down an offer of a very good job in China. As tempting as it was, returning to Asia at this point would probably cause more problems than it solves.

Output

This month I have made very pleasing progress on my novel. I expect to finish the first draft this year. I have also plugged away at my MBA thesis, encountering a lot of game-changing ideas and facts along the way.

Researching a novel involves reading a lot of stuff one would read for pleasure. An MBA involves a lot of books and academic papers that nobody would read without having an exam to pass. Both have already proven to be worthwhile activities and may even make some money someday.

On the lighter side, I have had a very successful open mic night performing this song among others:

Lastly, my latest for LA Review of Books China Channel is on translating Tibetan literature.

Wider World

 I was and am a remainer and am not the slightest bit surprised by what a shitshow Brexit has been. But, remainers can also be annoying sometimes.

Tulsi Gabbard gave a very impressive interview on The Joe Rogan Experience. As presidential candidates go, she is certainly one of the more electable democrats. However, I still think Trump is the favourite for re-election at this point.

Beyond the Wings: April 2019

This month marked a year since I left Asia. While freelancing away, I have been binging on books, trips to the cinema and attempts to stay fit in the hope it leads to another creative burst.

Output

According to a nationwide survey by Pan Suiming of Renmin University, China has the world’s highest proportion of people who admit to engaging in extramarital affairs. The figure for both men and women has consistently increased since the year 2000. This month I made a new MV, a song about this moral anarchy that the country is going through.

I also reviewed Jiang Zilong’s thousand-page tome “Empires of Dust” for The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing.

Screenshot 2019-04-28 at 14.09.15

Activities

Early in the month, I was attacked by a stranger online for an inappropriate attempt at humour. This reminded me of two rules I have about most social networks: never argue and never attempt humour.

Woke people usually have a point, and just because they often make arses of themselves overstating it, doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Cultural consumption this month has ranged from the exceptionally good (seeing Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White” on the big screen) to the extraordinarily bad (blockbuster novel “The Tattooist of Auschwitz“), but all provided valuable lessons on the art of story.

The Wider World

This month, Extinction Rebellion brought parts of London to a standstill while the Brexit Party made its presence felt, with Annunziata Rees-Mogg (Jacob’s sister) announcing her candidacy.

These two things happening at the same time reminded me of a passage from “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari: “Nationalist isolationism is probably more dangerous in the context of climate change than of nuclear war. An all-out nuclear war threatens to destroy all nations, so all nations have an equal stake in preventing it. Global warming, in contrast, will probably have a different impact on different nations.”

On the subject of irresponsibility on the world stage, Amal Clooney has attacked senior members of The Trump Administration by name for their undermining of the International Criminal Court. In opposition to Trump, Joe Biden became the 21st democratic candidate to declare and, in spite of allegations of inappropriately touching women, currently looks like the favourite to be the nominee.

Despite the candidates including such genuinely impressive figures as Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, my money is still on Trump to win a second term.

 

Beyond the Wings: March 2019

This month, more time has been freed up by the completion of my MBA exams. Now I have to start selling myself professionally.

Output

Having had five short stories published, I remain committed to the form, and will attend both The Northern Short Story Festival and The Comma Short Story Writing course later this year. However, if I am ever to get a book deal, I will need to write a novel. I am working on one about a Chinese prostitute. The premise is even cornier than “Pretty Woman” so the execution will have to be super good.

I will finish a draft this year and expect to be submitting it for publication by the middle of 2020.

This month I made a return to performing at open mic nights. The first time, the audience was too small to really gauge how the songs went over, but it was good getting out there again.

Published writing has included a review of Tsering Döndrup’s “The Handsome Monk”, posted by The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, and two essays in LA Review of Books China Channel’s Hidden Histories section.

Moreover, I have finally completed my brief essay collection, “China in 5 Words”, about business practices in the People’s Republic. I am considering self-publishing the collection in book form.

Activities

I am now able to read for pleasure again.

Books that I have completed this month include “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari and “Skin in the Game” by Nasseem Nicholas Taleb. Both inspire the reader to consider the wider implications of their own actions or inactions.

For example, Harari points out that in Victorian England, genteel women drank tea laced with sugar that was grown in the Americas by African slaves working in hellish conditions. Their action was not based on hatred, but indifference.

The same can be said of the moral implications today of consuming meat or oil or coal. In the novel I am working on, the central character sets out to live her life by causing as little harm as possible. The conflict will arise from the complications of what this even implies.

The Wider World

On one side of The Atlantic, with the Mueller Investigation having ended, Donald Trump looks in pole position to win a second term. On the other, Brexit is unfolding as disastrously as most knowledgeable people predicted.

The former issue is still massively unpredictable. But to use a term coined by Taleb, Trump is anti-fragile. The Access Hollywood tape for example, would have buried any other politician, but expectations about Trump’s personal conduct are so low, he seems to get away with everything.

The latter issue has made me feel slightly guilty about an op-ed I wrote in 2012 while working for a Chinese government mouthpiece. There are writers I admire who were and still are in favour of The United Kingdom leaving the EU, including Taleb, Theodore Dalrymple, and Paul Kingsnorth.

In a rather rushed op-ed, I made the anti-EU argument clumsily, influenced by the mercifully now-defunct Telegraph Blogs. Most of my op-eds for this newspaper don’t appear to be alive online anymore, which proves that The Chinese Communist Party is wrong about something – there is a God!

China in 5 Words: Guanxi (关系)

Few activities are more indicative of social inequality than golf. It involves the smallest ball on the biggest pitch, land that could be used for housing, and – in a world struggling for fresh water – some courses require up to a million gallons per week to maintain.

Under Chairman Mao golf was banned in China as a decadent Western pastime. After Reform and Opening, China joined much of the world in embracing golf as a popular way for officials and businesspeople to establish relations, known in China as la guanxi.

Due to their environmental impact, the construction of new golf courses was forbidden in 2004, but for the next decade this was largely ignored, with courses increasing from 200 to over 600 before the government finally got serious about enforcing the new regulation a decade later. This coincided with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, which has sent large numbers of powerful people to jail.

As mentioned in part three of this series, going from the penthouse to the penitentiary was already common in China before Xi took office. In 2010, the country’s former richest man Huang Guangyu was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for insider trading and bribery.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, the targeting of high-level officials on corruption charges has reached unprecedented proportions. Last year Sun Zhengcai, former Party Chief of southwestern megacity Chongqing and once tipped as a possible future member of the Standing Committee, was sentenced to life in prison. His bribery offenses were punishable by death but a guilty plea and cooperation with investigators means he may live to a ripe old age but will die in jail.

Even more recently, top People’s Liberation Army General Fang Fenghui was sentenced to life in jail for bribery. The seriousness of what these people did, and the nefariousness of their intent differs on a case-by-case basis, but one thing is certain, nepotism is hardwired into all levels of the society.

Many of the golf courses that were constructed during the decade in which they were banned were built under the guise of being parks and other projects. The way to get away with this was to have the right guanxi (relations) with the relevant local officials.

Author Zhang Lijia recalls her family using guanxi to secure a much-coveted hospital bed for her struggling father: “Fortunately, a relative, a not so senior but well-connected official, managed to secure a private room at the hospital, which is reserved for ranking leaders. In return, the relative agreed to get the son of the hospital director into the most desirable school in Nanjing.”

Evidence of guanxi gone wrong often lies in the lifestyles of these now-disgraced officials. Many of them used their status to enjoy luxury brands and lifestyles, despite serving a political party that celebrates frugality. President Xi has called for a curb on official extravagance: No red carpet treatment, no luxury banquets and no fancy office buildings. But these are the symptoms not the root of the problem.

For centuries China has been an agrarian society and people are defined not so much by who they are but who they are associated with. As damaging as the use of guanxi can be, lacking it can condemn someone to life at the bottom rung of society. In 2016, Aeon published a documentary about the forgotten children of China’s prisoners.

Being outsiders struggling to establish the right relations puts foreign businesses at a disadvantage in The People’s Republic. As mentioned in the essay on “Didiao”, Confucianism emphasises harmony and filial piety. As mentioned in the essay on “Hello”, China is a society that has long kept outsiders at arm’s length.

Foreign businesses are learning the hard way the difficulty of establishing guanxi. Despite their best efforts, foreign businesses are being squeezed in China in favour of “indigenous innovation”. Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly failed in The Middle Kingdom despite doing everything he can to establish guanxi.

Whenever he visits the country Zuckerberg, like most CEOs of major companies, is treated lavishly, but this falls short of having real guanxi. Failure to establish good guanxi may prove a blessing in disguise for many. The line between exercising good guanxi and criminality is often as slim as Mark Zuckerberg’s chances of succeeding in China.

China in 5 Words: Propaganda (宣传)

Like a lot of racial slurs, the word “chinaman” did not start life as a derogatory term. To quote George Carlin, there is nothing wrong with the N word in and of itself: “It’s the racist asshole who’s using it that you ought to be concerned about.”

Having spent much of the past century fighting fascism and communism, Anglophone countries have taken a disliking to the word “propaganda” and the idea behind it. In China by contrast, the ruling Communist Party, along with countless businesses and institutions in the country, has its own Propaganda Department (宣传部).

With traditional media organizations losing money and influence, China’s terrifyingly well-funded propaganda machine is to be reckoned with. Over the past decade, state-sponsored wire service Xinhua, newspaper China Daily, and China Central Television have been opening new offices around the world while local counterparts have struggled, and in 2018 Beijing announced the introduction of Voice of China, a propaganda behemoth that will employ 14,000 people worldwide.

This is part of a wider desire to establish China as a leader in soft power. One of the biggest moments of this long campaign was its hosting of the Olympics in 2008, described at the time as a “century-old dream.” The opening ceremony at that Olympics may be the most technically impressive in history, but four years later, the London opening ceremony showed a country that could do something China’s leadership was not yet capable of – laugh at itself.

Lin Miaoke, who mimed a song at the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony. Yang Peiyi (inset) did the actual singing but was not considered pretty enough to represent her country. 

The Beijing opening ceremony was criticised for valuing appearance over substance. Lin Miaoke (pictured) mimed the song ‘My Motherland’ at the ceremony because Yang Peiyi, the actual singer (inset), was not deemed cute enough. Within a year of its lavish Olympic coming-out party, China’s government had shown its true colours, blocking Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and initiating crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang that brought those territories closer to the status of police states.

No other country pours so many resources into protecting its image through censorship and propaganda. This apparatus often has the opposite to intended effect. No matter how hard China tries to control the conversation, the wit and humour of irreverent and mischievous bloggers, microbloggers and online artists stays one step ahead. Just as Maoism tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to crush the entrepreneurial genius of a people, the current machine may not succeed in choking its creative spirit.

However, censorship does not necessarily preclude becoming a soft power leader. Hollywood’s Golden Age, widely agreed to have lasted from the late 1920s till the late 1950s, was also its most censorious. Censorship can liberate and force creators to reach even greater heights than they otherwise would.

For me, the suggestive ending of 1930’s “All Quiet in the Western Front” is a far more powerful anti-war statement than the blood-spattered opening of 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” In 2013, Oscars-host Seth MacFarlane regaled the actresses in the auditorium with a song titled “We Saw Your Boobs.” Their predecessors from earlier generations did no such thing, which enabled them to maintain a greater mystique.

Censorship is not the biggest problem. The problem is that few things are done well in China. There was a literary masterpiece from the mid-twentieth century that captured the true nature of totalitarianism. It wasn’t Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” or George Orwell’s “1984”, but JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” that really showed how under totalitarianism it makes more sense to do a half-assed job.

Literary translator Brendan O’Kane has pointed out that even without institutions like the State Administration for Radio and Television, contemporary Chinese literature, and other artforms, would still suck.

According to “Music and the Mind” by Anthony Storr, Plato disliked music because of its extra-rational qualities. The only two keys of which he approved were the ones used for patriotic anthems or for love ballads. The majority of Mandopop hits are cookie-cutter versions of one of those two genres.

This lack of creativity also permeates into the business world. One of the biggest strengths of Chinese business is its ability to copycat. Chinese electric car manufacturer BYD is nicknamed in America as “Borrow Your Design.”

In 2012, a colleague at the Chinese newspaper I then worked at, lamented China’s inability to have its own equivalent of “Gangnam Style”. Efforts have been made but none have had international success. This is because the most exciting creative movements – from modernism in literature to punk music – happen in spite of, not because of, the intervention of government and big business.