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.

China in 5 Words: Didiao (低调)

In 1850, the United States had fewer than twenty millionaires, by 1900 it had forty thousand. Some were as bumptious and proud as James Gordon Bennett who, upon being refused a seat by the window at a restaurant in Monte Carlo, bought the place.

More than anywhere else, Bennett’s spiritual descendants thrive today in China, a country that is going through an even quicker period of exponential growth. These include military officer and government official-turned entrepreneur Wang Jianlin who announced his entry into the film business in 2013 by throwing a party in northern China’s Qingdao City with Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ewan McGregor and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In 2013, Dong Mingzhu (pictured below on the right), often described as China’s most successful businesswoman, and one-time Forbes Asian Businessman of the Year Lei Jun (pictured on the left) had a 1 billion RMB bet on national television about the future progress of their businesses.  Gambling is illegal in China.

However, these characters with their deluxe-sized personalities form the minority among China’s wealthiest people. Since it is so easy to fall foul of the government’s laws on bribery, insider trading, and other white collar crimes, going from the Forbes Rich List to jail is practically a rite of passage. For that reason, most of China’s billionaires recognize the value of being didiao – low-key.

Business is not the only field in which being didiao is advisable. Flamboyant left-wing politician Bo Xilai, who ran a high-profile anti-corruption campaign in Chongqing, came tumbling to earth in 2012 and was sentenced to life imprisonment the following year for corruption, bribery, and abuse of power. Before that, Bo was hailed as a possible future president, but it was his quieter, more strait-laced peers who got the promotions that seemed certain to be his.

In “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”, Susan Cain praises East Asian cultures for not fetishizing extroversion. She states that in the West we claim to encourage individuality but really that is only one type of individual, the one who is alpha, gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight.

The reasons for this go back thousands of years. In ancient China, fertile plains and rivers lent themselves to rice farming and compelled people “to cultivate the land in concert with one another.” By contrast, the ancient Greeks, who lived amid mountains and coastlines, relied on herding, trading and fishing, and they were able to be more independent. In that history, psychologist Richard Nisbett saw the makings of Greek ideas about personal freedom, individuality, and objective thought.

In “Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed” journalist Will Storr cites this history as the founding influence of Confucianism. The ancient sage Confucius (551-479 BC) created an ideology that emphasized harmony, collectivism, and filial piety.

In the mid-twentieth century, Confucianism gave way to Communism as the dominant ideology but now they live side-by-side in a sort of marriage of convenience. One thing that the two belief systems have in common is a strong belief in the expression “nobody likes a show off.”

I learned the value of didiao the hard way. Chinese women can render themselves unmarriageable for life if they are seen holding hands in public with a Westerner. My first Chinese girlfriend suffered this fate, so I exercised didiao with all subsequent ones.

It is not just lanky white guys who need to keep their private lives private. In “River Town”, memoirist and journalist Peter Hessler recalls being on a boat on the Yangtze River and noticing that in his cabin lay a couple who, in the middle of the night, were having very quiet but very determined sex. This is a consequence of personal space being expensive3.

Working in China, I learned the value of stealth nonconformity. Economist Robin Hanson coined the term, explaining: “I’ve known some very successful people with quite weird ideas. But these folks mostly keep regular schedules of sleep and bathing. Their dress and hairstyles are modest, they show up on time for meetings, and they finish assignments by deadline.”

I once had a Western colleague in China who, despite having no authority to implement his will, enjoyed getting into people’s faces and asserting his wishes, often resorting to swearing and childish name-calling when things did not go his way. On one project, I once told him that his goal could be more easily achieved outside work, independently of the institution that employed us. He rejected my suggestion. To some people, an achievement is not an achievement if you don’t get to stomp around the office being a pompous ass about it.

As Confucius constantly reminded us, modesty is not just polite. It is smart. His ideas about being low key have been picked up by everyone from “How to Win Friends and Influence People” author Dale Carnegie to a Chinese doctor whose wife committed suicide after being terrorized during the Cultural Revolution.

Quoted by New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, he put it in starker terms for the present day: “Let your public self be like rice in a dinner: bland and inconspicuous, taking on the flavors of its surroundings while giving off no flavor of its own.”

China in 5 Words: Sajiao (撒娇)

One of the hottest issues of the past year has been that of territorial behavior over the vagina, especially by people who don’t have one. Despite its media being controlled by a government that has no desire to see large numbers of powerful men fall from grace, China has been influenced by the #MeToo movement.

This represents impressive progress for women in a country where concubinage and foot-binding were common practices within living memory. In Chinese business, the position of women appears to have overtaken the West.

There are 78 self-made female entrepreneurs worldwide with wealth exceeding US$1 billioneach, of whom 49 come from China. Among the top firms in the United States, women make up 10 percent of the investing partners and only half of the firms have any female investing partners at all. In China, 17 percent of partners are female and  80 percent of firms have at least one woman investing.

However, the increase of women in business can be partly explained by the fact that the government and The Communist Party remain good old boys’ clubs. And within business, there is an income gap. On average, women earn 22 per cent less than their male counterparts.

This is partly explained by the fact that women devote 15 per cent more time to family than men, while men spend 9 per cent more time at work, a symptom of the vast political and cultural apparatus that aims to keep women in their place.

The government has long seen unmarried men as disruptive, predatory, and ill-disciplined. The gender imbalance caused by the One Child Policy has led it to use its power to promote the institution of marriage.

State media has given females who remain single after age 27 the degrading title of “leftover women”. Headlines run by national wire service Xinhua News have included: “Overcoming the Big Four Emotional Blocks – Leftover Women Can Break out of Being Single”; “Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy”?

In her book “Leftover Women”, Leta Hong-Fincher claims that blame for the large number of birth defects in the People’s Republic is usually directed at women for marrying too late instead of the severe environmental degradation caused by the economic miracle. A popular rhyme tells women to marry a man so they can have food to eat and clothes to wear. Moreover, masculinity is defined by home ownership, so women who buy their own property can scare off potential husbands.

Cultural expectations about women’s behavior in China are best encapsulated by the gloriously stupid 2014 film “Women Who Flirt”. The tomboyish heroine spends the film learning to sajiao, a word with no English equivalent, to attract a man.

Both a verb and an adjective, sajiao is a kind of cutesy

tantrum that East Asian women are known for being particularly good at. Whereas in Rocky, the central character spends the film learning how to box, in “Women Who Flirt”, she works hard at learning how to say “taoyan” (which as a verb means “hate” and as an adjective means “annoying”). If one really knows how to say “taoyan” with the right tone, it can have a similar effect to Austin Powers saying “oh behave”.

It may be unwise to read too much in to such a silly movie, but its message is a reflection of its state funding. Being single is unequivocally a defeat, and a woman’s salvation lies in doing whatever it takes to get a man.

China in 5 Words: Hello (哈罗)

Imagine if, in The United States, there was a song that celebrated the American people as a race characterised by blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin. In China, a country described last year in The Atlantic as possibly the world’s most likeable superpower, something very similar happened.

The lyrics of “Descendants of the Dragon” – which started life as an eighties pop hit and was given a hip-hop makeover in the 2000s by Leehom Wang (pictured) – go some way toward explaining my early experiences in the People’s Republic.

At that time, I often caused people to stop and stare, sometimes even slow down their cars, as if I was the Eva Herzegova wonder-bra ad from the 1990s. The song’s implication that, since I don’t have black hair or yellow skin, I will never be Chinese was most manifest in a constant stream of catcalls.

Every time I stepped outside, they came from across the street, from upper-story balconies, and from passing motorcycles, the latter sounding like mosquitoes buzzing in the night. The catcalls usually consisted of one word: “hello”.

If anyone was responsible for this being considered socially acceptable, it was the education guru Li Yang. His Crazy English school taught millions of Chinese that the way to learn English was to shout it at the top of their voice and that every time they saw a “foreigner” they should view them as an “English opportunity”.

It would be melodramatic to call any of this “racist”. Many people had genuinely never seen a Caucasian before. Their country was closed off for much of the period when Europe went about originating such phenomena as eugenics, the African Slave Trade, and the Holocaust. It is understandable that they did not get the memo about racial sensitivity.

That is not to say there isn’t an ugly side to this behaviour. Lu Xun, who has been described in print as “China’s Orwell”, once said that Chinese have never looked at foreigners as equals. Foreigners are always either looked up to as emperors or looked down on as brutes.

I once had a Cameroonian boss. When we went out together, he would also have “hello” shouted at him but in his case, it was often followed by more sinister catcalls. In my English-teaching days, I once witnessed an immigration officer ordering my employer not to bring in any black teachers.

Jung Chang, author of “Wild Swans”, remembers playing army games as a child of the 1950s in which the bad guys would attach thorns to their nose to look like Caucasians and shout “hello” a lot to emphasize their otherness.

This mixture of xenophobia and xenophilia still colors how Chinese companies do business today. The preference for foreign brands is so pronounced that a 2010 op-ed in China Dailycalled on the public to stop worshipping them. The length to which Chinese companies go to copycat Western companies has resulted in such delightful brand names as Dolce & Banana, Pizza Huh, and King Burger.

The catcalls of “hello” were sometimes accompanied by shouts of “Laowai”, a word which in theory means “foreigner” but in practice is closer in meaning to the Spanish word “gringo”. There is a popular self-help book in China titled “Don’t Be Shy, Just Say Hi”. Its Chinese title translates directly as “How to Make Friends with Laowai”.

In the 2000s, a respected public intellectual wrote a viral essay urging Chinese women not to sleep with Laowai. There was no backlash against the essay.

Whether sucked up to or looked down on, Laowai always seem to be seen as innately different to Chinese. In fact, because it is legally impossible for a foreigner to become a Chinese citizen and culturally impossible to integrate into the society, this necessitates that they are treated differently. It is natural that foreigners in China will start to behave differently.

Treating foreigners as an “English opportunity” assumes that you know what a “foreigner” looks like. Many of the countries where English is the most spoken language, including The United States, South Africa and Australia, had racism woven into their early history. For this reason, today treating somebody differently because of their ethnicity is the ultimate cultural faux pas.

To successfully do business in other countries and with foreigners in their own country, Chinese businesses need to know this kind of thing.

Since 1989, China has gone through the best period in its 5000-year history in almost every way, from infant mortality and life expectancy to personal freedoms and prosperity. The number of Chinese companies in the Global Fortune 500 has increased 14 years in a row.

The treatment of all foreigners as outsiders is a relatively minor blotch, but one that appears unlikely to change and harms China’s ability to attract the best and brightest. They are not quite as bad as drive-by shootings, but it is difficult to feel at home when constantly subjected to drive-by hellos.

Review of “The Handsome Monk” by Tsering Döndrup

My review of “The Handsome Monk” by Tsering Döndrup, translated from the Tibetan by Christopher Peacock, has been published by The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. 

You can read the whole thing here

The author is something of a specialist in conjuring up vivid scenes using bodily fluids. “Piss and Pride” is a rather suspenseful story, centring on a retiree who must test his bladder control to the maximum to uphold the dignity of his people. In “Notes of a Volunteer AIDS Worker”, the narrator graphically details how he contracted the disease and what it is doing to his body.

In “Ralo”, the titular character is known for the prodigious amount of snot that he produces. Initially published in the early nineties, this story was later extended to novella length. It is not one of the tighter pieces but contains some very astute satire about how Western tourists see Tibet as “the last unspoilt holy land on Earth”.

The collection is at its strongest when characters are grappling with the moral implications of their own behaviour. Many of these involve the Tibetan people being dominated by the Han and succumbing to the kind of anguished compromises required to survive.

One of the most extraordinary of the stories is “A Show to Delight the Masses”, which carries on the Tibetan tradition of mixing prose and poetry in summing up the life of corrupt official Lozang Gyatso. Much of the narrative unfolds in a sort of celestial rap battle to decide whether the main character is a good person. Since his sins have included urinating in a monk’s mouth, the answer is somewhat self-evident, but the story is no less gripping for it.