The Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash was arrested in Almaty last month, and charged with extremism and inciting ‘inter-ethnic hatred’. The police later raided the office of his organisation, Atajurt, confiscated computers and documents, and sealed the premises. For the past two years Atajurt has been campaigning on behalf of the Kazakh citizens detained in the huge network of concentration camps across the Chinese border in Xinjiang.
Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother.
When the wind blows through the dunes around the Western Chinese city of Dunhuang – long a garrison town between the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts – it is said to produce sounds similar to song. In 366, the itinerant monk Yuezun was wandering through the arid landscape when a fantastical sight appeared before him: a thousand buddhas, bathed in golden light. (Whether heat, exhaustion or the strange voice of the sands worked themselves on his imagination is anyone’s guess.) Awed by his vision, Yuezun took up hammer and chisel and carved a devotional space into a nearby cliff-face. It soon became a centre for religion and art: Dunhuang was situated at the confluence of two major Silk Road routes, and both departing and returning merchants made offerings. By the time the site fell into disuse in the 14th century, almost 500 temples had been carved from the cliff.
When I met Professor Rahile Dawut in Urumqi in 2013, we didn’t talk about the soldiers and armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of the Uighur neighbourhoods. I didn’t ask her about the transformation of Xinjiang’s capital into an intensively policed space, or the government’s spurious claims that the region was under threat from Islamist terrorists, in part because discussing such topics, even in private, seemed too dangerous for any Chinese citizen. It was far safer to confine our talk to her extensive, brilliant ethnographic research into Xinjiang’s rich and plural cultural traditions, most notably her work on mazâr, the shrines of local saints dotted around the region, most of them in remote desert locations. She was funny, modest about her work, and gracious enough to listen to my anecdotes about visiting shrines in other parts of Xinjiang. Last week, Dawut’s family announced that she has been missing since December.
In the second century BCE, Liu An, king of Huainan, asked the scholars of his court to prepare a book that would outline everything a wise monarch should know about statecraft, philosophy, and general world knowledge. The result was the massive 'Huainanzi', which runs to nine hundred large pages in English translation. Here are some excerpts, based on the translation by Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major: If a ruler rejects those who work for the public good, and employs people according to friendship and factions, then those of bizarre talent and frivolous ability will be promoted out of turn, while conscientious officials will be hindered and will not advance. In this way, the customs of the people will fall into disorder throughout the state, and accomplished officials will struggle.
Last week, Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publisher, admitted it had blocked online access in China to 315 articles from China Quarterly, at the request of Chinese censors. The decision was taken without consulting the journal’s editor, Tim Pringle, who wrote an open letter expressing ‘deep concern and disappointment’ at the decision. The blocked articles are concerned with such politically sensitive subjects as the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang and the Tiananmen Square protests. The demand to remove them came from China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, which threatened to block the entire China Quarterly website if they weren’t.
The Chinese media have been gunning for George Soros for predicting a ‘hard landing’ for the country’s currency. A headline in the People’s Daily is mild by comparison with some of the invective: ‘Short China and you short yourself.’ But who believes Soros is getting ready to short the renmibi, as he did sterling in 1992? He said nothing in Davos last month about betting against the renminbi.
Last week the Chinese government announced the end of its one-child policy; married couples will now be allowed to have two children. The policy was introduced in 1980, when the population had almost doubled since the Communists took control in 1949. It never applied to all citizens. People living in the countryside were allowed to have a second child if their first was female or born handicapped. Exemptions were also granted to ethnic minorities and people in high-risk occupations.
There are many reasons why China’s involvement in building nuclear power stations in Britain is wrong, yet those who oppose it, or question it, have struggled to articulate their unease without sounding racist, paranoid or Little-English, or getting bogged down in arcane financial minutiae. One obstacle to exposing the British government’s error is language. In the case of China and the nukes, politicians, journalists and finance professionals are complicit in misleading usage of the words investment and tax. George Osborne, a master of such lexical abuse, maintains that Britain needs Chinese investment, and that the planned Chinese-French reactors won’t cost the British taxpayer a penny. Both propositions are false.
The huge blast at a chemical factory in Tianjin on 12 August, which killed around 150 people, was China's worst industrial accident for several years. Since then there have been two more explosions in Shandong province, and now another in Zhejiang province on Monday. There have been at least 38 explosions so far this year at chemical plants, firework factories and mines. Among the causes are a lack of oversight, local corruption and attempts to boost profits by employing less qualified workers or ignoring safety protocols. These problems are endemic to most areas of the Chinese economy, whether it be food provision, the rail network or domestic tourism, all of which have seen serious accidents or health scares in recent years.
In the summer of 1997, one Asian currency after another fell. With the financial crisis in full swing, rumours circulated in Beijing that George Soros had placed a bet with China’s prime minister, Zhu Rongji. It had no repercussions in the currency markets, because Soros couldn’t short sell renminbi, as he had with sterling five years earlier: China’s currency was, and still is, not fully convertible. But Soros is said to have bet $100 million that the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) would not be able to defend the renminbi’s parity with the dollar. It did and he lost. China’s currency has been appreciating ever since – until last week, that is.
Last week China claimed it had arrested 181 terrorist groups in Xinjiang over the past year. Mass arrests, wide spread surveillance and an increased military presence have targeted 'religious extremism'; some Xinjiang terrorist groups have been said to have links to Isis. The crackdown followed a number of violent incidents including bombings and knife attacks. According to one estimate, 72 people were killed in less than eight months. At the start of the campaign last year, President Xi Jinping said that terrorists must be made to ‘become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting “beat them!”’
Sanctions and low oil prices are forcing Russia to give some serious thought to China. On a recent trip to Shanghai, the owner of a Russian pipeline fittings business was surprised to find three Chinese suppliers of 48-inch ball valves able to withstand 250 bar and 370ºC. ‘I have been lazy for too long,’ he told me. ‘The valves I’ve been buying from Germany, the Czech Republic and Finland were actually made in China: the only difference is that these ones come with a Chinese logo; and they’re 60 per cent cheaper.’
Xu Lizhi threw himself from a Foxconn workers’ dormitory building in Shenzhen on 30 September. He was 24 years old, a migrant worker and a poet: neither line of work looks promising in China at the moment. In the 1980s ‘poet’ was a prestigious job-description, and did wonders for your love life. Now none of the papers would waste space on a poem, even as filler; if a self-advertised ‘poet’ turned up on a dating site there’d be no takers and plenty of eye-rolling: poets must be weird or poor, or both. Modern poetry was more or less buried, along with China’s golden 1980s, in the year we’re not suppose to mention.
I didn’t expect to see Occupy Central on the streets when I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of September. Like most tourists from the mainland, I went down to Central with a couple of friends for a close-up look at one of the world’s greatest consumer cultures in action, but the protest had been brought forward. On the subway there were dozens of teenagers wearing yellow ribbons in support of the cause. My friend in Hong Kong, who knows a little Cantonese, overheard one of the girls saying the boy she had a crush on had gone to the protest and she wanted to join him. They got off at Admiralty station, close to the demonstration. Love is the handmaiden of revolution. Later on TV we saw the pepper spray and tear gas, and we heard rumours – it turned out later they were orchestrated – of rubber bullets and armoured vehicles on the streets, yet there was calm for the most part, despite the odd flurry of projectiles and an attempt to shove through a barrier. The police reaction seemed guaranteed to bring more people out.
In 1902 Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was ‘as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time’. Not any more. The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin has sold 500,000 copies in China since the first volume was published in 2006 (it will come out in English in the autumn). Liu, an engineer, is one of the so-called ‘three generals’ of contemporary Chinese science fiction, along with Wang Jinkang and Han Song.
David Cameron has signed a piece of paper with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, opening the way for the company that makes the nuclear weapons for the world's biggest Communist state to build and run nuclear power stations in Britain. The deal is morally wrong, a betrayal of the British people, and a damaging blow to democratic principles. Nuclear power in Britain can only be built with the help of large subsidies from citizens. In the past, these subsidies came through general taxation. Since electricity was privatised by Cameron's predecessors, the tax to subsidise new nuclear will be a private tax, hidden in our electricity bills, the collectors of which will be the electricity firms themselves.
On 1 March, a group of men and women armed with knives and machetes killed 29 people and injured 130 at the railway station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China. Nothing like this has happened in China in recent memory. Protests and riots are far from uncommon, but deliberate, co-ordinated attacks aimed at causing widespread fear and major loss of life are almost unknown. Still, as soon as the news from Kunming came through, social media were full of speculation that the attack was carried out by Uighurs from Xinjiang. When I first went to Xinjiang, in 2001, the main stereotype of Uighurs amongst Han Chinese people was that they led happy, colourful lives full of singing and dancing. But since the riots of 2009 this has been replaced by a common perception of Uighurs as violent terrorists. When the Chinese government compared last weekend's attacks to 9/11 and blamed ‘separatists’ from Xinjiang, who had ‘launched deadly attacks over the past months, years and decades', no one was surprised.
The most surprising thing about the charges that have been brought against Ilham Tohti is that it didn’t happen sooner. Tohti, a 44-year-old professor of economics in Beijing, has for a long time been an outspoken critic of government policies in Xinjiang. The religious and cultural repression of Uighurs in the region is almost never publically discussed in China: apart from conditions in Tibet, and the legitimacy of Communist Party rule, few topics are more sensitive. When the Chinese media cover violent incidents in Xinjiang, such as the riots in Ürümqi in 2009, they always take the line that it's the fault of Islamic terrorists who wish to separate Xinjiang from China.
Last week a jeep exploded in Tiananmen Square after crashing into the wall of the Forbidden City. Five people were killed, including the three passengers, and more than forty injured. The Beijing police said it was a suicide attack, and that the passengers were all ethnically Uighur. The five people they arrested the next day were all Uighur too.
Bo Xilai’s fall from power was both dramatic and swift. The charismatic former Party secretary of Chongqing, once thought a candidate for a top government position, was dismissed in March 2012, accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power. At the same time his estranged wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood. In the following months the curtain of secrecy that usually conceals China’s political elite was yanked aside, as tales of Bo’s wealth and his family’s extravagant lifestyle spread.
Schoolchildren everywhere cheat in exams. But British and American universities are said to be especially worried by a rise in fraudulent applications from Chinese students. In China, meanwhile, some schools are going to extreme lengths to prevent cheating on the gao kao, the national college entrance examinations.
Toxic smog in Beijing, 16,000 dead pigs in the tributaries of the Shanghai river, birth defects from pollution, no safe drinking water in any Chinese city: Premier Li Keqiang has promised to respond to China’s environmental problems with an ‘iron fist and firm resolution’.
Between 1999 and 2001 I lived in Shaoyang, a small city in Hunan province known throughout China for being dirty. This wasn’t just the prejudice of outsiders; many of its residents complained about the ‘poor conditions’. Rubbish bobbed on the milky green surface of the Shao Shui river, spread along its banks and choked the dam upstream. The street that led to the college where I taught was lined with food stalls, rubbish heaped around them. During the day people would pick through the piles looking for glass, plastic or metal they could resell; at night the rubbish was set on fire. People wiped their chairs in restaurants before sitting down, or carried newspapers to sit on on the bus, but didn’t think twice about throwing cans and tissues out of car windows.
On 28 July there were violent clashes between thousands of local residents and police in the Chinese city of Qidong, north of Shanghai. The protesters were concerned about pollution from a Japanese paper factory’s planned new sewage outlet, which they thought could contaminate drinking water and harm the city’s fishing industry. They overturned several police cars, stripped the mayor of his shirt and entered local government offices, where they found expensive bottles of alcohol, condoms and cigarettes, all things that officials are often given as bribes. Some demonstrators were beaten by riot police. The protest came to an end when it was announced that the sewage pipe project would be permanently cancelled.
In 1950 the Chinese Communist Party published a comic called 'Great Changes after the Liberation'. Its aim was to ‘awaken people’s disgust toward imperialists and counter-revolutionaries’ by contrasting the inequalities of pre-Liberation China with the promises of the new regime. The comic was recently posted on Weibo [Nick: isn’t Weibo like Twitter? In what way was the comic posted on it?], and generated a lot of online discussion before its removal. Though some of its predictions have come true, such as the rise of the renminbi against the dollar and the need for foreigners to obey the law, plenty of people pointed out the similarities between China now and before 1949.
In his recent piece on Hergé in the LRB, Christopher Tayler notes the influence on Tintin’s creator of a Chinese artist, Zhang Chongren, whom he met in 1934, as he was starting work on The Blue Lotus.
Ürümqi may be the capital of Xinjiang, but in most respects Kashgar is the province’s first city. Until the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Ürümqi was a small garrison town. Kashgar, which was part of the Silk Route, has been at the centre of the region’s trade, and at the heart of Uighur culture and tradition, for more than a thousand years.
China's re-emergence as a world power, in some respects as a challenger to the American superpower, has been seen in the Middle East, as elsewhere, mainly in economic terms. China is expected to replace the US very soon as the largest importer of oil from Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East gets 75 per cent of its imports from Asia, expected to rise to 90 per cent by 2030. Iran is a special case, because of the dreadful state of relations with America and the West; China is Iran's largest trade partner, largest oil purchaser and largest foreign investor. Israel is also special; China buys modern technology, both civil (particularly agricultural) and military, including US technology under the counter. When foreign workers were evacuated from Libya in March this year, by far the largest number – up to 45,000 – were Chinese, involved in fifty large projects, worth $18 billion, in construction, railways, oil services and telecommunications. Economic interests have political and military consequences.
After the protests in Ürümqi on 5 July 2009, thousands of extra police and soldiers were brought into the city. On 7 July the authorities reported that almost 1500 people had been arrested for taking part in the demonstration, which they described as ‘a pre-empted, organised violent crime’. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published eyewitness reports of official brutality, but there hasn’t been much corroborating evidence. Last week however a video appeared on YouTube that shows police and soldiers making arrests in Ürümqi. The clip appears to have been shot for state TV, since the reporter has permission to film.
For some time now, China has been growing increasingly aggressive toward its neighbours. This newly confident foreign policy, a shift from a decade of charming other nations in Asia, has been most evident in Beijing’s demands that other nations recognise its sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. In recent weeks, Beijing has insisted that Vietnam stop exploring for oil in the waters and delivered a blunt warning to any outside powers – i.e. the United States – not to intervene in any disputes over the Sea. Chinese vessels have cut the cables on Vietnamese ships, and China has stepped up its seizures of Vietnamese and Philippine boats, in a major breach of maritime protocol.
The Chinese New Year begins on Thursday, the Year of the Tiger giving way to the Year of the Rabbit. The government in Beijing recently removed from the internet an extremely violent cartoon called Greeting Card for the Year of the Rabbit, in which a group of oppressed rabbits overthrow an abusive government of tigers.
The cartoon claims to be ‘meant as an adult fairy tale’, with ‘no connection to real life’, but most of the events it depicts will be familiar to a Chinese audience.
In the past 18 months, Ürümqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang province, has been subject to riots, syringe attacks, further riots, and an elevated military and police presence. Last week the provincial authorities announced their plans to transform the city into 'a bright pearl of the western region' (perhaps a more achievable task than making the city deserve its name, which means 'beautiful pastureland' in Mongolian).
At a press conference earlier this year, in response to a question about the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said: ‘There are no dissidents in China.’ No one believed him at the time; but now that Liu has been given the Nobel Peace Prize, it will be even harder for the authorities to make such denials to the international media. A bigger concern for Beijing, however, is with the way the news of the prize plays out in China. Few Chinese people have heard of Liu; reports of CNN blackouts and internet blocks suggest that the government wants to keep it that way.
Over the past two weeks, a dispute between Japan and China over a series of islands claimed by both countries has spiralled into a major diplomatic incident. In response to the Japanese coastguard’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat following a collision near the islands, Beijing has cut off high-level diplomatic talks with Japan. In both countries, nationalist protestors have taken to the streets. The dispute is part of an ominous trend.
Last Thursday the Chinese police claimed they had ‘cracked a terrorist cell headed by [Uighur] separatists’. At a press conference in Beijing, a Ministry of Public Security spokesman said that 10 people had been detained for their role in attacks on a police station in Kashgar in August 2008, and for ‘bombing supermarkets, hotel and government buildings’ in Kuqa.
When I first came to Beijing, in 1999, the pollution made my throat swell up so much that I couldn’t speak. In 2003 I spent a week in hospital here, giving endless blood samples, having various body parts scanned, and answering questions like 'How often do you cry?' or 'Do you ever feel an almost uncontrollable rage?' I never found out what was wrong with me. When I got here this time, five weeks ago, I had such crippling jet lag that I barely slept for three days. Wandering the streets last month, hoping to exhaust myself into sleep, I came to the conclusion that Beijing was a terrible place: polluted, ugly, lacking in style, unredeemed by Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China or the few surviving hutongs. Unlike Shanghai, Chengdu or Kunming, it’s a city I can’t find it in me to like.
Google are in the news for saying that they might pull out of China, and/or stop censoring searches on its Chinese search engine – a topic of great sensitivity since they opened for (censored) business in China in 2006. But there's more than one sort of censorship, and those who think that self-censorship is one of the worst types will enjoy this. It compares the suggestions made by the search engine when you type in 'Christianity is' or 'Hinduism is' or 'Judaism is' or 'Buddhism is' with what happens when you type in 'Islam is'. It's more noteworthy given that the search suggestions in general roam wild and free. Type in 'Why is there' into the box and Google leaps to complete the thought with 'a dead Pakistani on my couch'.
Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: 'I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.' Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: 'What can you say except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.' Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and said: 'Around the White House.' Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: 'So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk 10 kilometres, and we'd hit the steepest incline, and we'd all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we'd be finished. It was a good workout. It was great.' George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: 'Let’s go home.' He made no other comments. Barack Obama, visiting the Wall on Wednesday, said: 'It's majestic. It’s magical.
During his first visit to China, Barack Obama reportedly addressed a range of contentious issues with his hosts, in private: Iran, North Korea, climate change, the yuan and its impact on the global financial crisis. But, whether in public or in private, the US president tiptoed very lightly when talking about China’s human rights record. At a town hall meeting in Shanghai with young Chinese, Obama deflected the chance to criticise Beijing’s censorship of the internet, for example, talking only about universal rights in the vaguest terms. At a scripted ‘press conference’ – neither he nor the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, actually took any questions – Obama walked the same line, telling Hu that the US is committed to universal rights, but refusing to mention any of China’s specific failings. This is part of a new US strategy towards repressive regimes.
On 16 September the Chinese government claimed to have arrested six people in Aksu (a city in western Xinjiang) for making bombs. Two of the six – Seyitamut Obul and Tasin Mehmut – have Uighur names. Li Wei, the director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, warned that 'terrorists have gone underground to organise different forms of terror attacks in Xinjiang . . . such as the recent syringe attacks in the region and plotting bomb attacks.’ He went on to claim that the recovered explosives were to be used in car and suicide bombings. The timing of the arrests is suspiciously convenient: in the run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October, the government would like to show that it has the region under control.
At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, history seemed firmly on the side of the demonstrators. The Soviet Union was on the verge of cracking apart, and soon after its fall most other one-party states would collapse as well. Many in the Square, and most outside observers, assumed the Communist Party of China would soon take its place in the dustbin. Beijing’s leaders certainly feared so: as revealed in books like The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang’s memoir Prisoner of the State, Deng Xiaoping knew that the Party could well collapse. Even after the regime crushed the Tiananmen protests, the idea persisted that the Communist Party could not possibly survive. ‘China remains on the wrong side of history,’ Bill Clinton said in 1998. Two years later, he warned that the Party’s attempts to control the internet in China would be like ‘trying to nail Jell-O to the wall’. And yet, sixty years after its founding, the Communist Party has done just that – defied history and nailed the Jell-O down.
The riots in Ürümqi in July caused more than 200 deaths and led to the imposition of martial law. Though there were differing accounts of who was to blame – the police, for firing on ‘peaceful protestors’, or terrorists whose ‘goal was to undermine the social order’ – the violence was generally perceived as being due to resentment between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority. On 17 August there were reports that people in Ürümqi had been attacked with hypodermic syringes. There were no casualties, and it was unclear who was responsible. But in the following weeks, as the stabbings continued, Han residents began to claim they were being targeted. The government confirmed that most of the victims were Han, but stressed that Uighurs and other ethnic groups had also been attacked. By 3 September the hospitals had reported a total of 531 cases. However, only 20 per cent of these showed any signs of physical injury, which suggests that the greater problem was the fear created by the attacks.
When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, years of civil war had destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Constant political turmoil, dating back to the late 19th century and the collapse of the Chinese Empire, had torn apart China’s intellectual class, and driven millions out of the country. The Communist Party promised a period of peace and stability. Many in the West feared that China would come to dominate Asia, and possibly the world. Those fears only grew after the Korean War. It wasn’t to be. Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic and social policies, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, not only killed millions but upended China’s social order far more than the chaos of the early 20th century. Only in the past three decades has China begun to fulfil the potential promised in 1949.
The protests spiralled quickly out of control, but the ethnic tensions in the west China region of Xinjiang are not new, and this unrest has been brewing for years. Unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs – a Muslim, Turkic people – have no global spokesperson capable of bringing their cause to the attention of the West. But like Tibet, Xinjiang once laid claim to being its own nation, and Uighurs have harboured separatist ambitions since the founding of the People’s Republic. As I found during a number of visits to the region over the past decade, Uighurs and Chinese in Xinjiang have almost no interaction with each other.
1. In the 11th century, Hsiao Kuan dreamed that he was taken to a palace where the women were goddesses or transcendents. All were dressed in green. One of them gave him a piece of paper and said: 'This is ripple paper. Would you please write a poem about a winter morning?' He wrote: The twelve towers of the palace hide women dressed in green. Wine flows from lion-spouts, spiced and fragrant, trickling through tubes called 'thirsty crows'. A servant turns the pulley, red liquid jade spurts out. Incense barely smoking, lotus candles almost gone, the five dragons of the clepsydra overflow with chilly water. Unaccompanied ladies, fish pendants dangling from crimson sashes, stand on tiptoe to watch the sun come up, far off in Fu-sang.