Archive | November, 2012

China, the land that political correctness forgot

22 Nov

dalian girlChina is a fascinating and unique country. So unique, in fact, that you can almost forgive its rampant racism, its quest for global economic pre-eminence at all costs, its many and varied human rights abuses and its citizens occasionally pooing on the subway. This is, after all, a nation-civilisation that has always thought of itself as the centre of the world – the Middle Kingdom – with the Western global hegemony of the past couple of centuries a mere blip.

In fact, one of the mistakes us round-eyes make when looking at the inexorable rise of the Orient is to try and appraise it on our terms, which are Western terms, and shoehorn it into our historical narrative, which is a Western one. (This intro-ramble, by the way is basically a disclaimer for the following words, which some may unhelpfully regard as me sneering at the Chinese. That was only partly the intention.)

I am energised, fascinated and slightly terrified by what’s going on across the border in the People’s Republic. Case in point, this article from state-run rag the China Daily (via some forum). Yes, it’s apparently a survey of foreign nationals in China ranking the nation’s cities according to how fit their birds are.

For the record, girls from Dalian in the north-eastern province of Liaoning, are the tops, apparently due to their superior height, fair skin and strength of personality. Those from south of the Yantze, it says, are more graceful and yielding, but don’t have much personality – which has surely been a problem for men the world over since the dawn of time.

According to the report, Nanjing girls are ‘cultural’, Beijing girls are ‘capable’, Shanghai girls are ‘pretty’, and Guangzhou girls are ‘realistic’ … and make good soup. Now, without wanting to sound too sexist here, would you go for the Page 3 Stunner from Shanghai or the hunchback offering you a bowl of shark’s fin in broth? Yeah, thought so.

I’m sure equally bizarre, hilarious and terrifying things are happening all over the world. But all over the world, unfortunately, is not here; the country which will be the undeniable global superpower for the next few hundreds of years and therefore set the moral and cultural agenda for others to follow. Oh well, when in Rome…

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Andrea Yu: flack, hack, discuss

16 Nov

andrea yu hodgkinsonI was at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s 30 anniversary on Ice House Street last week. Now I do like to complain about the patchy Wi-Fi, the braying, ruddy-faced “it’s all gone downhill since ‘97” members and the lack of pork scratchings at the bar, but it’s actually pretty bloody good. Not only can you get sozzled for around a tenner – no easy feat in Hong Kong – but to be surrounded by faded images and clippings from some of the defining moments of the 20th century is pretty awe-inspiring for a hack. From the savage conflicts in Vietnam and Korean, to Nixon toasting Zhou Enlai and Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek celebrating after the Japanese surrender, the reportage scattered all over the walls of this venerable old building tell of brave journalistic deeds.

This long pre-amble is to put into context the rather depressing PR efforts of the Communist Party and the plight of one particular ‘journalist’ at the centre of the only interesting thing to happen during the Party Congress this week – Andrea ‘Yu’.

Now, Yu sprung to fame by virtue of being one of the few foreign journalists during the endless Congress press conferences to be picked by officials to ask questions. In uber-paranoid China, only hacks from the state-run press are usually called upon, because the Party would rather not open the floor to those who might asking challenging questions. However, it turns out Yu, much to the chagrin of other laowai journos at the event, was picked on four separate occasions to ask questions. Hmmm.

In her defence she told WSJ that she was chosen so frequently by virtue of sitting in the same spot at every press conference and by making direct eye contact with the moderator. Really? It’s that simple? Oh, no, there’s one other, minor reason why she kept on getting picked: her employer, Australia-based Global CAMG Media International, is actually majority owned by Chinese state-owned media, and her Chinese colleagues wrote all her questions down for her.

Thus, we were treated to gloriously incisive questions such as: “Please tell us what plans and policies the Chinese government will be implementing in co-operation with Australia.” Or how about the challenging: “After the 18th Party Congress, what policies and measures will there be to support overseas Chinese media to publicise and promote Chinese culture, to propel Australian-Chinese cultural exchanges to the next level?” Brilliant. Worthy of Paxman, that one.

If you want to hear the hapless Yu explain herself, prepare to cringe at the following interview with a real Ozzie hack.

I was undecided whether Yu was simply a naïve young hack who did her best – in fluent Mandarin and English, no less – at an intimidating event and with employers who expected a certain line of enquiry from her. And then I found out from Beijing Cream that her real name is actually Andrea Hodgkinson. How do we know? Because she is referred to thus on the cover of a Chinese magazine where she appears in a rather lovely dress. CAMG apparently tweeted a picture of that magazine cover, and then hastily deleted said tweet. Something to hide guys?

You may ask, with the entire weight of its state media to ask soft questions, why did the Party effectively get a foreigner on board to do exactly the same? Well, it’s all about cache, and seeing a white-face-round-eye serving up the kind of embarrassingly banal questions that make Charlotte Church look like David Dimbleby was all part of China’s ongoing attempts to legitimise its one party system and soften its image in the eyes of international onlookers. In its insulated, culturally homogenous cocoon the Party obviously believed it could get away with it – that no-one would notice or mind that it had hired an attractive young bilingual laowai to basically do its own PR.

At the FCC event last Friday, chief secretary of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, spoke eloquently and passionately about the Club, about Hong Kong and about the importance the new administration attaches to press freedom. Seeing what happened across the border this week makes those words even more telling. If ‘Yu-gate’ was to be the first salvo in the new Party leadership’s soft power media efforts, then let’s hope this initiative at least has been well and truly raped in a ditch.

Atmosphere, I love a Party with a happy atmosphere….*

9 Nov

jiang zemin laughingHong Kong is bracing itself for an influx of bewildered mainland Chinese searching for pencil sharpeners, kitchen knives and balloons, if reports about the 18th Communist Party Congress are to be believed.

Yes, it’s the carefully choreographed, once-every-five-years PR exercise this week, and as usual in China, the Party officials are out to stage manage the event down to the last detail.

Even for an institution that’s institutionally paranoid – how else do you rule a land mass the size of China, with a population over 1 billion for more than 50 years? – the Party Congress takes paranoia to a whole new level.

First there’s the obligatory internet clamp down, which has prevented discussion about anything remotely politically sensitive, blocked several foreign media outlets’ web sites, and even interfered with VPNs – which for those in the know is the only way to circumvent the Great Firewall and access banned content.

However, this year’s affair has also given rise to some rather unusual extra precautions.

Taxi drivers in Beijing have been ordered to remove all passenger window handles and keep them firmly locked, and told to keep an eye out for anyone carrying balloons or ping pong balls.

The reason, apparently, is to prevent said items being distributed with reactionary slogans drawn on them. That, as we all know, is how the French Revolution started.

Toy airplanes have also disappeared from the shelves of Beijing stores – presumably to prevent some kind of tiny 9-11 happening to Communist Party HQ, and pigeon fanciers have been told to keep their birds locked up – this was apparently an old school, pre-internet way of sewing political dissent.

The sale of knives has, a little more understandably, been banned for the week – leaving budding chefs in need of a new Sabatier in the lurch – and the edict has been rather excessively applied to all blades, including pencil sharpeners.

Evil bastards, pencil sharpeners, I once saw a man mugged by one in Brixton…

Finally, the inappropriately named Ministry of Culture has reportedly cancelled a US amateur production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Needless to say, the group performed in Hong Kong with no adverse effect on the political stability of the region.

* Yes, this actually happened. We are all responsible.