Archive | June, 2013

Beijing: So near but actually too far

28 Jun

chinaflagSo right about now I was supposed to be on a flight to Beijing – a stylish long weekend with friends in the northern capital, doing the hell out of the wall, the City, the square…you know the sort of thing. I pushed to the back of my mind the thought that the air will be thick with carcinogens, the streets littered with children’s tears and shit, and the locals, well, Chinese.

However it was all a moot point. Points don’t get any mooter than this particular point, because you see, I didn’t have the requisite visa. The newly announced 72 hours visa-free permit for visitors to stay in Beijing and Shanghai apparently doesn’t apply if you have a return ticket. Rules, damn rules…

It makes about as much sense as any piece of Chinese bureaucracy – a system, no, an entire country, that takes immense pride from fucking up the hapless laowai. Whether it’s the idiosyncratic approach to queuing, cab drivers that have no idea where they’re going, vomitingly dreadful food, or Benson&Hedges air quality, everything about Beijing is fiercely offensive to a cosseted little Brit like me. I’m sorry about the Opium War guys but seriously, it was a long time ago…time to move on people.

hadrians wall

Hadrian’s….by far the better wall

Anyway, sod it. The mercury’s set to hit 33 degrees this weekend in Hong Kong. It’s a bank holiday, there are beach parties galore, people to get nicely tipsy with and cab drivers who know where I live. There’s the best Chinese food anywhere on the planet, tap water you can drink without literally shitting yourself, and internet porn. Oh, and I can Tweet. Screw you Beijing, I’d rather invent a time machine and go back to London in the ’50s….

Bye bye Snowden, hello more terrible HK news

25 Jun

save snowdenSo that’s it. Panic over. Move along please. Nothing to see here. Prism snitch Edward Snowden has finally left the building. Currently en route to that bastion of free speech Ecuador, or possibly Venezuela, via the equally liberal Russia, he’s off to live out what’s left of his life. Let’s just hope he makes a better crack of it (pun intended) than John McAfee, founder of the eponymous AV software vendor, whose bizarre video set various alarm bells ringing last week. What’s that John? They’re not alarm bells, they’re police sirens? Really? OK, I’m going to suggest you ease off a bit on the meth this week, ok pal?

Snowden’s revelations have of course been a propaganda coup for China – a gift straight out of the blue that now makes the US look hugely hypocritical when it accuses Beijing of sponsoring hacking intrusions on US targets. The truth is that the NSA revelations, while deeply concerning on one level (the Verizon orders, not PRISM), are definitely not the same as the state sponsored Chinese cyber attacks which Obama and co are angry about.

Rather than snooping for traditional Cold War national security reasons, these attacks are about nicking hugely valuable IP – on military equipment, smartphone designs, high-speed trains, you name it. In China it’s pretty impossible to separate state from private enterprise as the Party runs through it all, so anything which benefits SOEs or even private firms could be seen as benefitting Team China – thus such hacks are thought to be fair game. Sadly the media globally has been poor at articulating the difference, whereas in China, of course, it just ignores there is a difference.

One major problem resulting from Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong faces local journalists, however – what the fuck do we write about now? The media here may be free, at least theoretically, but it’s not what you’d call a great exponent of the art. There’s one all-encompassing narrative – when will we get universal suffrage? – and everything else is really just a sideshow.

Standard bearer the SCMP was quick to label EXCLUSIVE over every Snowden story it got its hands on but this tired old rag of a local paper has really seen better days. I know for a fact that PRs have had their editorial “suggestions” cut and pasted wholesale into stories – I mean not just sentences but whole paragraphs of text. Even the local TV newscasters stumble and stammer over their dreadfully dull soliloquies. Vested interests have an ever-tighter grip on the media here but, despite the odd public protest, the general downward trend is accepted because, after all, it’s still better than what goes on across the border.

And what of that news in China proper? Well, state-run news service Xinhua has scoured the vast Middle Kingdom for the most important news around and found this thriller – a Beijing woman’s breast implants exploded after she lay on her front for 4 straight hours playing video games. Yup.  Hold the front page…

Another story, actually from The Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent, is worth pointing out this week. In Zhongxiang city, livid parents attacked external exam invigilators after they used metal detectors to relieve students of smartphones and secret transmitters ahead of their gaokao exams, in a major crack down on cheating.

The college entrance exams have attained huge significance in a society where the acquisition of wealth and status is everything, raising the stakes ever higher for a place at a good uni. So far so normal, you might say, after all every parent wants their child to do well in exams and cheating certainly shouldn’t be tolerated. Ah, but in China cheating is endemic in every walk of life, you see, the key is to not getting caught. The fact is that the folks in Zhongxiang weren’t very good enough at it and now they’re paying the price. The previous year, for example, examiners discovered 99 identical papers in one subject.

“We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat,” screamed the angry mob of over 2,000 parents and kids.

I don’t think there could be any more perfect a commentary on modern China that that little vignette in a small corner of Hubei.

Warning: make contain whistles

14 Jun

whistleThis week I have to write a little bit about this guy who blew someone’s whistle. I’m not sure if it was technically his whistle or the US government’s whistle but it was bloody loud enough to get everyone’s attention and now you can’t move for news of him. I’m talking of course about Edward Snowden, the former IT bod at defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton who became China’s new favourite person after fleeing to Hong Kong to avoid capture by the US and possible charges of treason.

My observations are as follows:

IT technicians at defence contractors get paid too much. The Mira is a friggin’ swish hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui where Snowden was holed up, the inside of which I only ever get to see for IDC analyst conferences on virtualisation. Before that he was rumoured to be staying in the W. Seriously, this former information security engineer should be used as a poster boy to get more kids into IT: excitement, intrigue, a $200,000 a year salary, Hawaii home, a hot girlfriend who’s a professional pole dancer. And he still wasn’t happy? Some people. Let’s see how he likes the inside of Guantanamo.

Second; I can’t work out whether he’s incredibly naïve or very smart. Out of pure schadenfreude I’d quite like to see Snowden bundled into the back of a black van and never heard from again due to his decision to flee to Hong Kong because the people here “have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”. Part of that is true – people love complaining, usually with whistles, about the government and their rapidly eroding rights – but how often do they get their way? Only when it suits Beijing. Case in point, three pro-democracy activists have just been convicted of burning the HK flag in a protest. Seriously, in 2013 people are still getting done for that…

It doesn’t stop there. A Hong Kong Uni poll last month revealed the majority of people here (48 per cent) think the press in HK actively self censors, while Reporters Without Borders ranks it 58th on its World Press Freedom Index, four places down from 2012. Freedom House doesn’t rate Hong Kong too highly either – ranking it 71st in the world in terms of protection of civil liberties and listing it as only “partly free”.

This place exists in a “one country two systems” regime which protects civil liberties, press and internet freedoms and preserves the rule of law, unlike mainland China. But it’s never really been tested yet. The regime only continues to exist in this form because it allows HK to flourish as one of the world’s great financial capitals. In reality, the former British colony is ruled by property moguls and bankers and the politicians they elect and become; and who as a property mogul or financier wouldn’t want to appease Beijing with its huge coffers and vast potential market?

Having said this, I think on balance Snowden’s smarter than this.

He is appealing to HK-ers’ natural proclivity to fight for free speech, which they will do – again with whistles – at a rally on Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter that the free speech on this occasion is being threatened by the US rather than Chinese government. In fact, this unusual twist will also appeal to Beijing. Whether it’s part of the plan or not, he’s been making himself an attractive asset for the Party to keep hold of by disclosing some hugely embarrassing secrets about US state surveillance of its own citizens, as well as revelations of NSA hacking attacks on China and other countries. It’s all given the Communist Party huge leverage in the on-going cyber blame war with the US and will surely mean Beijing will not want to step in and over-rule Hong Kong’s decision on extradition – which could itself take forever.

save snowden

I should really be happy that the warrantless surveillance of citizens by US security agencies is being uncovered by an IT droid, but there are a few things that made me take an instant dislike to this guy.

First: “Edward”. The only people I know who actually use the full length version of this name are politicians, former kings of England and people trying to give themselves more gravitas than they innately possess. Unless it’s The Guardian that is trying to give Ed more gravitas than he innately possesses, in which case ignore me…

Second: The Guardian interview. Have you noticed how Snowden is at pains to say “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me”, and that “my sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”. Err, why didn’t you just try and stay anonymous then? Not easy, granted, but there is a touch of the Assange about his carefully rehearsed, media-friendly declamations.

Third: failure to grasp basic employment law. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he told The Grauniad. Again, I think you’ll find that disclosing top secret state-run surveillance programs is against the rules according to your former employer and possibly treasonous.

Fourth: I hate IT nerds in glasses and I can’t abide whistles.

That last one was a joke.

As for the future. Well, Hong Kong’s media unfriendly CEO CY Leung was giving nothing away in this cringe-worthy interview by what looked like a Bloomberg TV intern.

Despite the above rant, though, Death Noodle hopes Edward Snowden is able to stay exiled in Hong Kong for as long as possible. With any luck, until after 2047 when the “one country, two systems” rule runs out and he’ll finally be able to experience what it’s like to live in a proper tyrannical state. Although by then, no doubt, we’ll all be speaking bad Mandarin and defecating in lifts.

Taiwan: Land of t-shirt wrestling and stinky tofu

7 Jun

taiwan beerAhhh Taipei. Another weekend, another new favourite Asian city. I realise I do this gratuitous love-in on an irritatingly frequent basis but I’ve got to say this place is worth fawning over.

Taiwan has a long and chequered history ending in a lengthy period of Japanese colonialism in the late 1800s to 1945, and then the forced immigration of the Kuomintang Chinese nationalists after they were routed by Mao’s lot in the Chinese civil war. This has made it a smaller, friendlier, cleaner, tastier and altogether sexier version of China proper. Some American douchebags I met called it China Light, but that’s doing Taiwan a massive disservice.

The Japanese empire may have departed this island long ago but its cultural remnants cast a long shadow. From the tap-to-open automatic doors to the ubiquitous vending machines and even the hot springs, Japanism is everywhere. And people queue! And, especially refreshing coming from Hong Kong where the locals are tucked up in bed playing Candy Crush on their phablets by 10pm, Taipeiers go out and booze like it’s the end of the world.

taipei cityscape

Case in point: I was awoken in my hotel room on Sunday afternoon by the gentle shaking of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, with no memory of how I got home. Only the blurred pictures of tequila shots on my smartphone and a vague memory of being wrestled out of my t-shirt by a girl called Melody remained. Ahh, Taipei.dancing girls

The Republic of China has been unfairly ignored for much of the past 50 years by the international community but in a lot of ways it’s the kind of place you wish mainland China could have been. Ignore the stinky tofu for a second and you’ve got a free press, good education, a fully functioning healthcare system and lovely people. The PRC still regards it as a territory to be eventually subsumed into the motherland à la Hong Kong, but one visit to the imposing Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei will prove that this is about as likely to happen as Xi Jinping opening a Twitter account.

chiang kai shek

Generalissimo Chiang cuts a forlorn, almost tragic figure in the museum dedicated to his life, beneath the monument. After all, this is the guy – the Kuomintang leader for several decades – who let China slip through his fingers and effectively exiled himself on a small mountainous island. It’s now a place where the rivers flow bereft of even a solitary rotting pig carcass; where the internet takes you to any site you wish, where the police do not arrest elderly women protesting the sexual abuse of their infant daughters; where the air is clean and the rice doesn’t even contain dangerously high levels of cadmium.

He must be kicking himself.