China


两 岸   啼 不 住

Liang an yuan sheng ti bu zhu:

The monkeys on both banks are still gibbering.

This is one I am watching now, dreaming of cycle touring in China in coming years. It is about six retired people, from Guangzhou, who ride more than 3,000 km from north-west China and into Tibet, passing through lhasa and then to Everest base camp. The film is called ‘Across the Plateau‘.

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I keep being struck, whenever I travel between China and Australia, of the strange sense of two worlds or two planets … and two Chinas.

Let me put it in terms of a couple of conversations I had during the last few months in China.

The first was held in Shanghai, with someone who spent some time in Canada a while back. She reflected on reading local newspaper stories about China. They depicted a terrible, dystopian place, with a ‘totalitarian’ government hell-bent on suppressing its people. At the same time, she was in regular communication with her family and friends back in China. That world was completely different.

The second conversation happened recently in Beijing. We were discussing the idea of the ‘Chinese Dream’, as proposed by Xi Jinping. My interlocutor had undertaken a study of reporting on the ‘Chinese Dream’ in foreign media. She was appalled, not only at the willful misrepresentation and attribution of sinister motives, but also at the way the supposedly ‘free’ (aka corporate) press could speak with one voice. She wondered at how newspapers that championed ‘investigative reporting’ could all line up to say the same thing.

I have today signed the contract on a new and rather exciting grant. The project is called ‘Chinese Marxism: Concerning the Sinification of Marxism in Chinese Academia’. The project and its grant are significant on a number of counts. First, it is my first completely Chinese grant, in my capacity as being on the staff of Renmin (People’s) University of China – the university first established under Mao Zedong’s influence in Yan’an in 1937. Second, I am learning much about the way Chinese grants and research operate. Granting bodies take an idea and work with you on it, providing advice and guidance on the way. Third, it involved some personal meetings over breakfast to find out if I am a ‘friend’ (Zhongguo pengyou). Fourth, this is their first international grant.

Let me elaborate on the final point. Uniquely for China, they have about 200 city and provincial research institutes. These institutes mediate between government sectors and the research undertaken at universities and elsewhere. I see it as one of the many feedback mechanisms that operate here, in which the movement of ideas between government and researchers is encouraged. In Beijing, the institute in question is the Federation of Social Sciences, which has a number of branches. The branch with which I am engaged is the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. They have their own director, staff, book series, journals and so on. Obviously, at a city level, they tend to receive applications for grants from Chinese researchers. My application was the first one from a foreigner and they are excited to be moving into an international arena. One of my main points is that the project will also enable Chinese scholars to engage more regularly in international conferences related to Marxism – apart from international scholars engaging more fruitfully with the unique developments in China. In short, this is the first step in a longer project called ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’. I think I’ll be working with these and other people (such as the Academy of Marxism, within the Academy of Social Sciences) for quite some time.

Finally, alongside the obligatory conferences and publications, I am also expected to write a couple of articles for the flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily. The topics: the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics (from the perspective of a foreigner), and the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States. I am busting to get into these pieces.

A few photos from the ceremony for signing the contract. The other scholar is the director of the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – an absolutely lovely and helpful woman.

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The Communist Party of China has launched a series of books, in English, explaining its functions and roles.

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More in the People’s Daily. Actually, I’ve been commissioned to write one or two articles for the People’s Daily, one on the sinification of Marxism and the other on the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States.

I have always been fascinated by Harbin, the capital of China’s most north-easterly province, Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River). Built as part of the first Trans-Siberian railway, it formed a major hub on the strip of land the Russians were allowed to use through northern China. The reason was that it cut a straight path to Vladivostok, without the big loop north. So the city has Russian names in its core, quite a bit of Cyrillic and not a few Russian Orthodox churches. Not many Russians these days, unless one goes into one of the seedy dance bars. Anyway, the Japanese became belligerently nervous with the new railway line, for the Russians could now ship large number of soldiers at high speed (18 km per hour at first) across Siberia. So the Japanese invaded and called the area ‘Manchuria’. Soon enough, the communists in China, with allies from other groups and quite a number of Koreans, began an insurgency in the area against the Japanese occupation. Eventually, the Russian Red Army appeared, fresh from taking Berlin and a trek across Siberia to join forces with the locals. They drove out the Japanese and forced their surrender at the end of the Second World War. The museum about all of this was pretty amazing.

Late one evening, a group of us were walking along Guogeli (Gogol Street) and happened upon the Gogol bookshop. Recently refurbished, it is Russian-themed but full of only Chinese people. After pondering a number of books and pictures, we heard a child’s voice reading a book through a microphone. It was the beginning of a public reading hour, when anyone could read a book of choice for 5-10 minutes. I was asked if I would like to read a book. I shook my head, saying that I could not read enough Chinese to do so. ‘But you can read one in English’, I was told.

So I went upstairs and found a children’s book called Make Way for Ducklings. It was written in 1941, but I thought it appropriate for a grandfather to read to the children present. So I sat in the big leather chair and began reading. Only then did I realise that I had read it before: in 1989 or 1990 in Montreal, to two of my children when they were little.

I never quite imagined I would be reading a children’s book in a Russia-themed bookshop in the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin.

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I usually don’t mention news stories, but this one intrigued me. It is tucked away in a small corner of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) webpage and is entitled: ‘China pollution: Beijing’s improved air quality a result of good policy, city officials say’. The article mentions the notable improvement in air quality over the last few years, especially in the last year. I have noticed this myself and mentioned it here on a number of occasions. When I first began coming to Beijing some years ago, it was a rare day that you could see blue sky. Now, we have days on end with blue skies. It can still get bad, but those periods are becoming fewer. Often, I go for a run outside. The reason for improvements? By 2016 there will be no coal-fired power stations in Beijing (Australian coal industry take note); old cars are being pulled off the roads (half a million last year and more this year); and polluting factories are being closed down or moved. The last item is not quite a solution, but the general trend is one that I have experienced first hand.

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