China with Polish Characteristics

April 28, 2008

Watch out for the May 4 Movement

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:15 pm

Ever since the Carrefour protests began on April 19, many people were calling for a complete boycott of French/Western goods on May 1, the traditional socialist Labor Holiday (we still celebrate it in Poland), as an expression of unity against foreign pressure and ridicule. Nobody knows for sure what will happen this Thursday, but the holiday continues until Sunday, May 4, which in my opinion could set off even larger response from the Chinese worldwide. And the reason is history.

On May 4, 1919 some 3000 students from different Beijing universities demonstrated on Tiananmen Square against China’s failure during the Versailles negotiations – in the aftermath of World War I it was decided that the former spheres of German influence in China, namely huge Shandong province, will remain under Japanese control rather than be given back to China. This infuriated many Chinese intellectuals and students, sparking anti-imperialist protests and strong critique of the government. Despite the crackdown, the protest soon spread to Shanghai and forced the resignation of three top diplomats responsible for the Versailles negotiations. It was also the height of the so-called New Culture movement (it started four years earlier in Beijing) emphasizing emancipation, science and new ideas, which now grew radical and gathered momentum. The Chinese Communist Party formed over the next months and held its first meeting in 1921.

The current tension between the Chinese and the international community could be a start of a dialogue – a much needed dialogue ahead of the Olympics when the same issues we face now will become truly explosive and hard to deal with. And given the importance which May 4 Movement played in Chinese history it is rather an auspicious date for something major to happen. While legions of armchair nationalists are grinding their teeth in anticipation, quite a few of people warn against making things radical. In this letter featured on Danwei, Chinese novelist Han Han talks about dangers of excessive patriotism:

In an era of peace, radical patriotism is no different from a fan’s adoration of his idol. But because people don’t choose the object of their patriotic love, it’s bound to be ever crazier. Previously, I thought inciting the masses was just government rhetoric, a pretext, but now I realize that people can be stirred up rashly. Of course, it’s not easy to incite people, but when they are determined to be cannon fodder, it’s easy for them to blow up. Don’t equate the current situation with the May Fourth movement [when patriotic students protested the Versailles treaty in 1919]. The two situations are totally different. Right now what we need is stability. Don’t cause disturbances or stir up trouble, it’s pointless.

And it seems there are sincere efforts at making oneself not simply heard, but also understood. Asia Sentinel features a translation of a very interesting letter published in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis (see my post on Wei Wenhua), discussing the way Chinese in London behaved during April 19 protests:


The most impressive aspect of the 4.19 protest movement is the fact that the overseas Chinese students are exploring and learning to use methods that are acceptable by western standards to express their anger and make their voices heard. In the example of the London protest, students uniformly wore white surgical masks and conducted their protest in silence. They purposely chose the white color as the base color, avoided using too many red flags and chose to sing “My China Heart” as their theme song. From these choices, one can see the organizers’ meticulous thoughts. On the one hand, western society has always been sensitive towards the red color and has a habit of associating it with authoritarian governments like Nazi Germany. So using red would not only fail to earn support but would arouse resentment. On the other hand, silent protest in place of loud slogan chanting would give a better impression on westerners, showing them that Chinese people are capable of exercising reason and control over their emotions and not just a bunch of “brainwashed” nationalists.


Why should a great nation such as China stoop to trying to understand the West? Why doesn’t the West try to understand China? To the former question, I can only say: “If you don’t take the first step, you will never be able to cover a thousand-mile journey.” To the latter, my answer lies in the book which I have been reading and which I would highly recommend: “What Does China Think?” by Mark Leonard. I would also like to share this saying by a Taiwanese friend of mine: “A great nation never regards itself as great.” If people are given ample room to utilize their various lively formats and abundant resources to start an honest, independent and rational dialogue and to learn and exchange ideas with the West, then I think this would be the best outcome that can be expected from the Olympics.”


It’s always good to remember how vast and complicated of a place China is, and to avoid simplifying this country and its people into a single, uniform giant as the media at times tend to do (unfortunately, the commercialism of news reporting always puts it on a brink of the superficial). Whatever will happen during the May Holiday, there is bound to be a range of voices and reactions. Some will be like those Simon Elegant talks about in his Time Magazine article:


The ferocity with which the protesters turn on anybody who disagrees with them reminds some older Chinese of the dark days of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which convulsed China from 1966 to ’76. Today’s protesters have one thing in common with Mao’s revolutionaries: years of indoctrination in a highly nationalistic–some would say xenophobic–credo that imagines a hostile and perfidious world determined to undermine China. “Maybe kids today know more about computers, about the Internet,” says Dai Qing, an environmental activist who was imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, “but when it comes to history, the education they get is the same.”


But there are also going to be many others, taking sides, thinking differently and worth listening to. It is not hard to find those working beyond the mainstream picture – just make sure you listen carefully and read between the news lines.

April 20, 2008

Olympic potential: the good, the bad and the increasingly ugly?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:24 pm

It’s Saturday night and together with a friend from Spain we’re sitting in a shabby, little restaurant tucked-away at the end of an alley in Haidian district. A chubby cook, now off work, sits by a table behind, having a beer with two shopkeepers and a local hairdresser. There are no decorations, but plenty of color to this 20 square meter room, especially above us – the whole ceiling is pasted with revolutionary posters, featuring socialist slogans and Chairman Mao in action, looking down onto our tables like a Sun King. We’re on the second bottle of “Red Star” erguotou (people’s booze) with the owner and his friend when the question of Carrefour boycott comes up.

“Perhaps it’s not a great idea but we’ll stay away from all those places – Carrefour, KFC, McDonalds,” the owner counts off different popular venues. “It might hurt the economy but we’ve got to make a statement, we need to show the people abroad their rude behavior will not be tolerated or accepted.”

This weekend was a witness to a number of protests against the severe disturbances of Olympic torch relay in Paris by pro-Tibetan activists. They went more-less like this:


Hundreds of protesters carrying Chinese flags and pictures of the late Communist Party chairman, Mao Zedong, gathered outside a Carrefour store in Wuhan in central Hubei province Saturday. (read the whole AP story for the background)


The French company is also suffering from the rumors that its top shareholders allegedly gave funding to the Dalai Lama and Chinese anger, fanned by the local and foreign media, is snowballing. China Digital Times has a good summary of the situation.

One could say people here are angry at being misunderstood over Tibet as they see it and the issues relating to their own country. It was always clear that Olympics are a consequence-charged event but the Tibetan demonstrations last month became a catalyst for their complexity – in the fallout of Lhasa violence we suddenly plunged into everything the Games touch upon: status, identity, politics, business, cultural communication. With the potential for so much change there is a lot of pressure and now as it turned ugly and started to boil over, it really seems many of opportunities from the Olympics could go to waste. China and the West have a chance to form strong ties, based on respect and understanding, but everyone’s so busy pointing fingers and shouting conceited accusations that hardly any thinking or progress gets done. There is a lot of cocky anxiety and ignorance on both sides and nobody interested in tackling that problem, since it’s easier to wave flags and gloat in self-righteous attitude. Will the actual Olympics be like that?

In the West many seem eager to play the “Told you so China” game, as if to assert themselves over the international “upstart,” waiting and passing ironic comments with that know-it-all air of superiority.

China on the other hand does not fare much better. Rather than standing its own ground and trying to discuss Tibet and nature of the protests it has embarked on a kind of a witch hunt, with “traitors of the motherland” and “foreign agents” blasted over the media and the internet. The top example which comes to mind is Jin Jing, the wheelchair-bound Olympic torch bearer who braved the hostile crowds in Paris. After she expressed some doubts over whether Carrefour protests were reasonable she was vilified as “an uncultured, brainless cunt” a “traitor” who “first lost her leg and now lost her mind.” The government seems quite content with such national unity and the state media effectively steered the whole situation towards Them vs. Us issue, double-crossing any progress on our differences in favor of crisis nationalism. How slick…

The question is will those things get better or go downhill from now on? The next six months and Beijing 2008 Games could have a profound effect on all of us, but too much herd mentality and heavy handed action could mean they will simply be superficial, even destructive. Is it naïve to hope for more than that?

April 19, 2008

Beijing Olympics: First event at the Bird’s Nest

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 7:49 am

This is a video on the first sports event – a 20 km race walking competition – held on Beijing’s national stadium, aka Bird’s Nest due to its innovative structure. The competition was held this Friday, April 18 and drew quite a sizeable audience. Everyone was curious about the Olympic organizer’s “darling” and the stadium is quite impressive. See for yourself:

April 18, 2008

Beijing’s parks

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 2:31 am

Public parks in China can be fascinating for an outsider – despite the increasing pace of life they remain focal points of local community life and many of its traditions. This can be especially true in Beijing, where the feel of the “old city” is overwhelmed by construction, commercialism and floods of outsiders. Early morning is best to catch many of the retired people on their exercise/social life routine and the video below is one such moment captured somewhere in the city center… I couldn’t help myself and made some of it intentionally silly – no offense to the feelings of the Chinese people intended, ha ha.


April 12, 2008

Tea shop video

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 7:07 am

Finally got myself a small camera and got a chance now to run around the city recording some of my favorite places on tape. I’ll try to post something every week, including interviews and short pieces on politics and BJ’s culture. The first one, which you can watch below is a mini-feature on a tea shop near where I live – I’ve spent many evenings there, chatting with the owners and local people and enjoying enough Fujian tea to stay awake untill 3am in the morning (you out there who think coffee has a strong kick… try sampling tieguanyin and pu’er in one sitting).

Enjoy! Let me know if you liked it and what kinds of videos would you be interested in seeing.

April 6, 2008

Alive and kicking!

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 10:01 am

Ok, all right, this blog went dead for the last two months but I’m not going to let that happen again. I just made it back from Hong Kong this week and even though the trip was very short (visa!), I feel like I’m rediscovering Beijing anew, somehow falling in love with it by stages. When I stepped off the train at the West Station it was a clear, bright day. You could say the air smelled of spring, only it was slightly dry and dusty, like the aftertaste of pu’er tea, and came at you in gusts of wind, tugging defiantly. The sky above was silent, flat and pale blue, spilling endlessly across the horizon. If not for the roads and concrete buildings, the impression of Beijing would be like that of the grassland and it’s great, open spaces. This was the North country, solemn and willful; and the people I saw on the streets with their plain demeanor and dry laughter reflected this landscape. It never stops to amaze me how different the north and south of China are from each other. Because several days earlier, when I made it to Guangzhou I felt I was stepping into a different world, or at least, a different country.

This was a city shaped by its subtropical climate, and the streets and people, although quite busy, felt light and warm and happy. There were palms and lush greenery all around and the air felt like balsam, oozing gently into your mood. The language sounded softer and more melodic, changing the style of conversations, drawing them out although not as much as in Hong Kong. And nearly everyone I saw seemed to be Buddhist – on their light clothing a number of people wore green jade pedants, usually associated with the faith. It was all quite dreamy and dazzling and reminded me of Sichuan (even more laidback) and I didn’t want to go back.

One day later, the visa officials in Wanchai (Hong Kong) gave me hell, once again confirming that Polish spirit and paperwork do not go well together. But aside of bureaucracy I had great time tramping around Kowloon (massage, sir?) which feels incredibly Indian with its tiny, crowded shops and rundown architecture. It’s as if the late Empire never quite left and people are shuffling around in a wonderful, expired time capsule. Hong Kong. The ferry, the bookshops, the seafood, the incredible mix of cultures. One of my favorite places in China. But it’s good to be back home, in the North and be able to appreciate it with a fresh perspective.

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