Greetings to the Saker community and readers.
I am a rather frequent traveller to China, having family there. My journeys so far have took me to the provinces of Shanghai, Beijing, Sichuan, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Fujian, Macau and Jiangsu.
This article is a collection of loosely organized personal observations about the country and its people and of comments from people I have met during my various stays in China. The people come from all walks of life and cover a wide age range, from 10 year old children to 70+ year old pensioners.
It does not touch a specific area or subject, and some of the information might be outdated or (as is the case with people opinions) in the area of “mostly true but!”. And of course, in a country of over 1 billion people you can find all sorts of characters. Corrections and clarifications are more than welcome.
China is organized into a 5-tier hierarchy system: Village -> Small Town -> Town -> City -> Province. State encompasses all. The main criterion to belong to a tier is population size; for example cities are entities of 1M+ people. Extremely large metropolitan areas, like Shanghai and Beijing are classified as provinces.
A province is like a state in the US that has its own police and regulations but with a major difference: they do not act independently from the central government. While they can impose stricter laws or special regulations they never deviate from the official policies.
Now for demographics: China is consisting of 56 different ethnic groups with Han being the biggest of all (comprising about 90% of the total population) all the way down to Jing (approximately 30K people). All are recognized as people of China, and all minorities – essentially everyone but Han – get special privileges like guaranteed university seats, exemption from the one child policy etc. As far as I know, China is probably the only country in the world which officially recognizes a group of people that represent such a miniscule percentage of the population as a minority. The Chinese government has created in Beijing the China Ethnic Culture Park, a park which replicates the landscape, traditional housing, clothing and customs for every single one of the 56 ethnic groups. Be sure to visit if you are in Beijing.
In every country of the world the people accept their government either through fear or because of an agreed social contract. For example, in the US this social contract is (or rather was) called “The American Dream”. As long as the people believe in it, the country has stability.
I was talking once with a retired elementary school teacher, Mrs Yu. Born in 1950, she lived throughout the birth pangs of the PRC and the difficult times of the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, when the opportunity came I asked her if she ever considered their form of governance to be at fault and if she ever contemplated a Democratic system. The answer was quite astonishing:
“I survived the big famine of China. By the time I was 15, I was hired as an elementary school teacher. I did not have a teaching degree; and one was not necessary. At the time, the target was to combat illiteracy. I passed the test so I became a teacher, and stayed one for 35 years. The government told us that if we supported their form of governance (mind you, not much difference from Imperial times) they will end the famine and poverty; no homeless people etc. It took them a while but they kept and still keep their end of the bargain. So I keep mine. We do have a saying in these parts: you cannot eat Democracy”.
She then took me to a local museum to demonstrate her point. When the big earthquake struck Sichuan in 2008 her city was lucky; being on the other site of the mountain they only lost 6 people and a handful of buildings. But villages and towns on the other side were levelled, to the point where not even a helicopter could approach. In the museum there were images of an airborne division of the PLA jumping with parachutes into the affected area, each soldier carrying either tools or food on his back.
“Look at this picture” Mrs Yu told me. “The first one out of the plane was the unit’s leader – he was around 56 at the time if memory serves. My sister-in-law lived in that town and she told me that not a single soldier was armed; there was no need for it. The soldiers worked really long hours trying to move debris by hand and their rations were less than that of the people of the town.” She then showed me another picture where the then Premier was in the disaster area poring over a map along with army and rescue commanders. I asked if it mattered to the people that the Premier and not the President, had come to visit; if they considered it a snub by the authorities. “Not really, after all the then Premier is a trained geologist. He came to do his job”.
I mentioned that these were special circumstances. “Here it is normal for the army to help the people in their daily lives. For example, if a heavy cold front comes in the winter it is not uncommon for the PLA to deploy thousands of troops to help farmers salvage as much of their production. By doing so we ensure that there is enough food for everybody”.
The PLA is quick to help the people, and sometimes it does provide training opportunities as well:
Education and Religion
Although officially the Chinese state does not have a religion, the people are more or less free to practice whatever they like. I have seen Orthodox and Catholic churches as well as Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques. The policies remain the same since the imperial times: no religion extremism allowed – no interference with the state. If any religion attempts to intervene with the workings of the state, the hammer comes down – hard. The last time the Uyghur had a mini uprising the trigger was the refusal by the central government to allow for madrassas to be established in Xinjiang.
Chinese really emphasize on education. It is not uncommon for schools, especially private ones to have their own dorms (even for elementary school children). A relative, who happens to be the vice-principal of a private elementary school in a semi-rural area explained this to the fact that due to the distances involved, parents prefer to leave their children in the dormitory rather than losing a couple of hours per day in commute. The teachers take shifts to check the children during night time “All part of the job” as she likes to say. I did visit her school one – I happened to be in their town and she invited me to chat with the pupils. “We are not a tourist area so not many foreigners around here. It will be good for them to see other people and practice their English a bit”. After my meeting with the pupils she took me to the teachers’ lounge; there someone brought a world map, put it on the table and asked me to show them where Cyprus is. What followed was a one hour course on Cyprus 101.
Another time I actually lived in a public elementary school for a week. Every morning the pupils would clean up the school grounds, each class in turn. “Is this not the job of the janitor?” “Well, the janitor is for maintaining the facilities. The children should learn to function in their community; therefore they are responsible for keeping the school grounds clean”. As this school was in the city, it did not have dorms for the pupils (I was staying at the teacher’s accommodation). However, it did keep the students until their parents got off work. On an almost daily basis the local officials of the Ministry of Education would come to the school after classes ended and stayed there until dismissal time (a couple of hours later). Various events were organised, for example a volley ball match between the teachers and the officials. The idea was to encourage interaction between all parties involved in the school: pupils, teachers, officials, parents. Pupils were encouraged to talk to the officials and present their suggestions on how to improve the school.
Finally, very basic military training is mandatory for all university students in their first semester; usually it lasts about a month. While the extent and scope of the training differ between universities, the common theme is that instructors from the PLA come every day to train students in basic formations, marching etc. In some cases the students actually fire pistols while once I witnessed a class having a night march. This is not your basic training at an infantry school; it is designed to familiarise students with simple military concepts.
Media in China are mostly run by the state. There are lots of TV and radio stations aimed at province level, with the state TV (CCTV) broadcasting on a national level. A friend once told me that “if you want to know what is going well in China, watch the CCTV1 main news. If you want to know the grey areas, watch the late night talk shows on CCTV. That is when the serious issues are being discussed”.
As for internet, yes, there is censorship. It is not a blanket censorship like western media presents it though; for example while BBC and Google are blocked, CNN and Yahoo are not. In general, I do not see the Chinese government having a stricter internet access policy than any major corporation around the planet; they are actually quite honest that they block website X because they do not like them. In contrast where I work RT.com is blocked as a “malicious website”.
Overall, the Chinese do not tolerate one thing: reporters in foreign media trying to dictate to them how to behave and lying through their teeth in order to create problems for China. Once you do that, you are thrown out of the country. I was at the airport once watching the English speaking edition of the news. There was a story of some supermarket chains in a city distributing through social media that the local government was going to substantially increase the taxes on basic goods. Panic ensued, shoppers run to the stores to stock up supplies and the central government had to intervene as this was something the supermarkets conjured to increase their sales; no such increase was decided. An official admitted on TV that they indeed banned this topic from social media as to stop the panic; once the supermarkets issued their retracting statements (and were dealt with) the ban was lifted.
By the time my flight arrived home, BBC had a story on the front page that “Chinese government censored the media in city X because they criticised the raise in taxes, according to NGOs”.
Foreign policy and the military
Successive Chinese governments have promoted bilateral trade as the main method of resolving disputes – if the people are busy making money, they will have little time and a lot to loose from war; hence there will be a drive to actively avoid it. However, knowing full well how volatile the world is, the PLA is building up to counter external threats, and is increasingly used as a foreign policy tool. The peace time, non-combat role of the PLA has been presented in the Social Contract section of this article; this part will attempt an analysis of the role of the PLA in the foreign policy of China.
The recent release of the White Paper on Military Strategy by the Chinese MOD sheds for the first time a lot of light on the issues troubling China at the moment. A close look on the report reveals some interesting points:
- The list of hegemonism as a new global threat
- The clear accusation of “anti-China forces” attempting to instigate a colour-revolution in the PRC
- The clear naming of USA and Japan as two players that destabilise the Pacific Rim precisely because of the global rebalance of economic and strategic power
The strategic tasks and principles of the Chinese Military include some very interesting items:
- To resolutely safeguard the unification of the motherland
- To safeguard China’s security interests in new domains
- To safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests
- To actively expand military and security cooperation, deepen military relations with major powers, neighbouring countries and other developing countries, and promote the establishment of a regional framework for security and cooperation.
These items spell one thing: that the Chinese are ready and willing to get involved in events outside their borders. To this effect there are numerous examples in the last couple of years:
- The participation of Chinese tank crews using their own Chinese-made tank in the annual tank crew biathlon in Russia
- The participation of the PLA Navy in the Syria chemical weapons destruction program
- The evacuation by the PLA Navy of foreign citizens from Yemen, including US citizens
- The participation of the PLA Navy in the anti-piracy operation off the Somali coast.
US – Russia
Generally speaking, the military setup of China revolves around one country: the US of A, and the troubles caused by them both internally and in the region. This is clearly evident from the wording in the White Paper on Military Strategy wherein it is stated in no disputed words that the aim of the PLA is to establish a rock solid alliance with Russia. Moreover, the PLA is undertaking a massive modernisation programme in all three branches of the military (army, air force, navy) with the most notable beneficiary so far being the PLA Navy. As an example, the first ship of the Type 056 / Type 056A corvette class was launched in May 2012. Since then, 22 corvettes are active, 3 are in the fitting stage and 4-6 more have been delivered to export clients. 30 corvettes in 36 months is an impressive production rate during peace time. And this is not the only class of ships under construction. Similarly, the training has shifted to amphibious operations and denial of access to other navies.
Taiwan – Regional Disputes
The issue of Taiwan is strange in the sense that both Taiwan and China see themselves as the same thing: that they are the legitimate Chinese government. In a very simplistic explanation, Taiwan was the refuge of the losers of the Chinese civil war; namely the KMT and specifically Chiang Kai-Shek. Note that in China the co-founder of the KMT, Dr Sun Yat-sen is considered the father of the Chinese revolution; his house is Zhu Hai is preserved and turned in to a KMT history museum. Actually, in China they split the KMT into the Sun Yat-sen period and the Chiang Kai-Shek period.
Back in 1949 you had on one hand Mao claiming he is the ruler of China which happens to miss one province – Taiwan – and on the other hand Chiang Kai-Shek claiming he was the rightful ruler, just so happens he lost all of China bar one province. This is something to remember as despite the rhetoric between the two countries, trade relations and travel between Taiwan and China has been on the rise in recent years. I believe that the government and – especially – the people of Taiwan are waiting to see what China will do after the 50-year window of “do not touch the existing system” has passed in Hong Kong and Macau, before considering any unification plan under a similar deal. However, the moment Taiwan declares independence will be the moment the PLA crosses the straight; that has always been a Chinese red line.
A case of times changing is the Diaoyu islands dispute. Both China and Taiwan claim the islands using more or less the same argument: the islands are Chinese. For China, the idea of the Diaoyu ending up under Taiwanese control is considered as a viable option, as Taiwan will eventually be part of China again as it should hence the Diaoyu will return as well. A month before Japan “purchased” three of the Diaoyu islands; Taiwanese Navy Rear Admiral Chang Feng-chiang took his fleet that was participating in a scheduled drill and sailed towards the Japanese island of Yonaguni, raising alarm in Japan. Taiwan officially described this as “a case that simply involves drill discipline”. A couple of weeks later, activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan went to the Diaoyu and – in a move that raised quite a stir in Japan and the US – raised both the Taiwanese and Chinese flags:
In dealing with the smaller players in the region like the Philippines, almost all of the people I have spoken to believe their country is more restrained than it should. “We are the main economic force for a various countries in the region. If we stop buying their products, they are done. They should respect us a bit more” is a common theme in discussions. Many also criticise the central government for not pushing a bit harder.
Nevertheless, the PLA Navy has been busy in South China Sea constructing forward bases on a number of atolls and islands. The US Navy has recently released an interesting video showing the flurry of activity at Fiery Cross Reef. Note in about 1:58 in the video the entry in the communications log of the plane; the message was not the usual diplomatic one used when an aircraft violates restricted airspace. The Chinese simply told them “go away quickly!”
DPRK / ROK
Perhaps the most complicated issue China is facing at the moment is the DPRK / ROK duet. On one hand, the economic interests dictate close cooperation with ROK. On the other hand, China cannot forget the hundreds of thousands that were the casualties of the Korean war, “a war against US aggression” as it is called. Therefore the Chinese government is forced into a delicate balancing act between the two Koreas.
I did ask more than once why China tolerates a regime like North Korea. It is one thing to have a despot running a neighbouring country, quite another when your own citizens are caught in the turmoil. On a number of occasions, North Korean coast guard commanders kidnapped Chinese fishermen and demanded ransom; therefore I wanted to know how come something like this is tolerated. “Well, we also consider the way the North Korea is set up to be unworkable and true, them having nuclear weapons is a big headache. But is also the lesser of two evils.” What is worse than an unstable regime with nukes at the borders I wondered? “Having the same border with the US army”.