Rocking the boat

DEFAULT INDEX

As far back as 25 C.E., ships from China have been trading with the rest of the world on a maritime path of riches and discovery—a time when an ancient nation traded silk, ceramics, and other luxuries to the rest of planet earth. Well, that time is here again, as China prepares to build a new Silk Road—one carrying a lot more than a few copper coins. Xi Jinping announced the formation of a new maritime Silk Road in October of 2013 in Indonesia, and while it is still just a hodgepodge of ideological pipe dreams and commitments, the substantial benefits, alliances, and investments are now making serious waves.

It seems odd that Qinzhou (钦州) in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region—compared to the massive might of the cities, financial interests, and even nations invested in the creation of the maritime Silk Road—with a population just under a million, could play such an important role. Before the notion of the “maritime Silk Road” reared its head, the city struggled. When the port was first being built in the 1950s, it was funded by the local people, not the central government, with locals donating things like rice and eggs. The port mainly traded with Vietnam, but it brought little relief to the struggling city. What’s more, no one was really interested in claiming it; sometimes the city belonged to Guangxi, sometimes Guangdong— neither wanted it on their roster. There were not many jobs in town, and young people mostly worked in neighboring Guangdong Province.

But, with the new maritime Silk Road on the way, things are changing. Over a billion dollars is being spent on an industrial park there—for scale, that’s about 10 flights for Shenzhou VI. This massive influx of cash is having a knock-on effect on the local economy, which will see new industries such as biotechnology, IT, and even food processing. Qinzhou is up to the task; just a few years ago, the port city could not even handle one million tonnes, but today it’s running more than 60 million. People are flowing back, and the government is dealing with a sudden influx of industrial projects. Qinzhou is now included in China’s ambitious high-speed railway plan which will run all the way to Vietnam and even Singapore. All because of a grand, opaque idea for a maritime Silk Road.

“The three portal cities in Guangxi—Qinzhou, Beihai and Fangchenggang—have now all been includedinto the Beibu Gulf Port Corporation,” explains Zhu Nian, professor of Ocean Trade in Qinzhou University, himself a Qinzhou local who has stood witness to the city’s drastic transformation. “China’s coastal cities have relied on exports for many years, and just a few years ago, the export trade hit a wall. Also, China imposed a lot of limitations on exporting crude materials, which used to make our major exports. As a result, now the new port is mainly engaged in imports. Our major imports include coal from Vietnam, petrol from Malacca and the Middle East, and ore from Australia; all will provide fuel and materials to the gigantic plants in Qinzhou and neighboring provinces.”

Of course, China isn’t putting all of this money into Beibu Gulf without a partner; the matter of building a maritime Silk Road, obviously, isn’t a matter of paving the sea. Rather, it’s a question of investment and cooperation. For that, one must look far beyond China’s borders from the small industrial port city of Qinzhou to Kuantan in Malaysia. Far from its industrial sister in China, Kuantan is a tropical paradise with beautiful white sand beaches, gorgeous waterfalls, and tourists around every corner. About 25 miles north of this tropical heaven is Kuantan port—another stop on China’s maritime Silk Road. Malaysia has been China’s biggest trade partner in Southeast Asia since 2008. In 2013, with the maritime Silk Road underway, China’s exports to Malaysia grew 25.8 percent compared to the previous year, and the two countries’ bilateral trade went over 100 billion USD for the first time.

China has had trouble in the past sealing a deal in the South China Sea for foreign port use, so this port and the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park that comes along with it is a major step forward in China’s goal to recreate the maritime Silk Road of history and legend. On that note, things have not exactly gone swimmingly for China in Southeast Asia this year—what with the widely-reported anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and the ever-present worries with certain ASEAN nations. But, this Silk Road may be a way to calm the waters. It’s, arguably, not about politics or sovereignty, and it’s not even about influence; it’s about money. With China’s exports dropping, China desperately needs the new Silk Road to deal with its surplus.

It’s been hard going, but other nations are working with China to help build the “diamond decade” in Southeast Asia, from Cambodia to Burma. But, it’s important to remember that China’s ancient maritime Silk Road touched everywhere from India to Africa and Xi’s maritime Silk Road has no intention of being left behind. Indeed, China released a map of what it hopes the new maritime Silk Road will look like— and even if the billions China is investing in this project come to nothing—it is still an impressive symbol of modern trade and China’s dream to be at the center of it. The easternmost part of this new maritime Silk Road begins in Fuzhou—which signed a deal with the China Africa Development Fund and the China Development Bank to put up 10 billion RMB. After that, the road winds its way through a smattering of Chinese cities, onto Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Then, the path shoots to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, linking the Pacific and Indian oceans. This is the end of the line for Asia as the maritime path leads to Nairobi in Kenya, and from Kenya through the Middle East to Athens, fittingly ending in Venice— where it meets China’s new Silk Road over land. For now, China’s new maritime Silk Road is a bit of a mystery. Is it government idealism and propaganda or is it a way to build alliances in the ASEAN? Is it a moneymaker for China or a bottomless money pit of pointless port investment? At the moment, it seems like all of these things and more, but time will tell if China can, once again like Admiral Zheng of old, connect East and West in a new and exciting way.

Additional research by Ginger Huang (黄原竟)

China Rules the Waves

DEFAULT INDEX

China’s effect on the oceans of planet Earth has been ubiquitous, permeating every part of the deep blue sea in Asia and beyond. As the nation has grown to become an economic powerhouse, the consequences for the wet part of the world have been staggering. In some cases, China has helped develop the waterways and shipping lanes of Asia, making them safe for traffic and spearheading economic development for nations that badly need the trade; of course, China itself benefits from this as well—cementing trade superiority in the region to build that oh-so-important multipolar world.

However, the impact China has had has not been wholly positive. Indeed, the impact China’s fishing— particularly long-line fishing—has had on the Asian ecosystem has been catastrophic, and, as the need for seafood shows no sign of slowing down, China is going to need to find a way to balance its voracious need for the life of the sea with sustainable fishing. Many are causing the problems, but if China truly hopes to rule the waves, it’ll need to be in the vanguard of fixing it. Quite apart from the economic success and the environmental horrors it brings, is the subject of science and exploration. Here, China is somewhat in the lead. In 2012, China dove to depths of 7,000 meters in an amazing craft designed to explore and study the basement of the world; other deep sea submersibles are in the works, including one that can dive 11,000 meters—deeper than the human race has ever gone before. Be it ocean economics, ecological disaster, or scientific exploration, China’s new role in the sea is a bold new frontier, and China is fast realizing that, despite providing incredible bounty and treasure, the sea also demands care and attention.

INFOGRPHIC_1

INFOGRPHIC_2

INFOGRPHIC_3

INFOGRPHIC_4

Go Out, New China, And Grow Old

DEFAULT INDEX

As the poor run for the big urban centers and the rich run for the relative peace and economic boom of second and third tier cities, there is yet another option in the modern migratory patterns of the Chinese people: escape. China’s rapid development has led to a massive increase in the number of Chinese leaving the motherland to seek their fortune abroad—a truer, broader sense of China’s government scheme in 1999 called the Go Out Policy, encouraging China’s wealth and influence expand beyond its borders. This modern exodus takes many forms, from living the high life in a tax haven to mining for gold in Ghana and from US students to Portuguese professionals, but as China continues to grow in both wealth and population, it is sure to become even more diverse and complex.

“I always wanted to study or travel abroad, to see the world, experience different cultures, but life was fairly good and stable in Beijing, so for many years I didn’t have the motivation and courage to take any action,” says Penelope Xu, who currently works with the Department of Health and Human Services in Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. “Compared to Beijing, life here is much more relaxing…traffic is not bad, air is clean, food is safe, the mountains, forests, beaches, and the city itself are all beautiful.”

Many in Penelope’s generation are opting out of the Chinese dream for a variety of reasons, be it competition, health care, or family pressure. Going from student to citizen is no easy task, involving a number of economic and social barriers. “It wasn’t easy,” says Penelope, “Australian immigration policy is getting tighter and tighter. Students who want to get permanent residency visa here need a really high IELTS score, also the qualification necessary has to be a degree on the immigration skill list, and age needs to be within certain range.” Penelope adds, “I know many of my classmates who wanted to stay but couldn’t due to different reasons.” While it may be difficult to get citizenship—or a job, for that matter—after graduation, many countries are embracing the influx of Chinese students (and their parents’ cash); Australia, for example, has begun accepting the much dreaded Chinese gaokao as an application credential.

Becoming a student-turned-citizen is difficult, requiring a high level of skill and is an option open to very few in China’s highly competitive yet still largely undeveloped society. As such, parents try the best they can to give their kids a headstart. On the famous Hurun Report this year, it was noted that some are starting as early as sending their kids to secondary school in countries like the US, UK, Australia, and Canada in the hope of eventually gaining citizenship. Those interviewed by Hurun had an annual income over 10 million RMB—which would come in handy as the boarding schools they send their children to cost upwards of 16,000 USD a term. At over 32,000 USD a year, that’s an extremely hopeful investment in a foreign passport.

Of course, for those who have the money, there are always ways to citizenship. Rather than hoping one’s child gets citizenship via being a student, the wealthy can always buy their citizenship via residence permits, and China is the key consumer in this market: Portugal offers residence permits for 500,000 Euros and 248 out of a total 318 applications came from China; in the US, the EB-5 fast-track visa will cost investments of over 500,000 to one million USD and 10 jobs, with applications from Chinese rising from 270 in 2007 to 2,969 in 2011; if you’re a bit skint, try buying property in Greece (if you dare) for 250,000 Euros of property tied residency permit, the very first of which went to a Chinese man on August 8 last year.

But, college, secondary schools, and massive wealth aren’t the only options; there is, in some places, a cheaper—however less ethical—way to get that coveted foreign passport. Birth tourism is a burgeoning industry for Chinese parents who want their kids to grow up in America and other countries with similar immigration laws. For the right price (often around 16,000 to 30,000 USD depending on the services provided), expectant mothers can take advantage of the 14th amendment to the US constitution that says children born on US soil are US citizens. Not only that, but these mothers will have excellent care for the right price, often including Chinese speaking doctors and hotel services.

In April of this year, CCTV ran a story about the unexpected boom in birth tourism for expectant Chinese mothers; approximately 4,200 Chinese women gave birth in the US in 2008, jumping to over 10,000 by 2012. Then, there is a little island in the Western Pacific called Saipan a little over a 120 miles north of Guam that is part of the United States commonwealth and, therefore, US soil. Births on that island, just 19 kilometers long, have been falling, but births to ethnic Chinese were up 175 percent between 2010 and 2012. “Maternity traffic” has become an important part of the local economy. There are about 30 countries in the world that grant citizenship upon birth, with Canada and America the most popular for Chinese, but few countries look kindly on this path to citizenship. However, it’s not really possible to prevent pregnant women from traveling just to drop their baby on another soil—but that doesn’t mean people don’t try. The governor of Saipan sent 20 Chinese moms packing in under four months, meaning their babies were to be born in China. This gamble is even worse domestically, with birth tourism fiercely controlled in China’s Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, where three women were arrested and fined for attempts at birth tourism this year.

However, China’s mass migration into the nations of the world has not come without costs or horrors. Perhaps the most harrowing of these occurs in countries like Ghana, where poor, illegal Chinese migrants mine for gold in the dark, wet wilderness of Africa, resulting in environmental pollution, fights over mining plots, and destruction of local economies. Ghana’s reaction, however, has caused serious anti-Chinese sentiment—where attacks, sexual assault, and immigration raids are part of life. The same can be said of Zambia’s copper mines and the Chinese businesses that see attacks and even murders. Many other countries, even those such as New Zealand, are making new policies to crack down on Chinese immigrants as they try to deal with this often relatively small but politically sensitive influx of Chinese immigrants. The growing pains will likely intensify in coming years, but China is growing and spreading into the outside world to spend and diversify its wealth like never before. And that, perhaps, is where China will truly change the future.

*This is Part III of “China on the Move”. Read Part I here, and Part II here.

FEELING LUCKY?

DEFAULT INDEX

Go to any casino in the world and they are there by the bucket load, dozens upon dozens of seemingly inscrutable Chinese men sitting behind ever increasing or decreasing stacks of chips, coolly throwing them down on whatever numbers feel lucky at the time. The stereotypical Chinese affinity for gambling is not exactly fiction; it gave rise to a colossal, thriving three trillion RMB industry. Anytime, there is a national festival, communal gathering, or even funeral wake, the chance for a little low or high stakes gambling is taken: most often it’s to the distinctive clack of plastic mahjong tiles that can be heard pretty much anywhere across the country; commonly, it is to any number of card games, from baccarat to cow-cow; sometimes it’s on races between 100,000 dollar pigeons; and occasionally it’s to something even more niche like cock-fighting, or odder still, to the fighting of tiny insects such as crickets. In China, if a bet can be made, it will be made.

“Gambling is illegal in China” is something you hear a lot. You can hear tales of how Chairman Mao came to power and immediately banned anything and everything that was decadent and Western, from books and dancing right through to prostitution and, of course, gambling. But the well-trod notion that gambling in China is illegal is not quite true. There is, in fact, a successful 300 billion RMB industry that is completely legal and even administered by the government, except they don’t call it gambling; instead a variety of euphemisms are employed, such as “colorful tickets” (彩票) or—on occasion and somewhat amusingly—“competitive guessing” (博彩). The China Welfare Lottery (中国福利彩票) and the China Sports Lottery (中国体育彩票) started in 1987 and 1989 respectively, and both allow Chinese punters to gamble on a number of different games including national and provincial lotteries, quick draw bingo type games, as well as scratch cards, and even sports. The lotteries are big news and due to a series of innovations, they have been growing by anywhere between 25 and 35 percent a year since their inception.

One rainy night, my friend Paul from Hebei and I visit a China Sports Lottery “bookies” for a bit of a flutter in Beijing’s Xizhimen area. On the way to the betting shop, Paul, who thinks such betting is pointless, gives me his views on the Chinese lotteries. “They are just a way for the government to steal money from the poor who want to make a lot of money fast. No rich guys would play these games. It’s a waste of time,” he says. The betting shop in many ways echoes a British bookie from 20 years ago, albeit a very low rent version. Thick plumes of cigarette smoke hang in the air and empty beer bottles are dotted around the shop. A gaggle of middle-aged Chinese men sit huddled in the corner. They are studying a complex grid on a whiteboard where the numbers for the last few weeks’ lotteries have been hastily jotted down. On the board, a line is drawn through the numbers and it seems to form a zigzag pattern, as it almost inevitably would. If you didn’t give it much thought you could mistakenly think these zigzags form an identifiable and predictable pattern, and many of the men in the shop have methods and techniques for calculating the numbers. As Paul says, “These guys think they are working for the numbers. If they win they think it is because they deserved it.” It’s all bunkum, of course; the numbers are completely random and therefore unpredictable.

The shop is run by a woman in her late 30s and her son, who was apparently helping out. Though the boy looks about eight years old, Mike Wang is actually 13. His family moved to Beijing from Shanxi to run the betting shop. They get a set wage, and if they sell over a certain amount they get a healthy commission. Mike’s father was a welder, and his mother worked in insurance and sold Amway products on the side, but they thought they would have a better chance running a betting shop in Beijing. That was eight years ago, and the shop seems to be flourishing. Though just 13 years old, Mike, wearing a pair of bright yellow Nike football boots, seems intelligent and tells me it is his ambition to be an elite soldier. Very familiar with the betting shop itself, he eagerly helps me score my lottery slip and shows me how to play the game. For the draw, there are 33 numbers and a bonus ball, so I have to pick six numbers and a bonus and then hope they come up.

It’s 2 RMB a go and I decide to buy five lines to increase my chances. On rollover weeks, where nobody has picked the numbers in the previous week, the prizes can be fantastically huge. If the lottery rolls over for several weeks, the amounts can go up to hundreds and hundreds of millions of RMB. Mike helps me pick some of the numbers, seemingly at random, and I ask him if he thinks the numbers are predictable. “Who knows? It is impossible to tell,” he says. “We get two main types of guys in here. Some, like you guys, just quickly pick the numbers. The other guys think they can work out what numbers are going to come up and take longer picking the numbers. But they all seem to win the same amount as each other.”

It turns out the draw for the lottery is not until the next day, so we buy a few instant scratch cards to see if we can win there and then. The scratch cards themselves have colorful names such as, “Digging the Golden Beans”, “Winning the Sky Battle”, “Unlimited 7 Fun”, and “Ten Times Good Luck”. The cards are five or 10 RMB a piece. Each game feels slightly different, but they, of course, are not. In some, you have to get a set of arrows pointing in the same direction, others you need three lines of fruit in a row, and with some you need matching types of sky rockets to win. They are fun to play and there is a distinct adrenaline rush as you manically scratch the silver covering off the symbols underneath.

Suddenly Paul screams, “Dude, I just won 10 bucks.” Though the ticket itself actually cost 10 RMB, it feels like a victory of sorts and we go on to buy several more tickets. For someone who thinks gambling is a waste of his time, Paul enjoyed buying the tickets and orders more and more. The shop is full so we furiously scratch the cards outside, but Mike is on hand and only too happy to ferry our tickets and money to and from the shop as he explains how each game works. I spend 100 RMB on tickets, but “win” about 50 RMB on cards themselves. Mike tells me that the payout is about 65 percent on the scratch cards, so I’m well under the win average. This thought alone makes me think it is worth buying more.

Why the Chinese have a particular penchant for gambling is unclear, though betting can be traced back to at least the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BCE-256 BCE), possibly earlier, where there are records of liubo (六博), a game of chance, as well as cock fighting and horse racing. The nation is deeply steeped in its Confucian culture, yet Confucius himself didn’t have much positive to say about the pastime, seeing gambling as wasteful, a moral ill, and something that could lead to social disorder. Professor Desmond Lam of the University of Macau has written extensively about Chinese gambling, “They [Chinese gamblers] are more serious. Some studies find that Chinese casino-goers gamble more as a form of investment. They also take high risk bets that are way above the minimum betting amount,” he says. “They do gamble much more and more avidly. It is difficult to explain this phenomenon in a sentence, but I would group the reasons into external, for example high income disparity, and low or negative real interest rates, versus internal, that is the high illusion of control, risk seeking, social norms, etc.”

Lam has written extensively about this “the illusion of control”, essentially it’s the idea that people feel they can control the outcome of games (even those requiring no skill) in some way. Oddly, this “illusion of control” partly comes from the fact that many Chinese believe they have less, not more, control over their lives than Westerners. Chinese have what Lam calls a very high “external locus of control”, meaning that they believe lots of other factors outside of themselves that have a big impact on their ultimate fate, and this external locus can be underpinned by numerous things such as superstition, luck, destiny, and folk beliefs. Accordingly, larges sets of rituals and bizarre beliefs are often developed to add to their luck, which they believe needs to be built up. This “luck” is then deployed at the gaming table. Such rituals can take myriad forms such as the wearing of red underwear, not touching a gambler’s shoulders during gaming, avoiding monks and nuns, the blowing of cards, and even various feng shui elements, like not going through the doors of gaming establishments that face certain directions; perhaps the oddest edict of the bunch is that female gamblers are more likely to find success when they are on their period.

Lam also believes there is a subtle difference in the way Chinese society perceives gambling as a whole, and he suggests that, where in the West casino gambling is seen as entertainment, many Chinese see it as a form of investment. Perceived differences are particularly strong with problem gamblers, “Many see ‘small bets’ as okay, and it is fun to gamble during festive seasons like Chinese New Year. It is also common for adults to let kids play a few rounds. Sometimes, it is seen to be for good luck,” says Lam. “A person who cannot control his or her gambling activities is recognized as someone who cannot control his or her own behavior. This person is considered a morally bad person but in the Western perspective this person is ‘mentally’ sick…Most Chinese don’t report their gambling problems because of face issues. Only the big cases (i.e. leading to the embezzlement of funds) get reported in Chinese media.”

There are some disagreements as to the motivations behind the Chinese government’s involvement in gambling; and there have been tentative attempts to introduce wider legalized gambling such as horse racing or even casinos on the Chinese mainland, but so far none have ever gotten off the ground. Some argue that the establishment of lotteries is simply a way for corrupt officials and others to line their pockets, others see it is an effective way to raise money for good causes, but most commonly it seems to be believed that it is a way for the government to get a strong regulatory grip on what could otherwise easily become a widespread problem. Lam certainly takes this view: “I think legalizing gambling in China is a way to take gambling away from the underground and to manage illegal activities better. This is a common reason in many other countries too.” He adds, “The main reason is to redirect the wealth gained in underground gambling activities into legal means and use the wealth to better the lives of the society as a whole.” Although, he sees the lotteries as continuing to grow, he does not think legal gambling will extend beyond the lotteries in the short term: “It will take a while for this to happen. I don’t see the possibility of legalizing casino gambling on the mainland any time soon. It will be hard to control the social ills if it happens, and I don’t think the central government can effectively do so.”

One of the quirks of China’s legal gambling system is that although it’s strictly administered by China’s Ministry of Finance and effectively a nationalized industry, the day to day running of its various games are all completely outsourced to third parties. The Beijing Sports Lottery for example, despite taking in vast sums of money, only has 13 permanent members of staff. These third parties aggressively seek capital in any way they can. All of this has led to the somewhat bizarre situation whereby you can effectively buy shares in China’s national state lottery on the New York-based NASDAQ. Chinese Sports Lottery betting website 500.com has the largest market share online in China and launched an IPO in November 2013. The prospect of investing on a New York stock exchange in a Chinese state-run online gambling network was an odd one, but, to many, it also looked like too much of a winning bet to pass up, and sure enough it was. The IPO went off with a bang and shares opened at 20 USD, barely four months later they peaked at a healthy 56 USD in March 2014—currently standing just shy of the 40 USD mark. The Chinese lottery, it seems, offers strong returns by any standard.

For a nation that loves to bet so much, the country’s betting industry is in an odd space. Illegal or not, China’s over 3,000 years of gambling history is not going to end anytime soon. Governments the world over are only too happy to deride any number of vices, yet simultaneously tax them to the nth degree to fill national coffers, and a little (or large) flutter has long been part of that equation. With the casinos of Macau and the horse riding in Hong Kong, in time it will become clear if legal gambling on the Chinese mainland will extend beyond the, for now, narrow confines of its welfare and sports lotteries. Although, with three trillion RMB at stake, who would bet against it? Gambling, in modern China at least, may have only just begun.

THE OTHER CHINESE DREAM

DEFAULT INDEX

It’s a story oft told: in a 30-year period, upward of 250 million Chinese rural residents flooded into the cities to seek better lives, thousands upon thousands of Chinese villages were left empty but for the elderly and grandchildren, the generation in between having left to seek a better fortune. And these economic migrants were not afraid to get their hands dirty either: road sweepers, construction workers, security guards, prostitutes, and waitresses; they would do anything, whatever needed to be done, as long as it gave them the chance for a brighter future.

However, there is another newer, smaller story that you don’t hear so much about. As China’s rural poor flood into its largest cities, many of the nation’s richer white-collar workers have become fed up with those same cities and all the problems they offer and have instead decided to sell-up and leave it all behind, dreaming of something quieter, healthier, more utopian perhaps. They go to places like less developed Yunnan or Guangxi to live beneath mountains or beside gently flowing rivers, so they can run hostels, open cafes, make music, sell art, and do whatever necessary to keep them away from the hustle and bustle of the hectic metropolises.

Ren Zhongya and her husband Weng Yanhua are one such couple. They had been living in Wenzhou, Fujian, which (by Chinese standards) is a small city, of just under four million people, but became tired of the city’s relentless drive toward ever more urbanization. Accordingly, they decided to reorient their lives and, after a short stint in Shanghai, moved to the tiny island of Gulangyu, just off Xiamen on China’s east coast and opened a small, quaint coffee shop called 花时间 (Killing Time).

“Wenzhou was just a small place but urbanization was so fast that old things were destroyed suddenly. Like old districts and old houses…I am very sensitive to air and sound. Wenzhou was a fast developing city but had begun to demolish and build on a large scale. It was not an atmosphere I liked,” says Ren. “My husband’s little brother happened to be in the army in Xiamen, and we went there for his wedding. We loved Gulangyu.”

Though Weng was inundated with work as a graphic designer and Ren had become something of a minor celebrity with her work in radio, they didn’t find the city life spiritually satisfying; the city offered no mysticism and, with all its pollution and noise, had become overbearing. And so they felt the urge to return to something simpler. “We opened the coffee shop in 2006 with the money I got from a book I published. We’ve always wanted somewhere with books, music, and an atmosphere that fitted our lifestyle…We live a simple life, away from worldly things such as social status and fame,” she says. Adding, “Also I like the café’s atmosphere. And we both like coffee. At that time, there were no real coffee shops in Gulangyu.”

Of course, the desire to “get away from it all” and to embrace a more idyllic ruritanian existence is nothing new; Thoreau managed to eke out a whole book on his love for the hermitic lifestyle, though for him, like many others, the process proved short-lived. But modern China in particular lends itself to such dreams. The nation’s seemingly unstoppable march to reform and modernization, in many ways, has been an unqualified success. Hundreds of millions have escaped poverty and are leading richer lives, but at the same time it has left many without a space, or the time, to think; many Chinese, particularly the more bohemian types, are desperately yearning for a more fulfilling inner world, as Ren says, “I am more interested in the things that go on inside my mind, such as art and music. We did this so we have more time left for ourselves. We don’t live as hermits; we just want to keep a distance from people but not completely away from people.”

For many of these spiritual migrants their plans are ultimately hampered in some way, and many of them often purport a desire to move back to the cities for some reason or other, perhaps in a bout of sincere Confucianism they feel the urge to go back home to look after their parents. More often than not parental bonding works the other way, and a good education for their children comes top of the list; urban schools are widely perceived as being far better than those in rural areas and they certainly have better resources.

Also, and somewhat ironically, this desire for something quieter often backfires to the extent that these idylls that are sought out soon become busy and those people searching for something quieter feel the urge to escape once more, something that has happened to Ren and Weng themselves; the small island where they looked for peace and calm has become wracked with tourists, and where there used to be just one coffee shop on the island, there are now dozens: “The Gulangyu before fit our dream. It had its own culture and spirit, and it wasn’t cut off from the world. It was able to reach a balance between nature and urbanization. [But now] for a small place, the destruction of urbanization is more apparent.” Ren adds, “We feel like we’ve reached a stage where we want to leave. The destruction is to such a degree that we feel it’s starting to affect our life.”

As the hype, and indeed reality, behind China’s modern economic miracle continues unabated, the outliers that shun materialism will no doubt grow too, and the question will be asked more and more: will China’s remarkable experiment in urbanization leave a space for those that dare to be different?

*This is Part II of “China on the Move”. Read Part I here.

CHINA ON THE MOVE – PART I

DEFAULT INDEX

China is a nation transformed: urban landscapes swell to the brim with rural citizens hoping to make their fortune, the newly rich run from the chaos of the metropolitan rat race, and many of the truly wealthy look for solace outside of China’s borders. This change has had its ups and downs, but it cannot be denied that the people of China are migrating en masse and that the consequences of this mass migration are being felt everywhere—even though the true costs may not be felt for decades to come. The key revolution of China this decade has been economic, one in which a society mills freely about the nation and abroad to seek a fortune or future unthought-of in previous generations.

For China’s cities, this means a great deal, chiefly that the rural population are searching for a lifestyle and a fortune in the urban areas where the pay is better, the work safer, and the outlook brighter. The explosion of the middle class has, for some, had the opposite effect, with China’s relatively young and wealthy looking for a less hectic life in the country’s more peaceful (and possibly more lucrative) areas. Some just want to get out of China altogether, and there are options for the super rich and hopeful parents alike to getting on the fast track to a fresh, new passport from a country of their choosing; just a few decades ago, China opened up to the world, and now the world is opening up to China. Chinese society, put simply, is on the move.

Rural Exodus

It is the largest human migration China has ever experienced. The change of political climate and economic policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s opened a door to the city for hundreds of millions of rural residents. Attracted by wages several times higher than what they could earn at home, not to mention the prospect of richer urban lives and everything else cities offer, they could not wait to abandon their “mud bowl”. Firmly stationed on the assembly line, these peasants-turned workers began to create the so-called Chinese miracle, becoming the backbone of economic development, and it never seemed to stop. Over the next 30 years, the ever intensifying trend completely changed the social fabric of the nation.

By 2013, the number of rural migrant workers reached268 million, accounting for nearly one fifth of the entire Chinese population. First found in the factory workshops and construction sites, migrant workers are now employed in every aspect of city life: express delivery, retail, restaurants, hotels, and more, with some going on to become successful entrepreneurs. They are at every street corner in every city selling, repairing, and serving tirelessly. There is no doubt that rural migrant workers can better themselves by moving to the city, but like everywhere else in the world in the history of urbanization, the dramatic social change is not without its problems. Some of these factors—not least of which is the sheer scale—are unique to China.

The already heavily populated urban areas are struggling to meet the needs of the large influx of migrant workers. Beijing, for example, already holds a population of well over 21 million, of which over four million are migrant workers. With an increase of 500,000 new migrants each year, resources are running dangerously low: infrastructure is lagging behind international standards, urban planning is challenged, and quality of life is poor and worsening for many migrant workers.

However, overcrowding tops the list of problems. This February a fire broke out in a “village within the city”—rural areas that slip through the cracks of urbanization where rural residents lost their farmland due to city expansion—in Shanghai Pudong New Area, killing a20-year-old Jiangsu migrant worker and his newly-wed pregnant wife. At the time of the fire, the two-floored brick building, constructed in the 80s, was crammed with25 tenants in small rooms separated by wooden boards. Like the victims, most were migrant workers employed in the local shipyard. The village, called Shanheng, had 3,000 locals and over 10,000 migrant workers living in rooms less than 10 square meters in size. Scattered gas tanks, aging wires, and even electric bikes are a constant threat to these workers’ lives. But rent is as low as 100RMB a month—a migrant worker has to save money where he can.

Such villages are common places for migrant workers to live. In 2010, China Real Estate and Finance published a survey of 404 migrant workers based in Beijing, showing that 63 percent of them live in old bungalows and self-built simple houses in these “villages within the city”, and 72 percent of them had an average living area of less than five square meters per person. In many of these crowded and unsanitary living areas, a bathroom or even running water is a luxury. With an average monthly wage of 2,609 RMB, migrant workers only spend about450 RMB on housing in the hope of taking more money back to their families. Some have even chosen shipping containers, wells and manholes as homes.

Alongside the extremely bad living conditions, environmental pollution also poses a huge threat to the health of the migrant workers. According to “Environment, Health and Migration”, a report completed this March by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, migrant workers tend to live close to pollution sources in heavily industrialized areas, which are typically where they work. Migrant workers are repeatedly exposed to water, soil and air pollution, leading to deteriorating health. Also, the latest figures from the State Statistics Bureau indicate that only18 percent of migrant workers have health insurance. For most of them, their poverty leaves them entirely unequipped to deal with illness.

Their trials, however, do not end there. The hukou, or household register system, is their final obstacle in being embraced by the city, a hurdle many never overcome. Installed in 1958, hukou are divided into agriculture for rural residents and non-agriculture for urban residents, and attached are very different medical care facilities, insurance plans, and educational opportunities. Disadvantaged rural residents have a hard time meeting the ever changing urban hukou requirements, even if they have lived, worked and paid taxes in the city for decades. Faced with complaints and criticism, the Beijing city government issued urban hukou to three migrant workers at the end of April this year, all of whom were “National Labor Models”—a gesture to show that migrant workers’ contribution to the city will eventually be rewarded. However, three out of over four million is fatuoustokenism and of no comfort whatsoever to the diligent army of migrant workers living on the ramshackle edges of Beijing and other Chinese cities.

Seemingly a group of perpetual outsiders, migrant workers are all-too-often discriminated against, mistreated, and brushed aside without so much as a moment’s notice. In its rush to modernize, China has clearly created a new urban underclass. They are called nongmingong (农民工) or mingong (民工), a name that has increasingly been associated with shabby appearance, boorish manners, poor education, intense physical labor, and an impoverished status—worse still, it’s a term now snobbily used as an insult. To counter such negative connotations, the state-run media began a campaign, which was really a piecemeal effort in semantics, and added “brothers and sisters” after mingong, hoping such a gesture would bridge the gap between rural workers and the city dwellers. But, a simple name change was never going to be enough. If migrant workers are indeed our brothers and sisters, we are pretty shameful siblings.

DREAM IN THE JUNGLE

DEFAULT INDEX

In early April, the tropical heat douses the city of Jinghong in a lazy languor. Dogs idly sleep under the branches of gigantic glazed palms. By half past one, the restaurants that were open at noon close and the streets are empty, quiet, with not so much as a taxi in sight. The entire city, despite its modern look, takes the time to have a prolonged midday snooze. Sitting on an aged bamboo armchair by the Mekong River, looking at the verdant yard of a hostel, the languid summer air relaxed me into a stupor. There was almost nowhere I wanted to go—I had already explored nearby villages, hot springs, and forests, that’s when the young receptionist, perhaps to save me from actually melding with the chair, said, “Maybe you would like Zhanglang (章朗).”

BULANG1
A typical Bulang ethnic residence in Zhanglang village

Flicking through a guidebook, Zhanglang, Yunnan Province, seemed to be an ancient Bulang ethnic (布朗族) village—an ethnicity I had never encountered before. It was only 100 miles west of Jinghong, and the description in the guide was smaller than a postage stamp. Riled by curiosity, I decided to raise myself out of my seemingly eternal slumber in the bamboo armchair and hit the road once more. With no direct route, I first took a bus to Menghai (勐海), the town nearest to Zhanglang, leaving the modern city of  Jinghong in the rearview mirror and rattling furiously onto a road that threaded through a vast rainforest. However, the dry season was lasting longer than it was supposed to, and the forest looked dusty and dry, even depressed somehow. After an hour and a half, I arrived in Menghai. The town, like so many newly-developed Chinese towns, was ill-planned, badly-built, and dirty. The main street seemed to consist almost entirely of motorcycle repair garages, and even the occasional restaurant seemed to take on the air of the garages, gloomy and dank.

The next day, I took a privately-run mini van further west, getting off halfway to look at a 300-year-old octagon pagoda (景真八角亭) constructed to resemble Siddhartha’s hat. I was having a good time, listening to the soothing sound of the wind stroking the bells that hung around the gray wooden pagoda and tried my best to interpret the frescos painted on the temple walls, which were, it seemed, all about the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The temple that once surrounded the pagoda was—like so many things—destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in 1978. Coming to terms with this often frustrated me during my travels. Such destruction is omnipresent. No matter how remote and offbeat the destination—regardless of the ethnicity, culture, and temperament of the local people—the temples were always destroyed during the peculiar havoc that was the Cultural Revolution.

BULANG3
A gate leading to the Buddhist temple in Zhanglang village

When I left the pagoda, I hitchhiked on a motorcycle driven by a local man who didn’t understand Han Chinese. I asked him tentatively, “Zhanglang?” and he nodded. Fifteen minutes later, he put me down at a gas station at a fork in the road and pointed to one of the paths. I couldn’t understand his dialect, but checking the map on my phone, I could see I was some nine kilometers away from Zhanglang. As I walked, the concrete road soon disappeared, giving way to a cobbled road, and then a dirt path. The mountains and valleys turned greener and gently rolled onwards. The land was clearly resident to a very hardworking people, and the entire valley appeared to have been turned into tea plantations.

I failed to hail another ride. Occasionally, a motorcycle would roar by, but they were always overloaded with women and children or goods. Having underestimated the time it would take me to get to the village, I didn’t even fill my water bottle before I left, only bringing along a Snickers bar for food. When, after two hours, the map finally indicated I was arriving in Zhanglang, I was exhilarated by the simple prospect of water. The village was of a singular rustic charm. It was tiny, and I walked through it in two minutes. Cottages clustered closely, most of them have two-storey wooden structures. The bottom storeys, supported by pillars alone, were without walls and used as shelter for livestock, as well as for the storage of logs and firewood. The second storeys were windowless and almost totally in the shadow of the massive, slanting roofs that were covered in small, black square tiles. They all looked weather-beaten but were still well-maintained and neat.

The village was exceptionally still. For a moment I even wondered if it was abandoned. Thus, I walked up and down the path, looking for any living human I could find. Finally, I heard the faint din of chatting from one of the cottages. I gingerly approached, and saw three old women sitting on the floor in the middle of what was clearly a merry conversation. All three of them were dressed in their own ethnic dress: their heads wrapped in black clothes, while wearing black coats and a black, ankle-length skirt wrapped by a blue waistband.

“Hello. Do you have any water?” I asked timidly. They looked at me inquisitively, but didn’t understand. I took out my bottle and piteously showed them that it was empty. Then the oldest woman stood up, and gestured for me to follow her.

As she walked, she started to talk to me in a slow drawl as if I were another woman from her village. We went into her cottage, up the creaking steps, and came to the second storey. The attic was spacious, but the roof hung very low, the only source of light was what seeped through cracks in the planks. The room was meant to be used as a sitting room and kitchen. The kitchen was a small ring of cinder on the ground with a tin pot supported by an iron tripod.

BULANG2
Yuban posing for the camera, leaning on her neighbor’s bamboo cattle pen

She gave me hot water from a thermos, and then, as if reading my mind, offered me food—rice and salt, which obviously was her lunch too. She was an elegant lady despite her age and was extraordinarily flexible, a woman who—through miming and a smattering of Mandarin words—I was able to discover had recently suffered a serious injury to her foot. I was not used to sitting on the floor, and soon my legs and back became numb and stiff, while she sat comfortably, nimbly bending to fetch anything within her reach. Without enquiring anything about where I came from or why I was here, she offered me her couch for the night as naturally as if I was her own family, which, oddly, made me feel slightly paranoid. While we conversed inefficiently and with great difficulty, the wooden stairs thundered, and a little girl in a school uniform came up. She was about 10 years old, and had large expressive eyes. “She speaks Han. She learned it from school,” the old lady said. Her name was Yuban, and we talked briefly before I remembered the Snickers in my backpack and gave it to her. She opened it and asked me what it was, and then put it aside. “You don’t eat candy?” I asked. “I am keeping it for my brother. He will come later,” she said. The brother soon turned up, shorter than the girl, but they looked very alike. I later learned they were twins.

Yuban and her brother stayed for a while and then as they were leaving, I don’t know exactly how, my lodging changed from the old lady’s cottage to Yuban’s home. My little patron’s home was two kilometers away in another village. The people of the two villages used to both reside in the first village, but the first village was so ancient that the government, concerned about overpopulation, subsidized some of the villagers and had them build new cottages in a new settlement. Her house was similar to the house of the old lady, only simpler. The attic was almost bare, the only furniture being two wide benches in a corner, one of which would serve as my bed. The planks that made-up the floor extended out of the attic, making a platform where they could wash clothes and bathe. A water tap rose from the ground to the platform like a tall flag pole. There was no toilet—or, rather, the toilets were anywhere outside where you could hide yourself well. The only electricity went to a pair of light bulbs.

As soon as she put down her backpack, Yuban announced: “We are running out of time. I have to hurry. I need to sweep the floor, wash the clothes, feed the pigs, and cook rice before my parents come back.” So, she briskly set about her chores. The water for washing clothes immediately turned dark, as their garments were soaked in mud; Yuban washed them quite unscrupulously. I guess she didn’t have the time, and, I suspect, modern standards of hygiene are more a product of our cramped, dirty cities. Then, she hoisted a bucket of porridge, which I later learned was made from banana branches, downstairs and poured it into a large tire cut into halves; three small black pigs hurried over and enjoyed their meal while contently swaying their tails. I was in awe of her efficiency, and as much as I wanted to, I could do little to help.

At about six, I finally met her parents coming back from the fields. Her mother had brown skin, big bright eyes, round and tight arms, not to mention the elegant, steady pace that can often seen on people who have only ever walked barefoot. The father was a short, lean man. Both were just 32 years-old. They each came back with a gigantic bag of fresh tea leaves on their backs. Yuban yelled something at them like a chirping bird, and they smiled at me and nodded and didn’t say anything. In this quiet and familiar way they accepted me as their guest. She started a fire and cooked us dinner, which was rice stir-fried in oil and soy sauce. Also, I got an egg—they fried the only egg they had for me. Over the next few days, I noticed that they had no vegetables and very little fruit in their daily diets.

In the evening, they went out and came back with a bed cover. “We borrowed it from a neighbor for you,” mother Yu said. The bench that was to be my bed already had a mat and a blanket, and I felt bad for the inconvenience. When I woke the next day I noticed that the light was on all night. I asked them why, and the mother said, “There are a lot of mice. They are not afraid of people and run around in the room at night. It’s better with the light on. We don’t want you to be scared.”

The next day, they awoke when it was still dark. “We are going to help another family harvest their sugar cane. We will come back late,” mother Yu told me. Yuban and her brother, too, were going to help another neighbor to pick tea leaves. Of course, Yuban brought me along because she was worried about me hanging around on my own, and also: “You can earn a lot of money if you pick tea leaves with us. Mother said you will need money because you go to a lot of places.” The pay was 20 RMB per kilo of tea leaves. We arrived at a small patch of tea farms in a deep wood. However, I, of course, was the slowest picker as I couldn’t quite discern younger tender leaves from older ones. I also couldn’t stop Yuban and her brother secretly smuggling leaves from their own bags into mine whenever they got the chance so that I would be paid more. It was humbling, almost devastating generosity.

BULANG5
Yuban and her brother skilfully pick tea, for which they are paid 20 RMB per kilogram

With their kind help, I earned 20 RMB, and the twins earned 30 RMB each. We finished the work in early afternoon and played in the woods for the rest of the day. They made two significant discoveries: that there was empty ground comfortably matted with thick leaves and that my phone could record voices. The recorder made them hysterically happy. They shrieked at it, listened to their own shrieking and rolled on the ground in laughter. Then they started to sing songs in their own language. This time they became a serious duo, and I listened in amazement. After they had fun recording their voices, Yuban dragged me to the village’s grocery store, insisting on buying me a snack. Truly, I felt like the most immature among us. There was only one grocery shop in the village, which was owned by a Han man who sold very limited goods. Yuban carefully chose a soy sauce egg for me.

The next day was a Thursday, the day when all the villagers go shopping in the Xidingxiang market, about 12 kilometers away. Yuban was excited and said she was going to buy a pair of dancing shoes, as they were choreographing a dance at school. She also looked forward to buying steamed buns and having rice noodles in a restaurant.

We got up at six and found the neighbors already gathering. There was only one mini van in the village, owned by the grocery store proprietor. Most families traveled on motorcycles. We divided ourselves into several groups and got on motorcycles, waving and hailing to each other, and headed to market like a large troop of soldiers, albeit undisciplined soldiers. It was a bustling market, where handicrafts like knives made by local blacksmiths mingled with cheap modern products like plastic sandals. It was also a significant occasion to socialize. People greeted each other heartily; liveliness and joy seemed to infect everyone.

BULANG4
Spices and herbs sold in Xiding’s Thursday market

Among the stalls, one that occupied a conspicuous corner was particularly loud. A Han ethnic man was selling electronic kitchenware such as kettles, pressure cookers, and induction cookers—all things that seemed unnecessary for the average Bulang household, as they didn’t have many electronic plugs in their homes. The man announced: “We have a big promotion. These sets of kitchenware are worth 999 RMB. But on this special day, we have a lucky draw. If you are lucky enough to get a coupon, you can get them for only 299 RMB!” The man enthusiastically displayed how the induction cooker could bring the water to a boil in just a few minutes. He quickly drew a solid crowd that looked at the products with curious eyes. He didn’t need to urge them to partake in the lucky draw, and, naturally, almost everybody was lucky enough to get a coupon. The villagers were overjoyed at this good luck. Seeing Yuban’s mother’s interest, I was concerned. These products were of dubious quality, the pressure cooker in particular looked dangerous. They couldn’t even read the manuals, which were in the Han language; this is all besides the fact that their electricity fees would spike if they managed to find a use for it.

On returning, we were again faced with the problem of too many people and too few vehicles. After some discussion, they squeezed me into the mini van. I sat next to the driver with a mother and a seven year-old boy on the other side. Six people—four adults, a child, and a baby—succeeding in squeezing into the back row. The van, on the verge of bursting with double the sensible capacity of passengers, bumbled homeward amongst much laughter.

Later that night, Yuban asked me to read her Chinese textbook with her. Her school only had two grades: the second and the fourth. There were only two teachers, and the locals didn’t care much about schooling. In order to make the parents send their children to school, the local government gives the parents a reward. Yuban took her homework very seriously. She started by reading a Chinese lesson called “Carole and Her Kitten”. The lesson, an obvious copy from an English text, began with, “Carole has always wanted a kitten. Father tells her, ‘Let’s put an advertisement in the newspaper.’”

She circled alien words like “newspaper” and “advertisement”. Even if I wanted to explain these to her, I doubt I could. When she read, she painstakingly emphasized every character. I soon realized that the whole article meant nothing to her. How, to a girl whose family owned no electronic appliances besides two light bulbs, could it be meaningful? Advertisements, doorbells, desserts, pianos, and other accoutrements of a Western urban family were all left unexplained. We moved on to another lesson entitled “Beijing Turns Bright”, which was about the beauty of our capital city when the lights are on at night—the ring roads, the lawns, the fountains. As I read it to her, not knowing why, I almost became angry: the ring roads and neon lights and Tian’anmen Square, it felt quite ridiculous to make Yuban think, in this setting, that these were beautiful.

After we finished the lessons, we walked hand in hand to one of the neighbors who owned a television. It was a moonless night, but the children were used to the darkness. They watched a Chinese animation called Boonie Bears, but they didn’t seem as interested in the TV show as in being in a big crowd, playing with other children. On our way back, I lifted my eyes and saw the Big Dipper shining down brightly above my head. In all my life, I had never seen stars loom so large and bright in front of me, putting Yuban’s lesson “Beijing Turns Bright” to shame, for that is something Beijing no longer has and may never have again.

Upon leaving, Yuban shied away from me, and when she had to bid me farewell, she said “bye” and then simply walked out of the house. She was crying. As I sat gloomily on the bus back to Menghai, a monk in orange robes came up and sat besides me. He was 18-year-old, living on the border of China and Myanmar and was on his way to a secularizing ritual in Jinghong. He complained that, until ritual took place, he was still a monk. “Where have you been?” he asked. I told him Zhanglang. Much to my surprise he knew the name and smiled, “Oh, they have really good tea.” He was right, of course, they do have good tea, and so very, very much more.

Manichean Middle Kingdom

DEFAULT INDEX

In 228, in what is now Iraq, a boy of 12 had a vision. He saw the world divided into a great battle of good and evil, the sons of light caught within the flesh o f a wicked earth. The vision came to him again when he was 24 and he began preaching the word of his new faith. The boy was called Mani, a subject of the Persian Empire, which would eventually execute him as a heretic in 276. By then, the religion he founded, Manichaeism (摩尼教), already had millions of followers across the Empire and beyond. A few centuries later, it would reach into China, becoming, briefly, a competitor to Daoism and Buddhism for the souls of the Chinese people. It would survive centuries of persecution, only to eventually be driven extinct, remembered only by scholars.

Mani’s beliefs were a hectic mix of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism (the ancient dualistic religion of Persia), and Christianity, influenced by Gnostic Christian texts and apocryphal Jewish writings. As with Islam, born under much the same circumstances, Manicheans venerated earlier prophets, especially Jesus.

Its cosmology was fantastical, complex, and occasionally baffling. At the beginning o f time, said Mani, there was the World of Light and the World of Darkness—one pure good, the other pure wickedness. They competed in a series of weird and wonderful battles, where armed angels campaigned against a myriad of freakish demons. The human body, in the form of Adam and Eve, was created by Darkness, but the soul came from the World of Light and could be freed into its divine origin. The stark division between light and darkness gives us the term Manichean in English today, meaning to see the world in black and white.

But Manicheans rarely focused on evil, though their legends sometimes seem closer to Jack Kirby comic books than anything else, with their stories of heroic battles, incestuous copulation, and bizarre bad guys. In practice, the faith was a pacifist and ascetic one, sometimes to the point of extremes, with priests abstaining from sex, meat, and even ostentatious clothing. Among ordinary believers, it was a religion of community, cleansing, and devotion.

From its origins in the Middle East, Manichaeism reached out to the rest of the world. In North Africa, the future Saint Augustine was a Manichean before he converted to Christianity. It was a time of missionary fervor across Eurasia. Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, Manichean, and Christian missionaries fanned out across Asia, yet Judaism’s period of proselytising was much briefer than the others. They reached the furthest corners of the earth; Christian monks were praying in the high places of Tibet as early as the sixth century, where in future years local believers would carve crosses into rocks and write divinations to “the god called Jesus Messiah”. In Europe, Manichaeism was soon stamped out by a dominant Christianity, although Manichean ideas surfaced in Gnostic heresies right up to the 13th century.

In Asia, however, the followers of Mani competed in a much more diverse and competitive spiritual marketplace. Manichaeism’s great coup in Asia was the conversion of the Uyghur Khanate, a massive Turkic Central Asian power that spanned from the Caspian Sea to Mongolia. Tengri Bogu, the Uyghur Khan, was converted by Iranian Manichean preachers and declared it the official religion of his empire in 762. The official memorial of his conversion praises the religion for turning the Uyghur from “blood sacrifices to a region of vegetarians, from a state which indulged in excessive killing to a nation that exhorts righteousness.”

His enthusiasm for Manichaeism may have been a way of countering the influence of Tang Dynasty (618-907) China, the Khanate’s most feared rival; China’s neighbours to the north and west looked for ways to forestall the Middle Kingdom’s cultural and economic influence. But paradoxically, ended up giving Manichaeism a way into China itself.

Manicheanism initially won a frosty reception in China. The religion had seen a boost in China, following an influx of Persian refugees and traders in the early eighth century, but in 732, its practice was strictly limited to foreigners, and locals were forbidden from converting.“The doctrine of Mani is basically a perverse belief…and will mislead the masses,” wrote the imperial edict banning its practice. It wasn’t just advocates of indigenous Chinese ideologies that feared the coming of the new doctrines, however; Buddhists, who saw the Manicheans as rivals for the souls (and the donations) of Chinese, were often among its fiercest opponents. In return, Manicheans claimed that while Buddhism might be the “Great Vessel”, theirs was the “Superior Vessel”.

Mani-1

The Chinese Manichaen Compendium. Some of the most complete works of Manichaen beliefs are found in China.

China advocates often boast of the country’s supposed history of religious tolerance. But in truth, the treatment of religion only looks good compared to the barbarities of medieval Europe. The marketplace of divinity was fiercely competitive, and the losers in the competition for the court’s affections suffered grim fates. Heretical texts were rooted out with inquisitorial intensity, aided by networks of religious informers, though exactly what distinguished the heretical from the heterodox varied wildly year to year. Yet the Tang were keen to stay on the good side of the Khanate. The Turkic peoples, initially the great rivals of China in the early years of the Tang—although the Taizong Emperor (唐太宗), the dynasty’s co-founder, rumoured to be a quarter-Turkic himself—became a mainstay of the regime, hired to fight the countries’ battles elsewhere. As a result, the Tang turned towards a reluctant tolerance of Manichaeism, and soldiers and white-clad, long-haired priests alike preached the word of Mani across China. Manichean temples became common in Chinese cities, often in the Uyghur districts. During its travels across Asia, Manichaeism seems to have picked up many Buddhist ideas, and to have shed some of the harsh dualism and Gnosticism that made the faith famous. But followers distinguished themselves from their religious rivals by their vegetarianism, far more strictly practiced than among Buddhists, their refusal to shave their heads like Buddhists, their veneration of Mani and Jesus, and the careful copying of their scriptures, to the extent that texts “separated by four centuries and the whole of the Eurasian landmass”, are virtually identical.

Mani-2

Influences of the Buddha of Light clearly appear in Manichaen beliefs.

As with many of history’s losers, our record of Manichaeism in China is written mainly by its enemies. But it’s clear that the religion, like Buddhism, appealed to some people in a way that the formalistic rites of Chinese worship didn’t. The emphasis on personal purity, the strong community of believers, and the morally clear, if supernaturally complex, preaching of righteousness won the faith many followers from outside the Uyghur and Persian communities where it started.

The religious competition between Buddhists, Daoists, Manicheans and others was also a contest of magic. Soothsayers, seers, summoners, and sages sought to outdo each other in wondrous feats, from the casting out of demons and the breaking of the evil eye to the conjuration of gods to converse with nobles or congregations. Manicheans became particularly known for astrology and exorcism, including sometimes being asked to employ their magical skills on behalf of the government.

To our eye, the tales of magic and miracles, of false faiths defeated by pure doctrines and evil spirits cast out, of fortunes told and minds read, of great wonders of endurance performed to demonstrate the strength of belief, may all seem like delusion or chicanery. Indeed, many Chinese scholars were equally skeptical, pointing to sleight-of-hand, confederates, shadow-puppets, and mechanical ingenuity as the source of marvels, especially among the sects they disliked. But among both the public and the elite, these claims were not only credible, but a major source of religious legitimacy.

If you would like to read the rest of this article, please purchase the TV Issue in our online store today!

Physician, Heal Thyself

DEFAULT INDEX

Thirty-year-old Fang Hua, an ER doctor in a Beijing hospital, would seriously reconsider applying for medical school if she could do it all over again. In 2009, Fang obtained a Ph.D. in cardiology from Peking University Health Science Center, one of the top medical schools in China, and then began working in one of the most reputable hospitals in Beijing. All in all, it looked like a promising career on the rise, but it didn’t turn out quite as expected. In the first year, her wages hovered at around 4,000 RMB per month. Having worked for four years, she finally got an insignificant pay rise, which looked all the more humble considering her workload and conditions. Once a week, she has to take a shift that works her from five in the afternoon to noon the next day, starting right after her normal work day. This means that, once a week, she works a 28 hour shift, seeing over 100 patients. It’s not the exhaustion that concerns her: “We are used to the workload, and always got by, but I constantly worry that I may misjudge something and make fatal mistakes. The shortage of staff always causes trouble.”

However, there’s an even more threatening force on the ward; for doctors, it can be more deadly than the diseases they face. “On almost every shift, we get a few really cross patients or their families who shout threats at us like ‘I’ll kill you’ or ‘I’ll hack you to death’. Fortunately, none of them have actually carried out their threats on me. I don’t know if they would really do it.” The soft-spoken Fang added, “We didn’t have this many conflicts in the past. I don’t know why. I only hope we will not become the victims.”

Fang has good reason to fear. Besides the excessive workload and low pay, doctors and medical professionals today face violence from their patients, attacks that have seen a marked increase over the past decade. From 2001 to 2012, over 150 violent incidents against hospital staff have been reported by the media, altercations that vary from physical attacks and kidnapping to public humiliation and murder. According to the Chinese Hospital Management Association, from 2001 to 2012, over 30 doctors died due to patient violence. By 2013, 73 percent of Chinese hospital staff reported being verbally or physically abused by patients. Over 61 percent of hospitals had seen yinao, patients’ demonstrations. In a typical yinao, the patient’s family sets up a mourning hall in the hospital lobby after the patient dies, even bringing in a coffin, floral wreaths, and burning paper money. They accuse the doctors of malpractice or negligence and demand compensation.

This year has already seen more than its fair share of atrocities: 45-year-old doctor Sun Dongtao was beaten to death after an allegedly unsuccessful surgery; 38-year-old Li Aixin had his throat cut by a patient for the same reason; 20-year-old nurse Chen Xingyu was attacked by a patient’s parents, causing temporary paralysis, because they objected to her ward arrangements; a doctor in Chaozhou, Guangdong Province was publicly humiliated in the street after a patient died of alcoholic intoxication.

This horrific series of events has made it even harder for medical professionals to speak out. Public hospitals are theoretically government-owned, and therefore they are not allowed to talk freely to media, just like civil servants. A Communist Party Committee secretary at a medical school, when asked about the rise in violence against medical professionals, told TWOC, “After what has happened in the last few months, accepting interviews from the media is basically out of question.”

Wen Jianmin is one of the few doctors who will speak openly about patient violence. Wen is a large, barrel-chested man in his 50s, with a square, bespectacled face that gives him an authoritative air. He is an osteologist with 30 years of experience, the director of the osteology department of Wangjing Hospital of China Academy of Chinese Medical Science, twice a delegate on the CPPCC, and an activist campaigning for doctors’ rights.

“I know doctors who are picking up taekwondo and nurses who put pepper spray in their front desk—that’s how frightened people are in our profession.” Wen Jianmin spoke loudly and angrily: “Imagine our situation: the first thing that concerns us is not how to cure a patient, but how to make sure we survive the day. When the patients grow violent, we call the police, but they stand by and do nothing until the patients smash our desks or start to hit us. And what does the hospital do? They tell us never to return an insult and never fight back when the patient attacks us. But I never followed this rule.”

He adds defiantly, “I always tell my students to fight back when they are attacked and to make sure their seats face the door so that they can notice if an attacker is coming. When they attack, I am no longer a doctor; I’m a citizen, and a citizen has a right to defend themselves.”

Nurses are in an even worse situation than the doctors. Ma, a pharmacy director in a Tianjin hospital who wished to remain anonymous, said, “In my hospital, humiliation and shouting falls on nurses daily because they do things like miss veins for injections or don’t react to patients’ needs. But, because of the hospital’s rules, the staff can never confront a patient—they can only silently weather them.” The 50-year-old woman added sympathetically, “However, you have to know, every nurse is overworked. In all these years, I’ve never seen a nurse get off work on time at 5 pm. Most of them stay until 11 pm or later. The next morning, they arrive at the hospital at 7 am, as usual. There are no elderly nurses here because you can only stand the work when you are young.”

In response to violence against medical professionals, one medical website made an “Anti-Violence Guide in Hospitals” based on advice given by over 2,000 doctors nationwide. The guide includes suggestions like, “avoid staying in the office on your own or with your back to the door”, “wear sneakers to work”, “save a prewritten SOS message in your phone”, and “shield yourself with your steel clipboard in case of stabbing”.

Where, then, does such hostility come from? Admittedly, part of the conflicts arise from the fact that some patients simply lose patience. China’s best medical services are concentrated in big cities. Private hospitals are expensive and sometimes unreliable; public hospitals, especially well-known ones, are permanently overcrowded and understaffed. A trip to the hospital is, sometimes, like going into battle.

 Doctor-1 Doctor-2

In order to look at a leg problem, Kong Weizheng decided to go to Beiyi Sanyuan, a hospital known for its expertise in osteology. He awoke at 4:30 am, taking a taxi to arrive at the registration window at 5:45 am, and, to his dismay, in the misty morning well before the first twilight of dawn, the queue was already 20 meters out of the hospital’s lobby. When he finally got into the lobby, he realized that the line snaked and folded many times over and that the lobby was more crowded than a temple fair. Seven security guards were deployed to keep people in order, and it was far from enough—there were already fights for several spots. Kong got his registration number in what took over an hour and noticed that three departments were already full for the day. When doctors started to see patients at 8 am, the waiting areas in front of their offices were already too crowded to move and Kong had to elbow his way anywhere he wanted to go. “And it’s not a particularly bad day,” Kong said. “Because when I got out of the taxi and was stunned at the sight, the taxi driver smiled and said, ‘Good, it’s not that crowded today.’” All over China, big city hospitals have always been this crowded, and things were even worse a few years ago, with a lack of online and phone registration. But even with these advances, spots in the virtual queue are limited.

While the long waits cause a lot of complaint, distrust is another, more serious, issue. In the past few years, several events have fueled this paranoia for malpractice. In 2010, a man called Chen Cheng sued a hospital in Guangzhou because he believed the doctor sealed his wife’s anus with thread because he didn’t pay the doctor enough hongbao, a sort of bonus or bribe. It later turned out that Chen’s wife had serious hemorrhoid bleeding and that the doctor had tried to stop it. There was absolutely no proof of Chen’s hongbao allegation. But it was too late; the headlines had already struck.

Doctor-3

On January 25, 2011, the gate of Jinhua People’s Hospital, Zhejiang Province, was blocked by a family demanding compensation for their loss

If you would like to read the rest of this article, please purchase the TV Issue in our online store today!

Televisually Impaired

DEFAULT INDEX

Early March saw China’s biggest political meeting of the year, the much-heralded two sessions, which would see the great and the good of Chinese politics come together and debate some of the trickiest issues facing modern China: rampant corruption that’s seeing single families steal sums of money greater than the GDP of entire nations, stifling pollution that’s sending large swathes of Chinese citizens to early graves, horrific terrorist attacks, and how to deal with what is thought could be a very sudden decline in the economic success of the nation. One other issue stood out too: why can’t China produce a TV show that is universally loved by the Chinese people? You know, like the Koreans do.

The morning debate was set off by the incredible success of Korean soap opera My Love from the Star (《来自星星的你》) on the Chinese mainland, which gained billions, yes billions, of views online. What’s worse, the show, critically at least, isn’t even very good. Large numbers of people have even denied watching it out of sheer embarrassment.

Unsurprisingly, some officials missed the point. Wang Qishan heads up the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and is accordingly in charge of China’s largest anti-corruption campaign in its modern history. However, he managed to find time to wade into the debate, pointing out that although “Korean drama is ahead of  us” it doesn’t necessarily matter, as Korean culture is already based on Chinese values anyway: “The core and soul of  Korean opera is a distillation of  traditional Chinese culture…It just propagates traditional Chinese culture in the form of  a TV drama.” Considering the plot of  My Love from the Star revolves around an alien who crash lands on earth in the early 17th century and hangs out for the next 400 years until he meets Korea’s most famous actress, überbitch Cheon Song-Yi, whom he ultimately falls in love with—well, Wang’s words felt a bit stretched. It’s easier to wonder if all the debate was necessary anyway, surely Chinese TV couldn’t be as bad as that?

Televisually-impaired-1

Young Chinese women holding up photos of the actors and actresses from the hit Korean show, My Love from the Star

If Chinese TV is bad, then there are reasons for it. That is to say that, relatively speaking, TV in China is in its infancy, particularly for entertainment purposes. The first national broadcast wasn’t until May 1, 1958, and throughout the 60s, if people were to watch any television at all it was usually as large crowds in a public area, huddled around a single black and white TV set, often viewing public service information of a, shall we say, high ideological bent. Expansion was slow; by 1978 the nation still only had one television per 100 people, but things changed rapidly during the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1986, six American TV stations signed deals to provide US TV programs to China, and by 1985 over 80 percent of the population had access to television. Today, the sheer volume of TV made in China is remarkable, and it has been posited that for every hour of the day, two episodes of a TV show are filmed—some 17,000 episodes a year. America, which has a far more mature market, makes about 8,000 episodes a year.

The question as to why China has not produced more internationally popular shows is a divisive one, often touching on national pride and identity. May Liu has worked in the media most of her life, including a four year stint making documentaries at the BBC. Today she is back in China and runs her own TV production and events company; to her, differences in quality between Chinese and American TV can largely be put down to Chinese TV being so new on the entertainment front: “Look at how long the two countries have been developed. China is at just 20 years right, so it is not necessarily fair to compare…The television industry is just like a kid, it has to grow up. And in the process of things, they get mucky. And, getting mucky is important; it has to happen.”

On the surface, that’s a fair point. TV industries do not just magically appear fully formed, and in terms of development, China’s industry is probably where America’s was in the 1960s. And, certainly, while a lot of the younger Chinese generations, the so-called post 80s and post 90s generations, don’t have much positive to say about the state of Chinese television, the older generation are broadly content.

Liu certainly believes a lot of television is aimed at the older generation and in time it will improve: “There is a different focus for [older] generations. Like my mum, she likes to see things that happened in her lifetime. It doesn’t matter when it was made. It makes her think about the wonderful life they had…Look at China: it is a large population, you can’t have everybody at the same level as with Shanghai and Beijing.” Liu adds, “China will change a lot. For years the government hasn’t been confident. It’s not about politics; it’s about human beings…When you feel confident you can give people a bit more space. So, it is history. Think about how long they have had TV, for just 10 or 20 years. It is like starting from zero…But now that China is richer, they will need things that will make them happy.”

If you would like to read the rest of this article, please purchase the TV Issue in our online store today!

Stolen Childhoods

DEFAULT INDEX

“It’s just like a dream now,” says Wang Qingshun, sitting in an overstuffed hotel room armchair in Hangzhou. “I remember my home like it was a painting. I remember my father’s face. The rest of it, I don’t remember much at all.” He says it matter-of-factly, as though we all have these issues when trying to remember our childhoods. But Wang’s childhood has not faded from his memory. Rather, it was stolen by the kidnappers who snatched him from his home when he was just four or five years old.

“I think my father was chasing me to spank me,” he says, “and I was hiding somewhere. Then it gets blurry; I remember being in a car, driving past fields of rapeseed flowers, crossing mountains, and then getting onto a train. How I got here, I have no idea.”

Even the basic details of Wang’s life—the things we all take for granted—are unclear. He does not know his birthday or his actual age, though he believes he was kidnapped in 1988. He does not know where he’s from, though based on his accent as a child, and some other factors, he believes he may be from Sichuan Province. Even his name is unclear. Wang Qingshun is the name he was given by his “adoptive” parents, the people who bought him from the kidnappers. He remembers his original name was Li Yong. But which Li and which Yong? He can’t be truly sure.

Wang’s fate was not uncommon for children from his area at the time. “I remember that kids were often kidnapped and sold away from my original home,” says Wang. “It felt like when the Japanese devils invaded China; whenever someone mentioned the news [about kidnappings] people would get scared.”

But this is no scare story from Chinese history, and the problem remains as prevalent today as it was when Wang was kidnapped back in 1988. As Wang sits in the hotel room trying to remember more of his early childhood, parents all across China are experiencing the same horror that Wang’s birth parents must have experienced the day he disappeared. Decades after Wang’s kidnapping, children are still being taken and sold by traffickers at an alarming rate.

missing-child-1

Two-year-old Jing Huitong holding a drawing of “father” and “mother” in Jinjiang Infant Asylum, Fujian Province—home to 24 kidnapped children. Rescued children who can’t find their parents have been coming here since 2005.

Putting a precise number to the problem is difficult, and estimates range wildly. The Chinese government doesn’t release statistics on the number of children kidnapped, although in the past it has pegged the number at around 10,000 per year. The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on human rights, pegs the number at around 20,000. Independent estimates range as high as 70,000.

The reason for the discrepancy is that the only real numbers to work with are the number of children rescued from trafficking gangs each year. “If we use this data to guess at the hidden data of how many children are kidnapped each year, and assume for example that one in three or one in fi ve are rescued, that will give you an approximate number,” says Pi Yijun, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. “There’s really no more reliable method than that.”

In 2011, Chinese police rescued 8,660 kidnapped children. Using Pi’s examples as a range, we might roughly guess that in that same year, between 25,980 and 43,300 children were kidnapped. But there’s simply no way to be sure. What is clear is that kidnapping is a serious problem. “You can see that there has not been any major drop in this kind of crime,” Pi Yijun says.

Although decades have gone by, the business of trafficking in stolen children hasn’t changed much; what happened to Wang Qingshun is still typical of what happens to young boys who are taken by traffickers. Wang was sold to a new family. His new “adoptive” parents had given birth to only daughters, and as they were ageing they felt that they might not be able to conceive a son, but they wanted one. A relative had a line on a child they could buy, and they jumped at the chance. It’s not clear whether they knew that Wang had been kidnapped when they chose to purchase him, but they certainly knew he wasn’t being adopted through official channels.

Wang’s origins became clear when he arrived at his new home, though, because he made them clear himself. He told neighbors he was called Li Yong, not Wang Qingshun. He spoke with an accent so thick practically no one in his new Zhejiang home could understand him. In kindergarten, he says he got suspended repeatedly for getting in fights because he hit other boys who teased him for having “been purchased” (he claims he once even smashed something over another kid’s head in response to the teasing).

“Everyone knew,” he says, “everyone knew I wasn’t from there. Adults generally didn’t talk about it, but the other kids would make fun of me.” Despite the fact that his having been purchased was common knowledge, it took over a decade before somebody finally picked up the phone and called the police.

To understand why, you’ve got to understand that in traditional Chinese society, having sons was of paramount importance. Because daughters, when married, generally moved in with their husband’s family, a set of parents without a son would have no one to care for them in old age. Thus, in traditional society it was not uncommon for neighbors, friends, or family members to, essentially, give children to each other if one family had a surplus of sons but another had a deficit. If you already had four sons but your brother in the next village had none, for example, you might send your fifth son to be raised in his home. This was considered normal, and in the modern area, it’s still common in some areas for families to raise children that aren’t theirs. And although Wang’s case clearly involved some lawbreaking, many people are hesitant to get involved in other people’s business. The fear of reshi (惹事)—trouble for oneself—may help to explain why no one called the police on Wang Qingshun’s adoptive parents for such a long time.

When the police finally did get involved, there wasn’t much they could do. Wang’s adoptive father and his uncle were arrested and ultimately fined for having been involved in child trafficking, but after that the case went cold. Wang had been passed from handler to handler along his journey to his new parents, and although the police found the first of these men, they never got further than that.

handprint

On a classroom wall of Jinjiang Infant Asylum hangs the hand prints of
kidnapped children wishing to return home one day

This is typical of trafficking cases, which have proven notoriously difficult to crack. China has a national-level anti-kidnapping task force that oversees large-scale operations to take down trafficking rings and criminal gangs, and traffickers are punished severely—convicted child traffickers are often sentenced to death and executed. But solving individual cases often requires tracing back through numerous handlers and intermediaries, securing cooperation from local police forces in a variety of locations to attempt to ascertain the child’s point of origin, and collecting information from victims who are often too young or too traumatized to be fully aware of what happened to them. Even when a case is solved and a child is rescued, this doesn’t mean the police will be able to find the child’s original family.

missing-child-2

Wang Zun and his wife Li Guangying from Kunming, Yunnan Province, hold a picture of their son who was kidnapped when he was only two weeks old. He has been missing ever since.

Another problem is that it isn’t always clear whether or not a child has been kidnapped. In the absence of concrete proof like a video recording of the kidnapping, police will be inclined to treat the case as a missing persons issue, at least initially, and since uncovering clues in a kidnapping case can be extremely difficult, many cases are confirmed as kidnappings only after the child has been rescued. Police and parents must struggle with the knowledge that a missing child could have been kidnapped, but he or she also could have run away, or even somehow have been killed.

And the situation is further complicated by the fact that when children are rescued, what seems to be morally right isn’t always what’s best for the child. In Wang’s case, for example, though he was kidnapped and sold, he was also treated well and raised as a son by his adoptive family, who he now considers to be his parents. Were he to have been ripped away from them, years after his kidnapping, and returned to his original family, it might have caused more psychological damage.

family-reunion

After 15 years of separation, in March, 2013, Wang Mofeng and his wife from Anhui Province were finally reunited with their son Wang Xiaolei in Fuqing City, Fujian Province, thanks to the efforts of the local police

Wang’s situation is comparatively lucky, though. Not all kidnapped kids are sold to new families. While sale into adoption (both domestically and abroad) is the most common motivation for the kidnappings of infants and toddlers in China, there are cases of children being kidnapped right up through their teens.

Older children may be taken by traffickers for use in street gangs. Sometimes they are made to beg on the street.  Sometimes they are made to perform street theater, contortions, and acrobatics for change. And, like something out of a Dickensian nightmare, some are forced to become pickpockets.

Du Chengfei, the director at the Xinxing Aid Center for Street Children in Baoji, Sichuan Province, says that the street children he sees who’ve been pickpockets are nearly always Uyghur kids, and “probably almost 100 percent of the time, they have been kidnapped and are being controlled by adults.”

In the cases of Uyghurs and other older street children, the kidnapping often works something like this: first, the child is approached by a trafficker or someone affiliated with the traffickers. This person maybe someone the child knows, like an extended family member or acquaintance. This person convinces the child to come with them and get a job in a city on China’s east coast. The child is told that their parents know about this arrangement, and that they’ll be helping their family—kidnapped children almost always come from poor families—by earning money that will be sent home to their parents (this, of course, is a lie). When the child accepts the offer, they’re taken to a new city and integrated into a street gang that likely includes other children but is overseen by adults who control what the children do, watch them when they’re on the street and take the money that they’ve earned.

The Beast Is Red

DEFAULT INDEX

This year, as millions across the country were readying for the Spring Festival mass migration, 36-year-old Li Hao was preparing for his final journey.

On January 21, the former fireman was strapped down before being injected, in orderly fashion, with barbitone, a short-action anesthetic barbiturate, followed by a muscle relaxant of pancuronium bromide and, finally, potassium chloride, which finally stopped his heart for good—thus carrying out the sentence that had been handed down in 2012 for crimes that included multiple murder, rape, kidnapping, prostitution, and illegal imprisonment.

But it was a bizarre, and some might say uniquely Chinese, series of events that eventually led to the headlines in 2011 revealing how Li, then 34 and enjoying the lifestyle of a mid-level drone at the local Technological Supervision Bureau, had spent the last 22 months cruising karaoke bars in Luoyang picking up victims, while telling his wife he was moonlighting as a part-time night watchman.

In fact, there was a macabre truth to Li’s claim. He had, indeed, been keeping watch—albeit over a harem of kidnapped KTV hostesses aged between 16 and 23, held captive in a remarkably sophisticated prison, constructed four meters under a rented basement and locked behind seven iron doors.

In this subterranean kingdom, shut off from the outside world, the civil servant apparently exerted a compelling influence over the six women, who called him “Big Brother” and competed for his affections and sexual favor. Li, meanwhile, kept his victims weak through lack of food and water and occasionally tortured them for gratification, police say. Anyone who resisted was raped; two girls were put to death for “disobedience”.

Huang Yong, charged with murder of 17 boys but believed to have killed many more, faces trial

Huang Yong, charged with murder of 17 boys but believed to have
killed many more, faces trial

Eventually, Li progressed to staging “pornographic web shows”, acting as both producer and gaoler. Seeing an opportunity to make more money, Li even progressed to pimping, which proved a fatal mistake: one of the women was left alone long enough to make a bold escape. A relative later went to the police—who set about dealing with the matter as discreetly as possible.

Li was swiftly caught attempting to flee the city, and his extraordinary crimes and punishment might ordinarily have warranted a few terse statements somewhere in the Luoyang Evening News. But, a remarkable confluence of events would ensure the opposite. In the same September that Li Hao made his ill-fated flight, journalists from around China had gathered in Luoyang, drawn by the highly publicized case of Li Xiang, a TV journalist investigating so-called “hogwash” gangs. The gangs were selling recycled, toxic cooking oil dredged from gutters,and police claimed to have cracked the case.

Li Hao’s case was hardly exceptional—his deeds mirrored those of Zeng Qiangbao, a 39-year-old Wuhan janitor who received a suspended death sentence in 2010 for imprisoning and torturing a pair of 19 and 16 year olds for months; however Luoyang officials were pushing a Civilized City campaign and that meant stamping down on negative publicity even harder than usual.

After the reporter announced on Weibo that he was “following illegal cooking oil dens closely”, Li was found dead outside his apartment in the early hours, with 13 stab wounds. Police subsequently charged two local ruffians with robbery and murder. A botched mugging—or was there a conspiracy to silence the press, as others wondered. Had someone taken the crackdown too far? One who suspected so was Southern Metropolis Daily’s Ji Xuguang, a journalist from a powerful media organization outside Henan with a reputation for bold muckraking. Ji was still looking into Li Xiang’s death when he picked up a lead on the (far more sensitive) Li Hao story. Henan police, keen to put him off, threatened Ji with the serious crime of revealing “state secrets”—so Ji simply left Henan.

Thanks to Ji, the resulting story of the Chinese man who kept his victims in a secret torture dungeon would make headlines worldwide, just as the Cleveland kidnapping case would in 2013. Had local authorities had their way, however, the scandal would have disappeared from view, like one of Li’s KTV girls.

“People don’t care much,” says Li Qiaoying, a former criminal psychology researcher with the Taiyuan Procuratorate in Shanxi. “Even in a village where a newcomer used to get attention, nobody nowadays cares…People only look after their own business.”

“I picked prostitutes as my victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,” explained 54-year-old Gary Ridgway, or the Green River Killer, after the Seattle serial killer was finally brought to justice in 2003. They may as well be the words of Li Hao—or Wu Jianchen, a serial rapist who killed 15 in Hebei in 1993; or Li Shangxi, Yang Mingjin, and Li Shangkun from Guangxi, who killed 26 between 1981 and 1989; or Peng Miaoji who murdered 77 across Shanxi, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Henan, executed in 2000; or Yang Shubin, who was tracked by one resourceful police officer for eight years, following a trail of robbed and murdered KTV girls from Shenzhen to Guangzhou to Jilin, finally ending in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, where Yang and his gang had used their millions in blood-soaked RMB to set up a family-run massage business.

During the early to mid-20th century, when its serial-killer population exploded, America was a developed country engaged in rapid urbanization: densely packed slums became populated by anonymous migrants in constant fl ux, and its cities interspersed with vast tracts of deserted land—running throughout and serving as newly built getaway conveniences with highways and railroads. This helped birth the kind of shadowy, itinerant killer for whom anonymous and transitory existences are their fodder: the crosscountry trucker with a penchant for making friends at deserted rest stops, the mooching outlaws of In Cold Blood crawling through small towns in a stolen car and scouting for victims.

In the early 1980s, China underwent its own period of rapid industrialization, truncating over a century of American-style urbanization into just a few decades. Crime experts now point to the period of Reform and Opening Up as a time when society fragmented, communities scattered, and itinerant workers and criminals flourished.

The hukou [household registration] system, which had previously kept people strictly rooted in place, was relaxed and, frequently, simply overlooked; strange people appearing in the neighborhood no longer seemed strange. “The police don’t have effective control of who was in their district doing what,” says Yin, a criminologist from the University of Politics and Law who asked for his real name to be withheld. Disappearances are just as common: a migrant might go home, marry a villager, or have to deal with a family matter. They get a better job—or perhaps, if they’re a sex worker, their client wants a full-time mistress to himself. “Even parents don’t really know what their children are doing in the city or where they live,” says Li Qiaoying.

Then there are other potent ingredients, such as poor education in rural areas that leave many even unaware of such crimes. During 2012, a small county in Yunnan was traumatized by the disappearance of 17 young men. Local parents had fingered a plausible motive: the boys were being kidnapped and forced to work in illegal brick kilns near Kunming. Such kidnappings are not uncommon in the provinces, such as the case of Lei Yusheng, a Yunnanese boy who was snatched at knife point and forced to work with 30 other abductees for 10 hours a day.

April in 2010, Zheng Minsheng, who stabled eight students, was sentenced to death

April in 2010, Zheng Minsheng, who stabled eight students, was sentenced to death

This led some parents to pursue their sons’ fates in the hundreds of illegal kilns that dot the province—a diffi cult and dangerous task in itself—and one which police have little time for. What these anxious parents were not to realize was that their sons had actually fallen victim to an Ed Gein-like predator called Zhang Yongming, who lived a hermetic existence nearby in a shack filled (according to later-deleted mainland articles and Hong Kong media) with bags of bones, dried human flesh, and wine bottles filled with preserved body parts. Although the disappearances had been going on for months and although Zhang had a murder conviction from 1978, police never saw fit to investigate him.

Zhang himself was considered more a local oddball than a serious suspect despite his criminal past. An incident involving Zhang in 2011 gives a small window into the treatment of mental illness in the country: Zhang was caught strangling a 17-year-old youth outside his house with a belt but “laughed off the episode, saying that he was just fooling with the boy”, the media later reported. Only after a year of killing was Zhang caught.

Mental illness remains a closeted topic in China; neither medication nor modern psychiatric treatment is widely used and a 2010 analysis in British medical journal The Lancet estimated that 91 percent of the 173 million Chinese adults suffering mental problems receive no professional help whatsoever. Li Zhanguo, who targeted 11 men with severe learning difficulties between 1991 and 1995, is a different example of how China’s attitude towards mental healthcare can be exploited by villains: Li successfully counted on police and victims’ families to blame their disappearances on their illness.

To read the rest of this article, buy the Crime issue in our online store or our Taobao store today!