The Silk Road Endures: Lord of the Mountains

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It’s difficult to say when the Silk Road began or what it constitutes. Indeed, it obviously isn’t a road at all—merely a series of outposts, oases, fortresses—and it’s not as if silk was the main commodity, carrying everything from armies and gold to priests and jade. But, surely, the Silk Road is a tale of the mysteries, wonders, and appetites of the East, of China. The road has changed hands from emperors and kings to local bandits and rebels. None of them owned it; they simply rode in its wake.

Perhaps what most defines the Silk Road is that it endures. It was built in the fires of battle during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), but the path to and the hope of the East existed long before. Long after the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) put the Silk Road in its heyday in the second Pax Sinica, the Silk Road remained. Even when China itself was completely overrun by the Mongols of the North, the Silk Road thrived. And, today, even as shipping lanes and international logistics have made the path all but obsolete, the Silk Road endures.

So, where then can the Silk Road be found? Where else but in the enduring stories and people that made it happen—that bore its journeys, that protected it, learned from it, succeeded from it, and died by it. History often records the most famous: Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Genghis Khan; but the Silk Road has a million tales to tell and all of them came at a cost. With each step on the Silk Road, one steps over a story. Here are three of them: a general, a servant, and a long-haul trucker.

Lord of the Mountains

Under the scorching midday sun, amidst the drifting dust, the clatter of hoofs, the clang of iron, arrows swishing through the air, screaming echoed in the valley of the Talas River. It was a summer day in 751 when General Gao Xianzhi (高仙芝) anxiously oversaw the battle—the fifth day since the Tang army engaged the Black-robed Dashi (an ancient Chinese name for the Arab Abbasid Calilphate), and the odds were not in the Tang’s favor.

As he watched the glare of shattered armor and the gushing red of fallen soldiers, the stalwart General Gao refused to waver.

His success had elevated him to the very top of the Tang military ranks, the highest military commissioner of Xiyu (西域), the western region of the Tang Empire, in charge of 30,000 troops spread over four military towns and garrisons, as well as the power to command soldiers from Tang’s many dependent states in the region.

Ahead of him lay a grand fortress, above which black triangle flags billowed in the wind—the city of Talas (near the modern city of Taraz of Jambyl Province in Kazakhstan) and Gao’s ultimate goal. It was a rich city nurtured by the melt water of the snowy mountains, a fertile oasis. Farmers, cattle breeders, craftsmen, and merchants from various nations abounded in this major center of trade, stopping to replenish their stock and sell their wares on what would later be known as the Silk Road. But, this oasis came at a price; every major power wanted it for themselves.

General Gao Xianzhi was a descendent of the Goguryeo (an ancient Korean kingdom), a state conquered by the Tang in 666, and his father served as a general guarding Tang’s west, bringing his son into the military world. By the age of 20, Gao had grown into a good-looking young man, an expert in horse riding and archery, full of courage and decisiveness. But from time to time, his father would still give him worried looks, believing him to be too gentle and tolerant for military life. Now an experienced commander, Gao recalled those looks with pride, knowing he had proved his father wrong, especially with his career defining victory over the Tubo in 747.

A strong rival for influence in the Pamir Mountains and Kashmir region, Tubo (an ancient Tibetan state) married a princess to the king of a small country known as Lesser Bruzha (Gilgrit, Pakistan), exerting control over its affairs. Along with more than 20 other previous dependant states of Tang, Lesser Bruzha stopped paying yearly tribute. More importantly, a path to the West was blocked. Three generals were sent to take these states back, all failing until General Gao was appointed.

The expedition over the Pamir Mountains was arduous. Gao managed to effectively mobilize around 20,000 soldiers and horses with plentiful supplies at a sickening altitude and over the glaciers, a two-month march. When they arrived, the troops still had the energy to fight. From there, he reached Lianyun Fort (Langar, Afghanistan) guarded by a few thousand Tubo soldiers, with its major force of 8 to 9,000 stationed a few kilometers behind. Gao’s army managed to cross a raging river in the night and breach the fortress in the morning while the enemy was barely awake. The battle lasted the entire day. By sundown, Gao’s troops slaughtered 5,000, captured 1,000, and the rest fled in panic.

After a short rest, a 4,600-meter ice mountain became Gao’s newest obstacle. The soldiers were terrified; even if they survived the cold and the climb, there could be hostile forces waiting for them on the other side. But, Gao knew that forward was their only choice. In order to convince his soldiers, he told them that on the other side was a friendly state that would welcome their arrival. He sent 20 some pioneers to climb the mountain first, disguised as locals. It may have been an accurate divination or perhaps just luck, but when the troops climbed over the mountain to the city at the foot of the mountain, the previously Tubo controlled state didn’t put up a fight, opening its gate to the Tang troops. For Gao and his army, the worst was over. Forces were sent to Lesser Bruzha, capturing its king and his wife, the Tubo princess, all while blocking Tubo reinforcements by destroying a key bridge.

Military campaigns like this won General Gao wealth and fame, and the gentleness and tolerance Gao’s father saw in the young man faded. It was Gao’s conquest of Shi (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) in 750 that ultimately lead to the battle of Talas. At the time, Gao accused the country of being disrespectful to the Tang. Its king swiftly surrendered. While pretending to sign a peace treaty, Gao attacked the capital of Shi while its guard was down. He captured the king, who was later sent to the emperor’s court and beheaded. The elderly and the weak among the captives were not spared, while Gao filled his own pockets with loot. The Prince of Shi fled and recounted Gao’s war crimes to the nearby states, and, angered by such atrocities, many states decided to help the Caliphate, a major and rising power in the area, to fight the Tang.

Knowing this, Gao planned a preemptive strike. But, this time, he was facing a different opponent. Serving as the enemy commander, the Persian slave-born military genius Abu Muslin had recently helped the ambitious Caliph As-Saffah seize the throne a year before. With the information on Tang’s imminent attack, the Caliphate was more than ready when he arrived. Although the specific numbers of the forces are still a subject of debate, historical records from both sides show the Arabs had at least double the number of soldiers. Here, General Gao would finally find defeat.

General Gao fought bravely on the field of battle, but it wasn’t until his right-hand man pulled him from battle that Gao realized that failure was palpable. Night fell, and the outcome couldn’t have been any clearer. Not only were the Tang soldiers faltering, but the Qarluq mercenaries under Gao’s command turned against him mid-battle, cutting the infantry off from the main forces and letting the Caliphate break them one by one. General Gao’s army was annihilated. As such, Gao fled, hoping to avoid the fate of so many he had captured and put to the sword. It was his first defeat and his last battle for the fate of what would someday become known as the Silk Road.

For the rest of his life, Gao wanted nothing more than vengeance against his black-robed enemy, but a rebellion that shook the Tang Dynasty to its core soon broke out and Gao was pulled away from the West. Before Gao could get his revenge, it was done for him; his vaunted enemy Abu Muslin was beheaded when a new caliph accused him of conspiracy. A year later, the great General Gao met the same fate when, in a battle with the Tang rebels, he was falsely accused of corruption.

But, there is a bit more to Gao’s legacy. When Gao marched, the earth shook under his soldiers’ feet and city-states quaked at his approach; in his wake he left a bloody trail of bodies, but also something quite unassuming but unbelievably important: paper. Among Gao’s captured army were craftsmen and papermakers. The battle of Talas is considered by many as the event that sparked the spread of paper-making in the Arab world and later the West. War spreads violence and horror, but in the case of the Silk Road, even the bloodiest battles led to cultural serendipity.

Stay tuned for other stories from the Silk Road, and in the meantime, learn about how The Battle of Talas paved the way for the Renaissance.

Physics Fever

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From finding binary black holes in galaxies light years away to patiently pouring over four million bits of data over two kilometers underground to find evidence of dark matter, China’s entrance into the world of physics has taken the world by storm.

Just last year Chinese scientists measured the speed at which quantum particles interact with one another. The greatest minds in physics pondered the question for decades; the eminent Albert Einstein called the idea impossible because it would need to break the speed limit of the universe, the speed of light, dubbing it “spukhafte Fernwirkung”, or “spooky action at a distance”. Juan Yin and his team at the University of Science and Technology in Shanghai decided to measure this “spooky action” by shooting photons from a fish farm on Qinghai Lake over 15 kilometers and measuring the state for 12 hours. The results were astounding. This “spooky action” didn’t just break the speed limit of the universe, it obliterated it, occurring at least 10,000 times the speed of light, three trillion meters per second.

The study of physics is a wide field, from astrophysics and gravitation to fluid dynamics and quantum mechanics. China has only recently become a major player in the now popular world of physics, but modern developments point to China becoming the world’s premier source of scientific exploration in the field. China has the money, the brain power, and a pressing need to prove itself, and while landing on the moon and manually docking at a space station are all well and good, the heart of scientific discovery lies in the necessity to understand the physical world.

But, while one might happily wax philosophical on Juan Yin’s team’s discovery being about the art of reading a sunbeam, there are advantages beyond the academic in physics discoveries. The world runs on physics, be it airplanes or quantum computers, and the Middle Kingdom’s foray into the realm of discovery is one of boundless possibilities. And, while building a several billion dollar, 80-kilometer tube to smash protons together isn’t going to solve China’s smog problem anytime soon, doing this puts China in a unique position to change the world in ways unimaginable in the recent past.

In 1986, China published just four pieces with Physical Review Letters, a benchmark publication for achievement and discovery in the physical sciences. Ten years later, that number reached 28, and in 2006 China published 202, putting it on par with countries like Spain. Today, some of the most advantageous experiments in the various fields are done in China and are producing results that are critically changing the way we view the world around us. China shows no signs of slowing down and the investments the country makes in grand physics experiments and discoveries today will put the next generation on the path to making China the planet’s greatest science superpower.

Dark Matter Hunt

Today, we can estimate the age of the cosmos, the number of galaxies, and even the number of atoms in the universe (1078 to 1082), but among the myriad things we don’t know—not counting the things we don’t know that we don’t know—one of the most elusive is dark matter. Nearly two and a half kilometers underground in Sichuan Province, in the deepest laboratory of its type in the world, scientist are hunting for the most mysterious particles in the universe with the Particle and Astrophysical Xenon Detector. It’s called PandaX for short.

It is the first large scale experiment in China in the hunt for dark matter, and it is a promising experiment, indeed. But, it’s not the technology or the theories or even the device itself that gives the experiment such potential, but rather the choice of laboratory, Jinping Mountain. In a northern bend in the Yalong River, an 18-kilometer tunnel leads to the China Jinping Deep Underground Laboratory, built under a mountain of marble. The low-radiation in the rock above prevents cosmic rays and particles called muons from causing trouble with the search for dark matter, which, even under optimal circumstances, is unbelievably difficult to detect. There are labs attempting to detect dark matter in Korea, Japan, Canada, England, France, Germany, and the United States, but none have succeeded in producing stable, satisfactory results.

Currently, PandaX is just starting out but aims to be the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world in the next four years. The “detector” is what is termed a Time Projection Chamber, or TPC, using liquid xenon, currently running at 125 kilograms of xenon and later planning to move on to over a tonne. To little fanfare and to keep funds flowing in, the PandaX experiment released their first results late in 2014. Their results? Nothing.

The team of approximately 40 scientists—including four Chinese universities and two US universities—published their findings in Science China: Physics, Mechanics and Astronomy, having recorded four million events. Only about ten thousand of those left energy signatures having to do with dark matter, with 46 hitting the isolated, inner xenon target. Those proved to be background radiation.

Frustratingly, even though it cannot be reliably detected, dark matter, put simply, exists. It makes up a great deal of our universe and can be seen in the velocity of spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way and the disparities in known luminous mass (stars) and gravitational mass. The discovery of dark matter would change the Standard Model of physics as we know it, and, despite being one of China’s greatest discoveries in physics, it would have wide-ranging effects on how we understand things like extra dimensions and supersymmetry.

The lack of results means that China has simply joined the ranks of nations looking for dark matter, and it’s important to remember that no results are still results. Indeed, China’s PandaX project may end in abject, expensive failure, but, as China barrels into a new world of modern scientific endeavor, finding these bashful particles is only a matter of time.

Quantum Communication

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, it shouldn’t be possible. It’s called quantum teleportation, and it sounds like the stuff of science fiction—using quantum mechanics to communicate over vast distances; ostensibly, it means using cutting-edge science to “teleport” information, but practically, it means using quantum mechanics to create perfect cryptography.

Of course, China has its reasons for putting this physics pipe dream to the top of the funding queue. The Chinese government, of late and for very obvious reasons, became very keen on information security a few years ago, needing something hack-proof to the point of absolute security. The answer is quantum-key distribution (QKD), data teleportation. The process uses photons—the stuff of light and so utterly indefinable as to be both particle and wave at the same time— sent to a receiver. Based on the known fundamental principles of quantum mechanics, any eavesdropping, hacking, or interference with information sent from the source would show up to both sides. It’s the fragility of QKD that makes it so useful.

In 2010, in the hills north of Beijing near the Great Wall, China smashed US and European records for teleportation, sending their quantum information over 16 kilometers. At the time, it was a major breakthrough, with US and European experiments maxing out at a paltry 600 meters. Before that, in 2008, the biggest advance in the field was sending a single photon reflection from a satellite. In 2012, China outdid itself, with the University of Science and Technology from Shanghai teleporting their information 97 kilometers across Qinghai Lake. However, their time in the sun was not to last, with European researchers sending information across two islands in the Canary Islands 143 kilometers.

But, China is pulling no more punches; the race for quantum communication supremacy is on, and China’s grand ambitions put it in the lead. The University of Science and Technology started working on a quantum exchange from Beijing to Shanghai in April 2014, an ambitious project to say the least, and it’s already showing results. The man at the helm of China’s quantum communication in China is one Pan Jian-Wei, who told Nature that this new program is to “provide a test bed for quantum theories and new technologies”. The US is in talks to secure a 10,000- kilometer such system. In response, China plans to launch a quantum communications satellite in 2016, and all bets are on China to be first in the quantum comms space race.

While all of these technologies are in the experimental stage, they do, in fact, work. Simply put, it isn’t teleportation in the sci-fi sense, in that no clone is created at the other end; indeed, the current system is simple binary, meaning it is more transported rather than teleported— albeit transported via subatomic particles’ quantum entanglement. The problems are complex; as Richard Feynman famously said, “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

But, China is now at the helm of a whole new world of science. Much of quantum mechanics remains a mystery, but with the funding, research, and genius of a newly motivated nation, quantum communication doesn’t seem like such a pipe dream anymore, with quantum computing and mass quantum communications systems a palpable reality. Indeed, China’s advances in the field and the competition for quantum supremacy is an exciting race, one with no finish line.

Read the rest of the story to learn about ‘Binary Black Holes’ and ‘Sino-Supercollider’ in our Buddhism issue.

Scrap Empire

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They seem ubiquitous—picking through trash, panning for gold in scrap metals—yet few pay much or any attention to them.

He might be pulling a rickshaw piled precipitously high with flattened cardboard, bound with string. She might be with her children, sifting through rubbish bags looking for empty cans, plastic bottles, bags, anything with resale value. Or it’s someone going door-to-door picking up off-cuts of everyday consumerism: six month’s accumulation of glossy magazines or the discarded cardboard packaging of a new computer.

Indeed, even your computer could eventually make its way to one of South or North China’s many “electronics graveyards”, villages often surrounded by industrialized towns where unskilled men, women, and children strip wires, dismantle plastics, and pick apart motherboards for just a few dollars a day.

They are just some of China’s estimated ten-million strong recycling army, unlicensed workers who help keep the streets free of waste and power an enormous semi-underground recycling industry.

Hard numbers are always difficult to come by in China, though the size of the informal industry is clear from the sheer number of people seen doing it. Whether it’s cans, cardboard, bottles, or broken appliances, chances are virtually everything you throw away will have been pored over and inspected for resale value, reducing landfill and powering a miniature economy.

Despite this valuable service and the work it provides to millions just above the poverty line, the duties they perform are not much valued by society, except for the few yuan they scrape together for their wares.

“Driven at the lowest level by poverty, the informal industry has a remarkable dynamism,” says Jonathan Watts, former Guardian Asia correspondent on environmental affairs and China and author of the excellent (if gloomy) account on these subjects, When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind—Or Destroy It. “The collectors face many of the risks associated with poverty and dwelling on the street: dirty conditions, exposure to the elements, occasional violence, and low levels of nutrition. But their situation would be worse if they were stripped of the income that comes from selling other people’s trash.”

Electronics graveyards like this one outside Beijing are a lifeline for Beijing's recyclers
Electronics graveyards like this one outside Beijing are a lifeline for Beijing’s recyclers

The year 2008, for example, was a particularly harsh one, as a global credit crisis coincided with the tail end of the momentum initiated by the announcement of the Olympic Games. Many of these migrants faced penury when the price of recyclables—such as plastic, paper, and aluminium—plummeted by as much as 66 percent in a single month; global prices for some types, such as steel, fell by 80 percent in only a few weeks. These trends may be set to worsen, if newspaper readers turn to computers, tablets, and e-readers for their consumption and the availability of newsprint for recycling—which is worth more than junk mail— declines.

The trade in trash is one of the bellwethers of the global economy; when manufacturing is up or down, the producers and recyclers of its raw materials, which includes scrap, are often the first to feel the benefits or the pinch.

Of course, the majority of those on the lower rungs of the recycling industry don’t tend to live in the neighborhoods they work and collect from. In Beijing, this means living outside the “Five Rings”, the ever-expanding network of circular roads that encircle the city. A seventh—a 940-kilometer concrete noose around Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, incorporating second-tier cities like Langfang, Chengde, and Pinggu— is planned for 2017. But some environmentalists have already coined the term “seventh ring” for the belted wastelands between the fifth and sixth roads, where a sprawling and unsightly mix of state-run and illegal rubbish sites have sprung up. It is within this suburban landscape of discarded consumer culture that, ironically, many of the recyclers live.

Yang Yunjun, 47, for example, rides in all the way each morning from Changping to Dongsi, crossing half the city every day. A tricycle like the one ridden by him or Zhai Xuegui—another peddler who usually leaves the suburbs at dawn to provide food and rent for his family—will cost around 2,000 RMB. It is their only vehicle and sole means of making a living. A traffic accident, say, or entanglement with an over-zealous urban management officer could easily cost Zhai his livelihood, yet he is more concerned about his children’s education and futures. He has a son, 12, and daughter, nine, and in time they will need to marry. What does he worry about most? “Property prices.”

Ma Shaodong seems unusually lucky—his job at a depot enables him to live in the city, thus avoiding a daily commute of at least two hours. But Ma, 36, doesn’t really consider himself fortunate. Unhappy with the type of work he has been doing for the last six years, Ma avoided eye contact and was reluctant to talk. It was only when asked about his children back home that he became animated. “I have a daughter of 17,” Ma says proudly. “She’s good in school.”

Ma lives and works at a small, makeshift trash depot in the hutongs, presided over by the warm, personable Wang Xiuyuan who has been running her little station for the last four years. Unlike some of her workers, she didn’t mind taking pictures or chatting. Wang seems relatively content with life—both her children, 18 and 24, are grown up. “Most of us are from Henan,” she says, referring to the Beijing’s street recyclers.

Those who make the journey from poorer provinces to the big city for this work do so at the risk that their migrant status disallows them from the social support they might enjoy back home, whether that be access to education and healthcare, or a network of family. Yet some do well and prosper, like Hu Xuedao, 46, who’s living the classic migrant dream: his adult children have just started a clothing business in Beijing, where the family live in the eastern outskirts of Tongzhou, while his new home back in Henan is under construction.

Hu is one of those who buy from the scrap collectors, sorting their wares to send to the big plants out in the suburbs. On a wall behind, he lists the current market prices, updated every day, for different materials, earning as much as 10,000 RMB a month by his count (others in the same area near Dongsishitiao appear to have less success, with most saying they pull in around 4,000 RMB). Like any Chinese peasant, though, housing and children are now his biggest concern.

A woman pulls a cart of recyclables by hand through the streets of Nanjing
A woman pulls a cart of recyclables by hand through the streets of Nanjing

The official position toward such workers and their stations is usually to ignore them; when they are noticed, they are deemed an eyesore. In the months leading up to the 2008 Games, scrap peddlers were forced to leave the capital, along with beggars and petitioners, or stay at home, their depots shut as part of the city’s image clean up; the alleys, meanwhile, were soon piled with rubbish. The same thing happened over the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, despite its official theme of “Green Cities”. On a daily basis, peddlers face suspicion and hassle from ever-present baoan or security guards, patrolling for thieves, vandals, and outsiders. Their scrutiny is not without justification: “Overzealous or illegal collectors sometimes pick up ‘waste’ before it has been discarded,” Watts points out. “Hence stories in the past of manhole covers and telephone lines disappearing.”

Meanwhile, there’s little interest in any of their knock-on environmental benefits, such as reducing landfill and thus helping prevent social unrest, since burning overflow is unpopular with residents and is one of many factors contributing to the intense problem of air pollution.

Without work, these people are also a potential social problem at risk of being permanently unemployed, as Adam Minter, the formerly Shanghai-based author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and an expert in the global recycling industry, explains.

“It’s the rare person who aspires to be a picker. Rather, it’s something you do when you can’t do anything else,” says Minter of the limited employment opportunities available to those who choose this line of work. “The various levels of the Chinese government who look at this problem don’t tend to look at it in unemployment terms, but in terms of how much revenue and resources can be derived from trash if handled by other means.”

In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, this involves making municipal plans because “There’s a widespread perception in governments everywhere, not just in China, that peddlers are less efficient and dirtier than ‘real recyclers’ who use green and blue bins and giant, high-tech recycling factories. That’s wrong on most levels,” Minter says. But, as Watts says, the system that depends on these peddlers is far from being an adequate replacement for institutionalized recycling: “Visit the many landfills on the outskirts of the city and you’ll find vast quantities of material that could be re-used.”

One idea involves encouraging residents to store recyclables for monthly collection, for example, in exchange for points that can be redeemed for gifts online. There are other, existing regulations—Beijing has licensed nearly 100 waste collectors since 2005, for example—but few members of the public have been alerted to these changes or are even aware of the difference. “The effect [of licensing] has been somewhere between zero and nothing,” observes Minter.

For much inner-city recycling, then, the burden falls on the poorest, because they are the ones prepared to do what’s necessary. At the very lowest levels, that involves small groups paying a few kuai for an attendant to look the other way while they comb through housing compounds’ nightly garbage in the dead of night, looking for recyclables. It’s the last stage in a process that begins with the likes of Wang Xiuyuan, with her depot and weighing scales. Although most bins claim to have two sections, one for non-recyclables and one for recyclables, a quick look at any of the latter’s grimy contents reveals the casual level of inattention paid to any of these directives.

Beijing is expected to dispose of 23,000 tons of rubbish daily by 2015, according to official statistics, a figure rising by as much as ten percent annually; most people rely as much on low-paid workers to do their casual recycling as the peddlers depend on their laziness.

This work can be demeaning and dangerous; workers slit open garbage bags to sift with their bare hands through food waste, broken bottles, and sharp cans. In December, 2014, on a bitterly cold early morning grocery-run-cum-dog-walk, I witnessed a small group of three, one woman and two children, do just this, afterwards cleaning up what was left to stay on the good side of the baoan.

Those who do similar jobs working through e-waste face worse: Unlicensed recyclers stripping electronic goods for scrap discard waste that is toxic to them, others, and the soil. “TV sets, computer consoles, and circuit boards contain a number of toxic chemicals, including cadmium, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides, mercury, lead, and brominated fire retardants,” explains Watts. “Studies of children in Guiyu (贵屿, in Guangdong Province, South China) found levels of lead in the blood that were 50 percent higher than limits set by the US Centre of Disease Control. This can result in mental retardation.”

And it’s not just their health that e-recyclers are gambling with: “The financial risk is that much of the business is semi-legal or illegal,” says Watts, “which means it may be closed down without notice or compensation—as happened in Guangzhou after a series of international news reports (including a November 2008 report on Guiyu by 60 Minutes) about the poor conditions of e-waste recyclers.”

Legitimizing a recycling business doesn’t always help. “Ironically, in many cases, the areas where that work is performed are approved by local government units in a position to offer health, safety and environmental protections, and choose not to,” says Minter. “For example, Guiyu, China’s largest electronics re-use and recycling zone, is approved by the National Reform and Development Commission. They could do more.”

Some also say the government should focus on monitoring the business, rather than individual pickers, many of whom are old and lack the education needed for a license. Instead, a better idea might be training pickers in spotting and selling recyclables and, moreover, collecting them safely. This, though, is unlikely to happen soon. “At this point, they just don’t register as a big enough problem compared to other environmental and health issues, to be worth the massive human and financial investment that such licensing and subsequent monitoring would require,” Minter explains.

Not everyone is so disinterested in the lives of these unsung service providers. No less a personage than Pope Francis has singled out scrap-pickers across the world for particular praise. The ascetic Francis described the work of his native Argentina’s cartoneros (“cardboard people”), who pick through the city’s garbage every day for recyclable or reusable goods, as both “dignified” and “good for the environment” and criticized what he called a “throw-away culture”. In Argentina, along with Colombia and Brazil, there are social organizations for “excluded workers”, aimed at mobilizing members for better conditions, rights and incentives, politically impossible in China.

Indeed, for the moment, the cartoneros of China can only look forward to the day when a similarly high-minded official offers the same sort of recognition to them.

The Business of Buddhism, Pt 1

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In October, 2014, Nyima Dorjee Rinpoche, abbot of Palden Ningye Monastery, set off on a journey to what Tibetans call “Handi”, which loosely translates into “the Han ethnic land”. He was on a sacred mission to visit Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province.

China has four sacred mountains in Buddhism, but Mount Wutai is the most celebrated. It was a particularly special destination for Nyima Rinpoche because it is the “Seat of Awakening” for Manjusri, a bodhisattva of wisdom, who Nyima believes was reincarnated as his mentor. For this well-traveled, 38-year-old monk, the site is one of many pilgrimages on the quest for ultimate wisdom. He felt a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration when he encountered the valley filled with monasteries. Marshalling the utmost respect, Nyima performed his sutras and carefully groomed himself before entering the mountains.

From there, things started to go horribly wrong. In a particularly grand monastery, he saw two monks sitting with their feet resting on the chairs, “like two bosses,” he says. He asked which monastery was the most ancient; they didn’t know. He inquired about the differences between Han and Tibetan Buddhism; they didn’t know. Nyima asked if they were converted; they merely showed Nyima their conversion certificates, which they kept in their chest pockets. As to the real meaning of conversion (皈依), they were clueless.

“They knew nothing!” Nyima exclaims. “Conversion is not about papers, it’s about here.” He laid his palm on his chest. “These temples are magnificent, but there was no Buddha, or Buddha’s Way, in them. They are hollow.”

Nyima left Mount Wutai disillusioned and saddened. “This is what happens in the Downfall Era of Buddhism.”

The Downfall Era of Buddhism (末法时代) is often cited as the reason for the ills of Buddhism in our modern times. Before he attained nirvana, Buddha predicted the downfall of his own religion in three phases, the first being the first thousand years of thriving, a second thousand years of reflection on the first phase, and the third millennium being the downfall.

A grandiose monument built by developers outside Famen Monastery
A grandiose monument built by developers outside Famen Monastery

In China, at times, it looks particularly lost. For many Chinese people, the traditional image of a Buddhist monk is someone next to a saint: thin, dignified, and a trusted guide on spiritual matters—perhaps even a psychic with supernatural powers. But, most of all, they should neither have nor want money. This romanticized image causes all the more antipathy toward the modern Chinese Buddhist monks of reality.

For an ordinary pilgrim, one needs to be quite well-off to visit a monastery. Most temples charge an entrance fee, and a lot of them are high enough to bar most pilgrims from regular entry. You can find a donation box by every gate of every hall. When you enter a monastery, you are usually coerced into buying a candle or putting your family name down for a ceremony, with monks offering guarantees of good luck and fortune.

Meanwhile, as China gets richer, Buddhism’s patrons give more and more generous offerings. In some wealthy monasteries, abbots can be seen driving a BMW, Audi, or even a Porsche— often gifts from wealthy patrons with now assuredly spectacular karma. Shi Yongxin (释永信), abbot of Shaolin Monastery and possibly the most well-known monk in China, is commonly called the “CEO of Shaolin” because he started over ten companies under Shaolin’s name. For some, the death of the romantic ideal has caused a loss in faith, and for many others, the perception of Buddhism has changed to one of greedy monks, expensive incense, and tourist hotspots.

If, indeed, this is the millennium of the downfall, how did it come about? Gao Xiang, a member of the Beijing Buddhist Association and a well-known Weibo celebrity for his Buddhism advocacy, believes it is the cost of the modern world. “It’s not that monasteries want themselves to be commercialized—they have to. They are forced to.” A long history of Buddhism in flux has led to Xiang’s view, a view many share.

Although Chinese history is littered with attempts to ban Buddhism outright, none were as thoroughly destructive as the Cultural Revolution. With the exception of a few monasteries of unsurpassed historical value, most temples were converted or turned to rubble. Before 1949, Beijing had over 700 hundred monasteries within the second ring road; now there are only 20. When the 1990s came, such problems ceased. It was the decade when Deng Xiaoping famously advocated the slogan, “Everything should be centered around economic development.” A new passion for money filled China with energy and anxiety, and everything that could make money was considered good. Just when Buddhism was staggering into recovery, money presented a new hurdle.

Tourists and pilgrims flock to the crowded Yonghe Monastery in Beijing to pay their respects for the New Year
Tourists and pilgrims flock to the crowded Yonghe Monastery in Beijing to pay their respects for the New Year

Tourism, which barely existed previously, became all the rage. Han Buddhism, especially its Chan (known in Japan as Zen) branch, has a tradition of seclusion and hermitages, keeping the practice as far away from the hurly-burly as possible with monasteries hidden in remote mountain areas. However, with these mountains developed into jingqu (景区, commercial scenic areas), monasteries are trapped in the center, with tourist buses flocking to their gates on newly built roads. After the Cultural Revolution, the monasteries were never really handed back to the monks. Temples fell under the jurisdiction of three government departments: the Tourism Bureau (旅游局), the Landscape and Forestry Bureau (园林局), and the Cultural Heritage Bureau (文物局). The first thing those bureaus did was begin to charge entrance fees.

Abbot Haixin, vice president of Shanxi Buddhism Association, was a new monk when the news broke that Mount Wutai was going to charge a fee of 0.2 RMB in the 1980s. “We were filled with incredulity and anger. To make money out of Buddha! What kind of karma would that bring? Unthinkable. We fiercely protested, but to no avail.”

Things got worse from there. Today, fees for some Chinese temples and monasteries can be prohibitively high for some, leaving embittered pilgrims. The entrance fee to Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province is 238 RMB, Shaolin Monastery in Henan Province charges 100 RMB, and Nanshan Monastery in Hainan Province costs 170 RMB, to name just a few.

While most blame the greedy monasteries, few are aware of the fact that most monks and nuns are against it and have petitioned to lift the fees at every National Buddhist Convention. Shi Yongxin has been petitioning the central government to lift the fee for over ten years because “it blocks the over 1,000-year-old pilgrimage path and bars pilgrims”. He has had no success. Seventy percent of the Shaolin Monastery’s fees go to the local government and the developer, but to be fair, the city that hosts Shaolin Monastery is struggling financially. The ten million RMB annual revenue from Shaolin is simply too much to give up. Similarly, in 2014, seven monasteries in Jizushan Mountain, Yunnan Province collectively closed their gates to visitors in protest against the tourism developer’s intention to charge an entrance fee. Thanks to the media attention, they succeeded.

“If the entrance fee is lifted, who will suffer most?” Gao Xiang points out. “Not the monasteries. Monasteries will only be better if these fees are removed. It’s these three government sectors who have benefited from it the most.”

“It’s not about money, it’s about people’s hearts,” says Abbot Haixin, frowning and shaking his head anxiously. “It is giving out one message: if you are poor, you are not allowed to pay your homage to Buddha. It is an unwritten insult to those who cannot afford it. It’s no longer about 238 RMB, but about discrimination and disrespecting people.”

The abbot, still shaking his head, continues: “Did the government build the mountain? Did it build the monastery? If not, no one has a right to charge a fee. We have focused so much on economic development that we are ignoring spiritual and religious things. Buddhism is supposed to save people’s hearts, but look what it has become.”

Stay tuned for the second part of the cover story from The Buddhism issue.

Selling Self-Help

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In Legend of the Dragonslayer Sword (《倚天屠龙 记》), a well-known kung fu romance set in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), protagonist Zhang Wuji is an average young man without good looks, talent, or great virtue. That is, until he accidentally gets hold of a secret book that teaches a rare, invincible form of kung fu. After five years of surreptitious practice, he goes on to defeat countless foes, becomes a leader, wins the love of beautiful women, and retires at the early age of just 22. The secret book was quite the find for young Zhang, and the myth of the magical book that solves all of your problems still persists today. In Beijing Book Plaza on Xidan Street, the biggest bookstore in China, the bestseller shelves are stocked almost entirely with self-help tomes to make you better, stronger, richer, and happier. More importantly though, they focus on people—how to convince people, manipulate them, deal with serpent-like colleagues, and improve your own personal charm, but all of these books still hearken back to the halcyon days of magic books—complete with images of authorities above suspicion.

US President Barack Obama’s smile adorns Learn How to Give Enthusiastic Speeches like Barack Obama; one series of books teaching communications skills has the word “FBI” in large letters on their cover, because, obviously, FBI agents are the best at brainwashing; Tim Roth pensively studies your face on Read Minds by Microexpressions, followed by the subtitle, “See through people, read their minds in the blink of an eye, and defeat your social opponents”; Margaret Thatcher sternly looks down on you from Speeches Given in the World’s Most Famous Universities that Will Affect Your Whole Life. Of course, if you’re not in the market for success, a few steps away from these Machiavellian captains of politics and industry is the benevolent Monk
Xingyun (星云法师), rolling his Buddhist beads on To Live Is to Let Go (《活着就是放下》). Beware, however, because if you linger by the self-help book shelves for too long, men in black suits strolling idly around will detect your desperation and come and ask you: “Do you want a part-time job? I’m from Amway.”

With over one third of university graduates jobless when they graduate and the Gini coefficient that indicates the income inequality reaching as high as 0.74 in 2014, there are millions of Chinese young people looking for fast solutions to their bleak future, and, seemingly, self-help books are an important outlet.

The Chinese name for “self-help book” is 心灵鸡 汤, or “chicken soup for the soul”, which obviously is adopted from the well-known book series under the
same name by Jack Canfield and Mark Hanson in the 1990s, whose translations were incredibly well-received in China. Today, “chicken soup” has developed into many subgenres: motivational “chicken soup”, women’s “chicken soup”, and trauma “chicken soup”.

“I read a lot of self-help books when I graduated from university,” says Peng Hui, a 32-year-old IT worker. “I was young then and needed motivation to work extra hard for a better life, and those books really worked. For a few days I really thought I became a better person. But it was just an illusion. The morals they preach—to keep a positive attitude, to socialize skillfully and build your network, and excel with others—are all infallible. It’s just that I would always go back to my old self.”

Just like the name “chicken soup” implies, self-help books for Chinese readers are largely imported and have been from the very beginning. The first in the self-help canon in China, and arguably the most influential of them all, was How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The book was first translated in 1938, but drew little attention at the time. Chinese people didn’t really discover their vast appetite for self-help books until a new version of the book appeared in 1986, under the title The Human Weakness (《人性的弱点》). On the cover it even boasted to be “the second bestseller in the publishing history of mankind” (the first presumably being the Bible). The sensationalist title, together with a new hunger for success created off of the back of the Reform and Opening Up, meant that by the early 1990s the book had become a huge success. For the next three decades, Dale Carnegie’s charismatic smile has been ubiquitous in Chinese bookstores, and his books remain the No. 1 bestseller of the genre on Dangdang.com, China’s biggest online bookstore. He is frequently referred to as “the greatest spiritual mentor of the 20th century” in Chinese media, and his books, for better or worse, have even helped shape the image of the United States in Chinese people’s minds. In Introduction to the Human Weakness, a Chinese book dedicated to Carnegie in 2010, one of the chapters was entitled, “Other than the Statue of Liberty, Dale Carnegie is the symbol of the United States.”

The Human Weakness didn’t just whet the appetite for self-help books in China, it also became part of a very special tradition in the Chinese publishing industry: plagiarism, perhaps better qualified as misattribution for cultural expediency. Compared to its earlier version, the 1986 version was actually largely adapted and rewritten by the translator to cater to Chinese people’s tastes and ways of thinking. Although there have been numerous versions of Chinese books claiming the authorship of Dale Carnegie, most of them, just like the 1986 version, were entirely made up by Chinese authors—almost all
without permission. For example, a new version of The Human Weakness in 2013 includes a new chapter—which is a lot of work for someone who died in 1955. The chapter, entitled “From Carnegie to women who are about to be wives”, preaches in the Confucian manner, “Be your husband’s most faithful listener. Be his disciple. Do not interfere with his work. Your life is held in his hand.” All-in-all, it’s not too inspiring a message for ambitious young women.

The Chinese saying goes, “scriptures recited by a foreign monk are more credible.” (外来的和尚好念 经。) The same goes with the Chinese self-help book market. Because of the Western origins, a self-help book written by a Western writer is more likely to be trusted. Therefore, it is common for a book written by a Chinese author to try its best to look like it has been translated from the desk of an industrialist or spiritual mentor from abroad. This is an easy trick to pull and relies on buyers not really paying much attention. A popular book called Willpower, for example, claims to be written by an American writer named something along the lines of “Feldo” (no surname), and its spine reads, “The psychological training that is taken by the elite professionals around the world! Ways to high efficiency that will set you apart from 99 percent of people! Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and J.K. Rowling are all ultimate benefiters of Willpower!” To make it look more authentically “Western”, all the inspiring stories in the book are set in America with the language adopted to a style that sounds translated— and, of course, all the buzzwords are bilingual. So, the Chinese part looks English and the English words look Chinglish. For example, it describes “quitters” as “halfway leavers” in English and as “those who get off the bus halfway” in Chinese. It’s all just a tad confusing.

And Willpower is not the most ridiculous book making absurd boasts about Western fame. Possessiveness (actually trying to mean“self-control”), a book written by Chinese author Gao Yuan, claims itself to be “the most popular self-management course of Harvard Business School’s MBA program”. Another book, Mind Control: How to Convince People with Good Logic, written by Chinese author Gao De, hilariously boasts: “The think tank of the White House, FBI, and the world’s top ten listed companies are all studying this book in secret!”

“Chinese” self-help books are seldom better. You can often find the byline sporting the term “editor and writer” (编著), as one person. It looks like the author also edited the book, but, actually, it’s a furtive, futile way to cover up the fact that the book has serious copyright issues. The books themselves are often examples of the very worst kind of hackery. “If the byline is ‘editor and writer’, it means the author didn’t really write the book themselves, but rather made use of various sources without crediting them, writing the book based solely on a lot of plagiarism,” says Hu Xinting, an editor of women’s self-help books at Hubei People’s Press. “Because most decent writers are above writing such things, they are usually written by mediocre writers, and the pay is very
low too—usually 70 RMB per thousand words, 100 RMB at most.”

Publishers being jerks is nothing new in the industry, even for the very successful; Monk Yancan (延参法师), the first Buddhist bestseller writer in China, revealed the reason for his productivity to Southern People Weekly: “Before I became famous, I wrote books at a very low price, but now I’m paid by publishers half a year before I start to write a book. I can write eight books in a year, and half a million copies of each can be sold. But it’s not me who wants to write that much. It’s because the publishers press me really hard, and I have to talk all this big talk about life.”

“Just a few years ago, these books were very prevalent and made a lot of money. However, now their heyday is already gone,” says Hu Xinting. “Because they are barely original, readers gradually grow tired of the books because they seem to tell similar stories. Also, digital reading, print publishing’s biggest rival, has grown rapidly. In the past few years, numerous ‘chicken soup’ accounts have appeared on Weibo and WeChat; their content is much better than the books, and they are free.”

Weibo and WeChat provide another kind of “chicken soup”. Instead of motivation and confidence, they offer a haven with religion and spiritual powers. If you search for “仁波切” (Rinpoche, Reincarnated Lamas) on Weibo, the results yields 141 verified users. These sages, however, do not even bother sounding Tibetan. For example, a typical Weibo post from “Tashi活佛”, or “Living Buddha Tashi”, goes: “Everyone worries and makes mistakes. Don’t complain, or hate, or be angered. Be peaceful about everything so that you have room for the Buddha in your heart.” Not particularly original or insightful stuff, and in most cases, the Weibo of these grand, honorific Buddhists look exactly like any other self-help book except for a healthy smattering of all sorts of Buddhist lingo and supposedly magical Tibetan spells.

The reality is that these “chicken soups” are not hearty stews able to solve genuine problems, but bland consommés that leave you hungrier than when you
started. And, the young people who once embraced these questionable self-help values are starting to realize that optimism and comforting words are not worth the paper they’re printed on. “The target readers for self-help books are young people,” says Hu Xinting. “We don’t target readers over 35. People usually naturally grow out of them after they learn from some real-life experience.” But, perhaps there is help in the form of anti-self-help, or “anti-chicken soup” online. One popular account says, “Why do you feel you are common? Because you are common, really.” Perhaps, having entered the “age of individuality” only a few decades ago, Chinese self-help readers are finally realizing that the main person they are helping by buying self-help books is not so much themselves but the inspired publishers who keep churning them out and counting all the cash.

 

Charm Offensive: Chen Guangbiao & Yuan Longping

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China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the planet views China.

charm-offensive

CHEN GUANGBIAO 陈光标: CHINA’S CLOWN PRINCE

Chen-Guangbiao

Name: Chen Guangbiao

Affiliations: China Zhi Gong Party, Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources

Known for: Recycling construction materials, flamboyant philanthropy, earthquake rescue, interest in buying American newspapers

Education: MBA, Nanjing University; BA in Medicine, Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Founding China’s largest construction waste company

Chen Guangbiao is one of the world’s great eccentric multimillionaires. In fact, he is probably the world’s great eccentric multimillionaire— his philanthropic efforts stealing headlines everywhere from Ningbo to New York. Indeed The Washington Post dubbed him “the most interesting man in China”. His business card alone lists him as the, wait for it: “Most Influential Person of China”, “Most Charismatic Philanthropist in China”, “China Moral Leader”, “Most Well-Known Beloved Chinese Role Model”, and more.

He made his fortune (all 750 million USD of it, according to the Associated Press) off the back of China’s building boom by founding Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources, a company that recycles construction waste. Previously, he made a tidy sum by patenting and selling a somewhat questionable medical product, the “New Century Family CT Scan”, a device which has been described as a “low-radiation ear acupuncture point illness probing and curing apparatus”. Chen claims the device can determine the sex of an unborn child; however, one of Chen’s assistants has since revealed that only Chen was actually able to use the machine.

It is not just his wealth that has found him fame, but rather a bizarre mix of very public philanthropy, laudable humanitarian acts, and a litany of mind-boggling publicity stunts. He first captured the public imagination during the tragic Sichuan earthquake in 2008—providing extensive equipment and aid to help with the rescue and actually physically rescuing bodies from the rubble. It was widely reported that he helped up to 200 people to safety and personally saved 11 lives.

In early 2014, Chen announced that he was forming a group of investors to negotiate the purchase of The New York Times, which caused the paper’s share price to rise 4.5 percent. The owners speedily said it was not for sale, and Chen was widely ridiculed for even attempting to try. Not that that slowed him down; weeks later he proclaimed that he would simply buy The Wall Street Journal instead, raising eyebrows by stating that he was a good fit to for the newspaper because, as he put it: “I am good at working with Jews.” Other stunts have included handing out cans of free “fresh air” in a bid to bring attention to Beijing’s poor air quality. Chen can also often be found peppering his numerous press conferences with spur of the moment sing-a-longs to various songs, his favorites being the self-penned “My Chinese Dream”, and Michael Jackson’s “We are the World”.

The patriotic Chen is often portrayed as bit of a clown, but his commitment to philanthropy is strong. In 2010 he attended a charity dinner with Warren
Buffet and Bill Gates where he pledged to donate his entire fortune to charity. After the meal he said China needed, “at least ten more Chen Guangbiaos,
and that is enough…So far, no other billionaire has reached my level of charitability.” However, his style of his giving does not always win him fans;
one senior aid-worker described it as “violent philanthropy”, as he has a tendency to create as much publicity as possible, often standing for photo opportunities in front of vast walls of cash.

Clown or not, one thing that Chen certainly is, is entertaining, not to mention seemingly dedicated to good works. The naysayers will, of course, say that his giving is over-hyped, the mere tip of the iceberg to his wealth and that he only does so for fame and to massage a considerable ego. Well, this might be true, but there are certainly many worse things in the world than attention-seeking philanthropists – CARLOS OTTERY

YUAN LONGPING 袁隆平: FAMINE FIGHTER

Yuan-Longping

Name: Yuan Longping

Affiliations: China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center

Known for: Breeding high-yield hybrid rice to end hunger worldwide

Education: Agriculture, Southwest College of Agriculture (Now Southwest University in Chongqing)

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Worked as chief consultant of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • Led hybrid rice research, developing new varieties to improve output
  • Trained agriculture personnel from across the world

In October, 84-year-old Yuan Longping received a group of experts in his rice field. With his thin build, plain blue-striped shirt, wrinkled face darkened by sun, and his Hunan dialect, Yuan could easily be mistaken for an ordinary rice farmer. He is, in fact, one of China’s most accomplished scientists. A road, a high-tech development zone, a college, a publicly-traded company worth 105 million RMB, and even an asteroid all bear his name.

In Yuan’s Super Hybrid Rice Base in Hongxing Village, Hunan Province, experts found that the field is able to yield a record-breaking 15.4 tons per hectare. At his age, Yuan has survived and experienced all the major turmoil of China’s recent history, but it was the Great Chinese Famine from 1959 to 1961 that led him to his lifetime devotion to feed the world. It’s known that by cross breeding varieties of a crop, the resulting hybrid may grow faster, resist stress better, and yield more than its predecessors. But, rice is a self-pollinating plant which led to the longstanding assumption that a hybrid variety was simply not possible. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Yuan and his team achieved the impossible: the discovery and cultivation of the sterility trait in rice, thus allowing cross-pollination.

The first hybrid rice varieties were released in China in 1974, and now hybrid rice crops make up more than half of all of the rice produced in the country, all producing yields unimaginable in previous years. According to the International Rice Research Institute, China’s rice production averaged around 6.6 tons per hectare in 2009, well above the world average of 4.2 tons. Within three decades, China transformed from a starving nation to a nation with reliable food security.

But, Yuan’s contribution didn’t stop at China. His research has helped to provide a robust food source in high famine risk areas. Starting in 1991, Yuan worked with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as its chief consultant to share his expertise with world’s major rice-producing countries. Over the years, the institute, under his direction, trained over 500 researchers and technicians from over 30 countries. By 2011, hybrid rice was also grown by farmers in Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, the United States, and the Philippines.

Revered as the “Father of Hybrid Rice”, Yuan is a national hero, with innumerable awards and honors and countless government titles. But, he still lives in a two-floor brick house in a village with his family, spending most of his time in the field. He smokes a lot, even jokingly claiming that his scientific findings dictate that it prevents SARS and Alzheimer’s. He also loves a good mahjong game with his students and journalists who come for an interview. This humble man has done so much to relieve the scourge of world hunger, and should be—quite apart from the antics of Chen Guangbiao or the social Darwinism of Jack Ma—a role model for future generations of world changers. - LIU JUE (刘珏)

Charm Offensive: Wu Changhua and Wang Jianlin

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China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the planet views China.

charm-offensive

WU CHANGHUA 吴昌华:CHINA’S CLIMATE CHANGER

 wu changhuaName: Wu Changhua

Affiliations Climate Group

Known For: Fighting climate change

Education: Environmental Policy, University of Maryland,; Law Degree, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Notable Accomplishments: 

  • Greater China Director, Climate Group
  • Twenty years as an environmental and development policy analyst
  • Consultation with the World Bank, UNEP, and UNDP
  • Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council of Climate Change

“We need to look at how to constructively work together, basically to change the world,” says Wu Changhua, the face of fighting climate change in China—a nation widely considered one of the world’s largest carbon emitters. Climate change is the most trying and complex crisis of our age, and Wu Changhua knows the most important fact about combating climate change: it’s going to be hard work. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field, has spoken and worked with the World Economic Forum, appeared on numerous domestic and international media outlets including The New York Times and the BBC’s HARDtalk, and sits on environmental councils around the world.

Despite reports of a worsening environment in China and the very visible effects in cities like Beijing, Wu is by no means defeatist. Indeed, she knows that China is in a unique position to set the stage for the battle on climate change. “China sets a good example, in terms of literally integrating all key elements in how we are going to grow our economy. Rather than saying, ‘You know, it’s a burden, we have to pay higher prices,’ or whatever, countries like China are saying, ‘Hey, yeah, this is an opportunity. This is how we’re going to grow our economy.’”

She also has little time for the nitpicking between nations that sometimes seem to overshadow the battle for the planet. When asked whether or not developing or developed nations need to take charge on climate change, she said, “This question you have asked remains to be a sort of clichéd debate—developed countries versus developing countries…The developing countries, we either follow suit, repeating their mistakes, the wrongdoing, or take our own personal way.”

It is this middle way that makes Wu and the Climate Group’s opinions so valid for China, believing in both a developed and developing solution and a marriage between government and the market. “You cannot leave everything to the market, so government has a very critical role to play—set the rules, set the caps, and the standards to guide and regulate the market…It cannot be either or, it has to be the two together.”

Wu plies her trade with the Climate Group, an international non-profit to promote clean technologies and strategies to businesses and governments. And, in China, with Wu at the helm, this group has some truly amazing ambitions, some of which are already showing promise and paying dividends, including carbon trading, which will become the world’s biggest carbon trading market in 2016 and coal caps in 2020. “On one side, we are capping the total consumption of coal, and on the other side we are improving economy-wide efficiency as much as we can, so we don’t consume too much. In the meantime, we are investing in alternative energy to substitute for coal,” Wu says. “I think the foundations are already set on the ground.”

While Wu doesn’t have the monetary or political influence of the others on this list, as the world nears the precipice, her influence on China’s climate real politick is going to have profound, lasting influence on the future of the planet. – TYLER RONEY

 

WANG JIANLIN 王健林:  THE MONOPOLY MAN

wang jianlinName: Wang Jianlin

Affiliations: Dalian Wanda Group, People’s Liberation Army

Known For: Real Estate magnate, film and theater industrialist

Education: Liaoning University

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Former richest man in China
  • Opening the Oriental Movie Metropolis
  • Nine million square meters of property investments

He bought US theater brand AMC; owns 75 department stores, 51 hotels, 86 theaters, and 45 KTV plazas; bought a Picasso worth over 28 million USD as well as a private jet and a Sunseeker yacht (owning a 92 percent stake in the manufacturer); and his company holds over nine million square meters of property investments. This is China’s monopoly man, Wang Jianlin, a Chinese real estate mogul second to none.

 Forbes estimates his net worth at over 13.2 billion USD, and today he is looked at reverentially as an example of modern entrepreneurship at its finest. But, this property mogul turned power broker began as a humble soldier. Born in 1954 in Sichuan Province, he joined up in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, under hardships he once described as “unimaginable”. But, in many ways, he was following in the family footsteps, joining the military at 15 like his father—who fought for Mao during the Long March. Sadly, the military offered Wang little respite, and he claims to have marched 1,200 kilometers in two months, lacking food and warm clothing.

However, the military is where Wang supposedly gathered his contacts to build his empire. In 1978, he was chosen for the military academy in Dalian, no doubt a wealth of comfort compared to his time in Inner Mongolia. But it wasn’t until 1988 that Wang began his journey to both international influence and mindboggling wealth. It began small, as the general manager of the Xigang Housing Development Corporation. Back then, China’s backward financial system didn’t provide much in the way of speculative property investment. Purchases were made pretty much only from state-owned realtors, and banks were far from forthcoming with funds for real estate investment. Wang found himself building a residential project in Dalian’s Nansha District that brought him profits of over two million RMB. That was just the beginning; with this hard-won fortune, Wang went on to build his Wanda Group empire.

Wanda is now bigger than ever, growing faster and stronger every year. Wealth along with military and political connections are all well and good, but Wang, who keeps a stringent work ethic that mirrors his military days, has his sights set on influence and power. China has, it must be said, a soft power problem, a problem the central authorities seem to make worse with each and every attempt, but Wang is taking matters into his own hands. China has called the “cultural industry” a “pillar industry” and Wang is on his very own—very expensive—charm offensive.

The Oriental Movie Metropolis, set in Qingdao, was bankrolled by the Wanda Group and cost a whopping investment of 8.2 billion USD (including a theme park), and the unveiling was visited by Hollywood celebs such as Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio. His idea of the Chinese “cultural industry” is a full frontal assault on Hollywood. And, it just might work. This is merely an example of Wang’s far-reaching ambitions, with his hands in everything from football to charity. He has bought his way into the rest of the world—from properties in New York and London to skyscrapers in Spain—but Wang’s final legacy may turn out to be bringing China to the rest of the world. – T.R.

 

Jack Ma and Hu Shuli are changing internet trading and journalism. Stay tuned for profiles on Chen Guangbiao and Yuan Longping.

 

Charm Offensive: Hu Shuli & Jack Ma

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China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the planet views China.

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 HU SHULI 胡舒立: CHINA’S SUPER HACK

hu-shuliName: Hu Shuli
AffiliationsCaixin Century Weekly Magazine
Known for: Outstanding news reporting on business, finance, and public affairs
Education: Journalism, Renmin University
Notable Accomplishments:

  • Objective and in-depth investigative reporting that initiates social change
  • Dean of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University
  • Recipient of the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award

Hu Shuli is famed as “the most dangerous woman in China” according to Bloomberg Bussinessweek while The Washington Post described her as China’s “avenging angel”. One of her colleagues, upon meeting her for the first time, equated her to “a female Godfather”. This 1.58-meter-tall, now 61-year-old, woman has the power to move industries, even influence government policies, but she is no crime boss of the Chinese underground nor a female vigilante in disguise. She has, in fact, achieved her power with excellent journalism in one of the world’s largest and fastest-evolving economies.

Founder and former editor-in-chief of Caijing, a bi-weekly business and finance magazine branded as “independent, original, and unique”, Hu is a muckraker who sent tremors through the exchange industry. Her exposure of the unfair trading practices by over 20 companies in 2000 ultimately led to the implementation of a series of new regulations and a more transparent industry. Caijing soon took off as one of the few credible media sources in the country. Hu’s reporting only became bolder.

Hu also stepped outside the world of business into the sphere of public affairs. During the SARS breakout in 2003, Hu ran a series of stories on the fights against the epidemic, discussing local government’s incompetence and the flawed national disease control system. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Caijing focused on the schoolchildren who became victims of the poorly built school buildings as much as the earthquake itself, criticizing the malpractice of the local authorities.

“If it’s not absolutely forbidden, we do it,” Hu said. In China’s unique journalism environment, such statements are adventurous to say the least. But Hu has almost always kept her magazine away from criticism from above by demonstrating that her intentions are to help with social reform. But in 2009, tension grew in Caijing’s parent company, SEEC Media Group, when Hu insisted on continuing with her bold reporting style. They demanded all articles be approved by the group before publishing, and a number of her themes were deemed too sensitive to cover.

“With these critical reports, we’ve also had tremendous stress, including that from certain interest groups, but I feel that it is the media’s right to criticize, and the public’s right to know is greater than any interest groups’ self-proclaimed ‘historical duties’.” Hu wrote in her article “Undecided Vision”, one month before she resigned from Caijing in October 2009, “For the future, I hope we, the media, can have more freedom…and carry out our duties with ease.”

But that was hardly the last of Hu. She speedily started a new magazine, Caixin Century Weekly, taking the editorial team who quit with her in an act of defiance. “It’s lucky to be a journalist in China”, said Hu this August after just being handed over the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed “Asia’s Noble Prize”, by the Philippines’ president, Benigno Aquino III, adding, “With endless news material and the prospect of really making a difference.” – LIU JUE (刘珏)

 

JACK MA 马云: ALIBABA’S BIGGEST GUN

ma-yunName: Jack Ma
Affiliations: Alibaba, Tmall, Taobao, Alipay, The Nature Conservancy
Known for: Founding the largest online store in the world, philanthropy, officiating mass weddings
Education: BA in English, Hangzhou Teaching Institute
Notable Accomplishments:

  • Founded Alibaba
  • Successful IPO of Alibaba
  • China’s richest man
  • One of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world

Barely five foot tall, with a soft whispering voice and almost chinless to boot, Jack Ma seems to come ready formed as a caricature. Yet, as far as we know at least, the elfish Ma is the richest man in China. Due to his founding of one of the world’s largest internet trading companies, Alibaba, his net worth is a staggering 19.5 billion USD according to the China Rich List from Forbes, which isn’t bad going for an English teacher from Hangzhou. Time magazine has listed him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and like many a billionaire, he has graced the cover of Forbes magazine. Today Ma is big news, and there isn’t a major magazine or newspaper in the world that hasn’t profiled the diminutive tycoon.

Alibaba is huge, encompassing a wealth of Chinese online platforms including Taobao, Tmall, and Alipay. The Alibaba IPO in September 2014 attested to the company’s success when it became, not simply the biggest IPO of the year, but the biggest in history—the company valued at an eye-watering 230 billion USD. Most analysts had assumed it was worth half that, but like many before them, they had underestimated Jack Ma, and with China’s e-commerce growing fast, Ma is likely to get a lot richer in the near future.

Ma was one of the Internet’s early adopters. The story goes that he typed “China” and “Beer” into an Internet search engine and received so few hits that he was determined to set up a listings for all things Chinese. Just four years later, he was taking his first tenuous steps with Alibaba, with no equipment other than a battered, old desktop computer.

Where many choose titans of industry or ground-breaking politicians as their inspiration, Ma instead goes for the fictional: Forrest Gump. He clearly sees something of himself in the small town character made-good. Shortly before the Alibaba IPO, he told CNBC: “I watched the movie [Forrest Gump] again before I came here. It’s telling me, ‘whatever changes, you are you.’” Time and time again old friends and former colleagues attest to how little Ma has changed—it’s almost like he wants to be frozen in time.

Alibaba, in part at least, got where it is today due to Ma’s aggressive stewardship and ruthless decision making. Despite his charismatic approach and down-to-earth feel, he has a tough side too and is known for making aggressive business decisions. When Alibaba first started, it was Ebay’s China division that held all the chips in the Chinese market, but Ma gambled that Chinese consumers would prefer a platform that charged no fees and stuck with the idea despite the company hemorrhaging cash. It seemed a crazy move at the time, but Ma won out. Ebay’s China division no longer exists. And like many a rich man, he appears to have completely bought into the just world fallacy, reportedly saying: “If you are poor at 35, you deserve it,” which rather writes off a lot of humanity when you think about it.

What’s next for Ma is unclear, but aged 50 and with oodles of cash at his disposal, he can seemingly do anything he likes, and whatever it is, the great and the good will be keeping a close eye on the little guy that made it big. – CARLOS OTTERY

 

Stay tuned for profiles on Wu Changhua, Wang Jianlin, Chen Guangbiao, and Yuan Longping.

An Empty Sea

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China’s trouble in the sea is often relegated to international incidents. However, there is something far more precious than sovereignty and far more valuable than resources that no one is taking responsibility for: the ocean’s ecosystem.

China, responsible for up to one third of the globe’s fishing catch (both aquaculture and wild), is clearly one of the major players in the world’s overfishing problem, with the nation believed to have the second highest number of marine fishing vessels in the world, at least 193,000 within its own maritime zone, or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and a further 2,100 distant fishing vessels either fishing in other EEZs or on the high seas. Though China is number two in terms of vessels, in terms of tonnage and fishing capacity, it is comfortably the world’s largest fishing nation. And, of course, these are just the known figures.

On June 3, 2014 a Chinese fishing vessel, Yin Yuan, was escorted from the North Pacific back to China as it had been engaged in illegal salmon fishing. It was believed that the vessel was using an illegal high-seas drift net, which can be spread over vast distances. In the very same month Chinese authorities identified 87 small fishing vessels operating illegally off the coast of Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province in a single raid, vessels said to be “The Three Nos”, no registration of fishing vessel, no maintenance check-up, and no permit to fish. On June 17, it was reported that a further fishing vessel was caught with 180 tonnes of squid illegally caught in the Argentinean EEZ. These are just the cases that came to light in just over a few weeks in June 2014.

Wang Haibo is an oceans campaigner who spent several years working as a marine pollution control officer for the Ministry of Environmental Protection but left in frustration at the bureaucracy. He now works for Greenpeace and he puts his fears for the Chinese oceans very succinctly: “Too many vessels, not enough fish,” he says.

Since 1999 China has been committed to zero or minus growth in its fishing catch, but Wang doesn’t sound too confident that this is actually happening. “This is more of a policy structure; they release these items to encourage the fisherman to reduce fishing in the Chinese system, but when you check the database, it is hard to say; the numbers are quite stable. We don’t know if it is really happening or if it’s just data,” says Wang. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) generally separates Chinese data from the rest of the World because it is unsure of the accuracy of the figures, but it is widely believed (by the FAO among others) that China over-reports the catch within its own EEZ due to China’s somewhat archaic state planned quota system, drastically underreporting its distance water catch. Over-reporting in its own territory is problematic as it suggests fish stocks in China’s seas are far higher than they actually are, thus justifying yet more overfishing.

China’s rapid expansion in fishing outside its own waters is party fueled by the fact that fish stocks in its own waters are already perilously low. What were once four of the main species of the South China Sea—the large yellow croaker, the small yellow croaker, the Japanese Spanish mackerel, and eel—are now rapidly disappearing. “These used to be the main seafood for the Chinese, and now they are almost nowhere. There are hardly any left; it would cost you a month’s salary to buy some of these fish…They are looking at extinction now,” says Wang. Once the favored expensive fish reach sufficiently low stocks, other species become the main focus of Chinese fisherman, until these in turn are overfished.

Long-line fishing in particular causes huge damage to marine life. Long-line fishing involves the laying of often thousands upon thousands of hooks over huge distances and, though supposedly targeting a specific catch, such fishing puts a huge number of other species in serious danger. The recent Greenpeace report, “Out of Line” states that 300,000 sea turtles, 160,000 seabirds (mainly albatrosses), and millions of sharks die each year due to long-line fishing. In a world where all but one turtle species, and all but two albatross species, face the threat of extinction, along with 25 percent of shark species, long-lining is perhaps one of the most dangerous types of fishing on the planet.

While Chinese coastal waters are showing a tragic decline in fish stocks, particularly in the Western regionsof the South China Sea, China, which has seen a surge in demand for fish that are not available locally, has maintained its fishing catch with extensive forays into other nation’s EEZs, causing no end of problems. “The Chinese government is giving a lot of subsidies and a lot of fishermen are living on these subsidies. Major Chinese fishing companies are attacking the EEZs of poorer areas, and then they are taking their fish to sell to Europe and America,” says Wang. The amount of fishing Chinese vessels do in other EEZs is unclear. Generally, when a nation allows other vessels to fish in its waters, access agreements are signed, and these are generally published as a matter of public record. China, however, as with so many things, does these deals behind closed doors.

The damage this does to foreign fisheries is considerable, but foreign governments are all-too unconcerned about their own fisheries. When asked why so many of these secret access agreements are signed, Professor Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, says pointedly: “They do it for the money. What else could it be?” Pauly has conducted extensive studies into the impact of humans on global fisheries. While between 2000 and 2011 China reported to the United Nations that it only takes 368,000 tonnes a year from foreign fisheries, Pauly’s extensive studies indicate this is far higher and is in fact in the region of 4.1 million tonnes of fish every year, worth 11.5 billion USD and from the coastal waters of up to 93 countries. Up to 75 percent of these fish are caught in African waters, an estimated three million tonnes per year, causing extreme damage to local economies. “These fleets compete directly with local artisanal fisheries and undermine the food security of Africans. Combating this problem will involve more democracy and transparency  in the affected countries so that the benefits and losses due to distant water fisheries can be discussed openly,” says Pauly.

The state of the world fisheries is exasperating for everyone, and back in Beijing’s Greenpeace office, Wang tells me what he thinks needs to be done: “The first thing is to reduce vessel numbers and make smaller vessels. The second is to build marine reserves; these are protected areas where there is no fishing not allowed. The [enforcement] is not strong. The local governments don’t have the capacity to guard these areas.” He adds, “Last year [in China] just 1.9 percent of coastal areas were protected. In Brazil this is 17.5 percent of coastal waters.” People like Wang and Pauly continue to put their entire lives into studying, reporting on, and protecting the oceans, but it sometimes feels like they are fighting a losing battle. On being asked about his biggest fears for the oceans, Wang is downcast. “An empty sea,” he says, “an empty sea.”

China’s Gene Dream

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It took 16 years and billions of dollars, but in June, 2000, to great fanfare, the then American President Bill Clinton and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in a joint statement that the world’s largest ever collaborative biological project had been a resounding success; the Human Genome Project, a rough draft of it at least, had been mapped. As ever, Clinton’s words were dazzling; Crick and Watson, the founding fathers of DNA, were invoked, as were Galileo, and, of course, God. Both Clinton and Blair were also quick to make a very particular point of thanking China for their contribution to the massive ground-breaking project.

Up to this point, the Chinese government had shown little interest in sequencing human genes, and though the Chinese contribution to the Human Genome Project was small (about one percent of the whole), the words of Clinton and Blair were game changers, putting China  firmly on the genomics map. On hearing Clinton’s words, Chinese President Jiang Zemin reportedly set about funding Chinese genomics immediately; the nation was about to embark on a journey that would put them at the very forefront of the world of genomics.

Today BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province in southern China is the largest genetic sequencing center in the world, employing over 4,000 scientists. BGI has mapped the genomes of over 60,000 people, not to mention the first sequencing of an Asian human and an ancient human, as well as the genomes of giant pandas (naturally), rice, cucumbers, pigs, chickens, tigers, fleas, silkworms, lizards, and sea slugs.  If it lives, plant or animal, BGI have either mapped its genome or are on the way to doing so. BGI maps more genomic data than anywhere in the world, by some estimates over 25 percent of all gene data sequenced in the world. The amount of data involved in sequencing just a single human genome is mindboggling, containing over three billion base pairs—a remarkable undertaking. But BGI has very big plans indeed and its Three Million Genomes Project will sequence the DNA of one million people, one million microorganisms, and one million plants and animals. A single BGI supercomputer currently processes 10 terabytes of raw sequencing data every 24 hours.

Whereas it cost billions of dollars and over a decade of work to map a single human genome for the first time, advances in technology mean that today it costs as little as 1,000 USD and takes as little as two hours to map a single human genome. The price is falling fast, with some predicting it may fall to a few hundred dollars. Dealing with big data on such a huge scale causes its own raft of problems, and BGI is partly dealing with these issues by doing something many of its critics thought it would never do: sharing. For instance, for World Hunger Day it made 13 terabytes of rice genome data available to the public. This enables scientists the world over to do their own research, eventually allowing them into the secrets needed to develop strains of rice with higher yields. In 2011 a particular dangerous strain of E. coli, spread throughout Europe killing dozens. BGI were able to take a sample of the bacteria and sequence the bacterial genome, giving the data to the public. Soon researchers throughout the world were publishing reports analyzing the disease and its resistances, which ultimately helped to contain the outbreak. BGI’s openness saved lives.

Dr. Bicheng Yang is BGI’s director of communications and public engagement and has been at the company for nearly six years. She speaks with passion and zeal about BGI’s potential to change the world in a variety of ways: “I think BGI is in the leading group doing genetic sequencing in the world, but I would not say we are the most advanced—that would be a bit bold. Some US and UK groups are also very advanced, and we do a lot of collaboration with them,” she says. Regarding BGI’s rare openness, especially rare for a Chinese company, she explains that to deal with such monumental amounts of information, BGI launched its own online journal, Gigascience an open-data publication to help publish its vast reserves of data.

The scale of the data involved was so huge that they chose to base the journal’s servers in Hong Kong where internet speeds are faster and cheaper. To Yang, Gigascience was an obvious choice: “There are drawbacks if we hold the data. It wastes a lot of time and resources. The idea of launching Gigascience was to accelerate research by releasing the data before the research stage. In the traditional publishing research model, you have to run your tests, do your numbers, write your papers, and then publish, which other researchers then pick up on. Gigascience allows us to publish data before papers, research, and conclusions. That way, other groups can use the data to generate new research and studies.”

Nobody is precisely sure of the full extent of the value of gene sequencing, but the vast majority of the scientific community thinks it could be very far reaching indeed, and key, but not limited to, developments in unlocking the secrets behind human evolution, resolving world famines, increasing IQs, curing hereditary diseases, and increasing life spans; to the layman, this is the stuff of miracles.

In the spring of 2013, BGI announced it was establishing a partnership with a Middle Eastern biotech firm to introduce a non-invasive fetal trisomy (NIFTY). The NIFTY test detects fetal chromosomal abnormalities using fetal DNA in the maternal blood to detect Down’s Syndrome with an accuracy of 99.9 percent at as early as 12 weeks of pregnancy. This is the first time non-invasive tests have been possible at such an early stage.

The scale of BGI’s international collaboration, much like BGI itself, is huge. They are working in the Philippines to develop new rice crops, doing projects in Mexico on maize, teaching scientists in Nairobi how to use their sophisticated sequencing machines, and perhaps one of the biggest feathers in the their cap is the close work they started with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in September 2012. A memoriam of understanding was signed, which will focus on agricultural organisms, infectious diseases, and crops in Africa. It is hoped to achieve the goal of significantly reducing poverty and/or improving health in the developing world. The scope of BGI’S plans sometimes seem almost too audacious. “The future development is first related to personal healthcare. Genomics sequencing technology has been more and more applied in the clinical field o f hereditary disease testing, so we can better prevent some birth defects. Also, we can better predict or diagnose cancers and diseases such as diabetes and obesity. In maybe five to 10 years, we can use technology to better predict and develop personalized treatments for those diseases,” says Yang.

And, of course, as with anything this size, some people seem to be running a little scared. Despite the fact that most of the science can be typified as “good works”, BGI has been criticized for the sheer size and scale of it partnerships, hiring, purchasing power, business divisions, financial muscle, and data collation. In short, some in the West fear China is fast approaching genomic hegemony.

In 2010 BGI secured a 10-year loan of 1.5 billion USD from state-owned China Development Bank and went on to purchase American genomics hardware firm Complete Genomics for about 118 million dollars, in what was the first ever acquisition o f a US listed public company by a Chinese firm. The move was seen as China gaining the edge in producing and providing its own sequencing machines, when previously they had simply been purchasing them from America. Complete Genomics’ biggest rival, Illumina, were furious at the deal and attempted to block the purchase on the basis that the deal posed a threat to national security. Illumina’s concerns were rejected out of hand, and the deal went ahead. Illumina’s CEO Jay Flatley’s fears seemed jingoistic and he repeatedly told journalists that the purchase would be equivalent to selling China the “formula for Coke”.

He hammered his point home in an interview with Xconomy, “There’s risk they could build very large databases, and get access to the genomes of lots of Americans. They could bring them back to China. There are lots of nefarious ways you could use the information. There are theoretical bad things you could do with those kinds of databases if they aren’t regulated by the law of the United States. So we were concerned about BGI’s affiliation with the Chinese government.” Though it sounded like the sour grapes of a nationalistic businessman soundly beaten, he continued to argue that in China the state has deep influence into all spheres of daily life, and this was bad news when it came to storing so much biometric data.

“It is paranoia,” says Yang. “We bought Complete Genomics for one reason: BGI recognized the power of its technology. Complete Genomics business strategy was not doing what it was supposed to do and this was causing them financial problems, but the technology itself had lots of potential. After buying them we went to try and develop the technology so it could be applied in a larger field.”

There are other areas of BGI work that have caused controversy. Every year high-brow leaning online magazine Edge, which aims to “seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, [and] put them in a room together”, asks its annual question so as to stir debate amongst the intellectuals, scientists, great thinkers, and assorted artists of the day. In 2013 their question was the simple but provocative: “What should we be worried about?”

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, was particularly alarmist, answering, “Chinese Eugenics.” He went on to explain how he believed China had been experimenting with eugenics for 30 years, citing the controversial 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law, which tried to prevent people with heritable defects from marrying and promoted the scanning of fetal ultrasounds to check for birth defects. Interestingly, Miller was not remotely criticizing eugenics as an idea (if anything he seemed to imply the West should join in), but instead pointing out that BGI with their purchase of Complete Genomics were leaving the West behind, going on suggest that BGI’s ongoing cognition project, a project to which he himself had donated his own DNA, was going to identify alleles within DNA that were predictors of IQ: “[They] will probably be used mostly in China, for China. Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence,” he said. “This method of ‘pre-implantation embryo selection’ might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by five to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple o f generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.”

Miller was of course theorizing, and offered no hard evidence that BGI were intending to use their cognition project in this way at all. In fact the nature of IQ being in any way a real and valid measure of intelligence is hotly disputed and questioned by any number of scientists. Although, there are many in the scientific community who don’t think using science in this way is problematic at all. Indeed, many see it as positive. Who wouldn’t want babies that were more intelligent, right?

There is no doubt that the scientific community in China is hindered less by ethical concerns than the Western scientific community. Accordingly, some things are pushed through in China, where in the West they are delayed, such as stem cell research. Chris Chang, a visiting scholar at BGI who is working on their cognition project, told The New Yorker when discussing intelligence research: “There are ethical concerns about research in China too…But it is just not the career killing project it would be in the United States.”

Regardless of its ethical implications, BGI believe their cognition project is a potentially influential one. The idea is to compare the DNA of about 2,100 people, all with high IQs (including Miller’s), 1,600 of them taken from a previous study of those with exceptionally high IQs (over 150), against the genomes of thousands of people among the general population. It is hoped that by careful sifting through this DNA, clues will be spotted for what is the genetic basis of intelligence. Many, however, are skeptical. Firstly, it has been pointed out that, for a genetics study, 2,000 or so is an incredibly small sample size—sample sizes of tens of thousands are usually used for studies of this nature. Secondly, many argue that there isn’t very much of a genetic basis for IQs anyway and that intelligence is more likely something acquired. Dr. Yang agrees and doesn’t think the cognition project is going to yield quite the results that some claim: “I don’t think this is feasible or possible; cognition is a very complex issue. A lot of other factors influence this, not just genetics: environment, education all leads to IQ, so I think some of the press exaggerate the future potential outside of this. Cognition is a very small part of what we do.”

Aside from the potential Brave New World aspects of genomics and where it could potentially go, one of the biggest fears regarding BGI, simply, is that it is Chinese. Of course there will always be those that criticize the storage of such vast amounts of human biometric data, but there is something about China itself that makes people nervous. It is true that the Chinese government is able to intrude into the superstructures and structures of society in a way that few other governments can or do, and it would not be unreasonable to think the Chinese authorities do not have at least some influence on BGI. One and half billion dollar loans usually come with a few strings after all. BGI’s relationship with the government has not been an easy one; part of the reason BGI relocated from Beijing to Shenzhen was because the central government was not giving them the support they deserved. On being asked if BGI gets support from the government, Yang said, “Yes, especially the local government. They support us more than the central government. The Shenzhen government gives us lots of support because they understand what we do—maybe other governments don’t.”

In its early days, BGI was non-profit, and later it was affiliated with the Chinese Academy o f Sciences, but, ultimately, they were thrown out and had to set up as a private venture in Shenzhen. It was only their work on the Human Genome project that got them noticed. BGI almost has a slightly bad-boy image in China and has its own way of doing things. It gives scientists vast responsibility from an early age and notably even employs students who “dropped out” or failed to graduate. It’s an image that has permeated the whole company, as if lying on the border town of Shenzhen, so far from the seat of government, they are outliers in some way. Yang certainly takes some small pride in the idea, “Interestingly, in China we are a troublemaker; we have a reputation for not following the rules. In some ways BGI is unique and not a typical Chinese-style organization.”

There is little doubt that, thanks to BGI, in China, genomes are being sequenced at remarkable magnitudes. And, as to the significance of it all? The truth is nobody knows. Designer babies, eugenics, and totalitarian states using all the biometric data in the world for shadowy Orwellian purposes are the nightmares of the fiercest critics of the gene dream. Unlocking the key to who we are, ending disease, feeding the world, and, who knows, perhaps even immortality are the promises of the scientists who dare to believe. But one thing is sure: however it pans out, the bad boys in Shenzhen with a passion for DNA sequencing will have a part to play. We can only hope they play their cards right.

Rocking the boat

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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

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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