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.

charm-offensive

 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

Go Out, New China, And Grow Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEELING LUCKY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE OTHER CHINESE DREAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHINA ON THE MOVE – PART I

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

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

Rural Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DREAM IN THE JUNGLE

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

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A typical Bulang ethnic residence in Zhanglang village

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

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

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A gate leading to the Buddhist temple in Zhanglang village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spices and herbs sold in Xiding’s Thursday market

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manichean Middle Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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