Monday, April 30, 2012

Another incisive suggestion from the think tank

I was editing an article about the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation last week. This was inaugurated in 2000, and the fifth of its triennial ministerial conferences between the member states is slated to take place in Beijing this July. [Another good reason to be out of the country this summer. Another reason, indeed, why it may be impossible to stay in the country!]

My author was terribly excited about the special resonance of this 12th anniversary of the organization, taking time out in his first footnote to try to explain how significant the number 12 is in Chinese culture - through the system of the dizhi (地支), or Twelve Earthly Branches, which define the twelve-year cycles of the Chinese zodiac.

So besotted was he with this notion that one of the few concrete suggestions he had to offer on possible improvements to the functioning of the organization in the future was that perhaps a full summit meeting of the participating countries' heads of state might also become one of its regular events... to take place - yes! - every 12 years

There's only been one such summit so far, in Beijing in 2006, when a big shindig for African heads of state was held alongside the regular ministerial conference. The organization - and China's increasing focus on Africa - began to gain a lot more international attention as a result; but that might not be something China is really all that happy about. And it was, on the whole, a pretty vapid PR exercise. The ministers seem to be taking care of business quite well enough on their own; I doubt if having all the big cheeses along for the ride is going to be all that helpful. 

But... if there were some point to this, wouldn't you think it might be a good idea to do it slightly more often than once every 12 years? You know, try to make it fit in with electoral cycles, leadership terms, and medium-term economic programmes? Never mind the poor bloody Africans; I don't think the Chinese leadership is going to be too happy about such a big diplomatic event - with all of its repercussions for trade and energy security and so on - recurring at irregular stages of its domestic Five-Year Plans. Or about the prospect of missing out on one of these media-friendly, 'face'-building events altogether, if the timing was unkind to them (if the China-Africa Forum had kicked off with such a full-scale summit in 2001, and then the next one wasn't due until 2013, the Hu/Wen leadership team would have been bypassed, and thus denied a chance to develop lots of lucrative guanxi in Africa!).

Hm, really - you'd advocate something that cockeyed just because feudal superstition held that 12 was a 'magic' number? You didn't consider that certain contemporary factors might indicate that a 5- or 10-year timeframe might be a more sensible choice for a regular heads-of-state summit?

Footnote 1:  My author also tried to tell us that the Chinese zodiac has "twelve animals for each year" (rather than one animal for each of the twelve years in the zodiac cycle; it's lucky I knew better!). That would make for rather a crowded zodiac zoo. I very much doubt if China has 144 different animals (animals, rather than birds, insects, etc.). Well, in fact, Wikipedia says there are about 500; that's far more than I would have guessed - but I suspect most of them are minor variations of small rodent species.

Footnote 2:  This risible obsession with seeking to extol the glories of traditional Chinese culture at every opportunity is a facet of China's recent focus on 'soft power'. This very same article included a passage which boasted of the number of Confucius Institutes now operating in Africa and of the increase in the study of Mandarin by Africans, citing this as heartwarming evidence of growing Sino-African friendship. This is yet another reason - one of the main ones, really - why I am reluctant to put much effort into learning Mandarin: I don't want to become another statistic for the CCP to crow about, as they gleefully delude themselves that they have the best damn culture in the world and that therefore, of course, everybody loves them.

Bon mot for the week

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading."

Ray Bradbury  (1920- )

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Film List - Another Quotations Quiz

A follow-up to this quiz from 18 months ago: here are some more of the (mostly) very well-known lines from Western cinema that I have occasionally tested and taunted Chinese students with. I've tended, in fact, to use it as an Internet search exercise rather than a straight quiz, because even film students usually exhibit almost zero recognition for any lines like this. It's hard for the Chinese to remember quotations in English, and there just isn't the pop culture background here to reinforce the memory of the great lines. After all, these things probably become fixed in our heads as much through our quoting them at each other as through their original occurrence in the films themselves. [Hence, I'll repeat my previous disclaimer: I wouldn't vouch for the absolute accuracy of the wording in each of these quotes. When we're talking about the prominence of a line in popular culture, frequent repetition outside of the original context will often introduce small changes here and there - and these changes may even occasionally be slight improvements on the original. It's an impossible task to try to verify each of these. So, please don't carp at supposed small inaccuracies. In this context, I think it's enough that a line should be recognisable.]

As usual, I'll add the answers in the COMMENTS below in a week or so. Good luck!

1)  “What does it matter what you say about people when they’re dead? He was some kind of a man, that’s all.”

2)  “Are you ready, Jack?”    “I was born ready.”

3)  "Got a light?"  [No, really. There is a link to No. 2 above.]

4)  “Wake up – time to die!”

5)  “Next time I say ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia’, let’s go someplace like Bolivia.”

6)  “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite?”  “It’s not my dog.”

7)  "The old man's still an artist with the Thompson."

8)  “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” 

9)  “I’ll show you the life of the mind!”

10)  “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

11)  “No – I’m Spartacus.”

12)  “I can’t marry you!”  “Why not?”  “I’m a man.”  “Nobody’s perfect.”

12)  “Show me the money!”

14)  “Go ahead, punk – make my day.”

15)  “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.” 

16)  “When the legend becomes fact... print the legend.”

17)  “You don’t have to follow me. You don’t have to follow anyone. You’re all individuals.”  “YES! WE’RE ALL INDIVIDUALS!”

18)  "Rock stars have kidnapped my son."

19)  “What have the Swiss ever given us? The cuckoo clock!”

20)  “Come with me, if you want to live.”

ANSWERS now added in the comments below.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Striking a balance

I came across this very wise cartoon a while ago - in a post explaining 'fuzzy logic'! (more here, if you share my fascination) - on a dangerously diverting website called MathWorks. I find it a nice summation of the dilemmas I face every day in my writing: the unending battles between comprehensiveness and conciseness, and between elegance and just getting the goddamned point across. These things are a particular challenge in a lot of the editing and copy writing work I do.

In my professional life, I do mostly manage to come down on the side of conciseness. In my personal writing, though, and especially in my e-mailing, I confess I am prone to being over-thorough. On the blogs, I hope to find a middle path; but I fear that Golden Mean proves very elusive, and I'm probably always falling well to one side or the other of that ideal.

Aha - it was of course JES who first led me to this!

Haiku for the week

Twenty years ago
Spring's sunshine was very bright
When my father died.

In fact, I think the end of April and the beginning of May had become established as the worst period of the year for my depressions before this, some weird glitch in my personal biochemistry reacting negatively to the increased sunlight - or perhaps a sense that Nature's exuberant fecundity at this season is mocking my perpetual romantic hopelessness. But my father's sudden demise in '92 hit me really hard; and while the sharpness of the grief has faded, the recollection of it taunts me more strongly each year with the horror of my own mortality.

Not even the sunny weather can lift my gloom. We had an utterly dazzling spring in Oxford that year; blue sky days now tend to bring on uncomfortably intense emotional flashbacks.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The genie won't go back in the bottle

The meteoric rise of the Sina Weibo microblogging platform over the past 18 months or so is the most important phenomenon unfolding in contemporary China. It was a little slow to take off at first, taking some 18 months to reach a total of 60 million users; but just one year later, by the end of February 2012, it could announce that it had surpassed 300 million. Its only significant rival, Tencent Weibo, claims a similar or greater number of users, but some industry analysts estimate it has only around 10% of total microblogging usage. It is Sina that is clearly now the big cheese. If these figures are anything like accurate, its market share and market penetration are nearing their maximum potential, and far surpassing the reach that its original inspiration, Twitter, enjoys in America. 

Well, of course, all such figures are to be taken with a large grain of salt. 300 million users would be more than half of all the people who have any kind of Internet access in China, and four or five times the number that have a 3G smartphone. That figure is actually the number of ‘user accounts’, and there’s a great deal of redundancy there, with many people setting up multiple aliases but then soon allowing the accounts to fall into disuse. The number of daily active users is reckoned to be only around 10% of that eye-catching headline figure; but that’s still an awful lot of people, and they are generating around 3 billion messages each month. Moreover, these users are predominantly drawn from the moderately affluent urban middle class, in the 20-40 age range; in this highly influential demographic segment, Sina Weibo has attained an extraordinarily high level of uptake in a very short time. 

Sina’s shrewd CEO Charles Chao hurried to launch Weibo in August 2009, in anticipation of the imminent unveiling of the country’s first 3G phone services. He had the good fortune to find the new platform emerging into a market vacuum, as the government had just suppressed all existing microblogging and social networking sites – both foreign giants like Twitter and Facebook and the early Chinese players in the field – in a panicky response to the Urumqi riots the month before. Sina Weibo probably benefited to some extent from the absence of competition from Twitter in its early days, but it has now achieved such an overwhelmingly dominant position that there seems to be little prospect for Twitter ever being able to re-enter the China market, even if the government were to lift its ban on the site. Many of my expat friends, initially turning to Weibo reluctantly, tentatively, only because they tired of having to use a VPN all the time to access Twitter, now laud the service as vastly superior to Twitter. They tell me it is impressively user-friendly and offers a variety of features – such as the easy embedding of photos and videos rather than just links – that are not available on the American microblog. Indeed, it seems to be more a full-service social networking site, a kind of hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. And it looks set to evolve into a comprehensive mobile portal as it expands into gaming and e-commerce and encourages the addition of third-party applications. 

The roll-out of a full English version of the service at the end of last year was initially aimed at increasing uptake among the expat community (who are thought to account for about 10% of the active users) and, even more so, at facilitating the access of overseas companies to the Chinese user base. Sina executives have so far been downplaying suggestions that they might have designs on overseas markets, but Weibo surely has the potential to become an international player, and might even cause Facebook and Twitter some anxieties, particularly in territories where they have not yet established a dominant share. 

So, Sina Weibo is one of the great shining success stories of the Chinese Internet boom, beloved by its tens of millions of regular users, attracting admiring media commentary around the world, and stirring envy and fear in the corporate corridors of Silicon Valley. And they’ve got their own plane as well, with Tianjin Airlines last year unveiling a new Embraer E-190 twin-jet airliner in the Weibo livery. This was the first ever such high-profile sponsorship deal from a Chinese website, and I bet Jack Ma is kicking himself that he didn’t think of doing something like this for Taobao or Alibaba. 

Some would say it’s hypocritical of the Chinese government, and contrary to the spirit of its WTO undertakings, to continue to block foreign web services like Facebook and Twitter while Sina Weibo and other domestic enterprises – like the Facebook and FourSquare ‘clones’ Renren and Jiepang – are flourishing unchecked. The government’s concern, of course, is for the potential of such platforms to become a forum of political dissent and even to co-ordinate mass protests – as was vividly demonstrated in the spate of popular uprisings across the Arab world at the beginning of last year. Domestic Internet companies mitigate that risk by undertaking to self-censor, and often they will remove potentially undesirable content on their own initiative to avoid any possibility of incurring official displeasure. However, their actions are often not prompt or thorough enough. Again and again over the past year Weibo users have embarrassed the government with mass outpourings of critical comment: castigating attempts to hush up the causes of last summer’s high-speed train crash near Wenzhou, flocking to the support of dissident artist Ai Weiwei with donations to help pay the punitive $2.3 million tax demand that had been slapped on him, and speculating on possible political in-fighting within the walls of Zhongnanhai last month. 

Self-censorship may not be enough: that is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Pre-emptive filtering may not be enough: Chinese Netizens are endlessly inventive in finding ways to circumvent blocks on particular words or phrases. You cannot expect to be able to effectively moderate an online conversation when there are this many people taking part in it, and when it is happening in real time. The government began getting anxious about Weibo during the Arab Spring. It is even more anxious now, as the year of the leadership transition is coinciding with a worrying slowdown in the economy. Many senior cadres would like to find a way to emasculate Weibo, or to suppress it altogether, a desire manifested in recent ham-fisted attempts to restrict the provision of wi-fi in public places (a campaign which rapidly fizzled and died) and to require ‘real name’ registration of Weibo user accounts (an initiative to which Sina lent conspicuously half-hearted cooperation), and in a complete suspension of the commenting facility for three days at the end of last month (which provoked a vehement outcry from Weibo users). Clearly such efforts to clamp down on Weibo users are not going to work. Weibo has become too big, too successful, too popular to be suppressed or restricted now. The Chinese people have acquired a convenient means of communicating with each other instantly, and they are relishing this newfound freedom. They are not going to give it up. 

The genie is out of the bottle for good. The CCP is going to have to learn to live with that.

This is the second of a series of articles I prepared at the start of this month for a China-based English-language business magazine. Unfortunately, that anticipated cooperation went up in smoke, and... well, there aren't too many other outlets I could shop this around to. And I couldn't be bothered to make the effort. I thought I'd just share these observations via my blog.

My major frustration with the violent implosion of this job prospect, though, is that I had very much enjoyed the challenge of writing some pieces that were rather longer, more focused, more serious, and more researched than my usual output on here. I would like to find a magazine that might give me an outlet for such writing... so long as they don't seek to impose a ludicrous slave-labour contract on me, demand to keep all rights to my work in perpetuity, and pay only peanuts. [Yes, Business Tianjin, that's you, that is.]

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Favourite posts from the 4th quarter of 2010

Gosh, I've got a little behind in these 'best of the blog' roundups. I usually try to do them for just over a year ago, but I find I'm nearly 18 months down, so I'll have to do two in quick succession to get back on track. Whoops.

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, October-December 2010

1)  Twitter is for twits  -  1st October 2010
I find an amusing Venn diagram illustrating the 'appeal' of Twitter, Facebook, et al.

2)  There's 'good' and then there's...  -  2nd October 2010
Some recent grandstanding by snooker wizard Ronnie O'Sullivan sets me off on a nostalgic trawl through YouTube postings of a 'hero' of my youth, the wild Irishman Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, probably the most prodigious - but erratic - talent the game has ever seen.

3)  Grand Prix  -  6th October 2010
An extended review of John Frankenheimer's excellent 1960s motor racing drama. Unfortunately, the embedded clip of the Belgian Grand Prix (with much longer and better in-car shots than we see in today's TV coverage of the sport!) has now been removed from YouTube, and I haven't yet been able to find a replacement.

I see the recent appearance of Chinese versions of Monopoly as a key moment in the progress of the capitalist ethos here.

5)  The art of the lie-in...  -  8th October 2010
A brilliant stop-motion video for the song Her Morning Elegance by Israeli singer-songwriter Oren Lavie, featuring a breathtakingly beautiful model called Shir Shomron.

6)  My advice to the Chinese government  -  9th October 2010
An exercise in wishful thinking: how I would have liked the authorities here to respond to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize win. (More on that here and here and here and here and here and here and here.)

7)  The simplest advice  -  16th October 2010
A Mad TV sketch in which the great Bob Newhart plays the world's most down-to-earth therapist.

8)  Across The Universe  -  17th October 2010
A slightly belated 70th birthday tribute to John Lennon: three contrasting versions of my favourite of his songs. (I think I like Fiona Apple's, from the soundtrack to the film Pleasantville, best.)

One of the first and most serious of my childhood crushes, an impossibly pretty model called Joanne Latham.

10)  Where have all the zingers gone?  -  26th October 2010
My blog-pal JES initiates a reflection on whether contemporary cinema is producing fewer quotable lines, and prompts me to post some YouTube roundups of some of the most memorable quotes in film history. (A little later, I posted a quiz on some of my favourites.)

11)  Little obfuscations  -  4th November 2010
A failure to obtain some concert tickets (for Cesária Évora) leads me to some bitter ruminations on the interaction between language and culture.

12)  List of the Month: What people come here for  -  6th November 2010
Google Analytics reveals my 10 'most popular' posts. It is a tad depressing. I stop using Google Analytics shortly thereafter.

13)  Taking leave of my census  -  9th November 2010
I continue to rage against the pointlessness and ineptitude of China's latest national census (the results of which must have been largely fabricated, since almost no-one I know - either Chinese or foreign - bothered to answer their door to the feeble knocks of the census takers).

14)  'Little Emperors', little thugs  -  11th November 2010
Violence begets violence: I am tempted to think that the large number of child psychopaths in this country today may be partly a legacy of the traumas of the Cultural Revolution forty-odd years ago (a thesis which provoked an unusually thoughtful and diverse comment thread).

15)  Remembrance  -  14th November 2010
On Remembrance Sunday it seemed inescapably appropriate to post the closing sequence of Richard Attenborough's Oh! What A Lovely War. (YouTube user OhWhataLovelyWar seems to have posted the whole film in sections, or all the musical numbers from it, anyway.)

16)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: Margo Timmins  -  20th November 2010
I had a crush on the voice of the Cowboy Junkies' singer long before I discovered that she also looks rather ravishing and is an intelligent and charming personality. My appreciation of the lovely lady concludes with a video of the Junkies performing their Blue Moon Revisited, from the classic Trinity Session album.

17)  Dying in harness  -  28th November 2010
Some reflections on the pros and cons of being a schoolteacher, a career that I am - on the whole - relieved to have escaped from.

18)  Where do you think you are?  -  30th November 2010
Another memorable customer service experience in China...

19)  Trajectory  -  3rd December 2010
A humorous study of the life-cycle of the typical Beijing bar (a reprint of one of my favourite ever posts from my 'drinking blog', Barstool Blues).

20)  A little bit of Zen  -  5th December 2010
A charming stop-motion animation by Polish art student Alicja Cioch, illustrating a short prose poem by the Czech fabulist Karel Čapek, How To Grow Clouds.

21)  Casual insolence  -  9th December 2010
Another entry in my 'War on Chinglish' series, bemoaning the strange fact that the Chinese are invariably unable to use Western names appropriately (despite the fact that this really ought to be just about Lesson 1 in their English studies).

22)  Today is a good day (for a relationship) to die  -  13th December 2010
A study on the Information Is Beautiful website seems to show that the second or third Monday of December is the peak day in the whole year for breakups. Curious!

23)  A Classical Sunday  -  19th December 2010
I flaunt my Classical education by composing a short poem inspired by a famous moment in Xenophon's Anabasis.

24)  Stand By Me  -  29th December 2010
A major bust-up with one of my employers leads me into some dejected generalisations on how unhelpful the female of the species can be in conflict situations. However, I find some consolation in a video of a great version of the Ben E. King hit Stand By Me, performed by street musicians around the world as part of the Playing For Change project.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More found humour

I had to go to a couple of meetings down in the city centre this afternoon, and, not being quite sure of the locations from the addresses/directions/'maps' I'd been given, I dug up a couple of old tourist maps I hadn't looked at in ages to doublecheck where I was going. I noticed that one of them marked a Beijing Intentional Hotel. Ah, obviously I'd just misread that; perhaps they'd broken the word in an unusual place, and I hadn't noticed a discreet apostrophe signalling the omission of a syllable. Er, no - they really had spelled it like that. I'm sure you can guess what they actually meant.

Oh, if only there were such a hotel! It would be a novel and thrilling concept for Beijing!

I rather suspect, though, that a contrary theme would better fit the prevailing local business culture and thus enjoy more success. Yes, the rival chain of Chaotic Hotels - including venues like the Inadvertent, the Haphazard, the Unforeseen, and the Random - could easily become a leader in the hospitality industry here.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Kjersti Skomsvold

As I've noted a number of times before, there's something about Norwegians - they do seem to produce the prettiest girls in Europe, in the world. But, of course, I am not easily swayed by such superficialities as wide blue eyes and a cute smile. No, no, it's vivacity, intelligence, wit that get me smitten. Although sometimes a wry smile or a dazzling eye can suggest these things...

A couple of months ago, I found myself bowled over by this publicity photo of the Norwegian writer Kjersti Skomsvold. From what I gather, there is a formidable creative brain behind those bewitching eyes: her debut novel, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, has been extremely well reviewed, and I'm now very curious to read it - to swoon over the mind behind it, not just over the author photo on the back jacket!

Ms Skomsvold was in Beijing last month to talk about her book at the Bookworm International Literary Festival. Alas, I felt inhibited from going to see her; it seems rather stalker-ish to try to introduce myself to one of my hypothetical infatuations. The 'Fantasy Girlfriends' should remain in the realm of fantasy - things are much safer for the fragile heart that way. [Of the ladies so far celebrated in this series, I've only 'met' - or had a real-world encounter with, I suppose I should say - two of them, and only spoken to one. Now, there's a quiz question for you: who were they?]

Friday, April 20, 2012

One piece of good news

Just over a year on from his release from detention, my artist friend Wu Yuren is finally a "free" man again. Well, as free as anyone can be in China.

For the past year he's been in this odd limbo status, on indefinite, unexplained "parole" (despite there never having been a conviction or sentencing in his abandoned trial), his movements supervised and restricted by the police, his passport confiscated.

Now, it seems, the charges against him have been quietly dropped, and yesterday he finally got his passport back - so he'll be able to go and visit his wife and daughter in Canada whenever he wants to.

The state security apparatus has more important matters to concern itself with at the moment, I suppose.

Of course, there's always the possibility that he could be spirited away a second time, if he attracts the attention of the authorities again, if he's deemed to have 'stepped out of line' somehow. That's the awful thing about living in a police state: arbitrary detentions may not happen so very often, but the knowledge that they can happen - to anyone, at any time - oppresses the soul.

Still, it's a small piece of good news - the only one I've heard from this country in quite some time.

Dear Blogger

Your new menus and 'Compose' screen layout look just HORRIBLE.

Why move all the buttons over to the side, when we've been used to them being at the bottom for 6 years?? WHY???

The new homepage screen is IDIOTIC too. How is it better to have to hunt around in a sub-menu under a not-terribly-obvious-what-it-is picture tab, instead of just having all the options you might want to access clearly labelled WITH A WORD each?

Are you trying to create a blogging platform for people who are ILLITERATE??

These changes aren't just unnecessary, pointless, and irritating - they are actually CHANGES FOR THE WORSE. It is BEYOND STUPID.

I think I am going to migrate to Wordpress unless you allow us to revert to the old-style user interface.

Haiku for the week

Twilight at noontime,
The soul drowning in darkness.
Endless days of grey.

Well, we had a couple of weeks of blissfully perfect weather, but over the last few days it has all turned to shit again: overcast sky and air thick with dust; light levels minimal, visibility down to a few hundred yards.

And no let-up in sight. The forecast seems to be much the same for days to come. It's somewhere beyond depressing.

I recall it was like this for most of June last year. This could be a good time to get the hell out of this doomed, toxic country.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Illegal Alien

Like many foreigners in China, I obtained my visa through less than wholly honest or legitimate means. I don’t, strictly speaking, work for the company which sponsors my visa. And I certainly don’t have any expertise in architecture or urban planning, as my work permit suggests. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who works for the company or visited its offices. I’m not completely confident that my nominal employer even exists. I imagine that it is just a paper entity, a convenient fiction created solely for the purpose of securing a quota of ‘foreign expert’ work permits which can then be sold on for a handsome sum to thwarted visa-seekers like myself.

I wish it were otherwise. Honesty and respect for the law are important values for me. I don’t like being forced to compromise those ideals. I don’t like having to resort to such petty subterfuges. I don’t like how precarious it makes my tenure in China seem, living with the knowledge that the government has a reasonable excuse for throwing me out of the country at a moment’s notice whenever it pleases.

Above all, I don’t like the ever escalating ‘arrangement fees’ that my visa agent charges for concocting the phony paperwork to support my annual reapplication to the Entry & Exit Department of the Public Security Bureau and to the web of "relevant" Ministries. The cost of obtaining a prized ‘Z’ – the year-long working visa – nearly doubled in the last few months before the Olympics were held here, and never again fell back to the pleasantly inexpensive pre-2008 levels; instead, the price has continued to ramp up steadily ever since, another 500 rmb or 1,000 rmb each year.

The cost of a ‘Z’ visa seems to be cannily tied to that of the ‘F’, or ‘business visa’; and the cost of one those usually involves substantial incidental extras which make it a little difficult to quantify. The ‘F’ visa, always somewhat tricky to apply for because of the opaque and constantly shifting regulations governing it, has, since 2008, become impossible to obtain within China; and there have been recurring rumours that it is to be abolished altogether. The Chinese government has intermittently tried to force people to return to their native country in order to renew an ‘F’ visa; but most of the time it is OK just to hop over the border for a day or so, and then hop straight back. The regular ‘visa run’ has become a central element of the expat lifestyle here, almost, indeed, a kind of initiation rite. For residents in north China, a quick trip into Outer Mongolia is a thrifty but unexciting option. Those in the south of the country may be more enthusiastic about having a pretext for a short holiday in Vietnam or Thailand. For most China expats, though, the default destination for obtaining a hassle-free ‘F’ visa is Hong Kong.

No matter how crazy and xenophobic and exclusionary the visa policy may get on the mainland, in Hong Kong it’s always business as usual. The Special Administrative Region enjoys the marvellous dualism of being both ‘part of China’ and ‘outside of China’; it counts as “overseas” for the purposes of making a visa application for entry to the Chinese mainland, and the visa office down there is famously easy-going about issuing ‘F’ visas. It’s usually such a comparative doddle to get visas in Hong Kong, you feel they might as well give them away free along with the tourist maps provided to guests in the cheap hotels of Chungking Mansions.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. There’s still an arrangement charge, over and above the official fee payable to the government. And then there’s the cost of a long weekend in Hong Kong, and travel there and back. Having to do that twice a year (sometimes four times a year, since the 6-month ‘F’ visa is occasionally hard to come by and people have to settle for a 3-month version) gets pretty expensive. It’s usually rather more than the cost of getting a ‘Z’ in the mainland, in fact; but never that much more. 

 It’s always been a very fine calculation for me: would the enjoyment of a little spree in Hong Kong offset the additional expense? Yes, it certainly would. After all, I might go to Hong Kong once or twice a year to visit friends anyway. The ‘F’ visa has its disadvantages, though: you’re not supposed to work, you can’t pay tax, and it’s difficult or impossible to convert to any other sort of visa without leaving the country again. I’ve always preferred the greater flexibility and stability the ‘Z’ visa provides, and the veneer of respectability too – that cachet of being designated as a ‘foreign expert’, even if this exalted status has been procured in a slightly underhand manner.

Well, it seems I won’t have to continue with these gripes and grumbles and agonising deliberations over how to get my visa any longer. The agent-arranged ‘Z’ visa just went the way of the dodo. I had queried the possible implications of last year’s new social security law with my visa agent just after it came into effect in October. “No problem at all,” she assured me. “Everyone will just ignore this. It won’t cause any trouble for you. You can get your visa from the same company next year.” I suspected she was lying to me, or deceiving herself. The requirement for companies both to pay employer’s contributions to the various social security funds on behalf of foreign workers (equivalent to around 47% of salary in Beijing) and to collect their employee contributions (22.5% of salary) obviously had the potential to become a major bureaucratic headache, and was certainly going to be a cause of some concern to my “employer”. Even if supervision and enforcement would to be patchy in the early years of the new scheme, the constant possibility of a random inspection of social security records was likely to be enough to scare many such ‘front companies’ out of the visa selling business.

This is what I was saying six or seven months ago, and it has come to pass. My visa agent has almost been put out of business. My “employer”, and all of the other tame visa vendors she had relied on for a supply of working visas, have withdrawn from the game. There are just a few such companies trying to persist in the ruse; but this now requires a visa applicant to go through the rigmarole of registering in the Chinese social security system (I think this is just a case of the companies being careful, rather than government enforcement being that thorough). Moreover, we would now have to pay both the employer’s and the employee’s social security contributions on a plausible minimum salary (likely to amount to at least 15,000 RMB a year). And the sudden demand-supply imbalance is enabling the few surviving ‘fixers’ to vastly inflate their basic ‘arrangement fees’. The cost of a ‘Z’ visa just went up three- or fourfold, almost overnight.

It’s not the abrupt demise of the phony visa that alarms me. It’s the fact that this has almost certainly been an inept, inadvertent, unforeseen side-effect of the introduction of the new social security regime, and one whose consequences could be far-reaching, even disastrous. A large percentage of foreigners in China obtain their visas in this way. We are forced to. Many Chinese employers – and even some smaller foreign companies – could in theory obtain work permits and visas legitimately but find the procedure to be too much hassle and decline to do so, leaving their foreign employees to make their own arrangements. The British Council, which administers the enormously popular IELTS English exam in China, is unable to provide visas for its several hundred examiners. Some of them have teaching jobs which give them legitimate visas, but a great many of them survive mostly on the IELTS work and have to rely on ‘fixers’ to procure visas for them. The British Council, perpetually struggling to keep up with the exceptional demand for the IELTS test in China, could soon be facing a serious shortfall in examiners, as dozens of them may be forced to quit the country in the next few months.

For freelancers like myself, visa ‘fixers’ are the only option. Our status is not recognised by the Chinese government: there is no legitimate avenue by which we can obtain a visa. I have lived in China for 10 years now. I have worked for a number of state-owned enterprises. I have paid my taxes (or at least, my employers have all claimed that they paid taxes for me, and I trusted them!). I’ve never been in any trouble with the law. I could provide testimonials from distinguished academics or high-ranking local government officials that I’ve worked with. I manifestly have the qualifications and experience to support myself by honest and useful labour. And the savings I have deposited in the Bank of China could support me reasonably comfortably for a year or so without my needing to work at all. Why have I always been forced to pretend to work for someone else in order to get a visa? Why must I now masquerade as a “visiting businessman” on an ‘F’ visa, and pretend not to work at all? WHY?

It is the ‘Chinese way of doing things’: for years it has generated a thriving black market in visa facilitation, which was openly connived at – cooperated with, profited from – by the authorities. Now, that system has been torpedoed. I don’t mourn the loss of a corrupt and leaky ship; I just wish they’d provided some lifeboats.

By the way, this is a longer version of something I worked up a couple of weeks ago for one of the expat magazines here. Unfortunately, the expected "cooperation" with that employer unravelled rather spectactularly - after I'd submitted this piece as a sample of my work, for possible inclusion in next month's edition of one of their titles. I have reminded them that they do not have my permission to publish it, but I half suspect they will anyway. If anyway notices some version of this piece cropping up elsewhere on the Internet, please let me know... and I shall prepare to unleash the wrath of my formidable legal team!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The TV Listings (11)

Time for another roundup of my video postings, this time from the last quarter of 2011.

The Comedy/Movie Channel

Not the Chinese national anthem - for China's National Day on October 1st, I post an amusing parody of March of the Volunteers (by a YouTuber called ThDubya, who has a raft of spoof national anthems).

Crimewave - two great clips from Sam Raimi's underrated homage to slapstick comedy, as I enrol its lovely leading lady, Sheree J. Wilson, as one of my 'Fantasy Girlfriends'.

A Private Listening Party - Tom Waits has an amusing brainwave for promoting his new album, Bad As Me.

We Need Recruits! - the music hall recruiting scene from Richard Attenborough's Oh, What A Lovely War!, with Maggie Smith belting out a raunchy song to woo impressionable young men into the services (and the gorgeous Jane Seymour making her first - uncredited, blink-and-you-miss-it - screen appearance as one of the chorus girls in the background).

Baby, It's Cold Outside - the story of Frank Loesser's playful winter duet, with performances by Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in Elf, by Cerys Mathews and Tom Jones, and by Frank Loesser and his first wife, Lynn (audio only, but magical).

Making a point - a disgruntled Chinese multi-millionaire in the northern port city of Qingdao (home of the famous Tsingtao beer) hired four workers to smash his Lamborghini Gallardo to pieces with sledgehammers. Apparently, the cigarette lighter wasn't working. Talk about a fit of pique!

The Music Channel

But not as we know it - Montreal-based folk musician Brad Barr does some bluesy experimentation with his remarkable custom-built guitar, fashioned out of an old metal fishing-tackle box.

The Theme from 'Shaft' - which, of course, Father Ted taught us is one of the best ways of driving the blues away. I linked to a couple of great clips of its composer Isaac Hayes playing it, but for an embedded video I chose a version by the marvellous Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

You'll Never Know - the latest entry in my 'Great Love Songs' series, with the original performance by film star Alice Faye and the subsequently more famous version by Ella Fitzgerald.

Both Sides Now - but not as we know it: here, the lovely Joni Mitchell song is performed in the Khmer language, by the band Dengue Fever (who are from California, but specialise in Cambodian pop); it's the end-credit music from the atmospheric 2002 thriller City of Ghosts, a promising directorial debut by Matt Dillon.

Yesu Wayinyanza  - a beautiful Kenyan folk song performed by the superb Muungano National Choir (a song with a strange personal meaning for me!).

The Long Way Home - after a most unfortunate experience, I turn to the wisdom of the great Tom Waits for consolation.

Need Your Love So Bad - my favourite blues guitarist, Peter Green, the original leader of Fleetwood Mac, performs the great slow blues ballad (and there's an additional link in the comments to a version by Gary Moore, performed as a tribute to Green, who had been a mentor to him as a youngster).

If You Gotta Go, Go Now - a Bob Dylan song done about a gazillion times better by the Cowboy Junkies (no video, alas; but a great recording of a great performance).

Needle and Spoon - Des McGarry and Black Cat Bone belting out some classic blues at an intimate little Harmonica Festival in Beijing's Jianghu bar a few years ago; not great sound or picture quality, but a lively performance. These guys had been The Jing's leading party band for several years, but had just announced their retirement at the end of last year - so, this was my farewell tribute to them.

We Need Recruits! - see above, under Movies.

Mr Romance - Chicago bluesman Andrew 'Jnr. Boy' Jones has some advice on keeping the ladies happy. It probably helps if you can play the guitar like that.

Baby, It's Cold Outside - see above, under Movies.

The Sports Channel

No entries under 'Sports' again in this period, I fear. Perhaps I'm just not very sporty any more??

Monday, April 16, 2012

Is the combination surprising? [War on Chinglish - 23]

The Chinese seem to be taught that as well as simply means the same as and.

And, for some reason, many of them seem to prefer the more cumbersome phrase, and use it far too often. Perhaps they have been infected with the vice of elegant variation, and shun the more straightforward word in a perverse bid for originality.

As well as is rarer and more intensive than just and; it implies that the item appended by it to a pair or list is somehow untypical or unexpected, perhaps excessive.

He attended Harvard as well as Columbia.

I tried the dumplings as well as the stew, and now I'm feeling too full.

It seems to be a particularly common tic amongst the Chinese 'academics' I work with to favour the use of as well as to link the last item in a list: e.g., On his visit to Europe, Hu Jintao visited Germany, France, Holland, as well as Denmark.

This brings up the small additional point that you can only substitute as well as for and with pairs of things (although it still might not be a good idea to do so); with a list like this, we'd need an and as well (between France and Holland, making them the last two items in the list proper, with Denmark being a supplement or afterthought). But the main thing here is that "as well as Denmark" would only be appropriate if we are seeking to correct a possible misapprehension in our reader or interlocutor that Denmark was the only - or only important - stop on the tour. As well as always carries some such extra emphasis, whereas and doesn't.

This may seem like a very small thing, but it has been occurring more and more frequently in my editing assignments of late, and it is starting to BUG THE CRAP OUT OF ME.

Please stick with and - it's so much easier. (And, as with so many of these Chinglish foibles, it is always correct; while learning the correct use of as well as will remain forever beyond the reach of most Chinese users of English.)

Bon mot for the week

"You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have."

Maya Angelou  (1928- )

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Your lupins or your life!

The other week, a passing reference to 義匪 (yi fei, the Chinese for 'righteous bandits', and the 200th contribution to my Invent A Name For A Rock Band thread) reminded me of this classic Monty Python skit about the idealistic but inept highwayman Dennis Moore. It's a rather more sustained and coherent piece than most of their silliness, a full 10 minutes of continuous story. I remember it being one of my favourite bits of Python when I first saw the show as a young child; I found it one of the most bladder-bustingly funny things I'd ever seen. I'd probably only seen it two or three times, and nearly 40 years ago now, but I found I could still remember almost every detail of it. And it still makes me very nearly piss myself.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Consoling humour

The torture of last weekend's abominably pointless language testing marathon was slightly alleviated by a couple of moments of thigh-slapping hilarity. Our chortles, though, were not as hearty as they might have been, more the product of embarrassed discomfiture than pure mirth.

I think I have probably spoken before (though I can't recall where) of how limited most Chinese people's knowledge of history seems to be - even their own, but even more so of 'Western' history. For example, they seem to know next-to-nothing about World War II in Europe. This lack of a basic historical framework nurtures a broader ignorance of cultural sensitivities...

One candidate had listened to a portion of the speech Barack Obama made on a visit to Berlin a few months before he was elected President in 2008. He made references to it being the 60th anniversary of the Berlin airlift, an event of which our candidate - and, I would guess, about 98% of the Chinese people - was entirely unaware. When I tried to help the chap by prompting with one or two questions about WHO it was that the Allies might have been helping the Germans against after the War, he eagerly guessed: "Those Jews?"

How we cringed!

Earlier in the day, another candidate had been treated to an Obama anecdote (gawd, it was all Obama that day: we poor examiners got thoroughly sick of it!) about how his mother had woken him up in the middle of the night to give him extra lessons when he was a young boy, and how, if he ever whinged about it, she would reprove him by saying, "You know, this is no picnic for me either, buster."

Or, as our candidate recounted it: 
"This is not a picnic, you little bastard!"

I wonder if the saintly Mrs Obama ever did chastise her son in those terms. I bet she did, once in a while.

Haiku for the week

Wistfulness rises
At the prospect of parting:
End of an affair.

Have you ever been in a relationship that's deteriorated so far that you barely even talk to each other any more, where you realise it's 'over' and are just awkwardly waiting for one of you to summon up the courage to say so? And then, of course, just as you've got used to the idea and are feeling ready to move on, the damn girl starts dressing really sexily again... and it taunts you with memories of how things used to be, stirs up a flurry of doubts and regrets.

Beijing always does this to me. Just when I think I've really had enough, when I just can't take the craziness - the stupidity, the dishonesty, the selfishness, the homicidal behaviour on the roads, the crowds, the pollution, the corruption - can't take any of it any more, when I'm planning to leave and looking forward to it and thinking I probably might never come back... then we get a spell of idyllic weather, and a lull in work in which to enjoy it, and... the pangs of uncertainty start to tear at the heart.  We had some good times together, didn't we?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Simple pleasures

My grocery bill this morning came to 88.88 RMB.

The checkout girl acted as if I'd won the lottery! (The number 8 is regarded as lucky in Chinese superstition, you see.)

I confess her glee was infectious, although I would not on my own account have got particularly excited about receiving 11.1 RMB in change. However, I suppose I was quite grateful to get away with spending less than 100 RMB for once.

More futility

Last weekend, I was participating in a large-scale foreign language skills assessment programme for the state-owned news agency Xinhua. This is supposedly an "annual" event, but in practice it only seems to occur every two or three years. Well, I think this is the fourth time I've done it in seven years.

It was a particularly frustrating experience this time. In the past, the English tests I'd been administering were quite a varied challenge, involving some reading, some straightforward Q&A, and a small amount of rather freer conversation with the examiner at the end - which allowed for a reasonable amount of differentiation of the candidates.

The marking scale was a bit narrow, and the marking guidelines almost non-existent. But still, the test itself was fairly sound, and it did enable us to produce some kind of meaningful ranking of the candidates' English ability (a high level of which can, in theory, give them access to pay bonuses, promotions, and coveted overseas postings).

Following the old Chinese adage of "If it ain't broke, break it", this year they decided to change everything.

There was no longer any meaningful interaction with the examiners at all, no element of conversational English; it was almost entirely a listening test. 

The first part was graded on sets of 'True or False' questions which were so badly written (the basis of most of them was in fact: here is a hugely long verbatim quote from the passage you just heard, which has a number of typos and omissions in it; one of them is deliberate, and is supposed to be significant - it might well not be, but you have to guess if we intended it to be!) and varied so wildly in their degree of difficulty that the results on this section were essentially random. With 2 marks for each "correct" answer, almost everyone scored either 6, 8, or 10 marks (with the benefit of a lot of subliminal prompting from the examiners!). So, in effect we had only a three-point marking scale. And the main performance differentiator here was blind luck - whether you got an easy set of questions, or happened to guess right on some impossible questions.

In the second part, the poor candidates were forced to listen to LONG extracts from a political speech and then "sum up the main points" they could remember. This was a ridiculously difficult and unstructured task. The only people who did reasonably well on it were the ones who were adept at writing notes quickly, and were thus able to repeat certain phrases or sentences from the speech word-for-word (though usually without any apparent comprehension of their significance; almost no-one was capable of responding to even the simplest of questions about the stuff they were regurgitating). The banding scheme here was again very narrow: almost everyone was classified as either 'Low Average' or 'High Average', with only a few being (rather over-generously) awarded a grade of 'Excellent'. So, this section was judged on a three-point scale, with the main performance differentiator being an ability to take dictation.

In 20 years of EFL teaching, that was the most WORTHLESS test I have ever seen. I am appalled, disgusted to think that the results of this fiasco might actually be used to determine the progress of people's careers, to judge if they are capable of undertaking an overseas posting. My molars are ground down to the bone.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Up in smoke!

After two months of vexed attempts to follow up on a personal introduction, after two weeks of thwarted attempts to 'confirm' what seemed to have been all finalised at an interview, after two days of increasingly fractious non-negotiation about the details of a particularly insane and stupid contract... I have just blown yet another "job prospect" out of the water.

And boy, did that feel good!

Sometimes, when people are being idiots, you just have to tell them that they are being idiots. I refuse to work with a pair of dingbats who appear to have the combined IQ of a watermelon.

A 'stumbler' gets through

Darn! Just when I'd welcomed back a commenter who'd felt excluded by the pernickety behaviour of Blogger's word verification widget a couple of months back, I find that one shambling spambot has got past my filters.

I fear this could be the first of many.

I'm wondering if I might have to restore the dratted 'safety' widget... and thereby discourage all further commenting. Oh, woe, woe!

And, talking of zombies, she can eat my brains any time. Hmm, that's perhaps a rather too incisive metaphor for the devastation a girlfriend can wreak...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Slowdown - what slowdown?

I had occasion to visit the neighbouring city of Tianjin a couple of weeks back. The opening of a high-speed rail shuttle (trains every 10 or 15 minutes throughout the day, with most of them taking only a little over half an hour) has made this an attractive option for occasional day-trips out of The Beige. Being near the coast, with a small river running through the middle of it, Tianjin is a considerably greener and fresher proposition than my dust-clogged, smog-choked hometown. But I digress.

I had an hour or so free before my meeting, so took advantage of the first day of properly warm spring weather to go for a stroll along the riverbank. There are several large construction sites adjacent to the railway station in the centre of Tianjin, ranged along either side of the river. Most of them seemed eerily quiet, almost deserted. Quite a few were completely deserted. They had that ominous air of buildings that have been left half-finished for months (or years) and seem likely to remain so permanently. (We had a fair few of those in Beijing 6 or 7 years ago, but they all got tidied up ahead of the Olympics.)

I counted around two dozen tall cranes distributed among these sites. Only three of them were in operation.

Mere anecdote! Flawed observation? Isolated, untypical, statistically insignificant instance.

Perhaps. But I get the impression the construction boom has ground to a halt in Tianjin city centre, as in many other places across China.