“The Geography of Thought” Helped Me Understand Why Chinese People Never Tell Me if Something is Wrong

People think differently. Cultures think differently. Coming from a culture dominated by the traditions of Western philosophy and the scientific method, here is something that may be difficult to grasp: Logic is not universally viewed as being objective. And in some cultures, “logical thinking” just really isn’t very important.

This is something that frustrates many foreigners (from western countries) when they move to China. That frustration can mount with time and usually leads to one of two outcomes: the foreigner in question becomes immensely annoyed with China and its way of life, or makes a concerted effort to understand a way of thinking that does not rely on logic as we know it.

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These ideas are the premise of “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why”  by Richard E. Nisbett.  The author, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, argues that different ecologies, social structures and philosophical traditions dating to ancient Greece and China have influenced Western (in this book, defined as the United States, Canada, Europe and the British Commonwealth) and East Asian countries (China, Japan, South Korea) to the extent that people from those countries actually perceive and think about the world differently. Nisbett also relies on the results of several psychological experiments to argue that people from Western and East Asian countries sometimes have “profound” cognitive differences.

The easiest way to even try to summarize Nisbett’s argument is to go back to the (intellectual) beginning – the philosophical traditions of ancient Greece and ancient China.

The ancient Greeks – remember, the creators of democracy – had a sense of personal agency. They believed that every human being is a unique individual. In addition to that, the Greeks were curious about the world around them and took steps to study and categorize the natural world, creating scientific principles that could be used to understand nature. The Greeks’ belief in individualism and categorization fostered a tradition of oral debate that ultimately led to the creation of logic itself; Aristotle is even said to have worked out the rules of deductive logic because he was sick of hearing nonsensical arguments during public debates.

The goal of deductive logic is to use reason to reach a conclusion that is necessarily true. That conclusion is concrete, because it has been proved.

Ancient Chinese philosophy, a huge influence on Japanese and Korean culture, emphasized the importance of social harmony. Avoiding friction with family, friends and colleagues and living within a clan – such as a family or village – was the only way to coexist peacefully in Chinese society, where hierarchy determined everything. Confucianism, the chief moral philosophy in China, stressed the importance of familial and societal relationships (children- parents; younger siblings- older siblings; wives- husbands; subjects- emperor) that formed daily life. There was no room for personal agency; instead, Nisbett suggests the importance of mutual relationships created a sense of collective agency. And when you live your life in a society that champions social harmony, understanding the context of any given situation is key to survival.

Chinese philosophy was never influenced by deductive logic. The ancient Chinese did not believe in absolutes. Instead, they believed the world is constantly changing (hence the importance of context) and full of contradictions – what appears to be true now may be untrue later, and vice versa.

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The sign of the Tao: Yin (the feminine, dark and passive) alternates with Yang (the masculine, light and active). The seemingly opposite forces appear to be contradictions but in fact they are interconnected. What appears to be true now may actually be the opposite of what it appears to be.

The influence of these philosophical traditions can be seen in their modern day heirs, Nisbett writes:

“The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians’ broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors. The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context…. And the belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects’ behavior.”

It’s easy to see where these different outlooks could clash – for example, contracts. In the Western world we tend to take contracts – whether for employment, housing or even a gym membership – quite seriously. When you sign on the dotted line, you are agreeing to honor the contracts terms and conditions as they are stated. No wiggle room here.

In East Asia (again, my own personal experience of this has only been in China) contracts can be more of a … suggestion. Yes, a contract is an agreement, but changing circumstances after the signing could potentially modify the terms of that agreement.

This can lead to some uncomfortable misunderstandings. Nisbett notes the example of the Japanese-Australian sugar contract dispute in the 1970s, when the East Asian emphasis on context came head to head with the Western emphasis on rules and order. In that case, Japanese sugar refineries agreed to provide Australian suppliers with sugar over a period of 5 years for $160 a ton. Shortly after the two parties signed the contracted agreement, the value of sugar on the world market plummeted. Due to the different circumstances, the Japanese asked for a renegotiation of the sugar contact. But to the Australians the signed contract was binding and therefore unchangeable, despite the altered context.

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Problem solving approaches from Yang Liu’s infographic series “East meets West.” The blue side represents the west (confrontational) and the red side is the east (indirect).

The point of this post isn’t for me to go on about philosophy and international business disagreements. The reason I’m writing about this is because I personally know how confusing and even annoying it can be to live in a culture where you cannot understand the accepted rationale for anything (Why won’t anyone in China ever tell you if there is a problem in the workplace? How is a person ever expected to improve if they are never presented with the problem in the first place?) and I’ve seen how it can foster resentment. In Shanghai I once witnessed my colleagues from European and American backgrounds asserting that Hong Kong should be GRATEFUL for British colonization because the British gave them “the gift of a civilized society”.

All of this was said in front of Chinese people who understood English. There was no shame, only sheer belief in Western cultural superiority.

It’s important to recognize that any culture is going to think that their way is the “right” way unless it’s been exposed to another way of thinking. Sometimes you have to question everything you’ve ever been taught about what is sensible or logical and admit that your way may not be the only way. That’s not easy.

Some social scientists believe we have reached “the end of history” and that capitalism, modernization and democracy will eventually dominate every country on the planet; others suggest that we are marching toward an unavoidable ultimate clash between the West and East (specifically the Islamic Middle East) due to irreconcilable differences in values. Nisbett, however, argues for a future of Eastern and Western convergence.

“If social practices, values, beliefs and scientific themes are to converge, then we can expect that differences in thought processes would also begin to evaporate,” he writes.

Meaning… peace on Earth? That would be nice.

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Mourning and Celebrating Nanjing’s Past: A Visit to the Nanjing Massacre and Zheng He Memorials

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For those of you that don’t know….

Nanjing is home to more than 7 million people, a modest population by Chinese standards. But with its proximity to the mountains and the Yangtze river, the city can feel like a cozy town compared to the all-pervasive presence of people and concrete in Shanghai.

Which is ridiculous, because “cozy town” has never been an accurate way to describe Nanjing.

The city (also called “Nanking”) was the capital of multiple ruling dynasties, beginning with the Liu Song in the year 420. But the “south capital” (Nán= south; jīng = capital) reached the height of its prominence during the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it was believed to be the largest city in the known world. Art, literature, and a system of orderly government thrived  in Nanjing under the Ming, even though that dynasty eventually moved the imperial capital to Beijing (“north capital”) in 1421.

Five centuries later Nanjing was declared the capital city of the new Republic of China under the Nationalist Party leader General Chiang Kai-Shek. Over the next 10 years (“the Nanjing decade”) the city prospered, before descending into a period of stark human misery.

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“Run… The devil’s are coming”

After the Imperial Japanese Army invaded China, Nanjing became the location of one of the largest mass killing events in human history. The invasion, destruction and murder of approximately 300,000 Chinese civilians by Japanese military forces is to this day a scar on the national psyche. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which documents those eight weeks of atrocities in 1937 and memorializes the victims, is a top tourist attraction that is literally overflowing with visitors during peak hours.

The long path to the museum’s entrance is lined by statues depicting scenes of civilians suffering under the Japanese occupation.

Touring the museum is a heavy experience that visitors may need to mentally prepare for. The names of the victims are etched into a gigantic wall; photos of the victims — from headshots to newspaper photographs from the period — make up the bulk of the exhibit, which thoroughly details events of rape and mass murder.

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“They rob and rape, they set fire and burn people alive, they even kill my three-month old little grandson.”

There was some light in the overall darkness. I saw a surprisingly large exhibit space dedicated to the American, British and German expatriates who offered shelter and protection to hundreds of thousands of Nanjing residents. The most prominent figure in this section was John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member who spearheaded the creation of the International Safety Zone

Rabe kept a prolific diary of the Nanjing atrocities he witnessed, a key source in Iris Chang’s 1997 non-fiction book “The Rape of Nanking.” Rabe’s connection to the Nazi Party (remember, Germany and Japan were allies) offered him a level of protection against the Japanese — one anecdote says there were several occasions where Rabe chased soldiers away from women they were raping or intended to rape, an action that would have usually led to a swift death — that allowed him to publicly resist and condemn the Japanese military’s brutal treatment of Chinese civilians. According to Chang, “the swastika probably saved his life.”

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“Frigidity and horror has frozen this crying baby! Poor thing, not knowing mum has been killed. Blood, milk and tears have frozen, never melting.”

Now that I’ve outlined a thoroughly depressing part of China’s modern history, let me go back to its past, when the country was the planet’s leading maritime power.

I was excited to visit the Zheng He Memorial Park after listening to some podcasts on the subject and reading the controversial  book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World.” The book focuses on the very real voyages that Admiral Zheng He led across the known world during the early fifteenth century, China’s age of exploration. The author, however, argues that some Chinese fleets discovered North and South America before the European explorers did, a thesis that most professional historians say hasn’t been proven with any hard evidence.

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A replica of the treasure ships used by Zheng He’s armada at the Zheng He Memorial Park  in Nanjing. The fleets of enormous wooden treasure ships were built in Nanjing and sent on trading expeditions to ports on the coasts of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

What historians do agree on is that, between 1405-1433, Zheng He led seven naval expeditions to modern southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian peninsula and the eastern coast of Africa.

The fleets were comprised of huge, sturdy,  flat-bottomed wooden treasure ships escorted by smaller water tankers, supply ships (supplies back then included plenty of concubines) and patrol boats. The ships were loaded with precious silk, stones and Ming blue and white porcelain to be traded in exchange for spices, pearls, fabrics, incense and exotic animals. Zheng He presented the imperial court with lions, “celestial horses” (zebras), “camel-birds” (ostriches) and, perhaps most famously, giraffes.

I was able to see a replica of the treasure ship and the tools needed to navigate it —  like the giant rudder and an anchor the size of the small house — as well as artifacts from the era (rope, pottery, clothing, weapons, documents, porcelain, etc.) The memorial hall and park is actually built on land that used to contain Zheng He’s house and garden, but nothing from the original structure remains.

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A painting of Admiral Zheng He and his fleet found in a temple shrine in Malaysia (Photo:Chris Hellier/Corbis )
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A statue of the maritime explorer at the Zheng He Memorial Park in Nanjing.

While the treasure ship explorations were intended to expand Chinese trade, historians also believe the Yongle Emperor sponsored them to create a strong Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and establish a tributary system from foreign leaders.

But China’s age of exploration ended just as Europe’s was beginning. After the Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424 his son, the Hongxi Emperor, permanently suspended overseas naval expeditions and burned the fleet of treasure ships.

Zheng He died at the age of 62 near the end of his seventh voyage. Before that, when he was 60, he erected two granite tablets in modern Liuhe and Changle (in Fujian Province) memorializing his naval expeditions. The Changle inscription, in addition to reiterating his devotion to the sea goddess Tianfei, details some of the countries and sights witnessed by the Admiral and his men:

“We traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours … When we arrived in the distant countries we captured alive those of the native kings who were not respectful and exterminated those barbarian robbers who were engaged in piracy, so that consequently the sea route was cleansed and pacified and the natives put their trust in it. All this is due to the favours of the goddess.”

A Free Press? Some Foreign News Agencies are Self-Censoring their Chinese Websites So They Won’t Be Blocked in China

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A cartoon released by the Chinese government this year tells the tale of a Chinese girl who is tricked into leaking secrets to her boyfriend, who turns out to be a foreign spy.In recent years some foreign journalists in China (primarily those from certain democratic countries) have been accused of being spies.

In February of this year President Xi Jinping conducted a highly publicized tour of state news agencies, where he reportedly demanded that journalists pledge their absolute loyalty to China’s Communist Party. While Xi’s prolific focus on domestic media censorship is certainly no secret —  since his ascension to General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 the government has increased its use of surveillance, financial incentives, intimidation and even imprisonment to keep journalists under its yoke —  it’s startling to note that some foreign media outlets are voluntarily censoring their own material to avoid the wrath of the government and break into the country’s enormous media market.

That’s one of the revelations in a September report from PEN America, an international organization devoted to championing freedom of expression for writers of both fiction and non-fiction. According to the report, which relies on information from dozens of foreign reporters and Chinese news assistants, western media outlets such as The Economist, Reuters and Fortune have refrained from posting articles about potentially sensitive topics (human rights, the economy and more recently the Panama papers) on their Chinese language websites that otherwise appeared on their international sites.

When the Panama papers were leaked in April of this year –linking Xi and other top leaders to massive, tax-free offshore financial holdings —  the Chinese-language websites for multiple media outlets reported the leak but did not mention the Chinese leaders implicated.

“The Economist’s English-language website, blocked since April after a cover story on XI, published an article titled ‘the Panama papers embarrass China’s leaders’ on April 7. The article did not appear on the Economists bilingual mobile app. Each month, 30 articles from the Economist’s website are translated into Chinese and published in both English and Chinese on the app, which is accessible in China… In the month of April, during which time much of the Panama papers were leaked, of the 30 articles the app published only one article was about the leaks but made no mention of China,” the report notes.

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Xi Jinping reportedly demanded “absolute loyalty” from journalists at state-run news agencies during a highly-publicize tour of various newsrooms.

The foreign press, and even social media organizations such as Facebook, are eager to make themselves available to China’s 700 million internet users – a potentially huge audience for news consumption. There’s a lot of money to be made in China. But the only way those companies can make that happen is if they play ball with the government.

“It is ridiculous, almost, to imagine that you can push the envelope and do great coverage in Chinese and not be impacted on your bottom line,” David Bandurski, a research with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, told PEN America.

Other interesting findings from the report:

  • Seventy-two percent of the journalists interviewed by PEN said they have experienced either physical abuse or intimidation from a government official.
  • News stories perceived to be critical of the Chinese economy or individuals in leadership positions are most likely to trigger reprisals from the government. Bloomberg News and The New York Times were both blocked in China after those outlets independently published articles delving into the finances of Xi Jinping’s family (Bloomberg) and Wen Jiabao (The New York Times), China’s former Prime Minister. Reporters from both organizations were unable to obtain work visas in China following the publications of those stories.
  • The Chinese government has not granted any long term residency permits to journalists from online media organizations. Therefore, online organizations have not been able to establish permanent bureaus inside of mainland China.
  • Foreign reporters, specifically those from democratic countries, are often perceived to be inherently biased against China. Some foreign reporters have been accused of being spies for their government.
  • Chinese sources and news assistants who even speak to foreign reporters have been the targets of police surveillance, intimidation and arrest. Chinese journalists have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements with their employers to ensure they will not share information with foreign reporters.

Half of China’s Population is Traveling During the National Day Golden Week

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Mao Zedong announcing the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Wikimedia Commons).

Today is the last day of the National Day “Golden Week”, a seven-day* public holiday in celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

Golden Week — there are two each year, following the Chinese New Year and National Day holidays — is better known for the massive wave of human migration it inspires. The entire country is on public holiday, and of course many people want to put their extra vacation days to good use. The result? Packed trains and airplanes, endless lines, jacked up hotel prices (in China and abroad!) and general chaos.

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One of my photos of Shanghai’s Yu Garden area during the 2014 National Day Golden Week. This is every tourist spot in the country on a public holiday.

About 589 million – more than half of the country’s population! — Chinese tourists were expected to travel either domestically or internationally during this year’s National Day Golden Week, according to a prediction from the Chinese Tourism Academy. Those travelers were expected to spend about $70 billion during the days set aside to commemorate the rise of the country’s Communist Party.

I did my own Golden Week adventuring in 2014 and 2015, back when I had the mental and physical fortitude to brave the crowds and financial rip offs in the spirit of exploring  China. This year I’ve opted for having a staycation in Shanghai, which tends to clear out during the holidays, and using my remaining vacation days to travel when the rest of the country returns to work.

I decided to observe National Day in my own way – by doing research (yay!) and finally learning the symbolic meaning of the PRC’s “Five Star Red Flag.”

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The large golden star on the upper left corner represents the communist revolution and the four smaller stars encircling it symbolize the country’s four social classes: the workers, peasants, urban bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie. Together, the five stars are intended to illustrate the unity of the Chinese people under the Communist Party.

The more you know.

*note: Although the National Day public holiday is technically only three days (Oct 1-3) many employers offer their workers seven consecutive days (“Golden Week”) of vacation time. Afterwards, those extra days are essentially reimbursed by employees, who need to work four “make up” days during normal weekends.  After the seven-day holiday, many employees are required to work a 7-day week to make up for lost time.

An Ancient Jewish Community in China Believes It’s Being Monitored By the Government

China is probably one of the last places where one would expect to find the descendants of Jews who lived almost a millennium ago. But somehow a small community of Chinese Jews, who are thought to be descended from Middle Eastern merchants, has endured in Henan province until the present day.

Whether it will endure any longer is the subject of an article published by The New York Times on September 24, which reports that the “Kaifeng Jews” have suddenly and unexpectedly been targeted by the Chinese government.

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Two Jewish residents of Kaifeng captured by National Geographic in 1907

Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, was located on the heavily-traveled Silk Road. As a result, the city was a hub for foreign traders. China’s east coast is no stranger to Judaism and is home to four historically Jewish communities, according to the Sino-Judaic Institute. Shanghai, as I previously wrote, was famously one of only two ports in the world that accepted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe during World War II.

While Judaism isn’t one of China’s five state-sanctioned religions, the authorities have turned a blind eye to the minuscule portion of the population that still adheres to the faith. Most of the Kaifeng Jews still living actually have little practical knowledge of Judaism. The city’s last rabbi reportedly died in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In recent decades, the community’s connection to Judaism is primarily cultural: individuals self-identified as Kaifeng Jews usually do not eat pork and often only know of their Jewish ancestry from old family stories about relatives who went to a synagogue or because of a family name marking them as one of the community’s eight historically Jewish clans (the names were conferred by a Ming Dynasty emperor).

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A model of the old Kaifeng synagogue at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv

In recent decades Kaifeng has had a sort of Jewish revival.  Jewish organizations — offering everything from religious instruction to the opportunity to migrate to Israel— established themselves in the community to connect its residents to their cultural and religious history. Some began studying the Torah and the traditions of Judaism in earnest. The government didn’t seem to care, according to news reports, until the Kaifeng Jews began attracting foreign media attention.

Some Kaifeng residents say the government took action after a Jewish woman from their community won asylum to the United States by claiming she was the victim of “religious persecution.”

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A group of Chinese women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  The women told NBC news that they hope to become Israeli citizens (NBC News).

And now it appears that the government – perhaps in retaliation to the bad PR?  — wants to obliterate any of the small traces of Jewish history that still exist in Kaifeng.  A stone inscription marking the site of Kaifeng’s old synagogue was recently removed by city officials, who also prohibited groups from gathering to celebrate Jewish holidays. Some of the city’s Jewish descendants have told reporters they fear their actions and conversations are being monitored by the government.

What’s interesting is that many of the Kaifeng Jews said that they don’t necessarily see this as an act of antisemitism; rather, it may be a message to emphasize that the Communist Party’s political domination cannot be challenged by foreign organizations, especially those affiliated with unsanctioned religious groups.

But it seems that Kaifeng’s Jewish residents aren’t easily intimidated.

“Judaism,” as one man told the New York Times, “is all about endurance.”

Thanks for the Blue Skies, G20 Hangzhou

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A view of downtown Shanghai on August 18

For many people, this photo is nothing to write home about it. Being able to see a blue sky peeking through the clouds on a sunny day is commonplace, after all. It wasn’t something I thought much about until I moved to a country where a summer sky is more likely to resemble the grayish-blue hue of exhaust smoke than the bright azure I always knew when I was growing up in Miami.

People from China’s east coast, where a huge portion of the country’s industry is based, appreciate a clear day when they have one. And this year’s G20 summit is bringing weeks of gorgeous weather to the region as China prepares for an influx of foreign leaders and media.

Shanghai’s Environmental Protection Bureau has ordered factories in the region to shut down in the weeks leading to the environmental conference, which will take place in the nearby city Hangzhou on September 4-5. Although Reuters reported factory closures would begin August 26,  my recent ability to take deep breaths of fresh air seems to indicate that some may have shut their doors a bit earlier.

The government is taking several steps to ensure the clear blue hue (already dubbed by Chinese media and social media as “G20 blue”) will endure until the end of the summit.

According to China Daily, “environmental protection inspectors will patrol key transportation areas, such as the airport, railway station and highways to catch emission violators and to prevent the burning of crop waste and garbage.” In addition to Shanghai, neighboring provinces are also reducing or halting production in an effort to keep the skies G20-blue for the upcoming conference.

International meetings tend to result in clear air in China.The notoriously smoggy Beijing was free of its hallmark air pollution when it hosted a meeting of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2014. To achieve “APEC-blue” skies, the government stopped production in 10,000 factories and reduced production in another 39,000 in the provinces surrounding Beijing.

It speaks to the enormity of China’s air pollution problem that the government is shutting down industry in a major region (which I assume must have some kind of economic consequence) for at least two weeks in order to give Hangzhou the illusion of a clean environment. Because whatever appears in photos or on television during the conference’s coverage will be just that: an illusion. Something tailor-made for media consumption.

But I’m still going to enjoy it while I can!

China is Forbidding Popular News Agencies From Pursuing Original Reporting

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Xi Jinping reportedly demanded “absolute loyalty” from journalists at state-run news agencies during a highly-publicized propaganda tour of various newsrooms.

China isn’t, ahem, exactly known for championing the freedom of its press. But current events are about to become even more obfuscated in a country that already ranks 176 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index.

Four of the country’s largest independent online news providers – news agencies that are not the official mouthpieces of the Communist Party – have been ordered to shut down or severely tone-down their original reporting in the run-up to a meeting of the Communist Party Congress next year. As several news outlets have reported, the Chinese government has had a penchant for seriously enhancing its internet censorship during important political meetings  or events ever since Xi Jinping took over as party leader in 2012 . I can personally attest to this; during the Lianghui earlier this year I was unable to use my VPN to access the uncensored internet for at least two weeks.

Under Xi, press freedom (whatever little there was) has dwindled and several journalists have either been intimidated, jailed or deported for questioning or defying regulations set by the Communist Party.

The most concerning part about this is that most Chinese citizens will never know this is taking place, because they are unable to access uncensored information on television or on the internet.

Actually, some of them do know. But it’s such a commonplace aspect of life in China that it’s difficult for people to get worked up about it. As one of my students told me, he “already doesn’t trust” CCTV (the country’s state-run television network) and he isn’t surprised the government is trying to withhold information from the public. “This is China,” he simply told me.  What else would you expect?

Sitting in this modern Shanghai café, full of people holding luxury-brand shopping bags and sipping cappuccinos, it can be easy to forget that this society exists under an iron-grip of information control.

It’s also concerning to see how distractions – smartphones and streaming television shows and shopping – really do stop people from asking questions. For many Chinese people, life now is better than it has ever been. Considering the turmoil of the past century, it’s not difficult to understand how having a full stomach and money in the bank trumps the desire for freedom of information.

It’s a slippery slope. And speaking of “trump” – I honestly believe that this level of information control would be pursued by the Republican presidential candidate who shall not be named with a capital “T.” The thin-skinned man, who supposedly loves everything about the United States Constitution except the First Amendment, has repeatedly expressed desire to curtail press freedom. You know, so the big-bad journalists don’t hurt his feelings.

If for some godforsaken reason (like if the entire American population decides to drop acid on Election Day) he makes it to the White House, you know he’s going to be looking to Xi for some management tips.

 

Shanghai’s Suffocating, “Unhealthy” Smog

It’s coming for us. It’s coming for us all.

This was the view from my apartment (on the 18th floor in downtown Shanghai” early this afternoon. There’s nothing quite like looking out the window and feeling your lungs quiver with  fear at the prospect of inhaling this:

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The view from my apartment in Huangpu, Shanghai. This is not rain. This is not fog. It’s smog.

 

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The photos posted above were snapped at around 12:35 p.m today, when the AQI was hovering at 187. The higher the AQI level – which ranges from 0 to 500 (and yes, I’ve experienced 500-level days in China) – the more pollution is hovering in the air. Including PM 2.5, a particulate matter that lodges itself deep into the lungs and can potentially lead to a string of health problems — including asthma, heart attacks and premature death for people with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.

An AQI under 50 is considered “good.” When it reaches “unhealthy” levels – which is basically every day in many Chinese cities – “everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects,” according to AirNow.gov.

Why Chinese People Are Offended by the Queen’s “Rude” Comment

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The Queen and Xi Jinping, looking like best friends (photo: The Telegraph)

By this point most people have heard that Queen Elizabeth II was caught on camera describing visiting Chinese officials as “rude,” a hot mic accident that has made international headlines.

The Queen was referring to an incident last October, during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United Kingdom. The visit was aimed at encouraging Chinese investment in Britain, part of the so-called “golden era” of economic relations between the two countries.

The comments in question occurred during a garden party at Buckingham Palace earlier this month, when the Queen was being introduced to a female Metropolitan Police Commander who had been in charge of security during the state visit. An official was recorded telling the Queen that the commander had been “seriously, seriously undermined by the Chinese, but she managed to hold her own and remain in command.”

In response, the Queen said she was aware that the Chinese officials had been “very rude to the ambassador” – the British Ambassador to China, Barbara Woodward. According to reports, the Chinese officials had, at one point, walked out of a meeting and threatened to cancel the the state visit.

Those are the extent of the recorded comments. Such breaking international news, right?

But while most of my expat friends have gleefully posting the story to social media – always with  a joke about spitting, pushing on the subway and other rude (at least by Western standards) behaviors most people witness every day in China – some of the native Chinese people I know were actually offended by the trending news story. News articles about the Queen’s comments have been censored here in China, but plenty of people have ways to get around that.

One Chinese woman that I know posted a link to the story, along with the following comment, on social media: “Foreigners are not always polite when [sic.] come to China.”

An editorial published by the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, said the British journalists who reported the comments were “disrespectful gossipers,” according to a translation provided by The New York Times. It also suggested they could learn some class by being exposed to Chinese culture.

“The disrespectful gossipers in the media there, narcissistic and baring their fangs, seemingly retain vestiges of the inelegance of barbarians,” the editorial said. “We believe, however, that with constant contact with the 5,000-year-old civilization of the East, they will make progress.”

A lot of Chinese people I’ve met actually have some kind of strange admiration for not only Britain, but the monarchy itself. I suppose the Queen is part of the fairy-tale fantasy many people have about England: A country full of elegant women and handsome gentlemen who sip afternoon tea near the gates of Buckingham Palace.

I  realize that I sound patronizing; I’m writing this because I’ve probably heard this description of England from dozens of my Chinese students. It’s nicer than the way I’ve usually heard people describe the United States (guns, hamburgers, large people).

Anyway – for people who see England as the center of polite behavior and a fairy-tale monarchy, it must have come as a blow to hear that Queen herself describe the visiting Chinese as “rude.” Perhaps it has been perceived as making the entire nation “lose face.”

Not that this is the first time China has made headlines due to what has been perceived as rude behavior overseas. Whether its urinating anywhere and everywhere in public, defacing a 3,500 year-old Egyptian temple, or making so much noise that a country decided to introduce special train cares solely for Chinese tourists, Chinese travelers usually have a pretty bad reputation.

In 2013 the Chinese government released a “Guide to Civilized Tourism and Travel” in attempt to reign in some of these behaviors. The guide warns travelers against spitting, urinating, defecating, picking noses and sleeping in public.