Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beijing Olympics 2008: Half awake in a fake empire

One of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of the past year came from an American group called The National. It was called ‘Fake Empire’. A romantic sounding tune marked by a quiet declaration that “we’re half awake in a fake empire,” it married the lonely guy blues of a New York night to a veiled critique of American imperialism. In short, it expressed the feelings of being lost inside a dream.

The song could just as well serve as an anthem to the 2008 Beijing Olympics today: for the quickly dispersing illusion China has sought to construct of a harmonious Games – as well as just how much we in the West have been willing to cling to such lies, out of misguided idealism or a greed for business opportunities in the jaws of the Chinese tiger, not to mention a little fear about how strong that tiger is becoming.

There’s no doubt in my mind these Games are the most significant and politically dangerous since the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Hitler and the Nazi Party sought to use those Games as a propaganda tool for resurgent German nationalism and racist notions of Aryan superiority, and with it Germany’s right to rule the world.

Historical equations, of course, are always crude and lack nuance. But the parallels between Berlin 1936 and Beijing 2008 remain odiously apparent. Chinese nationalism is rampant, the poison by which the so-called Communist regime sustains its right to govern today.

Underlining it is the racist Han Chinese sensibility that Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities are lower-grade humans and ‘barbarians’. This kind of thinking includes us Western ‘long noses’. Talk to any semi-educated Han and you will hear all about China’s phenomenal 5,000 years of culture; dig into that talk and you will understand how the last hundred years of Chinese turbulence and misery are the fault of the West, which is still trying to hold China down today. Not for much longer. They’re the natural rulers of the world and they soon will be again.

Arguments in favour of a Beijing Games have always been related to liberalisation and democratization, as if exposing China to global influences would assure humanitarian and political progress. A similar hope has underlined long-running business interactions between China and the West ever since Deng Xiaoping opened the doors on a period of economic liberalisation in 1978 and encouraged everyone to “jump into the sea” [of money].

Unfortunately self-interest and greed now motivate most ‘political’ thinking in the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of the coast. People there gluttonize themselves in endless banquets, celebrating forms of conspicuous consumption that would make Donald Trump blush while the rest of the country continues along in its peasant miseries, hobbling under exploitation, corruption and environmental abuses. Coal miners work in Dickensian conditions, dying ten a day in some of the most unsafe and polluted corners of the planet. Ironically enough the worst of these mines were re-opened to help power developments behind the Olympic ‘dream’.

Western interests are no better. Time and again we have prostituted our ideals to Chinese wishes. One simply has to examine a case like the continued imprisonment of the journalist Shi Tao, who was jailed for ten years in 2004 for revealing to an overseas website how the government planned to deal with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shi Tao was caught out because his email details were handed over to Chinese authorities by Yahoo, a company that took comfort in complying with Chinese law and sustaining their business interests on the Mainland.

A 2001 speech by News Corp’s James Murdoch denouncing the Falun Gong as “an apocalyptic cult” is another such moment of modern dialogue. Murdoch’s observation has a grain of truth to it, but the eager-to-please shrillness of his speech failed to justify the widespread detention, torture and death of Falun Gong members. All for the greater good, I’m sure.

In the meanwhile don’t put your faith in the younger generation of Chinese. The one child policy has bred a generation of ‘little Emperors’, selfish and spoilt by the adoring focus of their parents and grandparents, the recipients of what is what is known as a 4-2-1 inverted pyramid of family worship. These are the same youth who were bussed in to support the path of the Olympic flame across the world. As events in Canberra showed, they are vocal, organised and aggressive.

Almost a quarter of the Chinese population is now under 30. At home in China the more extreme among them are known as the fen qing or ‘angry youth’. You can see them gathered in McDonalds and Starbucks, in sneakers and baseball caps, bitching about how much they hate America. Brought up in a post-Mao era and a system that blanketed out events like Tiananmen Square, talk of such historical moments is as tiresome and vague to them as Woodstock and Altamont are to Western youth. Indeed young Chinese regard Tiananmen as the ultimate in sentimental Western fantasies, a cliché we hook ourselves on to slight their country’s ascendance.

It’s unclear how much the government will be able to ride the nationalist fervour of this new generation, and how much it has the potential of creating instability even for them. As China’s global public relations took a nosedive in the wake of the Tibetan riots and ugly protests and counter-protests around the progress of the Olympic flame, officials were forced to appeal for “rational patriotism”. Ironically the younger generations’ zeal is a by-product of the censorship and propaganda they have been suckled on. Many of these same youth could not understand why their government did not come down harder and sooner in Tibet. The thought these will be the leaders of tomorrow is chilling.

No article can come close to summarizing the complexities of China today. But the appeasements the West has surrendered itself too out of a desire to avoid upsetting ultra-sensitive Chinese feelings, and through downright opportunistic business interests, bodes ill for the future. Kevin Rudd’s recent bid to be seen as “zhengyou”, a friend who tells you the truth even if you don’t like it, was a brilliant diplomatic move. It remains to be seen how much that perspective becomes another way for China to let the West blow off steam while it moves coolly ahead.

The fact is these Games are not about China opening itself up the world. They’re about symbolically launching the Chinese Century to come, as well as affirming ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ upon the current rulers, an almost mystical form of nationalism updated to present-day needs: propaganda reshaped as marketing to launch China Inc. upon us all. Watching the Opening Ceremony I nonetheless found myself caught up in their beauty, and in the larger Olympic notions of unity and nobility that seem capable of enduring the ugliest of political spin jobs. As if in the end some grain of hope and communication might still be broached. As if a mere gesture might wake us all to something better.

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this article was published under the title 'Crouching tiger, hidden dragon' on the Opinion page of The Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia), August 11th, 2008 along with the above powerful illustration by Andrew Dyson.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Kashgar Case

At few years back the Byron Bay Writers Festival I was invited to speak on a travel panel called ‘Evocative Images from Around the World’. We were asked to describe how we translated exotic images into stories, and what this meant for both the writer and the reader. Did something substantial occur, or was it just armchair travelling?

By dint of that latter observation, I felt were we also being asked something much less flattering: whether travel writing was doing as much to remove us from the world as a disengaged news report, rather than bringing us closer together. And if that were true, whether it had become another form of careless western consumption. This idea depressed me.

Despite having written a book that was full of global travel stories from which I was supposed to draw anecdotes and wisdoms, whatever I started to write down for my speech felt fake and forced. By the day of the panel I still had nothing prepared. The impulse to wing it was fast disintegrating into something more despairing: a travel writer with nothing to report from the world at all.

That uneasy morning I found myself looking at a slim, small briefcase my partner and I had recently bought in the bustling town of Kashgar in Xinjiang in far western China. The briefcase was a souvenir from our travels, nothing more.

And yet the longer I looked at it the more I thought about that particular trip and what it meant for me now. How, like every other city in China, Kashgar was being refashioned in the generic style rabidly popular across the nation: with vistas of obliterating grey concrete roads and endless cheap apartment blocks shrouded in a brownish atmosphere of decay.

The old and legendary Kashgar, a place of ornately decorated wood and creaking donkey carts, medieval secrets-and-shadows and hard clay homes, seemed to be shrinking by the moment in the face of such changes. Soon, I felt, the exotic turning point of hundreds of years worth of travel diaries from Marco Polo on would no longer exist. With that loss went, of course, a people and their history: the Uighurs of Central Asia.

Aware of this imminent erasure, we ventured into the old quarter of Kashgar where Uighur architecture and customs still predominate despite the relentless Chinese fondness for ‘development’, a part of which involves a long-running program of Han population re-settlement into the area.

Our grieving felt premature, however, as we stood there watching hundreds of heavily moustached men playing pool on badly torn felt, their lopsided tables lined up like racing cars on the grid at Le Mans; starting right out front of the Id Kah mosque and surging on into the middle of the Friday night markets. I was surprised by this brazen rub of entertainment, commerce and worship, though no one else seemed to mind a bit, least of all the men, smoking and shouting and cheering around the clacking tables.

Nearby a wall of ghetto blasters roared an artless musique concrete at full ranting-and-wailing volume from an area set aside for selling electrical goods.

An ice cream stall had a small television wired to a loudhailer system that was belting out the soundtrack to an Indian action movie — attracting another solid crowd of hundred or so people, sighing and groaning to the action at hand.

The life force here was certainly intimidating in its vitality and heckling energy — I could see how it might worry an occupying power. Even in such impoverished circumstances, these were not a people to take lightly. They exuded energy like an electrical charge.

Everywhere we looked this aliveness roared through the commerce of their community. There were Uighurs selling clothes, wooden bowls, lamb on skewers, ornately decorated rocking cribs for babies, more lamb on skewers, knives so sharp they shaved the hair off your arms in one clean stroke (look! See!), all manner of shoes, proud hats, sad fruit, even more lamb on skewers, lamb stew, lamb with lamb, tasty flat bread with bits of stone from the walls of wood-fire ovens stuck to the base (easily picked off with those sharp knives or simply crunched on with a bitter jolt), and a variety of animal skins including that of a large wild wolf.

It was that faint time between twilight and night itself. At first we could barely see them as they sat, crouched over and poor looking, on the periphery of the main square while the market thronged wildly away from them: a Uighur man and his family, with a few belongings scattered in the dirt. It was the pencil-sketched faintness of their presence that actually attracted my eye, the fact that they hardly seemed to exist at all.

As I looked closer it seemed to me they had raided what little of their lives might be of value: a maroon brown briefcase covered in dust; a badly dented soup ladle; the snapped pedal from a bicycle; some other bits of metal and wire that were like things, curiosities, you might see lying by the roadside if your eyesight was good and you were traveling on foot. I was amazed they were even trying to sell these scraps.

The look of the family in the encroaching darkness, their meagre offerings, tugged at our hearts. So we asked how much for the briefcase and the soup ladle. The father looked up and held all the fingers in his hand out towards me. Five yuan was equal to one American dollar. It was like asking for nothing.

It’s normal in markets like these to bargain hard, but we gave them the five yuan without argument and left, while other traders in the square laughed at me, pointing at the absurdity of a westerner walking around with an old soup ladle in his hand.

We had hoped the man and his family might ask for ten or even twenty yuan. We didn’t need the soup ladle, and the briefcase didn’t look like it was fit for any document I would value. We just wanted to give them something, and this was a way to do it with dignity left intact: the age-old process of barter-and-exchange at a market on the Old Silk Road. Much as I wanted to hand over more money once the deal was done, I knew it was not the right thing to do. That our soup ladle and briefcase and the five yuan now in his hand were the best things that could happen for everyone that strangely pulsing evening.

The condition of this family summed up, for me, everything happening in Xinjiang while I was there: how poor and oppressed Uighur people are under Chinese rule; the ragged, brutalised flavor to their lives.

Famous for their fighting spirit and their flamboyant, emerald-studded knives, the Uighurs are surrounded by wild, stunning mountains along their west and south-west borders with the former Soviet republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet; while the Taklimakan Desert (which translates roughly as “you go in but you won’t come out”) to the east further serves to isolate the region from the rest of China. Despite these natural barriers and their own unruly spirit, the Uighurs have seen their beautiful countryside invaded and reinvaded for centuries.

At first it was the Arabs, Mongols and Chinese who flooded back and forth on missions of conquest and trade. Then the region became part of the push and pull of Russian and British influences in that imperial chess match of nineteenth century geo-politics known as ‘The Great Game’. Chinese and Soviet forces continued to vie for dominance in the area, the latter triumphing in support of a brief Islamic regime called the Eastern Turkestan Republic that began in 1944 and fell in 1950. Since then the Chinese have ruled with an increasing iron fist, renaming the territory the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Beyond concerns for regional security and the long-running imperial claims that it has always been a part of greater China, the fact that Xinjiang is fabulously rich in oil and tin makes it an even more desirable asset for the Chinese.

Given its physical extremities and extreme isolation, Xinjiang remains a volatile zone, prone to internal instability and disruptive external influences. The Uighurs have looked on enviously at the breakaway Soviet states across the border, and Islamic extremism continues to filter through as an influence despite the essentially moderate faith of most Uighurs. Small bomb explosions from Kashgar to Beijing have gone off in the name of various terrorist/independence groups, while most Chinese associate displaced Uighurs across the country with a culture of crime that ranges from black market money exchanges to drug smuggling — a not entirely unreasonable stereotype.

Since September 11, 2001 the Uighurs in Xinjiang have been more shat upon than ever before by the communist government. The west’s panic to maintain the ‘war on terror’ has given the Chinese licence to do as they please in remote regions like Xinjiang — and to make sure that the independence dreams of Islamic Uighurs stay ground into the dirt. As the Chinese propaganda against ‘Uighur splittists’ so neatly puts it, “they shall be beaten down as a rat crosses a road”.

Once I got back to Sydney I cleaned up the briefcase and polished it and found it wasn’t in such bad condition after all. I imagined it might have served as their child’s school satchel. Along with everything else about my memories of that day, this lone speculation made me feel intensely sad for this thing now in my hands, for all the miles it had travelled and who might have carried it before me, dreaming of better days.

And yet when I first came to the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I had bought the case along for no grand reason other than the fact that I thought it made me look good. I liked the fit of it under my arm as a fashion item. It was cool.

Only when I began to think about what I would say for this literary panel that had so troubled me, how I would deal with the phrase ‘Evocative Images from Around the World’ and the moral dilemmas it provoked, did I really look at the case again and decide that it was worth dusting off, opening up.

The theme ‘evocative images from around the world’ invited the idea that travel writers really are just walking, talking postcards, delivering the world, pleasantly, to our readers’ doors. There is nothing wrong with that, I guess. But I’d like to think it is possible to do more and I said so on the day in much the same way as I am saying so now. I said that it’s possible to bring back images and feelings that contain some humane and deeper relationship to a place or a people, no matter how fleeting the connections might seem. As one might unclip an old, beaten briefcase to reach inside and see, suddenly, despite its emptiness, another kind of story, travelling silently in your company, waiting to be opened and finally heard.

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published in Spinach7 (Australia) and Bad Idea (UK)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Flying Over Tiananmen

Goldfish. Dragon. Grasshopper. Butterfly. Eagle. What do you want to be?

“50 yuan,” he says to me. It’s the going price for the metamorphosis in Beijing. Though when the man declares the cost in English, it’s more like a bark I can barely understand - but for the wild spread of his palm, the splayed demanding fingers. 50! Understand!

I lean back in the wind. “50?!” Then I spit out air, trying to laugh. “20 yuan.”

He eyes me up and down. Then he says, “Okay.” He’s obviously not in a mood for bartering today. I’m taken by surprise. And half-aware I am probably being ripped off anyway. Otherwise why would he agree so fast?!

Creatures are spread in front of me, half-discernible forms clustered in clear plastic bags. They are all eagles. I’ve gravitated to this salesman for that reason. Across Tiananmen Square, amid a sparsely scattered few thousand people (a million stood here in 1976 to farewell Mao forever), he catches my eye with the first glance. He knows I want to deal with him, not the others. Not the dragon man or the fish man or the grasshopper man. No. He’s the eagle man and I belong to him.

He passes me my bird of choice and an old flat-winder hand-reel made of wood with some green string bound around it. Then he’s gone, back into the crowd. Barely leaving me before another woman is tugging at my sleeve with a more sophisticated hand-reel for sale. It’s vaguely fancy and modern looking, a white plastic spool with a small handle and a metallic bail arm to help feed out the shiny dacron line. “10 yuan,” she says to me like there’s not much time left for a bargain like this. Hurry, hurry…

I lean back in the wind. “10?!” Then I spit out air, trying to laugh. “5 yuan.”

“No!” she says, wrenching the reel from me with disgust. I try again to offer her 5 yuan but she starts walking away. And so I surrender apologetically, hoping no one nearby has noticed what a low-down dirty bargainer I am. “Alright, alright,” I cry out. “10! 10 yuan!” I call after her, waving my money pathetically. She snatches it, passes me the plastic spool, marches off haughtily.

I now have two hand-reels and an eagle kite I am yet to put together.

It’s a Beijing Spring day, early in the season, fresh and blue, with an icy zero bite to the breeze. But the sun is out. The early afternoon is beautiful and clear. It’s the best kind of breeze, unlike those summer winds from the Gobi desert, all sand and heat and bad light and nasty, gritty moods. Yeah, today is… today is perfect for kites.

I pack the wooden hand-reel away in my backpack, never to be used again. Set my more sophisticated reel – which I notice is looking a little tangled – down on the re-paved concrete surface of Tiananmen Square. Flat and wide, it spreads out forever, the ground marked out in big, cold square blocks that remind me of anonymous gravestones. It is the largest civil square in the world, doubling as a once-a-year carpark for the black Audis and BMWs so favoured by Communist Party cadres meeting at the annual National People’s Congress.

Just over the road is the Tiananmen Gate, or ‘Heavenly Peace Gate’, which acts as the southern entrance to The Forbidden City. Above it is a large imperious portrait of Mao Zedong looking back over the square towards the enormous mausoleum where he now lays in state for sporadic public viewings. A 36 metre obelisk, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, stands dead centre in the square itself, with bas-relief carvings of revolutionary events and calligraphy from Mao and Zhou Enlai. Either side of the crowds in the square is the Great Hall of the People and a furiously renovated Chinese Revolution History Museum netted in green.

People are everywhere, taking photos, laughing, meeting up. A great social weaving, full of joy. It’s infectious and I’m excited as I start unpacking my kite. Predictably, the eagle is not easy to assemble. I rack my brains over this physical mystery of wings, bamboo and wire clips, which also includes yellow attachable claws. But… um… er… this is a conundrum fit for a Zen master!

By some miracle I spot my kite salesman. So I chase after him, trying not to lose all the flapping pieces of my eagle in the strong breeze. The salesman is less than helpful. In fact he is downright antagonistic, having expended all his English language skills on the sale. And though I cannot speak Mandarin or whatever minority dialect he does speak, I know the language of his body and tone well enough – you paid what you wanted, now you can work it out for yourself you cheapskate! Get lost!

I fall to my knees. And begin fiddling again with my aerodynamic puzzle. I may as well be assembling a Concord with my bare hands for all the effort I am putting into it. Fortunately a young Chinese woman comes to my assistance. First, to show me how to attach the wings to the spine of the kite. Then when I fumble some more, to demonstrate how they unfold for an enlarged flying span. And when I can’t quite figure it out, how to finally add those bright yellow claws to the eagle’s belly. In other words, she has done the whole thing for me.

“You buy postcard now!”


“You buy postcard now!”

She smiles and thrusts a set of ugly postcards in my face. I look at her twice. And suspect she is the woman who sold me the tangled hand-reel, but I’m not really sure. I could swear she was her sister though. I really could. “Postcard. Good. You buy now!”

I stand with the giant eagle kite in my hands being pulled away by the wind. Feeling a little guilty as I say, “No thank you.” I nod to her in appreciation for the help and walk off. All the time I want to run back to her and buy that set of postcards now! I’m a little ashamed at my habitual resistance to a local salesperson, by the way I conduct myself automatically - at the same time I am sure the whole square is thrumming to the stings and dodgy deals craftily worked out by the kite and postcard Mafia of Tiananmen Square.

With my supposedly spiffy hand-reel, I begin trying to get my eagle air-borne. The kite goes well, delicate and firm in the air. But my hand-reel becomes an ever more obvious and sloppy tangle as I try to unfurl it. The eagle climbs but I can barely enjoy its rise. Down on the earth I am jiggling with the dacron line, seizing knots free and slowly realizing that the whole reel is coming apart in my hands.

Eventually the spool cover completely rolls off, which solves my problems with knots as the string just slips crazily off the open side of the reel. The eagle shoots up into the sky and suddenly I have a runaway kite on my hands along with a busted reel – which feels something like flying without brakes. While my bird careens sideways across the sky like an angry bullet, then madly down over peoples’ heads, I try to reach to the ground with my right hand and pick up a fallen nut and bolt as well as the other half of the reel. I frantically maneuver the bird back upwards with a jerk of my left hand, forcing a gust of wind up under its wings, my right hand grasping for all the lost pieces. I’ve managed to slip off my backpack in the process as well, freeing me totally to concentrate on what I am doing. I’m fighting for my life here. Reassembling the entire reel while the bird continues to dip and climb with every loss of concentration and refocusing of attention.

To my great relief the entire handline is now played out. No more knots! No more string left! Problem solved. The eagle is way up, up, up. I screw the reel cover back on along with the metal bailing arm that catches the string and helps it run smoothly like a fishing line. I screw it in extra tight. And quickly start adapting my kiting style to the reality that this handset comes apart constantly. Eternal vigilance on that vital, ever-loosening screw is required. Yes! Yes, I’m flying!


A less masterful kite enthusiast than I has driven a giant butterfly straight into my guts. No great pain, but a definite shock to the system. I stand there stunned, then look to see my bird going down again fast, straight for the crown of a little old lady’s head. I stumble back wildly, running and pulling, colliding with a couple but not daring to take my eyes off the eagle. They move on as if it’s nothing. Another hard jerk of the line secures my eagle’s place back up into the sky, then I start looking for my bag – camera gear, passport, the whole deal, all inside of it. Oh hell… but then I see it some ten yards away, safely on the ground – lucky me! - so I slowly shuffle and jiggle my way towards it, keeping the eagle aloft, slipping the backpack on with a deft motion that pleases me ridiculously.

I’m really on top of my kiting game now. But I can see something affecting the flight of my bird. An odd, angular bend to its flight pattern whenever I try to get it moving. An old man who looks like a Chinese Picasso storms over, grabs the whole contraption out of my hands, flips his reel and mine over each other a few times, untangles both of them, then gives me back my line without a word.

I try to move away but the kite has a life of its own. I get caught in the old man’s line again immediately - and I make matters worse by trying to move backwards away from him. He rushes over to me again, repeats the process of moving the lines over and over one another, then moves off sharply muttering something under his breath. Amateurs!

I suspect he is one of the great old kite flyers who competes annually in the international competition at the nearby coastal city of Tianjin. And I feel rather humble after the lesson he has given me. Later I will find out that the kite or ‘fang zheng’ is a Chinese invention, some 3000 years old. It’s said that Marco Polo brought it back along with the pizza and spaghetti (noodles) to Italy in the 13th century, and from their the kite spread across Europe. The Chinese passion for kites is life long, and steeped in stories and tradition. The city of Wiefang calls itself ‘the kite capital of the world’, while Tianjin, Anhui and Beijing all have their unique forms of kite making and flying styles.

Untangled and free at last, I feel like I am now the Master’s Apprentice – albeit with his somewhat cranky blessings. But at last I do completely control my kite. It’s a relief, I must say. I can enjoy what I am doing – and revel in what is around me for the first time.

There’s a sudden and deep pleasure in being with everyone in the square – the lovers, the children, the old men, the parents, the tourists from all over China and a few from overseas. Moving my eagle among the other birds, dragons, fish, grasshoppers and butterflies that pull us ever upwards. All of us watching the changing wind, all of us thrilling to a warm Beijing sun. Something good is going on here. Something unexpected and subtle. The qui (air) dances with creatures. Tethering us to the sky. A celebration of people’s spirits rising from the earth, lifting each of us up with a tiny shiver in the breeze, joining our eyes and hearts over beautiful Tiananmen Square. Reminding us of free things inside ourselves. And people who have flown here before.

- Mark Mordue