A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

Republic of Korea

Hello once again, I write this after a few hugely entertaining weeks in the awesome ‘hermit kingdom’ where only 40% of the population aren’t called Kim, Park or Lee and where yesterday I ‘found myself lost’ in the biggest store in the world. It’s been one of the coldest Winters in memory here, virtually the whole country has been covered in snow and even the mighty Han that runs through Seoul was totally frozen over which was quite a spectacle. However, thanks to glorious sunshine reflecting off the snow I’m very tanned, covered in freckles and since Jonathan Tehoues late intervention last Sunday have a huge smile permanently imprinted on my face. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve enjoyed Korea so much.

In Seoul one of the tourist attractions is the recreation of a village that’s only 100 years old, which is fitting as even in the tumultuous 20th century few countries experienced a rollercoaster as much as Korea did. Whilst travelling in Asia and viewing different societies I’ve found my opinions and emotions on them to be much stronger than in other areas I’ve been to. So I found myself immeasurably frustrated by the unfairness and inequalities of life in The Philippines or Indonesia but just in awe at the sustained successes of the likes of Singapore or Taiwan; and Korea falls firmly in the second group. The first 45 years were spent under the brutal Japanese occupation before the country was cruelly split by the US and USSR who were just beginning to play the Cold War game. The Korean war is sometimes called The Forgotten War as the Vietnam edition stole its thunder later on, a nasty fratricidal conflict it is however in the Guinness Book of Records as the most international war in history (over 70 countries were involved in some way) as it became the first proxy conflict of the Cold War. The country remained divided and was left in ruins but within 50 years the country had completed an awe inspiring comeback. The transformation from a poor agrarian society to the G20 presidency with an Olympics and World Cup thrown in has been called ‘ The Miracle on the Han River’ and as with the other Asian success stories it’s been achieved primarily due to the almost stakhonovite work ethic of the people to improve their lives. Koreans work harder than almost anyone else on earth – (normally 6 days a week and taking more than 3 of your 5 days of your annual holiday at once is frowned on!) and this is most of the reason for the growth of its world brands like Samsung and Hyundai. The last 3 or 4 generations have gone through the wall in both economic and political hardships including a couple of strict military dictatorships and limited freedoms but Korea now boasts one of the best standards of living in Asia and in fact comes pretty high up on global lists.

My first stop was the seemingly boundless capital Seoul, whilst very few non Koreans could place it on a map it struck me as one of the best cities the world doesn’t know it has. There’s simply loads to do by day or night with a fantastic metro and a great set of urban parks meaning that despite its huge size (23m or so) it was actually quite a relaxing place to be- I’m not in India anymore. I managed to hook up with a couple of expats and had some epic soju nights followed by some painful football the next day but undoubtedly the strongest memory I have of Seoul will be the tour to the DMZ just 50KM away.

Bill Clinton described it as “The scariest place in the world”, which considering he has to share a bed with Hilary are obviously some pretty strong words. I don’t think I found it overtly scary but it is a creepy, eerie place with the sheer quiet being perhaps the most memorable impression I took of it. The armistice agreement from 1953 was that the 4km zone would be created separating the 2 sides and as a mined (to stop invasions from the North) no mans land it has become something of a haven for wildlife. On both sides of it are propaganda villages to show the other side how they’re living though of course neither are fair representations. In the South the government gives the farmers huge financial and logistical incentives to live there including no income tax and fully paid health and tuition costs but the Northern one is a set of empty but maintained buildings like something out of a horror film. The competition for biggest flag is currently being won by the North as the paltry 100m high flag pole in the South is dwarfed by their huge 160m effort which, topped by a 600lb flag is one of the biggest in the world. After entering the UN camp you’re allowed to see the negotiating tables which are still in constant use as the war never officially ended - only a ceasefire was signed. You technically cross into North Korea on their side of the table but as the American corporal barks at you to keep moving you were reminded you’re in one of the most potentially hostile places on Earth- as recently as last year a South Korean tourist was shot dead by Northern guards after wandering too far. The Southern soldiers were really creepy looking in static poses, strange outfits and huge sunglasses which reminded me of a cross between Mum-Ra from Thundercats and the sinister wardens in Cool Hand Luke. You’re also allowed to go to the ‘Bridge of No Return’ where POWs are returned to either side and which you may (or maybe just me) remember from Die Another Day when James Bond is released. The Northern soldiers don’t come close but have their binoculars firmly trained on you at the other end of the bridge which is quite an unsettling feeling. It really was a memorable few hours.

During the World Cup in the Summer I felt pretty sorry for the commentators who were under strict instructions to refer to the 2 Koreas as the ‘Republic of’ and the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of’ rather than just South and North. I never saw any signs or official announcements which referred to the country as ‘South’ Korea’, maps often don’t show a border and there’s no doubt that reunification is the ultimate goal of both sides of the peninsula. Like Taiwan and China they are ‘one people’ and the labeling of South and North implies that they’re somehow separate which no-one in Korea believes. However, in the last 20 years amongst the younger generation the belief has grown that reunification would be too difficult to manage as the two countries have developed into two of the most distinct societies in the world. Under the Dear Leader the Northern society has devolved into a system more akin to Confucianism on MDMA than anything Engels et al envisaged , meanwhile via some of the lowest tax rates in the world and extensive market deregulations the South has become one of the worlds most capitalistic societies. Aside from the GDP gap, as those fantastic night photos from space show, the never ending display of neon lights in highly urbanised South Korea make it one of the most switched on areas in the world but in contrast North Korea is black with no internet or mobile phones and the power goes out by 7pm even in Pyongyang. The lifestyle gulf between the two sides means any reunification would need to be excruciatingly tightly controlled over perhaps 30-50 years and would make the problems in Germany since 1990 look miniscule.

During the war the North was only able to remain Communist thanks to the introduction of Chinese troops forcing the southern troops back to the DMZ line and once again, as with so many of the big geopolitical issues in Asia, China appears to hold the key to a solution. The last thing China wants is a new war on the Korean peninsula as it would result in vast numbers of refugees crossing its borders as well as the possible threat of a nuclear fallout so it’s believed that behind the scenes they’re lobbying the Kim family hard to adopt Chinese style economic reforms. This would also be good for the Chinese as it would be another big trading partner but in the short term those in charge in the North seem unwilling to change things too much. The history of Korea is a sad one of being continually bullied and having their culture (tangible or not) destroyed by their bigger neighbors in Japan and China. Yet the recent national story is one of survival but they’re still not totally free yet; as one of the last unresolved issues from the Cold War and obviously an issue the people feel so strongly about I found myself really hoping those in the North are free to rejoin their brothers down South again as soon as possible.

After Seoul I took a brilliant overnight ferry to the island of Jeju which was about as far removed an experience as can be from the PELNI ships in Indonesia earlier on in the trip and summed up why Korea was such an enjoyable place to travel in. About 10pm an announcement came over the loudspeakers that there would be a disco on deck so I checked it out and was greeted by the bizarre and wonderful sight of a mini rave of sorts. They had a singer and rigged up some strobe lighting but I couldn’t stop laughing for the first few minutes; it was about -3 excluding any wind chill and snowing with the East China sea giving the boat a nice list to dance to. There were about 60 people gaily tanked up on soju and going for it wearing brightly colored Goretex jackets. The average age was about 42, I was the only foreigner onboard and for some reason all the blokes kept pushing me into dancing with their wives as the boat threw us around. Gloriously entertaining it only lasted about 10 songs as it was just too cold but they finished with a great little firework display and then all the passengers started plying me with soju and yummy makkoli (milky rice wine) so I went to bed very drunk. Happy days.

Jeju itself is one big volcano sitting a few hours off the Southern coast and is the prime holiday destination for Koreans. The volcanic sand beaches lead up to the huge crater peak in the centre of the island and has some impressive volcanic phenomena including the globes longest lava tubes which were great to walk in. The volcano is South Korea’s highest peak and being extremely easy to climb is one of the best places to see Koreans participating in their national pastime of hiking. Korea was a nice change from virtually everywhere else in Asia in that sport is very popular on all levels. Aside from their consistent top 10 finishes in the Olympic medal tables and World Cup appearances, at grass roots level people of all ages and both genders are much more active with hiking being the most popular activity in a country which is 70% mountainous. Just outside Seoul is the worlds most visited national park and the vast crowds of hikers are an amusing sight as they outdo even Germans in how professionally equipped they were. They all seemed to spend several hundred dollars on brand name hiking clothes with all the accessories like crampons and as I was wearing construction boots and a hoodie I did feel a bit out of place. After taking the late ferry back to the mainland outfit wise I fitted in much better when I spent the night in a jimjiblang. They’re basically saunas that you can sleep in and would have to rank as one of my favorite things. Maybe ever.

You put your stuff in a locker then proceed to the (segregated) baths where there are pools of different temperature, whilst you have to go nude it’s very family friendly and definitely not somewhere Justin Fashanu would hang around. After bathing you’re given a blue t-shirt and shorts outfit to wear (girls wear pink and kids yellow) and you can then spend the evening in a variety of ways: getting something to eat, watching films or even karaoke. You then pick a sauna room at the temperature you desire, go to sleep on the floor and then wake up and go to work or catch your onward bus or whatever. Simply brilliant, even during the week they’re really popular and seeing as they cost about a quarter of the price of a hotel bed I just wish they’d break out of South Korea!

One of the other things I’ve loved about being in Korea is its cultural prowess, indeed in terms of producing entertainment I’d pick it out as my favorite country in Asia. In part because I’ve been away quite a while now, even with the internet and satellite TV I really have been well out of the loop of Western culture in Asia, certainly commentators who refer to ‘a global homogenization of culture’ are for me way off the mark in Asia. Aside from missing Big Brother Champions League (who won?), I’ve got no idea how Peter Andre has fared since splitting from Jordan, sorry Katie Price (or is it Reid or something else now?) and I’ve seen literally maybe 8 or 10 Hollywood films in 20 months. Unfortunately only the biggest, most expensive Western films make it to Asian cinemas so the likes of Saw 6&7 and Resident Evil: Extinction will have to wait til I return. I’ve seen only the worst Hollywood can offer in the form of Salt, Avatar, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and God help me GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra; terrible one and all but it’s definitely music I’ve missed the most.

Again I’m not exaggerating when I write I heard maybe 10-15 American songs in the first 18 months of this trip, I can pick out individual songs by a few artists and whilst you can probably imagine it’s hard for any man to go so long with no Girls Aloud, the one English song I did hear was We’ve Gotta Fight for this Love by Cheryl Cole (sic. how did that go then Chezza?).

As anyone who’s been to Thailand will confirm Bob Marleys Greatest Hits on a loop is the compulsory bar CD in SE Asia but generally speaking on the radio for instance the locals just are not interested. In South America I really got into quite a few acts and some of their songs became a soundtrack to the trip but that hasn’t happened in Asia. With a couple of exceptions (Indonesian grunge and Burmese pop stand out) I haven’t overly enjoyed the music, I don’t believe the tonal languages lend themselves to singing and even the famed Bollywood songs in India didn’t do it for me as they always had the same whining love song style rhythm which grates on your ears very quickly.

Somewhat surprisingly China has much more Western music and some fantastic films although that’s mainly from Hong Kong but I think Korea’s been my favorite. Whilst not too well known outside of Asia their dramas and soap operas are akin to the Egyptian or Mexican industries in terms of their continent wide popularity and as film buffs will tell you modern Korean cinema ranks as one of the worlds best. Musically too the production values are much slicker than elsewhere in Asia and you even get to hear things like hiphop which I highly approved of. Korea’s also well known for ‘K-Pop’, producing very catchy songs by very pretty girl/boy bands and I seem to enjoy them a bit too much with my favorite being The Wonder Girls, who are indeed wonderful…

Korea has the nickname of The Hermit Kingdom as for centuries they cut themselves off from the world ala Tibet, Korea nowadays rarely makes the headlines and beyond the split peninsula issue few people know too much about it. Also despite being a pretty big country (50m popN) it’s now effectively an island little visited by foreign tourists and outside of California there’s no real communities of note abroad. Therefore its something of an unknown quantity to most Westerners but nonetheless I found it an immensely enjoyable and easy place to travel in. Despite the tricky language (too many syllables) there’s information in English up everywhere, it’s incredibly safe and in a nice change from China its relatively compact size meant getting around was quick and easy. Koreans were wonderful to be around too, super generous and friendly I’d pick them out as the politest people I’ve come across, where even the bus drivers say hello and thank you it’s the sort of place where seemingly nothing goes wrong and it’s difficult to see what could stress you out.

Koreans are also a very good looking people (maybe the most attractive in Asia), although they had an unfortunate overemphasis on appearance- female Seoulites in particular would have to rival Italians or Muscovites as the vainest people I can remember seeing. Much of the life of Korean girls seem to revolve around shopping in designer clothes stores then spending 20minutes on the metro using the vanity mirror built in to her mobile phone cover to do her makeup. When she’s a bit older and arrived at her destination she can use one of the many plastic surgeries dotted around and even later in life she’ll likely go to a hair salon and get the ubiquitous ‘bubble perm’ which seemingly every woman above 50 must have.

One of the most prominent aspects of the vanity craze is all the ads for skin lightening cream which has been a constant all over Asia; Asians traditionally associate darker skin with working outdoors and therefore poverty so lighter skin is a long held beauty trait. It was probably India where it was most blatant- the bestselling lightening cream for men called ‘Fair & Handsome’ would have ads where a dark skinned boy tries to talk to a girl and gets ignored then puts on some cream and voila he’s in! In Korea, a lot of middle aged women look disconcertingly like MJ in his later days but Japanese women maybe take it the furthest with their ugly, ‘super size’ sun visors and full arm length gloves giving them a ghoulishly unattractive level of whiteness. Although that’s not to say that ‘white people’ are seen as more attractive full stop. Rather than Brad Pitt and Claudia Schiffer, the ‘Asian beauty perfection’ often shows mixed race Eurasian models with perfect Asian hair and features but very (i.e. photoshopped) light skin which frankly nobody barring maybe air hostesses (Ryanair don’t operate in Asia) seems to look like. I don’t get it.

I ended my time in Busan which despite being one of the worlds biggest ports is a surprisingly pleasant place to be with pine trees and brightly coloured houses covering the hills rising up in the city centre. Walking around the harbor area in the sun yesterday I can’t help but feel a tad sad to be leaving, I had to veto going to North Korea on visa/cost grounds (eg little change from $2000 for a week) which represents one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had so far on this trip. However, the alternative aint exactly a bad one as tonight I take the ferry to the Land of the Rising Sun…

From Busan,


Posted by carlswall 14:19 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

South East China

Hello once again from the Orient where the weather is probably even colder than England which everyone moans about in the emails I received from home this Winter. Weather aside, to offer one bit of advice about traveling in China- avoid travellng around Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) at ALL costs. Chinese trains normally have 4 classes (hard/soft seat and hard/soft sleeper) but in the last couple of weeks when I’ve got a ticket at all it’s been 5th class ie no seat. The worst journey I’ve done probably left mental scars as I spent 24hrs sharing the space between compartments with 22 other people. According to the news the other days 250m people travel in the run up to the holidays with up to 80m per day on the most popular days as the hordes of migrant workers return to their villages from the cities- it’s really not been fun trying to get around.

Before getting to Qingdao I was in the coastal province of Fujian where perhaps the highlight was seeing a red (the colour of marriage in China) wedding in one of the famous round houses. The round houses are these giant, several storied donut shaped dwellings made of compressed earth. The inhabitants will all be from the same clan and up to a thousand people can live in them so getting to sleep in one was a bit of a treat. As I passed by one in a neighboring village the family of the red dressed bride insisted I join them at the reception meal though I felt like I would have to be rude as I sat down to eat. In China vegetarianism is associated with poverty and on occasions like a wedding for ‘saving face’ sake amongst their peers a family wouldn’t serve many vegetables. On the table I was sat there were 21 dishes to be shared amongst 8 people, 1 rice, 2 dessert style sweet dumplings and no less than 18 meat dishes. So I ate lots of rice and drank plenty of the rice wine, rather than eating the dog offered to me.

Fujian is also one of the provinces with the highest emigration rates, aside from being the most populous race in the world the Chinese are also the most widely spread- and perhaps the most discriminated against. Aside from the big populations in places like Canada or Peru it's a testament to how widely and seemingly randomly spread they are that in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, a border town in Suriname and even rural villages in Tanzania I've seen them receiving some pretty heavy racist abuse from the locals. And whilst this is in part due to their slightly secretive, non-integrationist culture the main reason for that is that they're almost invariably much more successful than the locals- but their success shouldn't be begrudged.

Whilst China has one of the richest political and military historys of any country in the world it’s social and cultural history is equally fascinating. Whilst the so called Triad ‘Snakehead’ people smuggling rings have generated a lot of press in the last 10 years or so, people moving abroad and the growth of the diaspora has been around for a long time in China. When the North won the Civil War in the States and slavery had all but ceased to exist in Europe and its colonies, a great demand arose for menial laborers to whom the West could pay little more than survival wages, and so in stepped the Chinese. Drawn mainly from the Southern coastal states the Chinese were sent all around the world as ’coolies’ in promise of a better life and ended up doing much of the hard labor for the building up of overseas infrastructure in the form of North American railroads or South American mines for example. Of course the Chinese make exemplary employees, as in SE Asia the work ethic in China is quite astounding and by putting in so much extra time as laborers or more recently in factories eventually they could own their own capital and then by keeping their shops or restaurants open 15hrs+ a day, even in the most trying circumstances they seem to rise quicker financially than most of the natives in the countries they've moved to. Their focus on education is also really admirable, in England they came with few skills beyond cooking so opened restaurants but a couple of generations later they're closing down as their children do better at school than any other ethnic group and now become lawyers and engineers. Similarly in the States some of the most prestigious colleges in California are apparently trying to find ways to put a cap (negative discrimination?) on the number of Chinese origin students doing medicine as their academic records are so good that they're simply taking up too many of the spots relative to other races.

In many ways they’re pretty inspirational in their determination to succeed whatever their circumstances at birth and I found it’s an almost agreeably voyeuristic experience traveling in China once again and seeing the country booming as it has been for the last 20 years or so.

I find it deeply ironic that both China and Vietnam are both officially Communist countries, as without a doubt and by some distance material wealth has the greatest importance of any cultures I’ve been around. Whilst the Chinese don't seem to lie as much as their shamefully dishonest Southern neighbors, they certainly have the reputation of being incredibly canny with money or famously tight depending on how you see it. Credit cards have yet to take off in the country to any meaningful extent as people are so averse to getting in debt and a Chinamen in Borneo told me one of the rules they live by is that a man should never 'spend' more than 10% of their income beyond the staples like housing, food etc.
To illustrate this on the news the other day was a report saying that despite their increased wealth even when it’s snowing people in China don't turn the heating on- they just put on extra layers. That’s certainly been my experience this Winter, when you come inside after a day in the snow aside from a small foot heater they make no other effort to warm up other than getting under a duvet so the houses are freezing unsurprisingly! It was notable that on television people seemed to always pick prosperity rather than the usual banal options like good health and world peace for their New Year wishes and they just give money out to their relatives as presents, coming from a family where money is banned for Xmas presents I found that a bit sad. Furthermore showing off the bewildering attitude the Chinese have to religion Chairman Mao of all people has assumed a ‘Prosperity Saint’ status with his hometown of Shaoshan becoming a shrine for people to go to pray for prosperity for their family or business. It’s very weird and the importance placed on material wealth and it isn’t something I agree with or understand entirely about the culture.

Before reaching Fujian I spent barely any time in cities this month spending my time largely in the countryside; after leaving the booming southern coast of Guangdong I headed up into the states of Guanxi and then Hunan where the views come firmly out of the Chinese imaginations scrapbook. The landscapes are mainly formed by the beautiful and fairly incredible limestone karsts which shoot up majestically from the forests and rivers of Southern China. Whilst common in South East Asian seas eg Thailand or Halong Bay in Vietnam you don’t see them too often on land. Despite the cold, I’ve had some wonderful days cycling along the bucolically charming areas around Yangshuo or hiking around Guilin and to me the karsts represent a rural China from old Kung Fu films or ancient poetry and it made a really pleasant change from the modern, monocultural uniformity of the cities. I also got to climb China’s ‘favorite mountain’ Mount Huangshan which looked gorgeous covered in the snow although for me the best spot to view them was the incredible Wulingyuan national park. Quite a way from anywhere it apparently has a greater concentration of peaks and karsts than anywhere else in the world, with characteristically whimsical Chinese names (eg ‘Lovers Returning After Long Absence peak’) and covered in snow they would have to rank as some of the most memorable landscapes I’ve ever seen. I’ve climbed a couple of other mountains too and perhaps foolishly ignoring the danger factor I’ve found doing so much exercise in the snow really invigorating and the perfect way to keep myself motivated to do stuff every day in the cold weather.

Traveling in more rural provinces gives you a very different view of the country as they’re much less developed than other areas of China, and so whilst China definitely is booming it’s a slightly more uneven and complicated picture than is often presented in the Western media.

I think the most important quote in the post Mao era was Deng Xiaoping’s “To get rich is glorious” statement in 1978 and the rampant success of China’s economy since then has been one of the world’s biggest stories of the last 30 years or so. As when I was here before in 2003 there’s a strong feeling that you’re traveling during an exciting time in China’s history; the entire country feels like it’s being transformed, almost like a building site with cranes and constructions sites of roads, bridges and even entire new cities everywhere you look. China has become the worlds 3rd biggest economy by turning itself into the workshop of the world exporting some $1.5 trillion worth of products annually, its near endless supply of cheap, hardworking labour has made the country extremely attractive to foreign investors and is much of the reason why the price of consumer products have relatively come down in the West in the last few years. Whilst there are plenty of criticisms (lack of employment rights, currency manipulation etc.) you can make of the system which has enabled such rapid growth I can’t help but feel that ‘on the ground’ the population have put the work in over many years and richly deserve the higher quality of life which they’re now starting to enjoy.

The problem is that probably the second most important thing Deng said “It doesn’t matter if some areas get richer first” – in other words development hasn’t come evenly. There are various ways to geographically measure China’s inequality gap, East vs West or coastal vs interior areas for example but probably the most striking gap is between cities and the countryside. As recently as the mid ‘80’s China was one of the most equal countries in the world but now it’s one of the most unequal; for instance a resident of Shanghai has a GDP of nearly $5000 but a poorer Western province like Gansu will average less than a tenth of that. Major Chinese cities will have CBDs akin to those in the West where you can easily spend $100 on a shirt or a night out if you so choose but traveling in rural areas is a vastly different experience with far fewer amenities and an aging population. As hundreds of millions of young people migrate to the coastal cities to seek their fortune those left back in the countryside have almost become an economic underclass expected to do little more than feed their richer fellow countrymen in the cities at a very poor wage; whilst China now has plenty of entries on the world richest people lists at the same time 1 in 7 of its population still live on less than a dollar a day.

Overall though I think I agree with Mr Deng’s second statement and that inequality in China is a relative problem rather than an absolute one – which I didn’t feel was the case in other Asian countries. Aware of the threat of possible future political disturbances the government have made huge efforts in the last 7 or 8 years to try and address the issue by pumping huge amounts of money into the interior and certainly that I’ve seen poorer Western provinces like Yunnan have surprisingly good infrastructure thanks to government help. At the very least with the ongoing electrification of the country as well as nationwide clean water supplies the poor in China have access to far more than in almost all the countries it borders.

Having a system in China where the people can’t interfere in politics, only try to make money and most of the government’s aim is to simply foster an environment for an ever growing economy is seemingly a perfect setup, once they returned to a capitalist economy it was always going to work. I think the lack of democracy in China is something that is over written about in the West; under the firmly held belief in Confucianism it isn’t the place of the individual to question what decisions their seniors make. You simply respect your elders and their decisions unquestioningly, which is part of the reason why China has for a long time had something of a gerontocracy. The role of politicians is very different compared to the West; when something goes wrong they have a convention Michael Howard would agree with where it’s the lowest ranked person involved who’ll take the blame and the people see the top leaders as ‘good Emperor’ like figures who can come in and fix things very quickly even if it’s their fault something has gone wrong in the first place. Around 60% of British MPs have come from legal backgrounds and so are able to talk their way out of almost anything (and incidentally is much of the reason for the expenses scandal a couple of years ago), in contrast Chinese politicians tend to come from engineering or economic backgrounds so they’re good at making strong planning decisions but never have to justify their decisions to anyone except their bosses and so have very different skills to Western politicians. The ability to influence influential people behind the scenes is far more important than how you come across to the public and even at the top level politicians can be remarkably bad at public speaking and thinking on their feet. A couple of famous examples of this include a press conference on the controversial Three Gorges dam project when the minister in charge couldn’t answer questions on the negative aspects of the project from foreign journalists so simply repeated over a dozen times that it would create hydroelectric power. Lord Coe and Ken Livingstone also managed to humiliate the organizers of the Beijing Olympics when on an official visit in 2007 they started posing uncomfortable questions about the games legacy which their hosts simply had no answers for and had to abandon the meeting in diplomatic shame.

The worlds biggest Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia play no part in politics almost at all in exchange for the ability to trade freely and even in countries like the US or UK where they’re unlikely to receive too much discrimination they’ve collectively made few efforts to gain office of any sort. Even the other ‘Chinese countries’ of Singapore and Taiwan have been effectively one party states since they gained their independence and politics plays a very limited role in society in comparison to European countries.

Since starting to open the country up to the outside world in recent years aside from the occasional use of force (most famously Tianamen Square in ’89) the government seem to have had fewer problems maintaining power and that’s down to what has been termed by some writers as ‘The Deal’.

This is the name given to the unwritten agreement between the people and the government that provided the economy grows and their living standards continue to rise the people won’t argue too much with the political status quo. Backed up by terrific economic growth, rising living standards and heavy surveillance of any subversive activities (e.g. the country’s 30,000 censors who run ‘The Great Firewall’ on the internet) this agreement has worked extremely well for the last 20 years. The crunch will come when the meteoric rise of the economy starts to slow and logically the people might start to feel they should have more say over who governs them. The Communist leaders are well aware of this and took evasive action at the beginning of the current international economic crisis pumping billions of their cash reserves into the economy to support construction projects, create jobs and maintaining the double digit growth rates the country has officially enjoyed for some years now. As you’ve probably read this has created quite bad inflation however and the growth of asset bubbles particularly in the big cities, when the bubble eventually pops and the party finds it can no longer guarantee such visible improvements in peoples lives it will be very interesting to see what happens to the country.

Having made the point about the Chinese not being too political a race there have however been a few indications to the contrary in the last few years. The introduction of elected village councils have been greeted enthusiastically by the people though there are no plans to extend it beyond such local levels. More amusingly a couple of years ago the Chinese version of X Factor was opened to the public and within minutes all the internet servers had crashed as so many people tried to log on to vote. The government got so worried that the people would enjoy the voting experience too much and by the next week’s programme had instructed the producers to remove the public vote and just have judges!

Much to my surprise this month a couple of local guys have come up to me and told me how they want to see China have a democratic revolution, they cited the terrible corruption in the country as well as a general lack of freedom as the main reason for their desire for change.

It’s quite easy to see their point; Chinas justice system for example is non-existent – whilst crime is very low by world standards if you’re arrested you’re almost certainly going down guilty or not with no chance of appeal so unsurprisingly the people are fairly petrified of the police and have as little to do with them as possible. Any decision made by an official, however corrupt can’t be questioned and like Singapore and other places the media is so controlled that you literally can’t believe anything you read or view on the news, after Sky showed the events in Tianamen Square overseas channels are banned and even things like Facebook are off limits. However, a strong government does have benefits; as with Italy under Mussolini the trains do run ontime here and if the government orders it positive projects like new Metro systems will be built with no holdups or notably in the 1990s deforestation was stopped almost overnight once Beijing clamped down. The guys I spoke to seemed a bit naive thinking every democracy is like Europe and once I explained the problems with it in developing countries like India i.e. politicians just argue and don’t get things done they conceded there isn’t a one-size fits all policy. Certainly the ongoing progress of China makes it an endlessly exciting place to observe and study.

Despite transport issues it was quite cool seeing the New Year celebrations which is the equivalent of Christmas for the Chinese. Qingdao was a former German concession (akin to Macau or Hong Kong) but was lost along with WWI, nonetheless they left an interesting architectural legacy which along with the pleasing seaside setting makes it one of the more interesting cities to walk around in China. Whilst I enjoyed looking at the buildings undoubtedly my favorite street was ‘Beer Street’ as the Germans most famous legacy was teaching the Chinese how to brew Tsingtao. There are statues made of beer bottles, it’s sold everywhere in beer bags on the streets and even the hostel I was staying in gave you free beer every night J .

New Year was fairly quiet outside by day as although the buses were still running I had to live on pot noodles and the sweets everyone gives you as no restaurants were open. But in the evening things started getting livelier; fireworks are really cheap in China and an evening walk on the 2nd was like a fast track to getting post traumatic stress syndrome as I found myself constantly jumping out the way of the thousands and thousands of bangers and mini Catherine wheels the kids love to throw around. Great fun though.

From Qingdao I had to catch a flight out and after much Seoul searching chose South Korea. With The Orient still in the cup at the 5th round for the first time I genuinely did have thoughts about coming home- which hadn’t happened before on this trip. I guess I have quite distorted priorities in my life… Til next time

From Seoul,


Posted by carlswall 14:12 Archived in China Comments (0)