The Beijing Diaries, Day 11: Farewell

December 4, 2012 in China, Travel

November 16

Can’t believe it. My 11-day visit to Beijing has come to an end.

My final day in the Chinese capital was a short one. I didn’t even bother grabbing some crap buffet breakfast in the basement of the hotel before checking out and hopping into a car headed for the airport. Out of fear of missing my flight, I gave myself an-hour-and-a-half from my hotel to the airport, but smooth traffic got me there in barely over 30 minutes.

My driver (from the same car company that took me to the Great Wall a couple of days earlier) wasn’t much of a talker, but he continually expressed shock over the fact that China allowed Japanese reporters to enter the country to cover the 18th National Congress.

“How dare they?!” he would say over and over, reminding me that every piece of land in the world claimed by China is, in fact, owned by China. “China’s just too big. We don’t have time to look after everything so people steal our land.”

Gotta love the locals.

I checked in at Terminal 3, which, I mentioned before, is supposed to be the largest airport terminal in the world. Again, I didn’t get that feeling at all, but I was impressed with the security. Not only did they get me to take out my laptop, they also asked me to take out my iPad, keys and coins from my bag and patted me down for good measure. My bag went through the machines three times and I twice. It can be annoying but at least you know you’re safe.

I started reflecting on my rare trip to China while seated at a Costa Coffee, sipping on an awesome lemonade (but passed on the exorbitantly priced Evian mineral waters which cost something ridiculous like 19 yuan (AU$2.92) – not crazy compared to the $5 mineral waters in Sydney but a lot considering local mineral water bottles cost around 1-4 yuan, as water should).

It has been a rare experience indeed the last week and a half. It’s rare to have the opportunity to see China’s leaders all together in a room and up close (once every five years, in fact) and even rarer to witness a Chinese leadership transition in person (once every 10 years).

It was challenging to work long, unusual hours and travelling on the crowded metro, and even more challenging being away from my young family, but I also got to meet a lot of interesting reporters from all over the world, sampled some delicious Peking duck, stayed in possibly the cheapest hotel I have ever stayed in and visited a couple of iconic tourist sites. And not even a single bout of food poisoning.

At that moment, all I wanted to do was to go home, kiss my wife and son and rest, but I’m sure in a few weeks, months or years from now I’ll look back and realize what a once-in-a-lifetime privilege this was.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 10 (Part I): Say Hi to China’s New Leaders

November 28, 2012 in China, Travel

Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and a bunch of other old guys

November 15

My Beijing trip is finally drawing to a close, and even though I as on a work assignment I intended for my last full day in the Chinese capital to be one of enjoyment and sightseeing.

But first, there was one thing left to write about: China’s new leadership lineup. Yesterday’s closing ceremony at the 18th National Congress saw the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new 205-member Central Committee. Today, the committee was going to conduct it’s first plenary session and “elect” the members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, effectively China’s highest ruling body. The new lineup would then be introduced to the media at a press conference at the Great Hall of the People.

The previous standing committee had 9 members, and this time there had been swirling rumours that it would be reduced to 7. Many papers had already “leaked” the names of the 7 members, of which five would be new members (only new party leader Xi Jinping and future premier Li Keqiang were returning as the others were all forced to retire due to age).

As I mentioned before, I was not invited to this event, so I had to watch it from the comfort of my hotel room. Like yesterday, the press conference began about an hour later than scheduled, but also like yesterday, there were no other surprises.

No one knows how the Communist Party really operates behind closed doors, but they did emphasize over and over that the members of the standing committee were going to be “elected” by the central committee that morning. And yet, the seven men who walked onto the stage in identical black suits and red ties shortly before noon were exactly the seven that had been supposedly “decided” by the party last month as reported by foreign media, including our own paper. Coincidence?

Nevertheless, I have to say I was very impressed with the speech given by new party general secretary Xi Jinping. Even with the eyes of the world all over him, Xi was cool and calm, and delivered a well rounded speech that sounded genuine and nothing like his predecessor, the monotonous cyborg known as Hu Jintao. Maybe China does have a bright future after all.

The great thing about the predictability of Chinese politics is that I had basically written 85% of my article before the press conference even began. And so within 15 minutes of the press conference finishing I had already sent out my 600 word article, meaning the remainder of the afternoon was going to be absolutely free. At last.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 9 (Part I): Closing the 18th National Congress

November 23, 2012 in China, Travel

Outside the Great Hall of the People on the final day of the 18th National Congress in Beijing

November 14

Closing Ceremony

The 18th National Congress finally came to an end today, which was a welcome relief considering how exhausting it has been. It also marked the last time I would head over to the Great Hall of the People, where I first attended the glittering opening ceremony a week ago.

According to a notice posted on the media center website, the closing ceremony would take place at around 10:30am, and it advised reporters to get there a little earlier to go through the security check. Unlike some eager beavers who apparently got there at around 3am (I have no idea why), I took a leisurely stroll there from the hotel and arrived shortly before 10am and met with some other journalists in the waiting area (but not before I caught a glimpse of hometown legend Stan Grant, who currently works for CNN, walking up and down the Great Hall stairs doing his best Stan Grant impersonation!).

I’m Stan Grant, formerly from Channel 7’s ‘Real Life’

At precisely 10:30am we began to move in a massive group from the waiting room towards the main hall. For some reason, the crowded journey was very stop-start (mostly stop), and soon we found ourselves stuck in a long corridor with no movement whatsoever. And we remained like that for a good 30 minutes.

I took a photo of this inner quadrangle in the Great Hall of the People. I counted one Volkswagen, one Lexus, and about 50 Audis. Communism at work.

Eventually we moved again into the area outside the main hall, where we waited again for another 20 minutes. No explanations, just waiting. Naturally, we started getting restless and wondered what the hell was going on. It wasn’t like the Communist Party to be so disorganised, having been spot on with the timing of every press conference up to that point. We started speculating — perhaps the mummified former leader Jiang Zemin had a stroke (I personally suspected it might have been a Weekend at Bernie’s situation all along), or maybe future leader Xi Jinping wasn’t “voted” into the Central Committee, sending his comrades into a tailspin.

Anxious reporters wondering how much longer they’d have to wait

Anyway, it wasn’t long before they crushed the rumors by starting to let us in, and soon we were treated to a typical Communist Party charade where the new 205-member Central Committee unanimously passed resolutions to approve reports as well as amendments to the party constitution. It was hilarious watching them all raise their hands to vote in favour of the resolutions, and then watching them pretend to wait to see if there were any dissenting or forfeited votes.

In the end, following a hearty rendition of Internationale (the party’s de facto anthem), outgoing party leader Hu Jintao (“exiting” is probably a better description considering Hu’s personality is anything but “outgoing”) officially declared the “successful” closing of the 18th National Congress. See you again in another five years.

The Communist Party’s new Central Committee

For me, that was also the official end of my “live” reporter duties. There’s the first plenum of the new Central Committee tomorrow where they will “vote” on the new Politburo Standing Committee (the highest and most powerful political body in the land) and introduce China’s new generation of party leaders — but I can’t attend that in person and must watch it from my hotel room on TV (as only one reporter from each news organization gets an invite and I of course wasn’t that person), not that I am complaining because I’ve had enough of all the subway rides and long waits.

Coming up, my afternoon trip to the Great Wall of China!

Book Review: ‘The Death of Mao’ by James Palmer

May 4, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Recently I’ve been really getting into Chinese politics because of my work, and so it was quite exciting for me to receive a review copy of The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by Beijing-based British writer James Palmer.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on the devastating Tangshan earthquake of 1976, and the death of former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong less than two months later. While it is a non-fiction book, The Death of Mao doesn’t read like a textbook. Full credit must got to Palmer, who has applied his research and writing skills in creating a surprisingly intimate account of two of the most pivotal events in Chinese history.

While Palmer tries to tie the two events together, he doesn’t quite succeed, and the book reads more like two separate stories — one which describes the last days of Mao’s death as those around him vie to be his successor, and another which vividly and comprehensively describes what happened before, during and after the worst earthquake of the 20th century by death toll.

The part which focuses on Mao plays out like a political thriller and is a riveting read for anyone interested in Chinese politics, communist politics or just politics in general. Palmer skilfully recreates the tension and paranoia sweeping through China at the time as Mao’s enemies and allies prepare for the Chairman’s inevitable death (due to ill health). Palmer pulls no punches in dissecting the reign of terror created by Mao and his frightening personality cult, recalling the millions of people who perished during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. He also does a fantastic job in navigating through the complex web of political characters, their motivations and interpersonal relationships. While Palmer sticks to reported facts most of the time, he doesn’t follow it slavishly, using extensive research and common sense to deduce which facts are likely true and which ones are probably part of the Communist Party’s well-oiled propaganda machine. It’s an absolutely fascinating read.

As interesting as the politics are, the part of the book that deals with the earthquake was, personally, even more compelling. The Tangshan earthquake of 28 July 1976 flattened an entire city and killed, by Palmer’s estimation, around 500,000 people (statistics have ranged from 240,000-655,000). Lasting just 23 seconds, the energy released from the quake is said to have been 400 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Yikes.

Palmer builds up the suspense leading up to the event itself, describing previous earthquakes and how seismologists believed that a major earthquake might strike but didn’t dare make predictions because they were terrified of the consequences if they were wrong. And when the earthquake finally hits, Palmer uses the hundreds of interviews he conducted with survivors to masterfully shape vivid first hand accounts that rival any work of fiction.

As scary as the earthquake was, the aftermath was even more horrific. Once again criticizing the politics of the time, Palmer notes how the Chinese government refused foreign aid despite desperately needing it, instead putting their efforts into making up reports of how citizens patriotically went to save pictures of Chairman Mao rather than their own family.

There were so many images from this section of the book that will stay with me for a long time. There’s the doctor tossing amputated limbs into a growing pit full of arms and legs that had to be sawn off (often without anaesthetic) to save lives. There’s also the wasteland of rubble, rotting corpses and shit from busted sewerage pipes summering in the summer heat.

But for all the horror, there were some stories of hope and inspiration. Despite there being reports of looting and other opportunist crimes, as well as militia drunk on their own power making things worse, Palmer was keen to emphasize the overwhelming courage, selflessness and solidarity of the victims, who did everything they could to help each other and find survivors. It’s definitely one of the better and more complete accounts of any natural disaster I’ve ever read.

Palmer’s writing style is simple and straightforward. The Mao half of the book is more journalistic, while the Tangshan earthquake half is more personal. Occasionally, Palmer would break through and insert himself into the narrative to demonstrate a point. At first I found it a little jarring, but later on I felt it added to the intimacy of the narrative as a whole.

Ultimately, I found The Death of Mao to be a wonderful and incredibly insightful read. It doesn’t quite work as a single piece of work because the Mao and earthquake parts felt so different, but if you look at it as two separate but intertwining pieces then both worked extremely well.

4.25 out of 5

PS: I found it particularly interesting to compare the political situations detailed in the book to recent events in China. Palmer was particularly critical of the Communist Party of the time for its suppression, hypocrisy, corruption and propaganda, and tried to imply that the Chinese people had grown up after seeing how the government handled the earthquake and were no longer being duped. But as we have seen from both the Bo Xilai scandal and the Chen Guangcheng affair over the last couple of months, it is arguable that little has changed. The Chinese people may have become smarter and more savvy when it comes to the bullshit that the government spills, but it certainly hasn’t stopped the government from trying (and silencing anyone who gets in its way).

PS: Also interesting that Palmer was so negative about the Communist Party, considering that the acknowledgments section of the book seems to suggest that he either works or used to work for the Global Times, an English paper whose parent company is owned by, you guess it, the Communist Party.