Next Stop: London

Posted by on Jul 31, 2014 in Academic Life, United Kingdom | No Comments

21:00 (UTC+08:00), 31 JUL 2014 | CHN BEIJING

To London 800

This picture was taken three years ago. In July we celebrate our anniversary.

My wife Tracy and I join everyone in announcing that we will be based in the UK with effect from early August 2014. We have just received all documents needed to enter the UK and we will be in London, which in essence is the world inside the M25.

Beginning this autumn, I’ll be with the University of Westminster’s China Media Centre, and my position will be involved in research as a visiting fellow about media in China. This opportunity is unique and is one I greatly treasure. A mix of European and Asian upbringing from Grade 1 through to “Grade 22” (final year of my PhD studies) has made me a true World Citizen, with mileage over a million kilometres across 200+ cities in 20+ countries and territories. I will provide a unique view into China and its media world, especially when it comes to social media. Tracy will be with me in London whilst I’m there for at least a year doing research.

Chinese media is by far too easily maligned — pervasive censorship, “copy to China” and a general lack of understanding of how things really work in the Middle Kingdom means that we are fed more truthiness than facts overseas (this kills academics, since we’re really in this game for The Truth). The same goes for China overall. Some of us are trapped in this thought that China remains a poor third-world country inundated by Maoism. Whilst it is true that Mao is still prominently featured on Tian’anmen, move just a few miles away and you will find shopping havens for defiant youths born in the 1990s, Beijing’s tallest tower with a spectacular skylobby featuring equally amazing views even 30+ floors above ground level, and some of the world’s craziest architecture — I won’t even start with CCTV’s Pants Building.

Running Software Update helps keeps the dirt off your Mac (e-dirt anyway, buggy software included). Running China Software Update on your brain’s Mac HD does wonders as well. Some things haven’t changed with China: communist slogans, Mao on banknotes, dragons, and grandiose palaces, and farmers. Yet other parts of China have changed beyond recognition. I’ve been here for the past 14 years. I only needed to leave Beijing for about a week to find a new street sign by the main ring road. Get out of Beijing for half a year, and you’ll be amazed at this crazy construction. I’ve been unofficially based at the top of the flight of stairs at the Kerry Centre Starbucks for nearly a year now. I’ve seen the world outside those huge windows change. Where it was “blankness” about a year back, we are now being visually consumed by yet another massive skyscraper in the works. It’s a sign that this country simply doesn’t come with a brake pedal. To some extents it’s a good thing.

China’s a country which Just. Simply. Grows. Full stop. These days, flights to and from Shanghai appear increasingly 20th century: delays, overpopulation onboard, and of course, where there are delays and bad service, you get fistfights. It really is a completely different story at the Beijing South HSR hub, where trains leave all the time for Shanghai. Conductors on these speed demons often tell me that these monsters are overpacked with passengers — even without a seat — not just in Second Class, but even in the luxury Business Class slumberettes (although they don’t have private compartments yet). The PRC has the world’s first HSR network at mileages over 10,000 km. This is a monster. A monster transforming an equally monstrous country.

The city of Zhengzhou, capital of He’nan, is often known as a “con artist capital” for China. Yet I have friends there who have just shown me some of the city’s most amazing developments. You’d expect run-down houses for the average hors-la-loi in Zhengzhou. For you, it’d be pretty hard to picture one of the most amazing CBDs in central China. Yes, in China, miracles do happen. Yes, we do have a huge problem with the “Gini gap”, but we’re also making folks rich at the same time. I’ve tremendous respect not just for the people of Zhengzhou and He’nan, but for all nearly 1.4 billion Chinese in this part of the world. These guys are the type that will leave the Energiser Bunny banging against a wall when it comes to who can rock re: “sustainable growth”.

Yet China, when it comes to “sustainable growth”, also faces massive problems. Corrupt officials are the starkest, most visible issues. But there are other issues as well. Bureaucracy drives people up the wall (however, Li Keqiang knows about this; he’s never happy either with people stuck in the bureaucracy, which is why administrative reforms are happening all over China). Some of the moats around Beijing remind you to the worst toilets around town (I’ve been in those that nearly killed me, in terms of the smell). We’re burning coal and smogging up our cities. Our educational system is a wreck, producing either copycats, swots, or master plagiarists. Control over people who might want to share a different view also worries folks. Finally, China has a visible PR problem.

I can hold all the passports I want in the world, but the system that keeps the blood running up at night is Made in China. (That brand, too, is what you’d find in nearly all Starbucks mugs.) I can hold a hundred passports with entry stamps fighting for space, and yet the average immigration officer (and member of the general public) will default to seeing me as “a Chinese”. Being a Chinese is a blessing and a bane. You’re part of five millennia of fantastic stories and history, but you’re also identified with those who spit everywhere, make a massive noise on public transport, and simply show any established rule the cold shoulder. This is a big issue.

There’s this thing about being a “China critic” and talking bad about China. (I’m also a “Swiss critic”: I am in total disagreement over a few popular referenda an uninformed electorate swallowed down whole, which tarnished Switzerland’s international image, be it in the Middle East or across Europe.) There’s also this thing about a (fill-in-the-blank) critic. When you’re hurt, human nature defaults to hurting back. Hurt people hurt people. (I hope my spell-checker didn’t kill me.)

What I’d like to do when I’m in London is to show an independent, but also as objective as possible image of China. Some people are just getting China completely wrong. The politics. The culture. The people. The do’s and don’ts. It’s time to look at the criticism and to see if there are ways to solve a particular issue. It really is a case of: “If it’s broke, fix it” (I know most of us are familiar with the “other” variant, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). It’s also time to see how the rest of the world outside Beijing’s Capital Ringway (in the works) tick along — maybe a bit of Britain will inspire us on how we could solve China’s problems and make China better.

It’s time for the Jing and Londinium to start talking to one other — ideally those curious stares would evolve into much more along the lines of mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual appreciation (we also welcome criticism where it is objective and reasoned, as is the case in any confident, pluralistic society).

I’ve this thing with the UK I can’t really like shake off. I’ve been there three times. There were times of surprise: such as learning Goodge Street Tube station had just one exit (Hong Kong and Shanghai’s metro systems killed me, with People’s Square station in Shanghai having exits that went up to Exit 20). There were also times I kind of long for more: I wish I was in the City more, and I wish my exploration of England didn’t just stop at Shrewsbury and Ironbridge. The other things and great stories I have with the UK is its people. In late April my wife and I led and joined a fantastic crew in pulling off the inaugural China-UK summit on format innovation. The UK is just completely overflowing with fantastic ideas that just glue your eyeballs to the telly. We hosted some of Britain’s brightest media experts and got local media companies probably more than excited. Britain is this place where you can’t really halt innovation. It’s also this place where you can’t really halt that flow of tea.

(Kinda shaking now at the Starbucks by Chaoyangmen… I should’ve gotten an extra layer knowing I just did Iced Shaken Lemon Tea… Plus for “the real thing” there is always the world where we’ll get started at LHR…)

We join the millions that make up a very diverse Britain, enthusiastic to find out more about the country, perfectly willing to integrate, and more than looking forward in using what we have to “do plus sums” not just between Beijing and London, but for all of that great swath of land from John O’Groats to Land’s End… and probably a lot, lot more. We join everyone in London and Harrow hoping to be a big “plus sign”, always ready for tea, and ready to tweet about more than just the weather.

We join some of the brightest minds in British academia. I know I’ll really be looking forward to being with those at the China Media Centre with my unique insights. Chinese TV isn’t broken by any means or measures, but it sure could do with more great content.

We leave Beijing in August, tired, but also thankful for fourteen roller-coaster years. We have had times in Beijing that were unlike any other. Tracy got her BAs here (diplomas, not planes). I’ve seen the whole play rock to the 2008 Olympics. We had some pretty awful bad hair days inside Smogland, but we’ve also seen China unlike any other. We ran into arrogant, shouting city management people, but we’ve also been treated very well, especially on the trains. 14 years produced a mixed bag for us, but I think the thing we take away from it all is one of the world’s most faithful and romantic marriages: between Tracy and me. We fly out from PEK T3 in just a matter of days headed to this bit of London which is just a mile or so away from the London Orbital. We’re headed for adventure but also times that we are really looking forward to in the UK.

This is great, Britain… Those posters at the UK Visa Centre in Beijing have more than satisfied us about Britannia. We’re more than ready. Speedbird will be our first intro.

So, when will we meet up over tea?

PS: After nine it is (in Beijing). It’s good night from him (David)…