Pretending to be Academic in Xiamen

17:48 (UTC+08:00), 02 DEC 2017 | CHN ONBOARD TRAIN G356

Those of you who know me well obviously must know that the approval people at SAFEA (Chinese State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs) and the immigration police must (not) be aware of the secret double life I am leading in China. While most of you will be brainwashed that I’m into brainwashing about trains, thus making me the epic Beijing clone of Sheldon Cooper, the official people recognise me more as associate professor at the Communication (or Media) University of China, and hence status as foreign expert. (Which as I see is the most useless, pointless, and patronising title bestowable upon me, or anyone at that, ever. Didn’t you guys in China concoct the Great Wall on your own? Then why now this administrative kowtowing to “foreign experts”?)

Oh well. The SAFEA guys arranged me to come to this International Symposium on Higher Education Development 2017 forum held at Xiamen University (same place where I did my BRICS train talk in August). And in a typical Chinese official way, they paid me First Class round-trip HSR tickets (I had uncovered from the SAFEA site that this was “normal practice” when inviting foreign experts). Only upon boarding did I know that I’d be a chair for the meeting, but 2017 was a true banner year, where I got to keynote TEDx (making my third onstage TEDx appearance so far), so this was going to be no problemo my end. (Since late 1996, in fact, and particularly since late 2003, I’ve relished taking centre stage.)

> Shangrao interchange

The trip by train also incorporated lots of taping for my Next Station: China documentary, where I got to take a look at the epic Huangshan North station (it being readied for expansion to probably over three times its present-day size) and Fuzhou main station. But it was Xiamen that took centre stage.

On 01 December 2017, which was when the forum would happen, we first had officials briefing us. Some left; some stayed; I was dithering in either camp. But I did enjoy the bit where I had free access to the campus facilities. Not any old university on this planet would come with pine trees.

Afternoon sessions would be split into where we’d be part of teams that would then report back to the main plenary session with what participants thought of. I co-chaired with Navin Lohani of India and we were more discussing about talent in China, plus the Belt and Road factor. The Swiss multikulti element that’s part of me meant that I was looking very much forward to working with just about anyone, and hearing from all views. We had a few presentations and talks, and the conversation would focus on ideas but also complaints people had — the Great Firewall was obviously no-one’s favourite, but High Speed Rail and the ease of getting around the country was touted as a major plus.

Visas and immigration were also hot-button topics, this in a year when China controversially implemented the A/B/C rating system for foreign workers, with many academics dropping to Grade B foreigners (making plenty of foreigners understandably upset; nationalist state media blasting back that “China is no place for loser foreigners” not making this any bit easier on the resident expat population! In contrast, on more conciliatory tones, the panel I co-led discussed integration at length…). A topic that was debatable, but also controversial, would be what would happen if China launched the “Steve Jobs visa”, that is, for high-flying talent to experiment and launch start-ups. (Postscript: The UK had issues with the Tier 1 (General) visa, which forced its termination in recent years.)

We then prepared notes to read in the final briefing, and I was expecting both of us as co-chairs to present and brief the audience. However, the organisers gave the floor entirely to me to brief the audience, which I managed to complete within around 5 minutes or so. Experience tells that if you chair something, you wear many hats: presenter, host, moderator, note-taker, collaborator, and “coolant” (in the event someone explodes halfway, especially when the convo gets very hot!). These ideas were so good, they were later passed on to an official authority. Following this was dinner, with food of rather questionable delicacy being presented whilst I remember a lady singer shattering everyone’s eardrums with the microphone… I would rather dine to the less damaging chords and tones of Radio 3…

We left by HSR the next day, heading out from Central Eastern China, it’s still a fair trek to Beijing, even after giving Xiamen North and the incredible Shangrao interchange stations a quick visit…