This was an evening very much unlike any other. For a long time, I had my eyes on China Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala — itself often ridiculed. I wondered why eight emcees were needed — but loved it when in early 2011, a CRH high speed train model rolled into the studio.
I was totally unexpected for something like this to happen to me, for my remote control to be replaced by a microphone, and for me to be standing in the centre of the stage in front of thousands — instead of leaning back on the comfy chair.
This completely changed on Wednesday, 17 February 2016, in the city of Portsmouth, right on the southern coast of England. I was to emcee, along with another host (a lady), the Cultures of China, Festival of Spring Year of the Monkey gala to a massive audience in Portsmouth’s King Theatre. ▶
I do admit I left China at a time when it was pretty much in its doldrums. 2014 was a slow year. Earlier that year, me being stuck in smog in very bad traffic was pretty much it to me.
It would be nearly 7 years since I was last in London, so I imagined development had really picked up there. I took the Metropolitan line to the city terminus at Aldgate twice — once in November 2014, and again in summer 2015. It was highly disappointing: there was just about no change there in the City.
In the meantime, Beijing had engaged Magnet Mode again: just about everything from the Winter Olympics and the G20 meeting to international gardening and relaxation summits headed its way into the Middle Kingdom in a chain series of events starting from summer 2015.
With this return trip to Beijing, the absolutely amazing pace of development just completely took my breath away. I took the Beijing Subway the day I landed to see how fast things were picking up in the CBD, after seeing pics on the Web that there must have been at least one new skyscraper in the making. The entire city took my breath away. Even more breathtaking was Hebei, especially that part which would host the world in 2022. ▶
10:40 (Beijing time), Friday, 11 December 2015. Chinese immigration authorities stamp me in — getting me back home. Yep, the Jing is home: how can the place you were born to not conceivably be home?
10:28, Sunday, 13 December 2015. Train G121 departs from Platform 16, Beijingnan Railway Station. Within 48 hours of touching down back in Beijing, I’m on the rails.
I have committed myself to the best of the Chinese rails because they deserve it. A system that started out life as the fastest, most efficient intercity service and is now home to over half the world’s HSR rails (making it by far the largest network in any country on the planet) had its darkest moments in the weeks and months following the fatal 23 July 2011 crash in Wenzhou, southeastern China. All it took for me to nearly abandon it for good was one utterly irresponsible Wang Yongping, then railways PR spokesperson, who was being blatantly crass and rude to media and the general public. Within months, though, I had started on a correction course, and by early 2012, emerged as one of the most vocal and active supporters for HSR. ▶
The average academic talk is where you’ve students all facing one way, staring at a speaker, and then trying to make sense of this. Then you realise that when I do seminars and events, I wanted to make it the exact way both the speaker and attendees want it. We decided shifting tables so that most of us ended up looking at one other — much like a semi-roundtable — would be the best idea. And that’s exactly how the classroom was arranged for the first China Media Centre seminar, which took place today.
Vincent Ni, who’s now with the BBC World Service, came today as speaker to deliver an extremely insightful talk — insightful as it was also thought-provoking and very much what you expected from a distinguished journalist with a lot of experience. He has covered the elections in Myanmar / Burma, the Arab Spring, and much more. He has also worked previously in China-based media, moving recently onwards to media based in the UK. ▶
My wife Tracy seems to have this urge to push me to challenge after challenge. Most academics default to being shy most of the time, which was why I thought my involvement in this 2nd Global China Dialogue would be, at first, a long ways off. In reality, though, it turned out to be anything but.
My roles were finalised merely days before the event started. I had confirmed roles of being both a Discussant, and a Speaker. I was supposed to offer my 2p regarding how others on the Civilised Dialogue – Transcultural and Comparative discussed the issues of the day, and give a presentation on Urbanisation and the Fabric of China’s Internet.
Spanning two full days, the event featured attendance of up to 70 people, and a great variety of noted speakers, commentators, and specialists from all walks of life. ▶
I have just been informed that in addition to being a discussant on the Civilised dialogue – transcultural and comparative panel at the upcoming UK-China Culture Exchange – 2nd Global China Dialogue: Transculturality and New Global Governance conference, I will also be speaking at the next panel on Urbanisation and the Fabric of China’s Internet.
Most of you know that I’ve been deeply involved in this on two fronts: riding around the country by HSR (and seeing how cities have in essence sprung up from bang in the middle of nowhere — Wuqing is your classic case study) — and a focus on the Internet in China. I’ve also taken a good look at how the two likely match up, so this will be quite a novel presentation.
I am expected to speak in the timeslot between 15:45 and 16:30. ▶
I will be part of the UK-China Culture Exchange – 2nd Global China Dialogue: Transculturality and New Global Governance conference. This will be held at the Wolfson Auditorium in the British Academy on 23 & 24 November 2015.
My role at this event at this moment will be as discussant of the second forum on the first day — Civilised dialogue – transcultural and comparative.
Here’s a quick briefer into the conference… ▶
I still remembered the “big moment” for the previous five-year general plan for China when it was first announced in late 2010. It, for the first time, made mention of high speed rail for China, at a time when the rail authorities took the wraps off the Beijing-Tianjin, Wuhan-Guangzhou, Zhengzhou-Xi’an, Shanghai-Nanjing and Shanghai-Hangzhou HSR lines, each an absolute screamer perfected for speeds up to 350 km/h (217 mph).
However, there were loads missing from the last plan — now more a general blueprint than a Swiss-precisionist order list — that had to wait five years until the present, 13th, five-year plan was rolled out. Amongst some of the new policies I loved were the following:
- Scrapping the one-child policy: It did what it had to do: halt China from growing too fast, but now the time for that has come and gone. Scrapping it now was a smart move.
- Using Residence ID to replace “temporary inhabitant ID”: It’s totally ridiculous to have merely “temporary inhabitant” status if you’re a PRC citizen in your own home country!
- Improving China’s universities. This can only be reality if lecturers and professors quit with boring the heck out of students. I’ve always been in favour of a more open academic community serving the real interests of society at large. It would also be great if China’s universities would take a bigger leading role as a whole. ▶
I took part in the Beautiful Hebei photo expo — an event where I absolutely did not regret being part of it. An extremely key reason for this being the case was because it was about Hebei, a part of China now about to be made famous by co-hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. In fact, that part of China, which the Western media preferred to think would be completely snow-less, was entirely snowed in just as this post went onto the Internet.
The celebration dinner tonight was a moment of appreciation for all who were part of this event. I took it very seriously as it involved something dear and near to me. My wife’s origins by family roots was from Hebei, that very same province that got highlighted there, and I actually taught for two years in Hebei (and would happily do so again in future). Hebei was a place for me to go to when I got fed up of Beijing (that would actually happen!… but not all the time), and I’ve basically explored all the major cities in the province, save for Xingtai and Hengshui in the south, and maybe Huanghua in the southeast. I wanted to be part of this event which involved a part of China that would host the Winter Olympics in 2022 because being part of the Games (even off the field) in 2008 was a great experience for me.
My role at the meeting was as event host. For the rest of us, that translates to people who do little else than go onstage with a microphone, saying the right things, and trying to connect the dots for the audience. But that was only part of the story. With key events, you had to have two — a lady and a gentleman — so I had to get in touch with the lady presenter, Shuo Zhang, early onwards and try to figure out just how the scripts would work. A huge amount of details were put into the cue cards (which we tried to ignore as much as we can, just to appear more natural). I made more than the usual dashes to Waitrose, if only for the extra caffeine, because I’d be keeping late nights (up to 04:00 once!). No detail was spared — not even the back of cue cards, which could be spotted by eagle-eyed members of the audience. There was no complaints whatsoever: we just wanted to put on the best possible show for the audience. ▶
Over two hundred people came as the event kicked off in the afternoon hours of 31 October 2015. Local and Chinese media covered the event, and we had speakers and key guests from the University of Westminster, Hebei enterprises (with some making a very long trip over to London from China), and others, including support from the Chinese Embassy in London. The ribbon cutting kicked the event off into gear, with speeches also made (as usual), but a lot of entertainment as well — including Peking Opera, Cheongsam, and solo guitar performances. Messages of congratulations from Hebei in China were also read — it was quite an important event, with 66 pictures of Hebei displayed throughout Fyvie Hall.
Most of us might be wondering why Hebei was “such a big deal”. Here’s why Hebei’s key: It is the “other host” to the 2022 Winter Olympics. Victory on 31 July 2015 has not meant that solely Beijing has nabbed the games whole. Events will be shared between Beijing and Hebei, with central Beijing and Yanqing hosting some events, then Zhangjiakou (specifically Chongli) hosting others. It’s probably not all too nice to win gold in China in 2022 — if you forgot which province you won it from! The other big reason why “Hebei must be it” is the creation of a new megalopolis that will dwarf Tokyo and Yokohama in comparison — Hebei is joining the larger Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei metropolitan region, which will see in the mix the Chinese capital, a central municipality, and dozens of major cities in Hebei. Already now, we’re unifying standards across three jurisdictions so that the greater Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area is reality sooner. If you’re into major developments in North China, you cannot afford to “just ignore” Hebei.
It was a fantastic time entertaining visitors, and me and the other host pulled this off in both English and Chinese, often with one person alternating between these two languages on the fly (even if just for a bit). For once, it was quite an experience introducing senior academics I work with (instead of myself being introduced by the distinguished scholar, which happened more frequently my end!) onto the stage — there was a lot of mutual appreciation. ▶