Now that’s living in a bubble

From a review by Gail Pellett of Foreigners Under Mao: Western Lives in China, 1949–1976:

I BROKE OUT laughing the other day when I checked my Twitter feed and found that some American expats in China were planning to pack up and go home because Xi Jinping was making it harder for them to get around the internet firewall with VPNs. Their main concern with Xi’s move? It would cut off their link to family, friends, and social media in the West.

These tweets reminded me of what it was like to live in Beijing in 1980 when I had access to two landlines — one located in the hallway of the building where I lived and another in the large offices of Radio Beijing. They hardly ever worked. You had to dial multiple times to make a connection and even then might not get through. If you were successful, you had to yell to be heard (obliterating any shred of privacy) and put up with clicking sounds that meant the line was bugged. I made exactly two calls “back home” to North America that year.

True, but it’s not 1980 anymore, China is now a modern country with no shortage of telecom infrastructure, and the internet and social media are frankly pretty damn central to most people’s lives (and indispensable to most businesses). I fully understand why, for some expats who have not made a long-term commitment to China, the exasperating daily struggle to get on the internet could be a deal-breaker.

During the 27 years of the Mao era, entry to China was tightly controlled. Of the sprinkling of Westerners living there, most were limited to residence in Peking. […]

And although Western press representation expanded gradually during the 1970s, along with an increasing diplomatic presence, the press corps never amounted to more than 20 people in the country at any one time. […]

Shocking as this may be today, in the 1960s all four Western correspondents working from Peking did not read or speak Chinese. […]

All these foreign experts worked inside Chinese institutions — universities or the foreign-language press, magazines, Xinhua news service, or Radio Peking. The work of these temporary experts, like that of the “long-term friends,” was seen as an important part of the propaganda agenda for the PRC — what they called “friendship diplomacy.” During the Mao era, the qualifications of these “experts” were politically determined — it was better to be “red” than “expert.” (In Radio Beijing’s English Department, I was the first experienced broadcast journalist to be hired in the 40-year history of that institution.) […]

Certainly the banning of personal relationships with the Chinese was the most devastating for all Westerners living in China during the Mao era and even for some years beyond. Not until 1983 did the government pass a law permitting Chinese people to marry foreigners.


Saturday links: Coffee edition

Now you understand why this website has a coffee favicon:

Before the Enlightenment, Europeans drank alcohol throughout the day. Then, through trade with the Arab world, a transformation occurred: coffee, rich with caffeine, a stimulant, swept across the continent and replaced alcohol, a depressant.

As writer Tom Standage put it,

“The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak ‘small beer’ and wine. Both were far safer than water, which was liable to be contaminated … Coffee … provided a new and safe alternative to alcoholic drinks. Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved … Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.”

An illustration of this process from Twitter user @Supreme_Owl_FTW:

Francesco Sisci on the murder of Kim Jong-nam and China policy:

But can Beijing still work with a ruler who goes as far as to kill his own brother abroad? North Korea is not new to terrorist attacks overseas. In 1983, it organised the attempt in Rangoon against the South Korean president and in 1987 it planted a bomb on a Korean Airlines flight. But those were the last days of the Cold War and it was all against the old, traditional enemy, the South.

Now times are radically different and young Kim has killed his older brother, thus proving he is capable of anything – even lobbing a dirty bomb to Tokyo, the American west coast, or China. Missiles are not the only course of action. North Korea has in the past hired criminals, mainly Chinese or Japanese, possibly of Korean descent, to carry out dirty work. The same could happen again now.

The question is can Beijing still be confident it can control in general terms Pyongyang? The preferred answer should be “yes,” also because with the growing friction with the US, it would be convenient for China to be able to play the North Korea card.

But what if this card refuses to be played and turns against the player? And what if, especially in times of tension, it would be better for China to offer the US a North Korean bone to prove good faith in a future political dialogue involving China’s maritime borders?

American college campuses continue to places of tolerance and respectful debate:

Hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down a controversial speaker on Thursday night, disrupting a program and confronting the speaker in an encounter that turned violent and left a faculty member injured. […]

After almost 20 minutes, it was clear that he would not be able to give his speech, said Mr. Burger, the spokesman. Anticipating that such an outcry might happen, Mr. Murray was moved to a separate room equipped with a video camera so that Allison Stanger, a Middlebury professor of international politics and economics, could interview him over a live stream.

Haha. College students can’t handle edgy ideas and are prone to violent spasms of outrage; controversial speakers must be quarantined.

Once the interview began in the second room, protesters swarmed into the hallway, chanting and pulling fire alarms. Still, the interview was completed and officials, including Ms. Stanger, escorted Mr. Murray out the back of the building.

There, several masked protesters, who were believed to be outside agitators, began pushing and shoving Mr. Murray and Ms. Stanger, Mr. Burger said. “Someone grabbed Allison’s hair and twisted her neck,” he said.

After the two got into a car, Mr. Burger said, protesters pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood. Ms. Stanger later went to a hospital, where she was put in a neck brace.