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Number 1 Shimbun

Beijing is Hanging on Your Every Word

 

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Nathan Vanderklippe (above) extols China's e-commerce
and wonders if his nighttime activities
are being tapped.

 

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, WHEN IT FEELS LIKE A good day to tempt fate, I whisper something illicit on the phone. “Tiananmen.” “Xinjiang.” “Bo Xilai.” “Tibet.” Will the line click off? Will conversation be halted in a burst of static, as China’s listening apparatus perks its ears?

It hasn’t happened yet, but the mere existence of the possibility is the specter that haunts journalistic work in China. We have Edward Snowden to thank for pulling bare the global chimera of privacy. But there’s a difference, a psychological one, between knowing a digital dragnet is catching your ones and zeroes – and being in China, where the listening feels personal.

One friend is convinced his ayi – the relatively-cheap Chinese nannies that add a veneer of old-world grandeur to life here – is an employee of the state, a spy who washes his underwear. Pre-arranged interviews on domestically censored topics are suddenly cancelled. At bars, loud with music, news competitors remove mobile phone batteries and lower voices to conspire on how to outwit security forces in sensitive regions. Sources gossip about the portable Faraday cages brought to China by heads of state, draped over hotel room conversations like giant mosquito nets to keep digital espionage at bay. Husbands and wives whisper plans inside their own houses.

 

A colleague joked that
perhaps the listeners should be rewarded
with a shrieked “Xi Jinping” at climax.

 

One even wonders if they – and there are, by one count, some two million monitoring the country’s communications – are listening in bed. It is a discomfiting thought, that someone might be eavesdropping on and, perish the thought, judging, nocturnal performance. A colleague joked that perhaps the listeners should be rewarded with a shrieked “Xi Jinping” at climax.

A country of 1.3-billion is unavoidably a great many things. China is a place of enormous opportunity, both for its own people and those of us lucky enough to be here writing about it. It’s a place of immense beauty and immense, sometimes smoggy, ugliness. It’s still in some ways the biggest story around, even if telling it can mean inhaling bad air, questionable food and great heaps of propaganda. Step into an intersection at the wrong time, and a corrupt coal miner in a Bentley will mow you down. Ask too many of the wrong questions, and the annual extension of your visa suddenly becomes uncertain.

That’s the downside of China, one everyone knows. The upside is this: when the faxes have been exchanged and the pre-written questions approved, powerful officials take you into their offices and talk for hours, often in refreshingly blunt terms. When the desk gives it assent and the plane tickets are bought, the people and stories from the country’s great diverse tableau are almost unfailingly compelling, even occasionally inspirational. And when the lunch plans are made, the food can be scintillating – from Beijing’s unending diversity of culinary styles (including, without exaggeration, a burger that ranks in my top three) to the tongue-incinerating dishes farther afield.

Beijing in particular is no longer the bargain it once was, when even a modest salary could buy a lifestyle fit for royalty. The tab for a meal at a good restaurant can easily top a similar place in Canada, my home until October when I came to Beijing. But it’s still filled with some of the expat joys of life in a place where labor is cheap. Need a tailored suit? $150 and 48 hours. Need new kitchen cabinets? $200 installed. Need to get somewhere? Two kuai – 33 cents – brings you anywhere on the Beijing subway system. Need anything else? Hop online and (if you need, through the auto-translating magic of Google Chrome) four hours later your inkjet cartridge or crystal chandelier shows up on your doorstep. Sometimes, when things get really slow, it takes until the next morning. China has an e-commerce system so competitive, and often so fast, it makes the rest of the world look stuck in camel trains.

 

If one in a million people is truly interesting,
Canada has 35.
China has 1,351.

 

That’s life. For work, the barrel of stories remains deep, from the multi-trillion-dollar economic shifts and weaknesses giving financial definition to not just Asia but the world; to the still-fascinating glimpses into 100 million people whose transition to greater wealth continues; to the extraordinary exercises of power that define politics and governance; to the endless variety of quirks that emanate from a country with such a vast supply of people. If one in a million is truly interesting, Canada has 35. China has 1,351.

The China story is no longer new. Decades of correspondents have now come and left behind books of great skill and insight. Beijing today has echoes of New York or Delhi, a wickedly competitive media environment with hundreds of journalists from every corner of earth – albeit a place where state media still serve an uncomfortably important role in providing vital information.

But China hasn’t lost its luster yet. It is a rising superpower, a role it has assumed with great speed, and to the clear chagrin of many of its neighbors, Japan not least among them. At the same time, it’s an elephant on a bicycle – economically, politically and socially, a slight push in the wrong direction stands to unseat it all. That is rich fodder for the pen, to say nothing of the tongue. Few other places offer the chance to learn a language as important to the future as Chinese – even if only to ensure that, when the time comes, the listeners hear “Xi Jinping” shrieked with perfect tones.

Nathan Vanderklippe is the Beijing bureau chief for the Globe and Mail.


 

Published in: March

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