Last updated: March 9, 2012 10:56 pm

The Diary: Gideon Rachman

The FT’s chief international affairs commentator looks back on a week in China

I have spent the past week in China, taking part in a series of FT debates on the theme “China’s rise spells America’s decline”. I was proposing the motion, alongside Ed Luce, the FT’s chief US affairs commentator. The China-sceptics were represented by Leslie Hook, from our Beijing office, and Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and writer.

Interestingly, the journalists based in the west are downbeat about the prospects of America, and positive about China. By contrast, the people based in China are pessimistic about their home base, and bullish about the US. Perhaps there is something about looking at a society close-up that allows you to see its flaws.

The debates took place (in English) in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to coincide with literary festivals in all three cities. Ed and I were soundly thrashed every time. We kept arguing that China’s rise is inexorable, and that the US was in economic and political trouble. But the audience, a mix of expats and Chinese, were having none of it.

Michael’s argument that China’s development will be thwarted unless it embraces democracy was warmly greeted. Of course, it was encouraging that he felt able to say this at Capital M, a stylish restaurant in Beijing – which happens to be just a couple of blocks from Tiananmen Square – without the fear of being dragged away by men with handcuffs and rubber truncheons.

His view is that the authorities are not too worried about what is said in English at a literary festival. If similar views are expressed in Chinese, they are liable to be clamped down upon – and, indeed, his blog was censored, and then eventually blocked by Microsoft in 2005, following pressure from the Chinese authorities.

These days, Michael tweets his defiance. Many people have told me that micro-blogging through Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter – has led to an uncontrollable surge in political dissent. Censoring or blocking major websites such as Google or the BBC is one thing. But there is just too much content to monitor on social networks. China’s decision to allow Weibo may have been a fateful one, since it is allowing all sorts of “dangerous” ideas to circulate freely online.

. . .

The limits to free political expression seem already to have all but disappeared in private, at least among intellectuals. One evening in Beijing, I had dinner with a small group of academics from Peking and Tsinghua universities. All the supposedly taboo topics were discussed freely – democracy, corruption, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Not everybody around the table was a convinced advocate of democracy.

A couple of the academics and students believed that rather than looking to western liberal ideas, China should instead draw upon its own Confucian heritage – with its emphasis on meritocracy, social harmony and respect for authority. Others argued that it was both inevitable and desirable that China should move to a political system based on democracy and constitutional law.

As Ed Luce later pointed out to me, the very fact that we could have such a discussion shows how far China has already moved politically. Ed has vivid memories of backpacking around China in the mid-1980s, when public places were still filled with loudspeakers, broadcasting propaganda and patriotic songs. These days in Beijing airport, the music coming out of the Tannoys is western and classical – Rachmaninov to be precise.

In the airport bookshop I was delighted to come across a stack of Rachman: my book Zero-Sum World has recently been published in Chinese. I was asked by a Chinese friend if the publishers had insisted in removing all references to the “June 4th incident” (the Tiananmen Square massacre). I was embarrassed to reply that it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.

. . .

The FT’s correspondents around the world are certainly an interesting and varied bunch of people. That said, I have yet to come across anyone with a background quite as exotic as that of Jamil Anderlini, our Beijing bureau chief.

Jamil was born in Kuwait (that’s the Jamil part), with an Italian-American father (the Anderlini) and a mother from New Zealand. Brought up in New Zealand, he has a Chinese wife and speaks fluent Mandarin.

His career path has also been unusual. True, there are many journalists at the FT who started out in other professions – but it’s usually something such as law or investment banking.

Jamil, however, is the only former underwear model currently running one of our foreign bureaux.

. . .

I have learnt to embrace jet lag on trips to Asia. Rather than lying awake in the middle of the night – thwacking my head angrily against the pillow – I now get up and do some work. There is no better place to concentrate than a hotel room between the hours of three and six in the morning. It’s quiet, the phone doesn’t ring, there are no meetings and no colleagues to gossip with.

So when I woke up at 2am in Beijing last week, I got up and logged on. But my connection to Google kept going down. I was in the middle of composing an angry letter to Apple about my malfunctioning computer, when the penny dropped. I had just run into the “Great Firewall of China”, which blocks access to websites that the Chinese government does not like. However, all search engines are not equally suspect. I found that if I switched to Yahoo!, the internet worked just fine.

The downside of jet lag, of course, is that you find yourself nodding off at inappropriate times in the middle of the day. Here, too, though, I have developed patent techniques for coping. If I find myself succumbing to drowsiness, I put my hand over my mouth. This is meant to look thoughtful when, in fact, what I am doing is biting hard into my own flesh, to keep myself awake. Unless things are really bad, it tends to work.

On this trip, after six nights in China, I found that my body clock had adapted – just in time for me to get on a plane and fly back to London.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief international affairs commentator

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