Arguing with the neighbours

The lead headline in the front page of the January 29th edition of the English-language newspaper, The Korean Times, said “Korea slams Japan over Dokdo”, with a subheading that quoted a Korean Ministry for Foreign Affairs spokesman as saying “Japan will face untold consequences”.

On the same day, The Korea Herald, another English-language newspaper, had the lead headline “Tokyo revises textbook guidance on Dokdo claim”.

what_the_papers_say2Moving on to 3rd February, The Korea Herald ran the front-page headline shown in the photo above, next to a photo of the U.S. chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee paying respects to a “comfort women” statue in California. The caption goes on to say “The statue was erected last year to honor the Asian women and girls who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II”.


You have to go to the editorial in the China Daily newspaper to read the “Japan brainwashing kids” headline shown above.

The headlines, together with the text underneath, show that there’s real anger in Korea and China. It’s all about the revision of school text books in Japan to say that the Dokdo islets (i.e. too small even to be called islands), claimed by Korea, and Diaoyu Islands (claimed by China) will be described as an integral part of Japanese territory.

Let me quote from the China Daily, representative of the articles beneath all the headlines:

“The media in Japan reported on Tuesday that the Japanese education ministry will revise its teaching materials so that the Diaoyu islands – an integral part of Chinese territories, will be described as an integral part of Japan’s under the name of Senkaku.

“The fact-twisting textbooks for schools will teach Japanese students a false version of history, which risks breeding generations of confrontation, says a Xinhua News Agency commentary.

“Japan’s revisionists have for a long time attempted to whitewash Japan’s wartime past in its school history books, hurting and outraging its Asian neighbours whose sufferings as a result of Japan’s brutal wartime aggression is never mentioned.”

To be fair, the Chinese and Koreans are pretty good at teaching their own versions of history – the text in the newspapers is pretty inflexible and doesn’t show much evidence of reflection.

Whatever the importance of Dokdo/Takeshima or Diaoyu/Senkaku, the current spat is indicative of greater underlying problems. Whereas in Europe there’s real trust between old enemies of World War II, that trust hasn’t been achieved in Asia. That trust is nothing to do with how much money has been paid, but by the will of all parties to learn from the past in order to avoid repeating it. Japan may believe that they have paid their dues since the end of the war, but their neighbours don’t see that at all. I’m a great admirer of all things Japanese, but it’s not surprising that the actions of Prime Minister Abe and other right-wing politicians will make their neighbours nervous and angry.

Korea seems to be caught in the middle – literally. While Korea argues with Japan to the east, China flexes its muscles to the west as it gains increasing power and influence on the world stage.

Bling Bling Holidays


The Communist Party of China was officially founded in 1921, at the first congress in the French concession in Shanghai. It’s now a museum and I quote from the notice just inside the entrance:

“Since the British invaders launched the Opium War in 1840, the Western capitalist powers came one after another to China and China was thus reduced gradually to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society.

“Over a long period of time, the Chinese people had repeatedly made arduous attempts and launched heroic struggles to overthrow the rule of imperialism and feudalism for the State independence and the freedom of the people. Since the Opium War, the struggles launched by the Chinese people had never ceased, such as the war between China and British-French Allied Forces, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Revolution, the Sino-French War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Reform Movement of 1898, the Yihetuan Movement and the Revolution of 1911. However, all these struggles ended in failure.

“The history of China’s old democratic revolution had proved that the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie were not able to lead the anti-imperial and anti-feudal democratic revolution to success. And the newborn Chinese proletariat and its Party at that time were bound to shoulder responsibility to lead the revolution.”

There’s more on a later notice which quotes excerpts from the Programme of the Communist Party of China, adopted by the CPC’s First National Congress:

“The Party’s programme is:

“(1) The revolutionary army should, together with the proletariat, overthrow the state power of the bourgeoisie, should support the working class until class differentiation in the society disappears.

“(2) The dictatorship of the Proletariat should be acknowledged until the end of class struggles, that is, until the disappearing of the class differentiation in the society.

“(3) Put an end to the capitalist ownership. The means of production such as machines, lands, factory buildings, semi-products and others should be confiscated and owned publicity by the society.”

The communists came to power in 1949. Subsequent events have killed large numbers of people in the name of revolution; the Great Leap Forward resulted in tens of millions of people dying in the famine; the Cultural Revolution unleashed a wave of state-sponsored hooliganism and lawlessness which caused untold suffering. All this was possible because of the personality cult built up around Mao, and the culture of fear created in order to support his ego and lust for power.

So, 38 years after Mao’s death, does a big neon sign saying “BLING BLING HOLIDAYS” make you feel all that chaos, destruction and murder has achieved the original aims of the communist party? I don’t think so.

A different side of Shanghai

Yangpu4A short taxi ride north of the centre of the city is the Yangpu district. Forget displays of wealth and civic ego; this is quite different. Even though there’s a sense of community, and people seem happy, one might raise an eyebrow at the contrast in this nominally communist country.

We’d arranged a tour with Hilary’s friend, Lisa. First stop was at the home of one of Lisa’s friends. There’s not much privacy in this part of town; multiple families share each building and you can often tell how many by counting the sinks in the shared kitchen, or the number of electricity meters on the wall. Even when you’ve climbed the narrow, dark, stairs and passed through dimly lit communal corridors, you end up in a one-room apartment that the family live in. In the case of Lisa’s friend, who was a very kind host, the family was a couple with their grown-up son.

Next stop was the ballroom, above a snooker hall, but don’t confuse this with anything you watch on TV on a Saturday evening. The lights were dim, the music loud, and the air smoke-filled. The first session of the day is at 6:00 AM. I didn’t take to the floor – even in the darkened room I didn’t want to embarrass myself.


Back out in the street we stopped at Ali’s street stall for something to eat. Ali’s a Muslim, 20 years old, come to Shanghai to make some money. His pregnant wife was back home – “we get married young”, he said.


The evening was completed in another smoky room, two tables set up behind a curtain off a dark alley for players to enjoy a game of mah-jong. Indeed, the games go on all night. The outcome is made more interesting with a few Yuan as a stake. It’s illegal to gamble in China but the authorities aren’t going to worry about this; they’d be fighting a losing battle if they tried, given the prevalence of mah-jong. I’m not sure, but I think I won a couple of games.

And as a bonus, I couldn’t resist posting the photo below. It looks as if you can buy your pig’s head with the eyes left in or removed.


A display of wealth and power


You can’t get away from the feeling that much in Shanghai is built to impress. That’s certainly true on the two banks of the Huangpu River as it flows through the centre of the city.

On the west bank is the Bund, that symbol of the wealth of the foreign nations that had extracted concessions from China with some gunboat diplomacy. The buildings date from the first part of the 20th century but the concessions date from much earlier. The British had been trading opium from India into China in order to balance the exports from China and, after objecting to China seizing 20,000 chests of the drug in 1842 as part of a dispute, forced China to open up five ports for trade. I don’t remember that being taught in history lessons, and it’s not surprising that the Chinese communists took a dim view of foreign influence in China when they gained support from the 1920s onwards.



Talking about the communists, the east side of the river is a product of communist China. Whether you look at it from ground level on the opposite side of the river at night (above) or go up to the bar on the 87th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel and look down (below), it’s a remarkable sight – all those multi-storey buildings fading into the distance through the smog. It was worth buying the very expensive Singapore Sling just to be able to take it all in. The need to impress is something shared by capitalists and communists alike.




This is People’s Park in Shanghai. Until 1949, this was the racecourse, the preserve of the city’s elite. That all changed when the communists came to power, naturally, and it is now a place where people can come and enjoy some (relative) peace in a city of around 23 million.

I don’t read more than a few characters of Chinese, but I quickly worked out what these pieces of paper, attached to an open umbrella, were advertising. Those numbers that look like dates are dates, and the ones that look like heights are heights. The first character on most sheets (which I do recognise) is the character for ‘woman’.

A quick search on the internet confirms that this is information about young people looking for a marriage partner – or at least whose parents are looking for a marriage partner for them.


In a sign of the times, Wikipedia says that men now look for women with “elegance and a decent career path” rather than “diligence and the willingness to suffer the burden of life”. Wikipedia also points out that there will potentially be a gender gap of 24 million more men than women by 2020. From a Western perspective, it’s easy to laugh at such things, but it can’t be easy for young people in China.


Xin Nian Kuai Le


Happy New Year! That’s the lunar new year, of course, and where better to usher in the Year of the Horse than Shanghai? There were fireworks and firecrackers from different parts of the city all evening on Friday, which came to a crescendo as midnight arrived.

Private individuals or storeholders lay out long strips of firecrackers on the road outside their premises, light the touchpaper and stand back. Once the smoke has cleared, all that’s left is the debris from the red paper that held the firecrackers. In places with lots of small stallholders, the streets are covered.

Legend has it that there’s a mythical beast called Nian who would come on the first day of the new year to eat crops, livestock and children. Fortunately, Nian can be frightened off by the colour red and firecrackers. Whether or not that’s in the mind of people as they set off the firecrackers, I don’t know.


It wasn’t just at midnight, or even at night time, that firecrackers were let off. I guess you shouldn’t take too many risks with mythical beasts, and it’s better for children to have to cover their ears than be whisked away and devoured, especially if you’re only allowed one child per family.