Reflections on a Sunday of Protests in China

“To reap the whirlwind”. It’s an ancient English saying, taken originally from the Bible. It means that actions in the past can end up having very large, unexpected consequences.

This phrase is very much on my mind today, as I listen to two unfamiliar sounds from outside my window in Shenzhen: one is of helicopters circling close overhead. The other is thousands of voices shouting angry slogans in unison. In Shenzhen today, as in cities across China, there are large demonstrations being staged to protest Japanese claims to some offshore islands nearest to Taiwan known, in Chinese, as Diaoyudao, and in Japanese as Senkaku.

I happen to live near both one of Shenzhen’s largest shopping malls, as well as its main street, known as Shennan Avenue. Demonstrators are parading down this street, and then stopping in front of the mall to wave Chinese flags and scream “Smash Japanese imperialism”, and, somewhat more incongruously, the soccer chant, “Let’s Go China” (”中国加油“) .

The shopping mall is shut today, for a second straight day, with a phalanx of Chinese police in riot gear standing between it and the demonstrators. The main tenant inside the mall is Jusco, the Japanese supermarket and department store. The mall also houses local outlets of high-end global brands like Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Ralph Lauren. A lost weekend like this is the last thing these big luxury brands need, of course, as their sales in China are already weakening because of slowing economic growth.

I’m no expert in maritime law. Equally, I’m not familiar with all the facts, claims and counterclaims about these islands. It seems rather self-evident, when looking at the map, that the islands should belong indisputably to China. But, at the moment, they are mainly a source of significant national irritation in China. Demonstrations here are rare, and always involve some degree of government approval. Tempers are high today, but not uniformly so. Mixed in with angry young men of all ages are lots of families with kids, waving small Chinese flags, taking photos as well as taking obvious pride in their Chinese identity. That’s all to the good.

And yet, I’m still more than a little uneasy. I probably have a higher-than-average sensitivity to the character and tone of Chinese street protests. I was in Beijing during the Tiananmen Incident in June 1989. All these years later, the two filaments embedded in memory are the sound of a massive angry crowd chanting in Chinese, and how quickly, explosively, unpredictably an orderly, even good-natured, protest can turn into a violent and uncontrollable mob.

The term “collective wisdom” is one I often struggle with. In my experience, the size of a crowd is often inversely correlated with the reasonableness of its behavior.  This is as true in the US or Europe as it is in China. Less than a year after witnessing the events in Tiananmen, my neighborhood in London was engulfed in what was called the Poll-Tax Riots, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest an unpopular new tax. It turned into an anarchic frenzy of looting and hooliganism, as rioters set fire to restaurants and cars, and beat unarmed British police. Excitement and incitement are close cousins.

Anti-Japanese feelings run deep in China. There is no easier way to rouse a rabble here. On any given night, at least one of the country’s main television broadcasters will show during prime time a historical drama about the Japanese invasion of China, often featuring quite graphic levels of violence.  For an American, it would be something like one of the three networks broadcasting every night, every week of every year a series about the cruel Japanese mistreatment of Allied POWs during the Bataan Death March. Anti-Japanese entertainment sells in China. This year’s big budget Chinese movie, the Zhang Yimou directed The Flower of War (金陵十三钗), was set against the backdrop of the 1937 Rape of Nanjing, and included the most horrifyingly violent and realistic images of barbarism and cruelty I’ve ever seen in a film.

Chinese lack no justification for their anti-Japanese sentiments. And yet, as this nation continues its remarkable rise, the dark grievances of the past must fade in the light of China’s current achievement and progress.  I find powerful logic in the words of a Chinese patriot who died 99 years ago, Tang Guo’an (唐国安), the first president of Tsinghua University. During the height of the deplorable Western occupation of China, Tang wrote  “were the positions reversed, China might accord even worse treatment to foreign nations. It behooves us, then, not to entertain unworthy thoughts of hatred and resentment, which will be of no avail.”


Qinghai Province – The Biggest Small Place in China


In most things to do with China, the “law of big numbers” applies. A population of 1.4 billion mandates that. So, whether it’s the fact there are over 50 cities larger than Rome, provinces with populations larger than any European country, or that more of just about everything is sold every year in China than anywhere else, the reality of China’s huge population is always a hulking presence.

Except for Qinghai Province. Here, the numbers are so small Qinghai can seem like one of the Baltic States. The province is a little larger than France, yet has a population of only 5.2 million, or 0.3% of China’s total. The capital city, Xining, where I’m now writing this, has about one million residents. Tibet to the south and Xinjiang to the north are both autonomous regions, rather than provinces. Both are far more well-known and talked-about, both inside China and out, and benefit from much more investment from the central government.

Qinghai is unlike anywhere I’ve been in China. It is so empty as to be almost desolate. Xining is in the midst of a very rapid transformation from a dusty low-rise backwater to a more obviously modern Chinese city, with high rises, two new expressways, broad boulevards and shiny new shops selling brands familiar in other parts of the country. It sits alongside a tributary of the Yellow River, wedged like a sliver between low barren brown mountains.

Xining is also the most conspicuously multi-cultural city I’ve been to in China, with a Han majority sharing the city with a large contingent of Tibetans, and a very significant population of Hui Moslems. The Dongguan mosque, on the city’s main street, is one of the largest in China. As many as 30,000 people can worship there. Every twenty paces or so you’ll pass a small brazier with a Hui cook barbecuing lamb kebabs.  Most also sell yak milk yogurt. It’s delicious, in case you’re wondering.

The Tibetans are more concentrated outside Xining. Qinghai makes up most of the Tibetan region of Amdo, and much of the province’s landmass is inhabited by Tibetan herdsmen. The current Dalai Lama was born not far from Xining, and had some of his first schooling at Kumbum Monastery, a 450 year-old establishment that has long been among the most important sites of religious worship and study for Tibetan Buddhists.

Kumbum is a half-hour drive from Xining.  I’ve wanted to go there for about 30 years, and finally got the chance on this trip. I always felt a pull towards Kumbum because it was established to venerate Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve lived for the last 15 years with a beautiful thangka of Tsongkhapa, and hang it near where I sleep. Here it is:


If I had a patron saint, it would be him. Tsongkhapa was born where the Monastery now sits, in a small mountain village. The Monastery spreads lengthwise about one mile up a hillside. At its height, it was home to 3,600 monks. Now there are said to be about 500. A lot of the more ancient buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and have since been rebuilt. There are also some newer structures in traditional Tibetan monastic style, including one built with a donation from Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing.

Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate the important buildings, do their prostrations, and leave offerings of money and butter. They share Kumbum with Chinese tour groups, who are for the most part respectful, attentive.

After visiting the Monastery in a steady drizzle, I went to see a doctor at the nearby hospital. I was feeling just fine, but for a little sleepiness from the high altitude.  I’ve had a long, intense interest in Tibetan medicine, and the hospital here is staffed by lamas educated at Kumbum and graduated with the equivalent of a PhD in Tibetan medicine.

I saw a physician named Lopsang Chunpai, dressed in maroon and yellow monastic robes. He took my pulse, pronounced me healthy, and prescribed a Tibetan herbal medicine called Ratna Sampil, a combination of 70 herbs that is compounded at the hospital. According to the package, it’s used “clearing and activating the channels and collaterals”.

Though I saw only a very small part of it, Qinghai struck me as an especially lovely place:  a wide, open and arid plateau not unlike parts of the American West. Even accepting the cold winter (with temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero centigrade), it’s hard to understand the high vacancy rate here. It’s population density, at 7 people per square kilometer, is 0.3% of Shanghai’s.

It’s empty, of course, because comparatively few Chinese have emigrated here. That seems likely to change. The air is clean, the economy is booming and the infrastructure improvements of recent years are integrating the province much more closely with the highly-populated parts of China to the east.

Neighboring Tibet and Xinjiang have experienced large Han Chinese migration over the last 60 years. Not so Qinghai. Geography is destiny.  Qinghai, unlike Xinjiang and Tibet, does not border any other country. It has far less military and strategic importance. Xinjiang borders Russia and Tibet borders India. China has fought border wars with both.

Xinjiang and Tibet have also both recently had some serious ethnic conflicts, including anti-Chinese riots in both places in the last two years.  Although its population is about 20% Moslem and 20% Tibetan, Qinghai has stayed peaceful. It is China’s melting pot.

Qinghai is rich in mineral resources, including large seams of high-grade coal. As the transport system improves, more Chinese will migrate there to work in mines. Xining, as small as it is, is the only proper city in all of Qinghai.

The ostensible reason for my visit was to speak at a conference on private equity. The provincial government has a target to increase the number of Qinghai companies going public. The mayor of Xining, who I met briefly, was until recently a successful businessman, running one of the province’s largest state-run companies.

I met a few local entrepreneurs and visited one factory making wine from buckthorn berries, using technology developed by Tsinghua University. It’s a healthier, lower-proof alternative to China’s lethal “baijiu”, the highly alcoholic spirit, mainly distilled from sorghum,  that is widely consumed across China.

Up to now, as far as I can tell,  there’s been no private equity investment in Qinghai. I’d like to change that. It’s a special part of China. Though it’s statistically one of the poorest provinces, Qinghai will continue every year to close the gap. More capital, more opportunity, more prosperity — and more inhabitants. This is Qinghai’s certain future.