“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”
- Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
I am going to start with perhaps something a little controversial.
I read with dismay about the recent trouble
in Urumqi, Xinjiang between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur people, but I can’t
say I am surprised that it happened. I am neither a political commentator, nor
am I an active campaigner for causes, but just let me state that in my opinion
I believe that the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has a strong case for
independence. Xinjiang is the least Chinese of any of the places that I’ve been
to on the mainland, and perhaps because of it, one of the most fascinating and
it is here that we pick up our story.
When I was in the process of planning the trip months back, my original intent was to spend a couple of days in Urumqi in order to visit Tian Chi, or Heavenly Lake which I had heard was stunning. But from some information I found in the Financial Times about a couple who had traveled from London by train, I discovered a gentleman called Abdul Wahab (based in Kashgar) who had helped them book tickets. So, rather sensibly I thought, I contacted him to help us as, unsurprisingly, Mandarin Chinese isn’t as widely spoken that far west. Abdul talked me out of visiting Heavenly Lake – and of spending any time in Urumqi actually – arguing that it really was “just another Chinese city”. So we simply passed through the capital on our way to Kashgar where we would visit Lake Karakul (some 6,000ft above sea level) and where we needed to be for the Sunday Market, a weekly market that draws hundreds of thousands of vendors and visitors from all over the region including Kazakhstan and Pakistan.
Kashgar – or Kashi in Chinese pinyin – is an astonishing city steeped in history and tradition and it didn’t fail to impress us all. Snow capped mountains fringe the edge of the burg providing a stunning backdrop to the surrounding landscape. There is very little visible Chinese influence in Kashgar. Sure, although there are signs in characters everywhere, and the road signs only print the local Uyghur script very small in contrast to the giant simplified text next to it, the place is very much a Uyghur city.
Upon arrival we were met at the airport by a delightful man who we shall call Patti. This is, of course, the simplified version of his name. Like a Venezuelan patriarch his name was considerably longer and utterly unpronounceable to those not versed in the local dialect. One thing I’ll give him though – his English was superb. Having spent a considerable amount of time living and working with Han Chinese I can honestly say that I was not expecting a young Uyghur boy from Kashgar to be so proficient in the language. The hotel on the other hand was, I’ll admit, quite expected; to the jiaozi (or dumplings) for breakfast and the Christmas tree in the bar. The attempt to make a gin and tonic in a cocktail shaker was not so expected. On the Saturday we rose early – very early in local time. Although all of China officially runs on Beijing time, the further west you go the more likely they are to use their local time. The country theoretically has something like 5 time zones so Xinjiang is actually two hours behind Beijing. We managed to avoid serious confusion, but it was startling to think that we were leaving the hotel at 8am Beijing time meaning we woke up to get ready and have breakfast at about 5am local time. The journey time to and from Lake Karakul was about 6 hours so we had a lot of ground to cover. And what ground! If I thought that Guangxi was stunning I was staggered by Xinjiang. In Guangxi I like to think that the vista hasn’t changed much since the Qing Dynasty emperor Kangxi (1662 – 1722) sat on the Dragon Throne. In Xinjiang I don’t think it has changed much since Peking Man wandered the plains of ancient China. It wasn’t hard to imagine yourself a modern day Marco Polo (albeit in a heated bus) trundling through the rugged mountains, edges cut to a point by the inexorable advance of glaciers. The actual lake itself was, for me, uninspiring though you couldn’t help but be bowled over by the living conditions of the Kazakh nomads who inhabit the area. That night we sampled the local delicacy of pigeon. And that’s all that needs to be said about that.
The following day was given over to an experience that I had been looking forward to – not just on this trip but since my arrival in China and I had first heard stories of - the Kashgar Sunday Market. We were not disappointed. Well, not really anyway. In the past (just a couple of years ago actually) the entire central area of Kashgar was given over to the market, which included livestock and any bit of this and that from just about anywhere within camel distance. I can only postulate as to what the market must have been like when this menagerie was heaped on each other because now there are two sites – one for the livestock, and one for everything else. As we tried to avoid being defecated, urinated, spat on or kicked by the thousands of sheep, cows, donkeys, horses, goats and whatever else brays, squawks or guffaws, there was an almost oppressive sense of timelessness. It is quite possible that early traders along the Silk Route witnessed the exact same thing that we did. It was – in the truest sense of the word – awesome. I do love “chuan’r”, the Xinjiang kebab. It’s a good snack food; it’s perfect post pub provender and just generally one of the most delicious things in the world. Now imagine that the succulent lamb on the stick, coated in a yoghurt sauce and liberally sprinkled with spices was not 20 minutes previously bleating with his chums in the pen opposite. Heaven. I said to the Group that I could now leave China a happy man.
Regrettably the constraints of word counts force me to abandon the tale at this point. However, I shall continue with the remainder of our stay in Kashgar, our sojourn in Turpan and onwards, back into China proper with Dunhuang and Jiayuguan next week. After that the conclusion of our adventure in Xi’an and our trip to Emperor Qin Shi’s remarkable terracotta tomb.
“China Experience” Rating:.... all in good time.
It will come as no surprise to most that Norman Chan has been named as the new head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, commencing his role on 1 October. Good choice!
Bamboo branches and the pandas who eat them
The next stage of our journey moved us deeper into the country to south western Sichuan Province. Known for its spicy cuisine and more recently, tragically, as the epicentre of the devastating earthquake of May 2008, Sichuan – specifically Chengdu and the Giant Panda – is one of the country’s biggest draws. It was primarily for the endangered bear that we travelled to Chengdu because, to be fair, there’s not much else to write home about in the regional capital.
After the relatively modest accommodation afforded in Yangshuo, and before we headed into deepest, darkest Xinjiang, I decided that a couple of nights at Chengdu’s Kempinski Hotel wouldn’t do us any harm. A number of contributing factors had led me to this particular establishment, primary among them its proximity to the Chengdu chapter of my favourite watering hole – The Bookworm. Chengdu is very much a “modern” Chinese city; it has its luxury brand stores (Gucci again topping the list), top 5 star hotels (enter, stage left, The Kempinksi, Shangri-la and Sheraton hotels) and…a giant statue of Chairman Mao in People’s Square. The Great Helmsman stands there, resplendent in flowing winter overcoat and waving in silent benediction to the masses, most of whom are not even aware of his presence. Like I said, a modern Chinese city.
On the Thursday morning we rose early to go to the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, only 30 – 45 minutes from the hotel. More famous is the Wolong Panda Reserve, but at 3hrs out of the city it didn’t seem practical to visit. Not when you consider that Panda’s are essentially lazy creatures who tend to doze off mid-morning after their breakfast. I know how they feel! So off we popped with our driver, Mr Zhou (I think that was his name – it could have been Chou but he spoke Mandarin with a regional accent so it was hard to tell) who helped us gain entry into the centre (they spell it one way, I another) with a wodge of 2008 tickets. I love China. People can be so resourceful when they have a surplus of something (former U.S. President George.W. Bush might want to take note).
It wasn’t long before we caught a glimpse of our first Giant Panda. They really are terrific animals and, a little like an ice-cream on a hot day, never fail to bring a smile to your face. Having said that, it’s little wonder they’re on the WWF endangered species list. First of all, they’re quite solitary animals and tend to not enjoy the company of others. Secondly, in a cruel twist of fate, they’re essentially herbivores with the digestive tract of carnivores. You have to wonder if God was tired at the end of a long day and added the panda to his “Let’s See What Happens If…” list, joining salmon and their ritual of reproduction. And nothing puts a smile on your face than the sight of nine or ten panda cubs falling over each other as they romp around their enclosure. There was an option to have a photo taken with a baby panda (I paid for the privilege of holding a koala once when in Australia) but the exorbitant cost put me off somewhat. In related news it apparently costs approximately US$1m per annum for zoos to “hire” a panda. Expensive beasts.
After a while though the smile begins to fade, the ice-cream melts or your wine gets warm. Either way, you’ve had enough. So we headed back into town to spend the afternoon resting before an evening sampling the local speciality – hot pot.
I am a huge fan of hot pot. Many aren’t. My partner Daniel doesn’t see the point or nutritional value of eating boiled meat but then he’s not right all the time. However, on this occasion there was a slight problem which dawned on me after we sat down in a chain restaurant that I knew from Beijing. I had never ordered hot pot in my life. Not once. Every time I’ve been out for it someone else has ordered for me and so, although I could read the menu well enough, I had no idea what anything was! Luckily no-one else in the Group had the faintest idea what to expect anyway so it wasn’t very hard to make believe that everything I ordered was normal. The cow’s stomach was harder to cover up but, naturally, I got out of it by arguing that what I had said was “I don’t want tripe” and clearly the serving staff had simply focused on the fact that I had said “tripe”. It’s easy to get confused when foreigners speak Chinese don’t you know? A total disaster from my point of view and a clear indication that the next time I go for hot pot I should pay attention to whoever orders.
To end the piece and, to go full circle, we found ourselves in The Bookworm after supper for a much needed gin, beer, wine and brandy. There is something tremendous about an establishment that can give you the same feeling upon entry as the more familiar venue located over 1,100 miles away. I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that The Bookworm in Chengdu and, specifically Pete Goff (The Bookworm co-owner) played a pivotal role in relief efforts after the May 12 earthquake. More information here: Sichuan Quake Relief. Such a great place.
“China Experience” Rating: 10/10
How could you not give it 10/10? There’s luxury brands, iconic pandas, the (usually not-disastrous) dining experience…and Chairman Mao.
"Be careful what you wish for - you may just get it" is now well established as a cliché. But how appropriate it is, when applied to the role of the Non Executive Director today.
It was not that long ago when being invited to join the Board of a prestigious company was considered to be an honour, but often where the duties of a director were not particularly onerous. Even if the company was progressive, and recognised the benefit of good external advice. And of course there were plenty of the "old boy network" Boards where your role was to remain silent, and agree with the Chairman as directed. Today, however, if you wish for and receive that Board seat invitation take care; it may just come and bite you in unpleasant places.
As more and more companies globally are required by legislation to have non-executive directors, you may still find situations where the Board is not really clear on your role, and many first time directors are not really clear on their responsibilities. Or put another way, in an article by British dealmaker Jo High
"For some organisations, particularly owner managers, a Non-Executive Director (NED) has much in common with a Bidet! Being something one quite fancies but not really something one is clear on how to use!"
Examine the role of the NED today, and particularly the Independent NED. A person who is required, often by law, to take as much responsibility for the running of company as an Executive Director, but to do so on a part-time basis using whatever information they are "fed". And in times of trouble, a NED trying to hide behind claims of receiving "insufficient information” is unlikely to receive much sympathy from shareholders and the media alike. Instead, they are more likely to face accusations of incompetence for failing in their duties. "Given your experience", the critics will say. "you should have known what questions to ask!"
Why would anyone willingly subject himself or herself to such reputational and professional risk?
The whole issue of Board Members is under review around the world. Collapsed financial institutions are having their Boards reviewed - and often replaced! Corporate Governance issues today are much more a feature of Board deliberations than ever before. And rightly so, given the apparent inability of some of our most highly paid and high profile corporate leaders to be trusted to tell the whole truth. Boards are now required to look at major appointments, strategy, and performance. They need to consider, in depth, the audit and remuneration issues faced by the company. And they do so on behalf of the shareholders who, independently, they represent.
As a result, non-executive directors are finding it necessary to restrict the number of appointments they accept and therefore the supply is becoming scarcer.
Hong Kong was, perhaps, initially not as quick to make changes as fast as some other places, but there have been improvements. Activists like Christine Loh and David Webb have actually achieved quite a lot in this arena - one quietly and steadily, the other in a more publicity seeking manner, - but love them or loathe them (and I don't actually loathe David Webb - I just don't particularly like him since the day he publicly questioned my independence and therefore my integrity - a question I was happy to successfully refute), they have been catalysts for change. Long may these changes continue, but I still have two concerns.
Some companies in Hong Kong still pay their Non-Executive Directors way below appropriate compensation, given the levels of responsibility they now have to bear. No longer can one be expected to sit on this board or that committee just for the "honour". Appropriate remuneration is now required to compensate for the considerable amount of time-consuming work involved, and which carries severe penalties and "inconvenience" for not doing that work.
And what inconvenience! A friend of mine sits on a select few Boards. He is conscientious, careful, professional, and the sort of person I would be pleased to share a Boardroom with - but a company with which he was involved ran into some financial difficulties. The next thing he knows is that the Police are all over his home, in his absence. In fact their presence was announced by way of a mobile telephone conversation, from the police, telling him they were in his home. No courtesy, no consideration for the individual. They took away papers - relevant or not. They took away a computer - relevant or not. No questions. No apologies. He was treated with the same level of disdain reserved for a hardened criminal.
The fact is, being a non-executive director today requires careful thought and consideration by the individual concerned. You need to represent the shareholders best interests, and you should be able to bring something useful to the company in addition to good corporate governance - a skill, a knowledge base. Your boardroom should be one that is willing to listen and record deliberations or contributions from the directors, and one that understands that today's non-executive directors are not window- dressing.
On a very recent visit to South Korea I was struck by an air of calm in Seoul that I had not witnessed on previous occasions immediately following a period of North Korean sabre-rattling. As a general rule, when you are living in a capital city less than 30 kms away from someone with whom you are still technically at war, you are bound to get nervous. And on this occasion there had been some actual rockets fired.
The reason for the apparent calm was explained to me as being a result of the strong support being shown to the South by the USA in particular. A comfort that foreign powers were going to keep a close watch on behalf of the M B Lee Government. In addition, China has appeared less inclined to side with the North as they may have done previously. Recognising, perhaps, that they too are now probably as much at risk from a madman's possible mistakes as South Korea.
The North has clearly tried to "up the stakes", but is this an act of desperation disguised as bravado? Perhaps they are concerned that its starving population might just get enough combined strength together to create "difficulties" for the Kim dynasty, although it is hard to see how this might happen in the repressive communist state. Or maybe this is Kim Jong-il trying to "appeal" to the Americans, or anyone else for that matter, to let him have some money... or else! If so, he's got a darn funny way of going about getting any kind of support.
Or is he, for some reason other than a mental meltdown feeling somehow rather confident? How, for example, is he getting enough money to build new weapons of mass destruction? I am sure there are many people out there who have access to more possible answers than I have, but at the front of my own thoughts is the question - who else might be willing to lend a hand in creating nervous tension in the region? It would have to be somebody with money, and a desire particularly to destabilise any potential western influence in the region. And here I keep coming back to Iran as a potentially willing collaborator. Food, perhaps, for thought if not for Mr. Kim's starving population.
Whatever the North wishes to do politically, undiplomatically or whatever, the rather unusually calm South nevertheless has had its own issues to deal with, but the support coming from external forces takes some of the heat off needing to focus solely on the North.
The South's focus has, therefore, continued to be more business oriented, and I must tell you that, although it may not yet be apparent to the outside world, there remains a strong commitment by the Lee Government to open up the market to foreign companies and investors.
This Governmental commitment is not always reflected within South Korea generally where businesses still have some way to go in accepting the overall concept of more open markets. Market protectionism, which features in many of M B Lee’s speeches as being something that must not be pursued by Korea, nevertheless suits many if it protects their own industries and jobs – and it is a fact of life that it is a common theme in many countries. But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot close your markets to others, yet expect markets elsewhere to remain open to your goods and products.
By the same token, therefore, is it okay to close your markets to foreign business yet be willing to openly accept foreign support against a potential aggressor? Okay, so the USA has a security interest in being somewhere in the region, and Korea is a large presence for them, so their willingness to support the South may not totally altruistic. But it nevertheless remains an argument.
So what is the point of all this?
North Korea is becoming increasingly and worryingly belligerent, possibly supported by outside forces and maybe concerned about the plight and possible reaction of its starving population. South Korea on the other hand, is pressing ahead with plans to open up its economy, and is being allowed to do so as it faces less pressure from the North.
So what about in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons arsenal, North Korea opens up to foreign investment in the same way that its communist neighbour, China, has done so successfully. Step by step. But guided by the South. They speak the same language. They have the same ethnic background. They could follow the format of another experiment further south, of One country – Two systems. It would be a start, but perhaps it will take a real change of attitude, or leader, in the North to come anywhere close.
In May 2009 we persuaded Paul, our second son, to take us up to North West China. This is his side of the story.
Seven People, Six Cities, Four Provinces, One Autonomous Region...
and a Uyghur called Patti.
Having lived in China for the past eight years but never having traveled around the country, the two-week round-trip journey from Hong Kong via Yangshuo (Guangxi), Chengdu (Sichuan), Kashgar, Turpan (Xinjiang), Dunhuang, Jiayuguan (Gansu) and Xi’an (Shaanxi) was probably the closest I was going to get to what might be described as the “China Experience”. This is a term thrown about by pseudo China commentators regularly; what qualifies as an “experience” anyway? Is it something cultural and rather esoteric, or can that prolonged and awkward visit to the bathroom after a particularly potent hot-pot also be termed a “China Experience”?
I went to China in 2001 to study the language. Not because I had a deep seated desire to immerse myself in Chinese culture, nor because I wanted to report on the living conditions of China’s mega-population of peasants. The BBC’s regular misrepresentative and painful to watch “exposé’s” do just fine in that regard. It was simply because I recognised that a working knowledge of Mandarin might come in useful in the future.
It is not my place to comment on Chinese society in comparison to Western society. They are so different that you cannot objectively compare the two without sounding either smug or trite. I am staggered by the number of people who write books about life in China after spending just a few months (and sometimes only weeks) in the country. I am simply a man who moved to Beijing for my own reasons, was delighted that I enjoyed living in the city, and ultimately set up shop there for most of the next decade. Having said that, as I had only previously travelled to Shanghai, Qingdao, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Shenyang, I was very much looking forward to the trip around the People’s Republic if only because from what I’d seen and read, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was the closest thing you’d get to a Central Asian experience without needing another visa. That I was going to be able to strut in front of my parents, godparents and family friends like a peacock in full bloom using what I’d learned in the Northern Capital was a boon. You see, I’m a bit of a show off as anyone will tell you who ventured into The Bookworm in Beijing on a Monday night for our weekly (award winning) pub quiz, or on the second Thursday of the month for our equally popular Basically Beethoven classical music open-mic evening. After each leg of the journey I shall rate each place on a “China Experience” scale of 1-10 with 1 being as Chinese as cheddar cheese and 10 Modern Communist China in all its red glory. (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!)
So, to the trip.
We began our mini adventure on a Sunday morning as the retired population of Hong Kong set out to do their morning Tai Chi. We were to take the train into Guangzhou, fly to Guilin and then transfer by bus to Yangshuo. All up it took us the better part of a day but the distance we had traveled? Hardly anywhere. China is a vast country and, if we’re simply using climate as our guide, we might as well have been in Hong Kong’s New Territories. But unlike the New Territories, the topography of Guangxi is, simply, breathtaking. If you think about classical Chinese painting you either get the Taoist mountains of Shandong coming to mind, or the rugged and rippling terrain of Guangxi. Indeed, near Yangshuo in the village of Xingping the picture used for the reverse of the ¥20 RMB note was taken. Friends of mine who have been in China since the early 1990s tell me of a time when Yangshuo was a quiet fishing village with a couple of restaurants and maybe one or two places to stay. Not so today.
We stayed at a nice little place - The Rosewood Inn (which I’ll give 3 stars to for their rooms but 1 star for their breakfast), a semi-boutique style hotel and one of a small handful in the village. The hotel’s manager, named by the Group as “10% Sam” is a businessman originally from Hong Kong but who has lived in Yangshuo for the better part of the last 10 years. Never let it be said that Hong Kong businessmen can’t spot a good deal when they see one because dear Sam now runs an entire strip of restaurants on one of the busiest streets in the village. Yangshuo still has a romantic feel to it, helped along by the mist, the mountains and the cormorant fishers, but make no mistake – this is a tourist destination and the irritating “guides” pressing you every waking minute to go with them to see the “real” countryside, or sell you goods and services “very cheap” can get tiresome.
The Group ventured out on its own on long bicycle rides, into the food market and down the river on bamboo rafts. We included a visit to the extraordinary sound and light show held twice nightly on the outskirts of the village. Zhang Yi Mou (director of the excellent film Raise The Red Lantern – one of the first foreign language films I saw and one of my all-time favourites, and Artistic Director for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games) has come up with a huge spectacle using the surrounding scenery as his stage and about 300,000 people and a similar number of light bulbs to create, at least in my opinion, a vulgar and thoroughly dull 60 minute show. Some people like it. I didn’t. (I didn’t really like the opening ceremony either but, as you will have read in an earlier post on this blog, for those who were actually there on the night it was a quite different experience to watching it on television).
“China Experience” Rating: 8/10
It’s China alright, from the picture postcard scenery and interesting dining (Pijiu Yu or “Beer Fish” is a local speciality) to all the bells and whistles of a country tourist destination.