• What is Hong Kong?

    Hong Kong Island skyline with Kowloon in the background
    A city or a state? (Photo by Ryan McManimie)

    Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997. Now it’s Chinese. Looking from the UK, that’s pretty much how things appear. It’s only as you get closer that you find it’s not so simple as that. 

    Sort of sovereign

    In light of the current protests against extraditing Hong Kongers to Mainland China, I was reminded of my surprise – on crossing the land border – at the extent to which Hong Kong still feels like a separate state.

    I first visited Hong Kong in the 2000s. At the time, I regarded it as my first visit to China. After all, it’s officially Chinese territory. On top of that, it’s quite clearly a Chinese city in ethnic and cultural terms. 

    When I took the boat to Kowloon, I was even surer I was in China. The district felt a little less Western, a little less British than Hong Kong Island. What’s more, Kowloon is on the mainland – in purely geographical terms. 

    Where does the mainland start?

    I made my second visit to Hong Kong in January 2019. That time, I crossed the border between Hong Kong and what everyone calls ‘The Mainland’. I visited the Chinese city of Shenzhen – and this was no EU-style border. 

    The majority of Hong Kong’s land is actually a peninsula of the mainland, not islands. Along its 30km land border with ‘The Mainland’, there are several border crossings. 

    Whereas borders between sovereign states within the European Union can be crossed without even realizing it, you know all about moving from Hong Kong into Mainland China. 

    Passports and visas please!

    You must pass Hong Kong border guards. Then you’re driven across no man’s land. Finally, you must pass Chinese border guards. All that can come as a shock to someone who thought it was all one country. 

    And officially it is. One country, two systems, and all that. Just don’t forget your passport. 

    Read more about my visit to Shenzhen in my blog: When Baldrick met a QR Code in China

  • The bums lost, Lebowski

    Desktop computer screen on an office desk in a dark room
    Time for work (Photo by Josh Sorenson)

    In mid-April, Jack Ma – founder of Alibaba – praised the 996 system. 996 means working 9am till 9pm, 6 days a week. In Shenzhen, China’s tech boomtown near Hong Kong and Alibaba’s home, that’s normal. 

    Workin’ 996…

    I was in Shenzhen in January. I spoke to a successful innovator in the tech industry. Like many in this city, he’s an incomer from the Chinese interior. He spoke to me about the reality of the working culture in Shenzhen. 

    “We sacrifice our youth and our health” 

    He told me he was exhausted. He almost never took a holiday and could count the days he hadn’t been to work that year on one hand. “We sacrifice our youth and our health to get a certain comfort,” he explained, before adding: “Collectively, we have made China stronger.”  

    He reached for President Xi Jinping’s little red book and insisted that all that hard work was for a greater good than simply his own. It echoes Jack Ma’s observation about the ‘996 system’ being a “blessing” without which China would “very likely lose vitality and impetus”. 

    Oliver Twist or what?

    It feels reminiscent of Victorian Britain, where such a work culture was for the betterment not only of the individual, but the British Empire. It’s also perhaps the root of the American commitment to a work culture that permits only two weeks’ holiday a year. 

    “The number of slackers has rapidly grown”

    Richard Liu of ecommerce company concurs. He believes Chinese growth has enlarged the pool of slackers, and that the market will punish Chinese firms. The trouble is, China wants to become a leader in innovation and ideas. These are things people create when they pause, think and perhaps live a little. 

    Industrialisation requires drone workers. But at some stage in the process of no longer being poor, hungry and sick, people are wont to ask: what’s the point? 

    As answers go, ‘To make your country more powerful’ just doesn’t get most people up in the morning. 

    996? Make them work 24/7 if you want, but there’s a ceiling on what you’ll get out of them until you start offering more human answers. 

    Never mind work, what’s school good for?

  • When Baldrick met a QR code in China

    A QR code on a restaurant table
    What is this strange plastic card stuck to the table?

    Unbeknownst to me (I don’t get out much and the only news item I have seen since 2016 is Brexit), the Chinese have quietly departed for the future. I went there last week. I wasn’t expecting to time travel, so it was a shock. 

    The quiet QR revolution

    QR codes now rule. You know, the little pixelated black and white squares you point your smartphone at. Yes, we’ve all (most of us) done it, but not like the Chinese. 

    And yes, I know there are Londoners for whom Apple Pay is now old hat. But I’m living in the Welsh borders, and out here, not a single sheep has a QR code on it. In Shenzhen – China’s shiny new metropolis – everything has a QR code on it. I mean everything. 

    Do you accept farthings?

    I disembarked at the Chinese border armed with a fistful of renminbi. I met two guys from Beijing whom I’d be spending the week with in Shenzhen. They looked at my fistful of notes with misty-eyed nostalgia. 

    “I don’t think I’ve taken my wallet out for about three years,” said one. The other showed me a stash of notes he said he never touched. This revelation occurred as we sat in a café to order lunch and I spotted the QR code stuck to the table. 

    “What’s with the QR code?”
    “Oh, we’re ordering lunch.”
    “With a QR code?”
    “It’s bringing up the menu on my phone. I’m then ordering us lunch with my phone, and at the end of the meal, I’ll pay the bill by phone.”

    I nodded, feeling like Baldrick in Silicon Valley. 

    You don’t have to be a hipster to zap it

    What threw me the most was that this wasn’t a smart restaurant. It was just a normal café. But I was only just starting to get up to speed. It was soon revealed to me that everyone used QR codes. 

    They were in ANY food outlet. They were in shops. They were on parking machines. When my friends told me that even market traders and street food vendors used them, I realised just how much catching up the UK needed to do. 

    “So what’s with this Brexit thing you’ve been doing?” 

    I knew the question might come up eventually. I was dreading it. Yes, we’ve been bickering about our own importance for two years. Yes, I can see you’ve been busy while we’ve bickered. Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing. 

    The Great Chinese Firewall knocked out most of my American apps while I was there. I used the WeChat app, a great platform through which WeChat Pay is one of the top two payment systems, alongside Alibaba’s Alipay.

  • The Silk Road is a great brand

    Bukhara mosque architecture on the Silk Route
    Riches of the old Silk Road (Photo by Darrell Chaddock)

    It’s amazing what marketing can do for your image. The world has been full of trading routes since the earliest human settlements. Trade, and with it rivalry, diplomacy and power politics, have been foundations of human interaction everywhere, and yet one trade route rises in our imagination above all others: The Silk Road.

    Conjuring an awesome sense of history, the Western mind in particular is sent into flights of exotic fancy by those three simple words. The precious silks and spices of the Orient wending their way by camel train out of China and along the fabled cities of Central Asia to the gates of the Middle East and Russia, to arrive in the markets of Europe.

    Had Europeans simply been beguiled by the idea of this single silken thread?

    It was therefore striking to read — in this week’s excellent briefing on China’s Belt & Road Initiative in The Economist — that the term ‘The Silk Road’ was coined on the much less distant date of 1877, by Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the famous WWI flying ace, the Red Baron. My first reaction was to marvel at the power of good branding to elevate even the most tangled and convoluted collection of trading routes.

    Had Europeans simply been beguiled — I wondered — by the idea of this single silken thread weaving from China across the whole of Asia to Europe? If they had, then it is ironic and perhaps appropriate that the Chinese should now be muddying the water with their unwieldy One Belt, One Road or Belt & Road Initiative. Not so much of the neat branding there, but maybe more reality?

    There has been endless media confusion and clarification over the terms and their meaning. China’s ‘Belt’ refers to a network of overland routes connecting China with Central and South Asian countries, and thence the Middle East and Europe. Its ‘Road’, confusingly, refers to the sea routes from China through the Indian Ocean to the West.

    But despite the clunky official titles, there is clearly something of the old branding magic of Von Richthofen’s Silk Road that has rubbed off on Chinese Communist Party planners, since this new and breathtaking (in scale and expense) infrastructure project is very much inspired by and aiming to emulate the Silk Road of old. Whether that’s the Silk Road of our imaginations or of historical fact, I will leave you to decide.