Dissident author Ma Jian: “We used all our strength to tell Hongkongers what loomed ahead”

I’m standing in a mid-summer downpour in northwest London interpreting for a Chinese dissident novelist and the lorry driver charged with delivering a skip on to the Ma household driveway.

“Tell ‘im I’m worried I’ll knock his fence over mate,” yells the bear-sized man from the truck’s cabin.

The 65-year-old writer responds and I translate: “Ma Jian says not to worry, there’s plenty of room and you need to make space for his wife’s car.”

The driver nods and proceeds to manoeuvre the vehicle, eventually lowering the skip into roughly the correct place, leaving the garden fence intact.

Ma Jian gestures for me to follow him through the back garden. “Sorry about that. We moved in last year and are still trying to get the house in order.”

He leads me towards his self-designed shed or “book room”, as he prefers. “Come in, quickly. Honestly, I’ll never get used to this weather.”

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My Life: John MacKinnon

On the wild side I was born in Leeds (in northern England) in 1947 to Scottish parents. I was the grandson of Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, though he died before I was born. I can recall some furni­ture and paintings that had belonged to him but I was never much interested in politics and his legacy didn’t affect my early years. Only when my first book was pub­lished did I attract attention as his grandson. However, I’ve always had a socialist streak as I dislike unfairness and will fight injustice if need be.

My parents were both busy doctors and I had four elder sisters so I became quite a wild little boy. Eventually, it was decided that I would be sent to boarding school to be “tamed”, as it were. I was packed off to Bramcote School, in Scarborough, on the east coast of Yorkshire, and that’s where I really discovered nature. We would walk along the beach and there were rock pools brimming with bugs, fish and other wonderful things. I discovered geology and soon accumulated a huge collection of fossils, which I stored in the loft, worrying my parents, who thought the weight might collapse the house.

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Zhan Tian You

This February, the state-owned China Railway Corporation inaugurated the Year of the Pig by announcing railway spending in the region of 800 billion yuan in 2019. While the UK and USA watch their antiquated railway lines crumble, the Communist Party of China views railway development as a core project both at home – sewing the vast territory of the People’s Republic together – and abroad, providing transport infrastructure in places as diverse as Laos and Kenya as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Critics see China’s plans as semi-colonial, with tracks in Tibet and Xinjiang part of a broader placation program, while one-sided contracts in the BRI endebt poorer countries to China. China’s grand railway schemes also trouble economists, who see railways being built simply to stimulate economic growth while China Railway Corporation has, itself, a multi-billion yuan debt.

Whichever platform you stand on, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s ambitions for the Iron Rooster. If the automobile defined the gas-guzzling American century, a Beijing-backed railway renaissance is looking to define the Asian century.

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Birds of Beijing

Beijing’s old quarters, the area 19th century foreigners dubbed the Tartar City, is made up of hutong alleyways snaking between court­yard houses that were once the residences of Manchu bannermen.

Overhead can often be heard the “chirpy cheep cheep” (accord­ing to the pocket book Birds of China, by John MacKinnon) of the Eurasian tree sparrow.

“This is a common bird in lightly wooded areas, villages and farmland over much of China and can become a pest of grain crops,” writes MacKinnon. “It replaces the house sparrow as the ‘city’ sparrow in the east of the country.”

Walking through the Temple of the Earth, visitors may catch sight of a great spotted woodpecker, which “drum loudly and have a loud explosive call”. Beyond the Marco Polo Bridge, wildlife photographers snap away at great white egrets “with characteristic kink in S-shaped neck” fishing in the shallows of the Yongding River. Ball games in Grand Canal Park may be accompanied by the song of the grey-capped greenfinch, whose “flight call is a twittering dzidzi-i-dzi-i”.

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Shenzhen’s history didn’t start in 1979

The fishing-village-turned-metropolis hook thrown out by countless journalists when writing about Shenzhen neatly encapsulates the fact that a relative nowhere became a serious somewhere after Deng Xiaoping earmarked it as ground zero in the spearheading of reforms, in 1978. To this day, 40 years after the Chinese leader unleashed its long-dormant entrepre­neurial zeal, there is no better (or more readily applied) metaphor for the transformation of China than the sky­scraper-studded cityscape north of the Sham Chun River.

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‘World being pushed out of control’ the central theme at Lianzhou photo festival

It has become something of a cultural pilgrimage for those concerned with contemporary Chinese photography. With the first breath of winter loosening the remaining autumn leaves, a familiar band of journalists, critics, artists and art lovers migrate to subtropical Guangdong province for the annual Lianzhou International Photography Festival.

Although the G107 national highway now links Lianzhou to the Pearl River Delta, this ancient mountain pass town remains a hard-to-get-to place; it has no airport or railway station, committing visitors to an arduous four-hour coach ride from Guangzhou to the camel hump karst hills that straddle the Guangdong-Hunan border. One is always rewarded for the effort, however, as old allies reunite at banquets thrown by outdoor restaurants overlooking the jade-coloured Lian River, paving the way for the festival to come.

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On the Trail of Deng Xiaoping in the French town where he embraced Communism

montargis-stationBaoding is a sizeable city in central Hebei province, in north China, and synonymous with heavy industry and its attendant ills. Its hardy people – mostly of the country’s Han majority – wear no-nonsense expressions and display a hard­headed­ness born of stoicism. A showcase city Baoding is not.

Yet neither is it poor. As I walk the streets, the trappings of 21st-century capitalism protrude between the Mao-era tenements and identikit high-rise apartment blocks. There are fast-food joints, a few garish shopping malls and a railway station so big it makes those in Europe look like toy models.

Not far from the station, on Yuhua West Road, stands a large, unremarkable middle school that could exist anywhere in China. At the back of the school, on Jingtaiyi Road, a few Taoist fortune-tellers line the route to the gate of a small building fashioned in the Ming style. A sign above the door bears the calligraphic script of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. It reads, Liu Fa Qingong Xianxue Yundong Jinnianguan, or, “The Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement Museum”.

The museum tells of aspirational young Chinese who went to France and Belgium to work and study a century ago, lured by the promise of acquiring the modern skills and technology with which they might help develop their mother­land. The well-intentioned initiative lasted from 1908 to 1927, but ultimately failed due to the miserable conditions many of the Chinese endured, exploited at the hands of factory owners or deprived of the schooling they had been promised.

Despite the movement’s failings, and due to its celebrity alumnus (namely Deng Xiaoping, who would go on to become China’s paramount leader), the Mouvement Travail-Études has become central to Chinese Communist Party mythology, much like the Long March. Yet despite the propaganda element (posters recalling China’s century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperi­al­ists, for instance), the museum’s curators have brought to light an often-skimmed-over chapter in modern Chinese history.

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Mining the Zeitgeist

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I follow the map on my phone as it leads me into the backstreets of Songzhuang Art Colony, the world’s largest art village, located on the eastern fringe of the Beijing municipality. Just when I think I’ve been lured into a labyrinthine trap, the unmistakable bald head of Shanxi-native Luo Dawei (罗大卫) emerges from a doorway and beckons me in from the cold.

“Sorry about the mess, we’re just moving in,” he says as I watch computers and office furniture being delivered, unpacked in a tempest of cardboard and dust.

This is Fengmian HQ. Founded in 2017, Luo describes his innovative new-media business as a “photography and cultural education platform.” The company’s official WeChat account has over 50,000 followers who tune in for news on China’s contemporary photography scene, as well as online workshops and talks by critics and artists. Dawei is the man to turn to for Chinese photography.

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China’s Bike Sharing Bubble has Burst

24 Hangzhou Xiacheng2Imperial China’s four great inventions – papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass – were milestones in the long march of human progress. Last year, China’s state-run media highlighted the nation’s “four great new inventions” of modern times, but astute readers were quick to point out that high-speed trains, mobile-phone payments, e-commerce and shared-bicycle schemes had all been in use elsewhere for quite some time. The argument seemed to be that China’s taking these to a new level was akin to invention.

For bike-share companies built on concepts first seen elsewhere, for instance, the real innovation was app-driven “dockless” bicycles than could be unlocked and peddled almost anywhere, as long as you had your smartphone handy.

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Changing China: photo show focuses on impact of Wenzhou’s economic success story

ThomasBird-Wenzhou2For three days, attendees of the Lishui Photography Festival have been shepherded from gallery to workshop to seminar. The itinerary has been packed with talks, banquets and trips to the surrounding countryside.

In my free time, I have lost myself in the old winding streets of this small city in the south of Zhejiang province, ambling between galleries, museums and public installations, seeking out beacons of artistic excellence in a sea of mediocrity.

Like many grand gatherings of this calibre in China, the event has been choreographed into an assembly line of meet-ups. Festivities started with a variety show-style opening gala and will conclude with an award ceremony, replete with a spiffy host accompanied by dolled-up female assistants.

The days in between are bursting with activity as photography connoisseurs queue alongside curious locals and students to digest the more than 5,000 works on show.

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