Riding the Chinese wave

Only two weeks left, then I’m done. Done with my research master’s thesis, that is. This prospect forces me to think about what I want to do after graduation (officially due in September). For the past three months I’ve been busy with a couple of job applications, so far without success. This week I expanded my search to include a personal passion: China. As many of you know, I have lived and studied in China for quite some time. Working in China, then, sounds very appealing. To actually consider this path, though, I must first know what I find so interesting about the place. This is what I will try to specify here.

Back in 2009, I set off on a journey to a small city called Yining in Western China, some 60 kilometers from the border with Kazachstan. As soon as I arrived I bought my first diary and started noting down all the peculiar aspect of Chinese society I encountered. Every month or so I incorporated these into blog posts, from which I will quote a couple of passages. For instance, after just a few days the cultural and historical complexity of The Middle Kingdom became apparent:

“If the slick Chinese quarters are white, then the traditional Uyghur neighbourhoods are black; both can’t be any more different. The separation of the two areas is evident. From one moment to the other you step into another world: the wide, well-maintained urban roads suddenly transform into old, narrow streets where the view is dominated by yelling salesmen, steaming mutton flaps and donkey carts. Not a single Han-Chinese is to be seen, nor any of their police posts. Many Chinese are afraid of Uyghurs and wouldn’t dare to set foot in one of their neighbourhood. The Uyghurs are much more open and flexible, which is why you see them almost everywhere. They often live and work in the Chinese part of the city. But you see how they truly live when you enter their domains. Houses are small and humble, often made of bricks as well as clay and wood. The Uyghur areas are, compared to their Chinese counterparts, rather poor. There are no streetlights at night and most buildings do not even have electricity. Yet for some reason this part of the city airs a form of wealth: something pure and authentic, which strongly contrasts with the uninspired muppet show that the Chinese have set up.”

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This early observation proved correct as the tension between the Han-Chinese and the Uyghur populations only increased in the following years. More generally, the way the Chinese government deals with its minorities is both disgusting and fascinating. As its economic influence grows, its political actions are increasingly scrutinized by others, especially by Western governments and organisations. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likes to portray itself as a benevolent ruler, its policies are often awkward to foreigners: it claims to bring prosperity to distant parts like Yining and yet they intentionally close down mosques just before Friday’s prayers. Essentially, the CCP struggles to combine a long history of authoritarian rule with the demands of a modern, globalized economy. The subordinated position of Uyghurs in society is just one example of this struggle, but a telling one.


A few years later, I went back to China for a bachelor exchange in Shanghai. At the time the CCP’s top leadership positions were being reshuffled. In one of my posts I describe the scene and contrasted it with the simultaneous process in the US:

“After months of speculation and secrecy, the CCP announced on November 15 [2012] which gentlemen will lead the world’s second largest economy for next ten years. The seven new members of the Politburo one by one stepped unto the stage of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. They lined up according to rank, each in a dark suit with blow-dried hair and outdated glasses. The presentation was quick and functional; the contrast with the billion-dollar campaigns and the buzzing victory speech by Barack Obama could not have been any bigger.”

Now that the scenario of Donald Trump as president of the US is a serious one, the Chinese leadership must feel somewhat relieved. At least they do not have to worry about some clown laying claim to political power. Of course, there are many downsides to the way the CCP operates (see previous passage), but perhaps it is time to emphasize the things they do well, too. You can say a lot about the Chinese, but they get stuff done. I guess I’d like to help them with that.

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