The BoZhu Interviews: “I’ve Become more Aware of How Easily People Adapt to new Circumstances” –

FOARP about Democracy, Arguments between Memory and Ego, and the End of Reform in China

FOARP (Fear of a Red Planet) is a blogger from Britain who lives and works in Poland. He has also lived in China and Japan, and his first long-distance flight took him to Taiwan, ten years ago. The following interview is all about the past ten years.
His blog’s homepage can be found here.

The interview –

Q:  Most foreign China blogs seem to get started at the beginning of an expat’s stay there, or at some time during their stay. Your first post says, “It’s Good to be Back”, in October 2007, after your return to Britain. Why the delay?

A: Until 2006 I had never even looked at a blog, much less comment on one. I guess like a lot of people I saw such things as a giant time waster (which they are) and as inconsequential (which they may or may not be). The change happened after I started working for Foxconn, where my job consisted of periods of intense activity interspersed with the occasional period of inactivity, in which I turned to reading/commenting on blogs as a way of fighting the boredom.

Q:  Not too long after your return to Europe, you became an expat again, a Briton in Poland. How did you get there? Had you been there before? Do you speak Polish? And does life in Poland have an effect on how you view the world?

A: Actually I left the UK back at the end of 2009, when I travelled to Japan and worked for a patent firm there. I came to Poland at the start of this year to work in-house for a Finnish MNC where I get to use my Chinese, my knowledge of intellectual property, and get to travel a lot. Coming to Poland for the job interview was my first time in the country. My Polish classes are funded by the company – at the moment I can speak some Polish, ale niezbyt dobrze.

I would say that both my experiences in Japan and my experiences in Poland have affected my view on the world. Working in Japan taught me a lot about people, some good, some bad. I made some very good friends, but also worked incredibly long hours, alongside people who basically sacrificed their personal lives on the altar of work. Poland is almost the polar opposite. Perhaps it is the communist inheritance with its emphasis on work-to-rule, but the Polish draw a very solid line between their personal lives and their work lives and clearly distinguish between them.

Living in both these places also put a different perspective on my experiences in China. Japan obviously has many cultural similarities with China (although I think the idea of a genuine ‘Confucian’ world is an incredibly dangerous oversimplification). However, Japan’s cultural inheritance has not cursed it to eternal dictatorship.  Poland’s story as a country which has emerged from dictatorship is also obviously relevant.

Q:  Relevant in which ways?

A: Poland managed to successfully ditch communism without harming economic growth, or even ever suffering a real recession, and without excessive bloodshed after the end of the martial law period. It hasn’t had the same exposition that East Germany experienced due to the activities of the Gauck commission though. Perhaps the ideal post-communist liberation would be economically Polish and politically East German, but then East Germany had the rest of Germany to assist it.

Of course, the experience of Taiwan is perhaps more to the point.

Q: When did you decide to go to China? Did you study the language, along with law, before going there?

A: I graduated with a degree in Physics and Astrophysics and no idea of how I was going to use it to find a job back in the summer of 2001. The one thing I was certain of, however, was that I wanted to see the world and to learn a language that would be useful. It was basically a toss-up between Russian and Chinese, and Chinese won.

Before I arrived in Taiwan in November 2001 I had studied Chinese for about 3 weeks but that was about the limit. Firstly in Taiwan, and then later at a university in Nanjing, I taught English and used the money from that to pay for my studies. It was only after studying Chinese for a few years that I felt confident enough to take on a job in the patenting department at Foxconn at the start of ’06, which was also my first introduction to patenting. After working there for about 18 months I decided that I wanted to try to get some qualifications related to patenting, and so returned to the UK where I studied my master’s in intellectual property as well as a diploma in law. The job market being as it was in ’09, I ended up going back overseas after graduating.

Q:  Did life in China have an effect on how you view the world?

A: Since I was 21 when I went to Taiwan, and 22 when I arrived in Nanjing, it’s kind of hard for me to distinguish between the changes that naturally occur after 21 and the effect that China had. Compared to most of the people I knew back home, though, I would say that I’ve become more cynical, and more aware of how easily people adapt to new circumstances and get used to them.

Some experiences which I had in China which had a big effect on me:

  • SARS – my interesting life in China was converted in a very short time into something approaching semi-apocalyptic within a few days of the government switching from cover-up to over-reaction.
  • My boss in Nanjing’s attempted murder of his secretary, his subsequent suicide, and the response of party authorities to it.
  • Learning the language – a great confidence-booster and something I will use the rest of my life.
  • The sight of the hundreds of new recruits who showed up from the countryside every day at the gate underneath my office windows at Foxconn.
  • The expat community – put simply, my fellow expats included some really clever, smart people, as well as some real scum-bags. The real shock was discovering that the two were not as mutually exclusive as I had previously thought.
  • A friend of mine crying when she described the poverty of her home town. It had never occurred to me before that that people could be that ashamed of a poor background.

Reading the above it sounds like I had a really bad time in China, actually I had a ball, it’s just that I also had to take the rough with the smooth – and in China there’s a lot of both.

Q:  I guess if there was something that would boost my confidence, it would be earning a degree in Physics and in Astrophysics… One of the purposes of your blog, as stated in October 2007, was to keep your Chinese polished. How closely do you follow Chinese and non-Chinese blogs on China respectively? Do you (as a reader) or they (as bloggers) focus on certain, recurring kinds of news and topics?

A: I try to keep up my Chinese by watching the occasional soap-opera and reading news articles, as well as the stuff I translate at work. Chinese bloggers who I follow have dwindled – Song Qiang and Wang Xiaofeng only post about once a month. On the English language side, blogs I’ll look at at least once a day include the Peking Duck, China Geeks, China Law Blog, Imagethief (when he posts) and, of course, Just Recently’s Beautiful Blog.

As a reader I’m not so interested in the business/legal side of things – outside of work, anyway. Politics and history are the things I like to read the most. A couple of new (to me, anyway) blogs I’ve been getting into recently: Sinostand, Seeing Red In China, and Roll, Roll, Run. Why not any with a more positive spin on the Chinese government?  Well, I simply don’t believe such a spin reflects the truth.

Q:  Have you seen big changes in your own blog or blogs, and in the Chinese, or foreign “China blogosphere” since you started blogging yourself?

A: The biggest change happened between 2006 and 2008, with the introduction of comprehensive blocking. Put simply, this destroyed the expat blogosphere in China, since the humorous complaining that had made up 90% of what was posted about life in China became impossible to access without a proxy, thus preventing people finding them by accident the way people did with websites like Talk Talk China. These blogs fed off comments, so without them they withered and died.The growth of the nationalist movement since 2008 and its effect on the Chinese internet has been well enough described elsewhere that I don’t need to go into it.

In my own blog, I’ve found out that the best use for it is as a sort of log book of what I thought about something in particular at a particular time. Nietzsche said something about how, when your memory and your ego argue, it is your memory that eventually gives way. I like to use my blog as a way of counteracting the temptation to unconsciously re-write what you really thought about something at the time. You see this a lot when you ask people if they supported the Iraq war – my friends accuse me of it.

Q:  In your view, has China changed since you started blogging? Has Britain? Has the world? How so?

A: The biggest change in China has been the ditching of reform – combined with the predicted slow-down this could spell big trouble. Or it might not.For the UK, the economic crisis has had a big effect, but I believe in the long term there will be some positive outcome from it. I’m hoping that the crisis in the Eurozone will teach people that they are much better off having their own economic destiny in their own hands, and not decided for them by Frankfurt, Brussels, or Athens. The death of the idea that continuous borrowing on the never-never is an acceptable way of running the country is also something I hope the current crisis will bring about.

For the world in general, I see two changes this year. The first is the re-emergence of democratisation as an engine of change. From 9/11 until this year it seemed that democracy was on the retreat in Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. The Arab Spring will, I hope, change this. The second is the all-enveloping economic crisis has also had an effect, destroying confidence in many of our financial institutions.

Q:  Besides a return to, let’s say, the subsidiarity principle within the EU –is that what you mean? –, would you like to see a smaller role for organizations such as the IMF or the World Bank, too? If so, why?

A: I’m afraid it rather revolves around the current dispute between Mr. Cameron and Mrs. Merkel. Mrs. Merkel’s solution is more Europe, Mr. Cameron’s solution is less. The UK at least signed on to the European Economic Community after a referendum in which it was promised that the EEC would be a trade union first and foremost, you could argue that things have developed from there, but there was never really any mandate given for this change. My hope is that whichever way things go, some reference is made to the people of Europe and what they actually want, preferably through a referendum.

The IMF and the World Bank have something of a mixed record, but a lender capable of imposing conditions is certainly something that is necessary at the moment.

Q:  Have you ever stopped reading blogs because you felt they were becoming boring, or because they angered you?

A: Never because they angered me – I even still read Hidden Harmonies. Some blogs that used to be good have gone downhill however – Danwei being an example.

Q:  What’s the worst online article or post you have ever read about China (that you remember)? And what’s the worst online article about Britain that you remember?

A: China – well, there’s so many. It’s really a toss-up between Shaun Rein’s “Real poverty is pretty much gone” piece, his piece proposing that the Nobel prize be given to Deng Xiaoping, and Paul V. Kane’s piece suggesting that the US sell-out Taiwan in the NYT last week.

Britain? Well, there was a lot of stupid rubbish written in the US about “imperial decline” after the 2007 Iranian hostage crisis, but that’s the only thing that comes to mind. I guess you can also include the nonsense Mark Stein used to peddle about Europe (and Britain in particular) turning into “Eurabia” because of Muslim immigration – something with no statistical basis.

Q:  That’s to say, you don’t believe in that life-cycle – rise, decline and fall of empires?

A: Well, very few countries admit to being empires any more, do they? But any theory of history based on things being cyclical overcomplicates the point – things change, except when they don’t, and that’s it.

Q:  An interview about your blog wouldn’t be complete without a question about your online brawl with Chris Devonshire-Ellis. In November 2008, you wrote a post stating that Chris Devonshire-Ellis wasn’t a lawyer, and that it annoyed you that he was treated as an expert by people who ought to know better. Were you the first blogger to make that statement? Wang Jianshuo, a Chinese blogger, wrote in December 2009 that he had previously run into Mr. Devonshire-Ellis, too (also online, and not in real life). Did you expect what followed – i. e. this kind of correspondence? This followed almost two and a half years after your actual post, and it probably caused you some trouble. Would you have written the post anyway, knowing the aftermath? Why, or why not?

A: Actually someone left a comment on a thread on Wang Jianshuo’s blog outing him as early as 2006, and people knew about it before even that. It’s just that he had managed to silence them through intimidating tactics such as those Wang Jianshuo (and also Ryan McLaughlin) describe on their blogs. People were also discussing his disreputable tactics – particularly giving out that he was a legal professional when he had not even finished his A-levels – on various defunct expat blogs back in 2006, which is where I first heard of him. I checked out his story myself after I got back to the UK, and after hearing from some more people who had been hassled by him, I decided to write a post on him to encourage those who were being hassled to stand up to him by showing that there was actually nothing, legally speaking, that he could do to stop them telling the truth about him.

Do I regret outing him? Absolutely not! Yes, the old boy certainly knows how to hold a grudge, but as far as I’m concerned, he can go and whistle for all I care. I’m in the right, and he’s in the wrong. It’s that simple.

Even having my real identity outed by him, to me, was not such a problem. For years I had been planning to out myself  but the correct moment never seemed to present itself. He solved the problem for me. The negative consequences of being outed have so far been precisely zero.

I would, however, like to give a shout-out to everyone who wrote comments on my blog supporting me.

Q:  Your most beautiful post, you said when it was your turn in a blog-nomination-snowball initiative in August this year, was one about Taiwan. At the same time, it seems, you like to tease Taiwanese nationalists, once in a while. Why is that? Does your sympathy for Taiwanese (or expat-Taiwanese feelings) depend on the way they are expressed?

A: When I lived in Taiwan I had a lot of sympathy for the pan-greens. I still do. It’s just that sympathy does not extend to uncritically swallowing scare-stories about a KMT-CCP conspiracy to annex Taiwan to China over the heads of the Taiwanese electorate without evidence. It’s also striking how Taiwanese independence is the lens through which some of these bloggers see everything. They’ve become far more committed to Taiwanese independence than the average Taiwanese person, and far more committed to the pan-greens than the average Taiwanese voter, a commitment not unlike certain US officials and the former South Vietnam – which is why my first post on this was entitled “Taiwan Expats and the Saigon Syndrome“.

Also having followed the last ten years, it’s become obvious that for some people war is always just around the corner, and they always write accordingly. The Chinese invasion is always in the next election year, the KMT is always trying to fix a deal (for which there’s no evidence) , the CCP is always carrying forward its plans etc. etc. etc. Sure, “the boy who cried wolf” and all that, but there’s a difference between warning people to maintain vigilance, and essentially trying to sell scare stories on the basis of rumours.

The goal of demonising the KMT is to de-legitimise them as a political party. Any vote they win is put down to dirty tricks. Their manifesto is portrayed as a tissue of lies. The idea that, by de-legitimising one half of Taiwan’s democratic balance, they are also delegitimising Taiwan’s political system, does not seem to occur to the purveyors  of such propaganda. It does not matter that propaganda from the other side has the same effect.

I’ve kind of mellowed on the Taiwan blogs, though, firstly because the DPP has changed it’s policies over the past few years – particularly since Tsai Ing-wen become leader – and a lot of the blogs have followed their lead. I’m certain that the CCP will try to paint her as an extremist – it’s what they do to everyone – but this is neither here nor there. I just hope that, if she loses, she, or someone like her, gets another chance.

Q:  Is there an unasked question you’d like to reply to?

A: I’ve been asked a lot how I ever could have worked for Foxconn. The answer is that I joined them before the major scandals came out. Actually, for me, it was quite a positive experience. I know I’ve been critical of people who have worked for outlets like Global Times and it may look like I’m applying a double-standard, but to me it does not seem that way.

Q: Foarp, thanks a lot for this interview.

The interview was conducted by an exchange of e-mails.

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Related

All BoZhu Interviews

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16 Responses to “The BoZhu Interviews: “I’ve Become more Aware of How Easily People Adapt to new Circumstances” –”

  1. FOARP and I don’t always see eye to eye on things, but he does write well. And this was a great interview.

    Thanks, both of you.

    Like

  2. Thanks for the support Mylaowai.

    All that remains is to thank JR for this opportunity to cement my position as a Germany Expert by quoting Nietzche. My mission now is to show everyone what wonderful cultural gifts Germany has given the world .

    Like

  3. All very well, except that the man’s name was Nietzsche. Also very recommendable is this prophetic piece about the yellow peril, from the 1979 Eurovision contest.

    Just as one of the youtube commenters said: I can’t believe Germany didn’t win.

    Thanks for the interview, Foarpand for yours, Mylaowai. Some Germany / China expertise can only make this blog look better.

    Like

  4. Its a load of b/s about Chris D-E though. He’s still in China and still running a China practice and thriving and Grundy is in…Wroclaw. Guess one lasted the other out and I doubt Grundy can even go back to China without being sued for libel – and not just by CDE either. FOARP was at best a writer of conspiracy theories and at worst a vindictive troll.

    Like

  5. Your comments come across as rather unprofessional, Mr. CDE.

    Like

  6. Errr. . yeah. Chris, it’s a bit strange that you should come to us talking about how you’re “still running a successful China practice”. I mean, you supposedly resigned from your company back in February 2009 after you fell into disgrace for publishing interviews with prominent politicians that were “pure fabrication” – they never actually happened, then you supposedly quit China to go to India, and then you quit China to go to the US. So, in reality, Chris, you’ve supposedly left China and your business there at least three times.

    As for being sued for libel, you’ve had more than five years in which to open proceedings, yet you’ve done nothing. The reason why is simple – you wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if you did. Why? Because everything I wrote back in 2008 was true – you’re not a lawyer (or accountant, or whatever), and you never did go to university. As you can see from the above-posted links, I’m not the only person whose said this either – it’s widely said both inside and outside China.

    So please, Chris, just grow up.

    Like

  7. [Edited. Mr. CDE, or “China Ren”: if you want to have a discussion with Foarp on this blog, please use a consistent handle. Thank you.]

    Like

  8. If you want to know where he is based, he’s on Facebook, Linked In and his firms website all have him in Singapore if you bothered to look.

    Like

  9. “China Ren”: if you want to come across as someone else than Mr. CDE, talk like someone else.

    Like

  10. You’re just hopeless. Anyone who doesn’t agree with you or anyone else’s views you happen to share must immediately be the person to which your scorn is aimed at. I’m sure someone must have a term for that. “Talk like”?
    We’ll all be having to wear the same t-shirts next so you can more easily distinguish between “You” and “Them”. A psychiatrist would have a field day with you.
    Print what you want you always do anyway regardless of errors, omissions or other people’s points of view. I’m not Chris btw, just an old Beijing acquaintance of his who stumbled across your little “interview”. But whatever you say is 110% correct, all the time, and this is your blog. I bow to your superior capabilities.

    Like

  11. LOL. Gilman Grundy rotting away in Warsaw he still doesn’t give up on slagging off China guys does he? Ha ha ha!! What pills is he on?!!

    Like

  12. I think Foarp replied to you there, CDE. How come that a man who, in your view, is “rotting away” keeps you commenting?

    Like

  13. One somehow doubts the integrity of much of this so called banter. And its “history”. FOARP is dead. Long live FOARP.

    Like

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