No Sympathy for Exam Stress

As Indian high schoolers received board examination marks last week, their Chinese counterparts are appearing for their annual gaokao exams this week. The gaokao system, like the Indian board exams, receives a lot of flak for its many flaws. The gaokao examination in China usually determines where these students can pursue their college-level education. However, the main problem is that colleges require high gaokao scores for students who do not originate from that province. This is linked to the hukou system or the household registration scheme (almost an internal passport) which determines where you can work depending on your parent’s origin. As this Atlantic Times article puts it,

China’s prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, both based in Beijing, will collectively take about 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers who took the gaokao this June; 14 students from every 10,000 who took the gaokao in nearby Tianjin, 10 out of every 10,000 test-takers from Shanghai, and only about three per 10,000 candidates from Anhui,  and a mere two from every 10,000 taking the test in Guangdong.

This has led to a wave of ‘gaokao migrants’- people who move to other provinces or purchase land there so that their children will be able to take the exam in a province that has better universities. So authorities in provinces are now cracking down on those who are hoping to circumvent this system. According to this article in Sixth Tone, the province of Fujian, which has been seeing an increase in such gaokao migration, has cracked down on it:

To stem gaokao migration, Fujian education and police departments issued a joint notice on Monday clarifying the policies for students from elsewhere: Students must have had Fujian household registration for at least one year, and studied at a high school in the province for at least one year, before they qualify to take the exam in Fujian. In addition, their parents must have residency, stable employment, and records of social security payments in the province for at least one year.

Going forward, regulations will become even stricter: For students sitting the gaokao in 2019, the requirements will increase to two years, and three years for those taking the exams in 2020.

What this will mean is that migrants and people from low-income household will lose out either way. This is particularly disheartening, for a system that prides itself on its being a meritocracy.

A Case of the Pot and the Kettle

In an article about Angela Merkel’s upcoming visit to China, The Global Times, published an article that called for more cooperation between the EU and China:

Although Europe is grappling with a multitude of problems like terrorism, the refugee crisis, Brexit and its declining clout, it still carries weight in the international community. To fulfill its responsibilities as a major country, China needs Europe’s cooperation on regional and global affairs such as climate change, counter-terrorism and global governance. This gets more important given the political upheaval triggered by Washington.

As China grows stronger economically and has a bigger say in the international community, more countries seek cooperation with China. In today’s world where countries are entwined in each other’s interests, more cooperation is a natural outcome and on an equal basis. In this process, mutual respect is essential while a condescending view must be abandoned.

While cooperation is worth lauding, the EU may be looking at China for investment and trade. However, it is also taking note of problems with Chinese sharp power as elsewhere in the world. The European Parliament released a two-page note on the debate on ‘China’s foreign influence operations in Western liberal democracies: An emerging debate’. Here, it takes stock of the events in Australia, New Zealand and the US. It also looks at the concerns about Chinese influencing politics within the EU:

As China successfully steers the debate on China in the EU to issues such as the country’s Silk Road initiatives, there is little room for discussion of the impact of alleged CCP-led foreign influence operations on EU norms and values. A case in point is the front-page articles by China’s Ambassador to the UK, published in a UK media outlet in January 2018 before Prime Minister Theresa May’s state visit to China and again in March 2018. Neither a German intelligence report uncovering Chinese operatives using fake LinkedIn profiles in more than 10 000 emails to German citizens allegedly to recruit informants, nor Chinese pressure on Western publishers to self-censor products for the Chinese market have triggered a debate.

While more countries in Europe may be keen to engage with China, they remain mindful of any attempts to influence the state of their democracies. So, China will have to consider this when they call for ‘mutual respect’ and abandoning a ‘condescending worldview’

 

The Politics of Abandoned Spaces

In the Indian Express, Sushant Singh has a great piece on Miranshah, North Waziristan, close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border which faced much of the brutality of Operation Zarb-e Azb (an attack launched by the Pakistan Army in areas of FATA to ‘flush out’ terrorism. He points out how the area seems like a Potempkin village:

…there is no buzz in the markets and not a soul on the streets. Dotted with Pakistani flags, much of the town lies in ruin.

But that does not deter Pakistan Army from showcasing the new stadium, schools, orphanages, parks, a hospital and market with glistening coats of paint and freshly poured concrete. The Younus Khan sports complex boasts of a modern cricket stadium, a football field and a nine-hole golf course, but there is no one playing anything at 10 in the morning.

In Islamabad, an evening prior, ISPR DG Major General Asif Ghafoor rattled out other figures of “progress” in FATA: 1,700 km of new roads, seven new cadet colleges, water supply through solar power in every village, canals, hospitals, schools and nine new markets.

The main Miranshah market had around a thousand shops which were razed by the Pakistan Army during the fighting. It has constructed 1,340 modern shops which were handed over to local residents a week ago. But the swanky market complex, which seems to have been transplanted in this tribal area straight from the US, is deserted, barring soldiers with machine guns on guard…

Sushant points out that 9 lakh people were internally displaced during the military operations. This is not new to anyone in the Indian sub-continent where the 1947 Partition, the 1971 Bangladesh War and the Sri Lankan Civil War were just some of the conflicts that led people to flee their homes.

Sushant’s article brought to mind a novel that I finished earlier in the week- The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop- which is set against the 1972 Cyprus coup d’etat. The political violence led to the Turkish Cypriots fleeing to the south and the Geek Cypriots fleeing to the north. The most striking part of the novel and the violence that ensued is that the Turkish military fenced off a tourist destination and it continues to be under the Turkish occupation since. (Here are some almost eerie photos of Varosha now.) There have been reports of Turkey allowing its citizens and people of Turkish origin to settle there again. But we do not know if this is a bargaining chip or rhetoric.

Conflict easily uproots people and spaces. Often, post the conflict, the government steps in reallocate property to those affected. But recourse post the trauma barely suffices.

 

The Good Chinese Policeman

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with Mandarin sitcoms, because they’re are interesting cases of soft power- and not in the least because I enjoy soppy sitcoms.

One show that really piqued my interest is called When a Snail Falls in Love (如果蜗牛有爱情). The show is about a team of officers in the Ling Police Department who deal with major crimes particularly drug and human trafficking. It moves into a how a huge family-owned corporation is used as a front for dealing drugs. As networks are often proved for illegal activities overlap, this drug route is also shown to have links with human traffickers across the borders of Thailand and Cambodia. The series ends with a bunch of cliff-hangers in Myanmar where a corrupt military officer with an appetite for violence is seen pitted against our protagonists from the Ling Police Department.

A number of scenes piqued my interest from a geopolitical perspective:

The entire season begins with Captain Ji Bai travelling undercover in a train in Myanmar. When a couple of thugs extort a man on the train, he jumps to the rescue, uses his superior physical prowesses to knock them out. When the police finally arrive on the scene, he flashes his Beijing City Police id card and is walks away scot-free.

In one of the final episodes our heroine, the criminal profiling intern Xu Xu witnesses a cruel officer shooting a Chinese offender in his charge. Xu Xu bursts into a tears and an impassioned speech about how the villain had chosen to abuse his power rather than trust in the rule of law which was always the case in China. This was moving untill I realised that it how the narrative ran contrary to reality. How much ever this show may be fiction, China remains a rule by law and not a rule of law.

The entire show is an interesting study of not only Chinese soft power, but the narratives that it posing. If you watch the show China appears as an Asian power, and its representatives are morally sound and work in a meritocratic system whose efficiency is laudable. Chinese police are easily able to cross borders and track down criminals even if they are embedded in another state’s mechanisms. The police officers travel to Myanmar through Chinese built trains and our leading pair often stares into the sunsets over shots of ports. I don’t doubt that the trains were necessary for the plot and I will assume that ports make for easily framed shots instead of jumping into conclusions about China’s projection of port infrastructure.

Overall, When a Snail Falls in Love is a good watch- it is informative about the way the Chinese perceive themselves and other nations. It is brilliantly shot and the fighting scenes are not over the top (as they usually are in a lot of Asian dramas). When a Snail Falls in love isn’t the fluffy romance that the title suggests (even if the actors are very easy on the eyes) and I would highly recommend you watch it. Here’s the trailer:

Where do you get your money, Mr Politician?

Over the last year, the role of foreign entities in elections has become an important point of consideration. In New Zealand, a national MP Jian Yang came under fire for having undisclosed relations with the Chinese intelligence. The law in Australia has also changed to regulate political funding after revelations that 80 per cent of foreign funding came from China. And of course, there’s the open secret about Russian interference in the 2016 American elections. Rory Medcalf dubs this ‘sharp power‘ but the concept is not new. Countries have been meddling in each other’s affairs while peddling statements about justice and fairness since the conception of sovereignty.

In India, we may think that our elections are messy enough without the influence of foreign hands. Indeed, the Election Commission has its work cut out in regulating illegal cash flow by political parties during elections. But our system has been made all the more vulnerable by the 2018 Finance Bill. A sneaky little clause in the Budget disempowered the existing Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act, 2010 retrospectively so that both the BJP and the Congress are cushioned from scrutiny. This makes the Indian system all the more susceptible to foreign influence. It may seem counter-intuitive to think of any external strings in the 2019 elections. But if the trends in countries like Australia and the United States are anything to go by, then they are not to be easily dismissed.

Blogging Is Not Dead Yet

In the first episode of this weekly podcast, Amit Varma and Hamsini Hariharan discuss the launch of Pragati Express, and their favourite pieces for the week. Here are some of the pieces that were spoken about in this podcast:

  1. The Freedom Fighters of Pakistan by Chintan Girish Modi
  2. Breaking New Ground by Manoj Kewalramani
  3. A Strong Law is Not Enough by Rishi Majumdar
  4. We Will Not Protect You by Alok Prasanna Kumar
  5. I Want My Free Sub by Gaurav Sabnis
  6. The Future of The Internet on the Seen and the Unseen

 

Small Decisions, Large Effects

Do humans make environmental history or does it make us? I recently came across a paragraph in Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal which captures the beauty of migration between India and South-East Asia. Here it is,

“Blood and dirt” gave the frontiers of Southeast Asia their dynamism— the human suffering of migrant workers reshaped the land. We tend to think of environmental history as something that happens to us. Environmental history on the largest scale is made by the forces of nature that shape human society: human beings are “biological agents” alongside plants and pathogens, competing for supremacy. Alternatively, we think— anthropocentrically—that environmental history is driven by the state, particularly in its modernist incarnation in a drive to conquer nature and make it productive at any cost. But what would it mean to turn this around, to think of those who crossed the Bay of Bengal as agents of environmental transformation? They crossed the sea to alter the land. Small decisions within families, small acts of coercion—the motive force of debt, or the glitter that adorned the kangany’s promises— accumulated to shift the “metabolic balance” of the Bay of Bengal.