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Chinese emperors have soft skills

Book review: The Emperor Far Away: Travels At The Edge of China,
Author: David Eimer.
When analysing China’s future in general and its Belt-Road initiative in particular, it pays to consider China’s race relations within its borders and its relations with its neighbours. With that in mind, I have enjoyed and benefited from reading David Eimer’s 2014 book, The Emperor Far Away.
 
Formerly a Beijing correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, Eimer spent about a year traveling in Xingjiang, Tibet, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, the Golden Triangle, Sichuan, Yunan, and then northeast China bordering North Korea and Russia. In the travelogue, he liberally sprinkled his travel writing with his deep knowledge of the Chinese history and his balanced views on some of the daunting issues China faces today. 
 
As a Chinese, I am embarrassed to admit that I have not been to many of the places Eimer has explored at the edges of China. More embarrassingly still, like most of my contemporaries who came of age during the Cultural Revolution, we did not get a proper education of the history. The narratives we were forced to accept were heavily distorted or simply wrong. Now in my mid-fifties I am spending a lot of time to learn and de-learn the history.
 
Eimer writes elegantly. As an avid learner of English since 1977, I consulted dictionary dozens of times while reading his book. There is so much to learn and it is so enjoyable to learn. I took notes and asked myself when I could write as effortlessly and eloquently as Eimer. He turns a noun to a verb at will, cracks jokes at his own or others’ expense, and mixes the landscape in a remote hill with politics in Beijing.
 
Where I disagree with the author (and most Western writers) is in their universal negativity on China. I am naturally biased but I see the Chinese government manage race relations and foreign relations far better than before. I see hope for further improvement down the road. Beijing’s ongoing fight with the Trump administration on tariffs and the Belt-Road initiative have demonstrated China’s growing sensitivity and much improved understanding of global issues.
 
Most expatriates who have spent time in China have negative views of China. This is not surprising. China is a tough place. Indeed, most Chinese citizens complain loudly too, although they are nationalistic, whether they admit it or not.
 
In 1977 when China reopened its universities towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, Beijing did something extraordinary by global standards: it imposed a requirement on all educational institutions (big and small, urban and rural) to learn a foreign language each and every semester. From a remote rural school I started to learn English in 1977. Since then, foreign-language exams have been compulsory for any school admission and even academic promotions. For a country as nationalistic as China to continue this policy for as long as 41 years without interruption and even without a political backlash, it is truly amazing.
 
This is proof, in my view, China is willing to learn to open up whatever the global circumstances.
 
Last week I wrote a review of Eimer’s book in my Chinese blog, with a very different tone. I received overwhelming responses and many blog readers were as frustrated as I was by the fact that Eimer’s book would not have a translated version in China because of the sensitive issues Eimer had raised: race relations, the border disputes and his general tone of criticism of the government. After all, China remains a place with media censorship. I hope at least a few of my blog readers will find time to read Eimer’s original version in English and a translated version published in Taiwan, although I am aware they are often glued to their smartphones. If they read Eimer’s book as attentively as I did, they would even find a few typos as I did such as guanggun (bachelors).
 
When traveling from Xingjiang to Qinghai Province, Elmer had a travel companion named Ma. At midnight, they reached a small town but the small hotel would not admit a foreigner. Ma promptly dashed away to find his own accommodation, leaving our author to fend for himself. At that point, Eimer’s philosophical remarks in the book made quite an impact on me and some of my blog followers. Eimer asked, how could I blame Ma? China is a cruel place, and for ordinary citizens, the future wasn’t really something they planned for. Things just happened, good or bad, and mostly bad, whether you liked them or not. They lost their jobs, got a salary cut and suffered an injury at work, or had their ancestral land taken away for a tiny compensation. So they concentrate on the immediate - the next meal or the next bus ride - leave the rest to fate. Some of my readers and I said the same thing: what a statement!
 
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