Archive for the ‘Interpreter’ Category

The first in a new series for the Lowy’s Interpreter, drawing on my recent trip out West. Look forward to hearing feedback on these, and please be sure to check out my wonderful photographer’s site while you are at it.

Notes on the Silk Road: Urumqi

By Guest Blogger – 28 October 2010 2:56PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

Made infamous by riots in July 2009, when Han Chinese and Uighur mobs started fighting and killing each other in the streets, Urumqi is in fact hard to distinguish from many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities, and is mostly a massive urban concrete sprawl. The only things that really highlight that you are somewhere different is the Uighur areas of the city, which are teeming with non-Han people and Arab-inspired architecture. Also, most signs are in Mandarin and Uighur (which is an Arabic-looking script), with the occasional Russian and almost no English.

During our trip west to explore China’s fabled Xinjiang (‘New Frontier’) province, we visited the city twice, with the first stop coinciding with National Day festivities. There was a noticeable police presence, with heavily armed young officers marching around sites (though not all policemen seemed this menacing; there were an equal number who seemed like locals in ill-fitting uniforms). Most buildings open to the public had a guard at the door checking bags.

On our second visit we went through the bazaar while a group of young men in military uniform with batons and shields marched through, setting themselves up in small formations among the mass of people buying and selling stuff while megaphones scream at the crowd in Uighur with offers on shoes or crockery.

The city seems to have cut itself in half. The Uighur and other minorities stick to their areas, while the Han live in parts which are not unlike many other Chinese cities. The Han Chinese we spoke to said they mostly avoided Uighur areas after the riots, and spoke with a sort of casual racism ingrained through years of misunderstanding (we did not get an opportunity to talk to many Uighurs in the city).

But it was also intriguing to see a degree of integration. At the night market, while eating plates heaped with grilled meats and fish, we watched as a group of early/mid 20s Han and Uighur laughed and chatted much as any other group would. On National Day itself, we went to the Hongshan Park in the middle of the city, which was teeming with families of all ethnicities enjoying the fairground rides, cotton candy and more grilled meat.

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A new contribution for the Interpreter blog, this time not looking at the Expo, but instead at terrorism in China in its various forms. A fascinating topic I hope to cover more over time.

China’s domestic terrorism problem

by Raffaello Pantucci – 6 September 2010 12:25PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where he is working on an EU-funded project on EU-China relations.

Recently there was a bombing in Aksu, a predominantly Uighur city in China’s Xinjiang province. The world’s media leapt on the story, eager to learn more about a set of issues which the Chinese are notoriously coy about.

Very little actual information emerged, except for brief updates from Xinhua and other official outlets. They suggest that a total of six people were involved in the attack, using an electric tricycle to lob bombs around a crossroads in Aksu, targeting a group of local security forces. Crucially, the stories refused to say that it was terrorism linked to the East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM), the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), or other Uighur extremists, and instead hinted that it was most likely a business dispute. One official described it as ‘a violent criminal case’.

The cynic will look at this and assume that something else is afoot. Previously, TIP claimed in a video to have carried out a series of bombings in Shanghai, Wenzhou, Guangzhou and Kunming – but in all four cases, local officials denied they were terrorist acts. Who is telling the truth is almost impossible to know, though it is curious that Chinese officials are so eager to downplay any effective attacks by such groups.

But let’s assume it is as described. It is still disturbing that so many people in China are willing to resort to such violent methods to resolve personal disputes. According to local reports, in Wenzhou, the bombing was related to a gambling dispute; in Shanghai a man named Wang claimed he did it to get ‘more, stronger attention and worship from netizens’.

When one couples this with the spate of knife attacks on schoolchildren earlier in the year, which were perpetrated by men angry at the world, it seems as though the main terrorist threat in China is not in fact groups like ETIM or TIP, but rather angry locals who strike out randomly at fellow citizens.

In fact, when we compare this to the effectiveness of Uighur radical groups, it seems as though these sorts of random attacks are in fact worryingly regular and much more effective (though admittedly, coverage of what occurs in Xinjiang is erratic – one report by RFA suggested small-scale attacks in the province are regular; certainly, group-arrests are). The ‘lone wolf’ seems a much more dangerous predator in China than the organised ethno-Islamist or separatist group.

This also might help explain why there is a great trepidation in describing these attacks as terrorism. If all such acts were categorised as terrorist in nature, then a whole set of domestic problems might be grouped together and would have to be addressed through the lens of terrorism. Given the power of anonymous group-think powered by the internet in China, there is every possibility that the characters who perpetrate these acts achieve some sort of online celebrity which might further complicate the official response.

Photo (of Chinese security forces in Urumqi during the Uighur unrest of 2009) by Flickr user Remko Tanis, used under a Creative Commons license.

This is going to be the last in this series on the Expo for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog, this time looking at the Palestinian pavilion. I have enjoyed doing this, and may write something larger somewhere on this subject. In the meantime, I owe eagle-eyed David for helping point out some of the detail in this post. One small detail that was lost, however, the picture of Arafat that is included was opposite, not behind, the one of Abbas and Arafat as you walk in.

Around the Shanghai Expo: Palestinian Pavilion

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. His previous posts, by pavilion: Britain, Iran, Afghanistan, DPRK, Pakistan, Australia.

I failed to ask where the money for the site came from, but it seemed clear from the life-size pictures of Yassir Arafat and Abu Abbas at the entrance that the organisation of the pavilion was carried out by Fatah-leaning elements. Directly behind these portraits, an even bigger shrine to Arafat:

At the back there is a section venerating ‘Jerusalem City of Peace’, which is, I suppose, a nod to the ‘Better City, Better Life’ theme of the Expo. They have a small screening room showing a film about Jerusalem, and a number of screens in front showing off Palestinian theater and dance.

My girlfriend was rather shocked to catch a bit of a biblical performance in which a mother appeared to be throwing her baby around (I wasn’t able to ascertain which tale this was and would welcome any suggestions).

There were not that many Chinese in the Palestinian Pavilion when we went, and those that were there dutifully passed through en route to see the man with the visa stamp. This was probably not a bad thing, as the version of events being portrayed was a touch one-sided. For example, what is missing from this description of Palestine’s location?

The first line reads: ‘Palestine located in the heart of the Holy Land surrounded by Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.’

My latest in the series I have been doing for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog, this time in their home Australian pavilion. At least another of these coming, and I remain open to commissions if anyone has a particular pavilion they would like to see more of. Use the contact page to get in touch.

Around the Shanghai Expo: Australia Pavilion

By Raffaello Pantucci – 4 August 2010 11:42AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. His previous posts, by pavilion: Britain, Iran, Afghanistan, DPRK, Pakistan.

And so onto the Australian Pavilion, which I was told the Chinese were not impressed by, as its dull brown color made it look old. (Photo below courtesy of the Australian Expo site; others by the author.)

I only heard this after I had visited, but on the day I went, it had a substantial queue, and the Chinese I met inside seemed excited.

One couple of girls I talked to had come from Chongqing to see the Expo and, once they got over the fact I spoke some bad mandarin, said they wanted to see Australia specifically because they had heard lots about it and friends lived there. At the same time, they confided, they preferred the Taiwan pavilion because they gave them stuff (a Taiwan bag comes with a fan, instant noodles and a tea cup).

Nevertheless, the Australian pavilion was attracting the same sorts of numbers as the British one – on the day I went, the Australians had had about 36,000 visitors and overall more than 2 million; a day or so before, I received an email from the British pavilion telling me they had crossed the 2 million threshold.

Inside, there is a series of rooms introducing Aboriginal history, wall paintings highlighting the comparative differences between Australia and China (China’s population density is a lot greater, while more Australians proportionally live near the sea. Not sure I see the value in the comparison). There is then a large diorama showing the nation’s history, which concludes in a picture of former PM Rudd (I went before he had been ousted) with some plastic journalist figures brandishing microphones and cameras in front of him.

The centerpiece, however, is a 10-minute movie about three children, a dark (I assume Aboriginal) child, a Caucasian child and an Asiatic child. They talk about how great Australia is, etc. Shown in a theatre on a large circular screen which rotates and occasionally lowers to reveal some sort of physical object relevant to whatever the children is talking about, the film was not a huge success. People were leaving moments after it had started, much to the dismay of the eager young mandarin-speaking hosts.

As one of the chaps at the entrance told me (confirming an experience I have mentioned elsewhere) the overriding Chinese visitor priority is to get the Expo passport visa stamp.

A wannabe Australian.

My latest missive from the Shanghai Expo for the Interpreter – this one took a while to get there for a variety of technical reasons. At least one more to come in this series.

Around the Shanghai Expo: Afghanistan Pavilion

by Raffaello Pantucci – 19 July 2010 6:35PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where he is working on an EU-funded project on EU-China relations.

Unlike most of the nations covered thus far, Afghanistan does not have its own pavilion and is instead crowded into the ‘Asia Joint Pavilion II’, adjacent to the Yemeni pavilion (and Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria apparently, though I cannot recall seeing them all).

There are a number of these sorts of communal areas highlighting the more unfortunate parts of the globe, mostly sponsored by the Chinese government. According to someone working in the Afghan one, the Shanghai government paid $600,000 for theirs, which apparently included the rent for the space.

Aside from a couple of strategically-placed pictures of Hamid Karzai looking majestically into the distance, there is little to distinguish the nation which the pavilion is intended to represent (and I suppose unless you are aware of who he is, this is also not a useful indicator).

When I asked an Afghan running one of the carpet selling stalls inside the space whether Chinese visitors were interested in Afghanistan, he reassured me that they were only interested in getting a picture taken and a ‘visa stamp’ in their expo passports. Only foreigners wanted to know more about the country, and those were mostly individuals who had previously served on deployment in the country.

According to the website, the space is meant to be a reconstruction of the Blue Mosque at Herat — something of a far-fetched comparison in my mind, though I have admittedly never been to Herat. In fact, there is little evidence of Afghan history or culture in the pavilion beyond the array of stalls selling Afghan stuff. In the center a couple of South Asian women do henna tattoos on visitors, while a tent in the corner is as close to a cultural exhibit that is offered.

Photo (1) by Flickr user nozomiiqel, used under a Creative Commons licence, and photo (2) by the author.

My latest in a series from the Expo for the Interpreter, this time looking at the Iranian pavilion. There was actually a lot more to tell about the pavilion which I didn’t have space to include – it is a very crowded (with stuff) and colorful place and is amongst the better ones I have seen from the perspective of introducing people to the nation and showing off the country. More in this series is forthcoming, and I will likely be making trips back to the Expo, so let me know through the new contact page if there are any you are particularly interested in.

Around the Shanghai Expo: Iran pavilion

by Raffaello Pantucci – 6 July 2010 9:37AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where he is working on an EU-funded project on EU-China relations.

Unlike its baffling neighboring pavilion (North Korea), the Iranian pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo is actually quite effective in providing a potted introduction to the nation.

Often, when talking to Chinese waiting to go to pavilions, they have no clear idea of which nation they are going to see or where it is, geographically. But outside the Iranian pavilion, the first thing to welcome the visitor is a map of Eurasia showing both where Iran lies in respect to China, and highlighting the various Silk Roads that linked the two in ages gone past.

Once inside, the visitor is greeted by a smiling picture of President Ahmadinejad with this rather cryptic (but no doubt well-meaning) message:

Empathy, justice and compassion are the main features of “Better city,” where a “Better life” is meant not just through “being with each other” but through “being for each other.” Such a view results into pure life, real prosperity, and human excellence in an “ideal city” filled with love, devotion and understanding and builds the human security and dignity based on faith, knowledge and wisdom. The human outlook in such a city is “being divine.”

A smiling and waving picture of Ayatollah Khamenei and a rather more grim Ayatollah Khomeini surround the entrance to the exclusive ‘guangxi’ room sponsored by the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

Oddly, there were not that many Persians wandering around.

The day I was there, the stalls were manned by Chinese – both the ones selling objects and the ones promoting the nation. The girl running the stand promoting inward investment in Iran was a Physics student at a local university who, while battling with a costume which looked out straight out of Aladdin, told me that most of the people who had expressed an interest in investing were Southeast Asians.

The heart of the space is a giant fountain, in the middle of which is a raised platform with a couple of seats and a standing microphone on it. I did not stick around long enough to see a show, but I understood that musicians occasionally perform.

Within the body of the room are a series of models which show off a variety of Iranian hydrocarbon fields and related extraction machinery. Most popular was the selection of Iranian home-grown machinery. None of it seemed nuclear (though mine is an untrained eye); instead there was medical equipment, an inkless finger print machine and, most popular of all, an electronic harp which had lasers instead of strings.

The Chinese visitors were particularly entranced by this and more generally seemed quite entertained by the colorful atmosphere of the place. Unlike its neighbor to the West (DPRK), this pavilion likely provided a pretty good introduction to the nation.

And another in this series, this time at the Pakistani pavilion. The subject of China-Pakistan is something that I have a longer piece coming out about soon – have been doing some interesting research on the topic while I am out here.

Around the Shanghai Expo: Pakistan pavilion

By Raffaello Pantucci – 21 June 2010 9:15AM

The Pakistan pavilion drew something of a crowd (I waited roughly five minutes, in contrast to what I understand were hours for the British pavilion, and absolutely no wait for the DPRK one), though inside it is mostly a selection of scenic pictures from around Pakistan and some interesting displays highlighting various parts of the nation – including a rather creepy looking dummy onto which the face of Benazir Bhutto is projected giving a speech.

Much effort has been put into emphasizing the importance of the Sino-Pak relationship, with pictures of various leaders meeting over the ages, a large display of some sort of joint mango project and finally, this amusingly out of focus picture of the Gawardar seaport, described under the picture as being, ‘the symbol of Pakistan China friendship and cooperation’ (my friend posed alongside to highlight the lack of focus).

The two-floor space ends with a large bazaar selling all manner of things, including some rather unwieldy looking person-sized marble vases. The shop was doing quite brisk business.