This is the China I remember … and kind of miss.
While some international analysts try to argue that BRICS is no longer relevant, the truth of the matter is that this union of countries in particular (which also somewhat overlap in other geopolitical/ economic organizations, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) have the power to shift the poles of global power in their direction … if they can get along. This is a big deal — big enough to make China and India risk losing face by calling off their military skirmish in Dhokla.
BRICS makes up a large portion of my journalistic coverage zone — the others being ASEAN and the remainder of the Eurasian Economic Union. So my interest in this meeting is understandably acute.
But, beyond work, there is another reason why I’m interested in this BRICS meeting in particular: it’s happening in Xiamen, a place where I maintained a base of operations for a year and a half. Not only that, but the meeting is happening right down the street from where my apartment used to be — in fact, I could see the place from my window.
I recently met up with an old friend from Xiamen when I was staying in Kinmen earlier this summer. I had to ask him how preparations were going prior to the event that is one of the most internationally relevant things to happen in the city for some time.
The last time China held such a big international event it didn’t go without controversy. This event was last year’s G20 meeting in Hangzhou, and the country came under heavy fire for excessively doing up (I.e. Potemkin-izing) the city in order to make it look better than it really was to the delegates and other members of the international community who attended the event. Via Foreign Policy:
The clearing of the virtual public square echoed what was happening on Hangzhou’s streets. Official measures, including a mandatory public holiday, forced more than two million residents to leave town, particularly those living in apartment complexes close to the G-20 venue. Each day, only half of the city’s private cars were permitted on roads. Migrant workers left the city after factories were closed for more than a week before the summit began in order to ensure blue skies in a usually heavily polluted city. At one restaurant, city officials removed cooks who were ethnically Uighur, a Chinese Muslim ethnic minority that Beijing blames for violence in its northwestern region. Normally congested highways were left empty, creating what some observers dubbed a “ghost town.”
From what my friend tells me, Xiamen has done virtually the same exact thing — only with a slight twist.
The entire city scrubbed itself clean — of course — removing signs of backwardness and finishing up various urban works, and …
Apparently, this clean up also involved removing foreigners of unsavory nationalities from the city. This included telling a Pakistani teacher at a nearby school to not show up for work on the days of the event. In fact, I believe she was encouraged to take a “vacation” out of the city altogether.
But, of course, none of this officially happened. The local government Xiamen apparently even held a press conference to inform everyone that the city-wide cleanup and disruptions that could readily be observed were not really going on and were definitely not in preparation for the BRICS summit. And for that Pakistani teacher, the government representatives who told her to split ended there directive with, but we never said any of this.
I just kind of laughed and smiled when I heard this story as most long-term China expats probably would. The abstract, Heller-esqueness of the place, where black is white, punishments come in the form if promotions, and 2+2=5 is just the country we know. I have to admit that I felt a tinge of nostalgia. As I sit here in the liminal zone of Kuala Lumpur, looking off my balcony at a knot of highways that my building is all tied up in, I have to say that I wish I was there.