Critics Chip Tsao and Xu Zhiyuan tackle China's success and failures at Singapore Writers Festival

Hong Kong writer and journalist Chip Tsao (centre) and Beijing columnist Xu Zhiyuan (right) discuss the new China at the panel titled China: Re-visioned.
Hong Kong writer and journalist Chip Tsao (centre) and Beijing columnist Xu Zhiyuan (right) discuss the new China at the panel titled China: Re-visioned. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The Singapore Writers Festival

OCT 30 - NOV 8

SINGAPORE - A week ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit here, two outspoken critics of China delivered their analysis of what they considered the failings of the world's ascendant superpower at a three-hour lecture on Saturday afternoon.

They were the prolific Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao, known for his satirical pieces in the popular Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, as well as Xu Zhiyuan, 39, a columnist for the Chinese-language website of Britain's Financial Times.

Titled China: Re-visioned, the event, one of the longest at this year's Singapore Writers Festival, saw lines forming at the Victoria Theatre half an hour before it started. Audience members included Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, Baey Yam Keng, former Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan, and former Member of Parliament Ellen Lee.

In his opening remarks, Tsao, 57, questioned the concept of China, and referred to a textbook from the 1980s which has had a resurgence in popularity for its depiction of traditional Chinese values.

In one chapter, a brother helps his younger sibling wrap books, while another chapter advocates eating simply. Noting how the China of yore had espoused such austerity and minimalism, he declared: "That is the other China. It has vanished."

Xu noted how China has turned insular, even as its population and economy have grown.

"We are content with ourselves. We have lost our curiosity about the outside world. Even as more Chinese venture overseas, they have not learnt more or assimilated. This has hampered our progress," he said.

The pair continued their critiques in a dialogue moderated by Ms Lee Kuan Fung, who heads the Chinese newspaper digital strategy department in Singapore Press Holdings.

But whereas Tsao, in his trademark acerbic style, issued one stinging criticism after another, Xu struck a more measured tone in his comments.

Asked about how Beijing city-dwellers often carry two smartphones, Tsao referenced China's ban on social media such as Facebook and YouTube. "If they can't go to these two sites, what are they swiping away at?" he asked.

He likened the use of technology to a choice between "God and the devil", noting that Chinese netizens had opted for the latter.

"The Internet in China has become a platform for vitriol, threats and violence," he said, citing how people had agitated for China to flex its military muscle over territorial disputes.

Xu countered that new technologies always present new challenges. "People have said the same about newspapers. A Facebook share is no less revolutionary than the printing press back then."

But even as the pair remained critical, they also acknowledged China's progress and its tremendous potential.

Said Xu: "I still believe in the creativity of the people...groups like civil society, the intellectuals, the entrepreneurs can improve China, though they are suppressed now. Just like how your ancestors who came here were not elites. But after a century, Singapore has become a modern city-state."

Tsao said: "China has done well. It has great talent, that I do not deny. But its intelligentsia, and independent thought, cannot be seen as a threat to authority."

The pair also answered questions from the audience. One was posed by a Chinese student who asked if he should return to contribute to China's development, or remain overseas.

"Chase your own freedom and learn more. When the time is right, go back. Monitor the changes at home... Maybe you can return when Xu's books can be published," Tsao said to laughter, referring to China's ban of books by over 30 authors, including Xu, last year in a crackdown on dissent.

Audience members said that they enjoyed the talk.

Retiree Choy K.K., 66, said: "I agreed with the view that we as Chinese living overseas must cultivate ourselves… but I wish the panel had focused more on what defines us as Chinese."

Semiconductor engineer Loh Wei Khuan, 35, liked both speakers' styles: "Mr Xu is idealistic and wants to bring about change, while Mr Tsao is straightforward, sarcastic but honest about problems."