Singapore Writers Festival

Looking at China differently

Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao and Beijing writer Xu Zhiyuan discuss China's failings at well-attended talk

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 lecture last 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.

For three hours, the duo painted a picture of a China which has rapidly modernised, but remains plagued by a lack of public freedom, rampant socio-economic inequality and growing malaise.

Titled China Re-visioned, the Singapore Writers Festival event drew a near full-house attendance of 574 at the Victoria Theatre, with lines forming 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 China's identity and referred to a textbook from the 1980s which has had a resurgence in popularity for its depiction of traditional Chinese values.

If they can't go to these two sites, what are they swiping away at?

HONG KONG COLUMNIST CHIP TSAO, referring to China's ban on social media such as Facebook and YouTube, when asked about Beijing city-dwellers who often carry two smartphones

We are content with ourselves. We have lost our curiosity about the outside world... This has hampered our progress

XU ZHIYUAN, columnist for the Chinese-language website of Britain's Financial Times

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."

Casting his eye over the events in China today, he quoted Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness."

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 criti- ques in a dialogue moderated by Ms Lee Kuan Fung, who heads the Chinese media digital strategy department at Singapore Press Holdings.

Whereas the acerbic Tsao issued one stinging criticism after another, peppering his remarks with jibes, Xu struck a more measured tone.

Asked about Beijing city-dwellers who 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 in the South China Sea with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

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 acknowledged China's tremendous potential.

Said Xu: "I still believe in the creativity of the people... groups like civil society, the intellectuals, the entrepreneurs can improve China. 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 inde- pendent thought cannot be seen as a threat to authority."

The pair also answered questions from the audience. One was posed by a student from China who asked if he should return home to contribute to its 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 more than 30 authors, including Xu, last year.

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."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore Writers Festival Looking at China differently'. Print Edition | Subscribe