Posted in essay

Don’t Forget – or Ignore – What Happened in Tiananmen Square

Thirty years ago, protesters in China nearly brought about a change in their country’s communist government. They sought democracy, while the government looked to maintain the brutal dictatorship that had ruled the country since Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

As most of the world knows, the student uprising was brutally crushed by government forces. In Tiananmen Square, where the protesters had made a last stand against government aggression, the army massacred thousands of students. The world watched in horror, and was captivated by one of the most powerful images ever taken:

tiananmen square full photo tank man

Sadly, unlike many celebrated protests and revolutions, this one was unsuccessful. The brutality of the communist government was such that the protesters were swept away, or crushed under the rolling tracks of the Red Army tanks. Those who died were never accounted for or acknowledged, and to this day their families are not allowed to mourn for them. Those who speak out are silenced.

The government mostly denies that the event took place, although it occasionally acknowledges it, justifying the action that was taken, and downplaying the death toll. However, discussion is absolutely forbidden in the world’s most brutal police state. Any mention of the event is immediately wiped from social media, and people are afraid to speak of it even in private.

If you post any images of Tiananmen Square from 1989, it will disappear without a trace. This is terrifying. In China, few people know the famous photo of Tank Man, and few know the true story about one of the most important events in their country’s history. It is hard for people to understand just what it is like in China… the absolute censorship and brainwashing that has contributed to a state of 1.4 billion people who simply don’t know.

Some people remember, of course. They have had their memories altered through government propaganda campaigns. Last year, I spoke about Tiananmen Square with my ex-girlfriend’s father. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that the protesters deserved to be killed “because they shut down the buses.”

In Hong Kong, there are annual events to commemorate the massacre, but one wonders how long these will continue. As Hong Kong is swallowed up by its Orwellian neighbour, how long will their right to free speech (or free thought) remain? China is stamping its insidious influence on much of Asia, attempting to push its ideas of historical revisionism into the mainstream.

Today, almost a billion and a half Chinese will go about their lives with absolutely no knowledge of what happened thirty years ago in their own capital city. Thousands of students died trying to bring them democracy and free speech… yet few know and even fewer care. The slaughter was for nought. Their government has won through violence, intimidation, lies, and censorship. It has created the most successful police state in the world, where everyone is under constant surveillance and no one has the right to speak out on issues that the government decides are forbidden. From their earliest days at school, children are subjected to a terrifying indoctrination: “It’s us against the world, and anything you hear spoken against your government is foreign propaganda.”

China has a leader with unrestricted lifelong powers, a government with the ability to control the minds of its people, a total disregard for human rights, concentration camps for its ethnic minorities, a history of genocide, aggressive territorial expansion, and a terrifying neo-colonial policy that has seen it swallow up great chunks of the world through financial manipulation. It is spreading its own nightmarish vision of the future, and no one seems to have the will or the power to stop it.

Don’t forget the people who died trying to stop this, and don’t stop calling China out on its evil ways. Don’t forget Tank Man, Tiananmen Square, or Tibet, and don’t abandoned Taiwan to its vicious oppressor.

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Posted in essay

Thoughts on the Arrest of Julian Assange

In the original incarnation of this blog, there was a post about Julian Assange. I didn’t delete it because of what happened later on, but it was deleted nonetheless when I decided to get rid of everything and start afresh. I can’t remember why I did that, exactly. I think I was looking for a new direction in my writing. Or maybe I wanted to cut ties with parts of the past. In any case, I remember blogging about him and, like many progressive people at that time, I was very much on his side.

I still have the original Word document of that post in an ancient file on my laptop, and I just looked it out. It makes for awkward reading, which was pretty much what my memory had told me it would be.

I’m glad I’m not famous because it’s the sort of thing that really comes back to haunt you. We’re not allowed to have mistakes in our past anymore. Almost anything from our digital lives could be dredged by hack journalists for salacious gossip in an attempt to discredit us among the increasingly vicious “progressive” media: “Oh, he made a joke five years ago that sounds bad now that we’ve completely changed our morality? Well, we’d better throw him under the bus to make ourselves look righteous.”

Fuck that. I can’t stand that attitude. It makes me think of China’s Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, Barack Obama called it the left’s “circular firing squad,” and he was spot on.

But that’s not what I’m talking about today. Not really.

I’m talking about Julian Assange, a man who was a hero to many of us just a few years ago, and who now makes us squirm. I certainly feel a tinge of embarrassment to look back. But I’m not ashamed, exactly. In fact, to go back a few paragraphs, I said that I found my original writing on the topic, and I’m going to share the very worst lines:

What the organization [WikiLeaks] does is invaluable. It is a true wonder of this era and gives me hope for the future of journalism, the internet and mankind.

Oh, that’s uncomfortable reading. (And not just for the lack of Oxford comma.) It’s a prime example of something that did not age well.

But that’s what life is. We say things, we change our minds for some reason, and we say something else. It’s the ones who don’t admit what they said in the first place that you can’t trust.

I did indeed look at Assange and WikiLeaks as heroic for what they did, and looking back, I can see why. In my original blog post, I called them out for being careless in certain regards, but ultimately I applauded them for bringing transparency and shining a light on the evils of the US government. The US was a tyrant, stomping around the world cloaked in secrecy, hiding evil deeds… Along came Assange and WikiLeaks and suddenly everyone knew, and it wasn’t all conspiracy theories but real hard facts. Like him or not, he helped hold people to account, and probably made it a little harder to get away with war crimes.

I still feel that way, but like most people I’ve come to watch Assange’s hysterics and the organisation’s decline. They have veered towards a darker path, it seems. For many, they are at least partly responsible for the election of Donald Trump and the cancer he has brought upon the United States. Assange’s rage at Hillary Clinton caused him to participate in the skewing of the American political dialogue, pushing opinion in the direction of a man who is easily the worst president in American history. What he did – something that affects the whole world to a great extent – was utterly unforgivable.

I suppose you could argue that he just did what he was always doing – bringing transparency and taking down powerful people. You might say that of course someone on the left of the political spectrum would be angry… that I’m just pissed now that he helped the right wing. However, I think that it changed fundamentally while Assange was trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, becoming increasingly unstable and bitter. I think that his interference in the election was a matter of spite, whereas his original actions were about transforming the world for the better.

It was uncomfortable for me – and, I presume, for countless others – watching Assange being hauled from the place he’d hidden for so long. I remember him taking refuge in the embassy, and thinking, “Thank god there’s at least one country willing to stand up and do the right thing.” It seemed the whole world was against him and he deserved protection.

Although I now view the man as a twat, and resent his organisation’s role in one of the saddest events in recent years, I hope that he isn’t extradited to the US, and that he doesn’t receive punishment for the WikiLeaks hack. Ultimately, what happened back then was something that needed to happen. As for helping elect Trump, there were a million and one factors at play. No one should be punished for that. We just need to learn from it, and ensure it never happens again.

Democracy has been weaponised. Russia and China and other non-democratic players, whose governments don’t even pretend to value free speech, have figured out how to undermine the things that used to make us – the western world – strong. Organisations like WikiLeaks and people like Assange were, I thought, necessary for an open society. Maybe they still are, but we have seen how they can switch sides and become selective in how they choose to use the information they uncover. Their methods have been subverted, and they have caused chaos, tearing our societies apart.

It’s hard to see any positives coming from this. Not many will sympathise with Assange now, and there are plenty who will castigate him for a wide array of perceived offences. He has helped usher in a dark era in global politics, but perhaps it says more about us than him that that was allowed to happen. I guess he will go off to prison for the rest of his life – a fate probably no worse than spending it in an embassy – and we will all just forget about him. But I can’t help but feel we are living in a world partly of his creation, and one that was very much unforeseen.

Posted in essay

Thoughts on Brexit

I have never written about Brexit before because 1) I hate even thinking about it, and 2) I’m not a legal expert, and even they seem to struggle to fully comprehend it. But here goes…

Like most reasonable people, I am not just opposed to Brexit, but utterly aghast that it is happening. Yet, on some level, I do understand the events and sentiments that led us here. I get why people felt that it might be a good thing: Britain has been in decline for a long time, the EU does have some obvious problems, and immigration (you don’t have to be a racist to agree) comes with some pretty notable problems. Many people were frustrated at the state of our country and they wanted action taken. Like with the election of Donald Trump over the pond, enough people were angry and confused to make something really awful happen.

While those are fair and reasonable issues to complain about, I’m still appalled that they led us down such an unthinkable path. Brexit is nothing short of a national embarrassment, so hideous an event that it seems indeed to be the final chapter in that improbable epic, The History of Great Britain. Brexit simply should never have put to referendum, and in the next few paragraphs I shall explain why.

Firstly, even the dastardly Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher believed it was a bad idea to put such a topic to a public vote. I never thought I’d utter these vile words, but… I agree with Thatcher. *shudders* Yes, that’s right; the Iron Lady was spot on in this one instance. She rightly pointed out that the public may be asked for their vote on comparatively simple issues like the death penalty. This involves a simple moral question: Is it right or wrong to take someone’s life as punishment for their having taken another. However, to ask the public whether the UK should or shouldn’t leave the EU is absurd, as the question is simply too complex.

To put it another way, leaving the EU was never the simple question that Leave proponents put forth, but they were very clever in making it seem that way. They took a wide range of issues and put them under one convenient slogan, and then targeted people who were unhappy with any of these issues. Brexiting is something so wildly vast and complicated that even legal experts struggle to comprehend it, and yet the average man and woman were being asked to weigh in. It is beyond belief that this vote went ahead.

Which leads nicely into my next point. This may sound mean, or even politically incorrect, but go to your local Poundland or Wetherspoons and pick a few people at random. Ask them some questions about EU policies and see what they have to say. Go on; I’ll wait.

The average British citizen nowadays barely has the intellectual capacity to vote for a candidate on <insert trendy reality TV show>, never mind figure out the complexities of a legal separation of two political entities. Yes, they are entitled to their opinion, but no their opinion doesn’t fucking matter.

Does that sound harsh? Well, that’s a shame. Life is tough, but pandering to idiots is a waste of time. If these morons hadn’t voted for Brexit in such vast numbers, most of them would’ve forgotten it by now and would be more concerned about the latest Instagram post by <insert trendy “influencer”>.

Now let’s put aside the fact that asking millions of mentally incompetent people to vote on something that should never have been voted on is a bad idea, and look at what they voted for. To do this, let’s consider the following scenario:

You wish to purchase a banana, so you go to the local fruit market. You have a choice between two bananas. One is a bit bruised and blackened, but the vendor at this stall tells you it is still good inside. The other is perfectly yellow, and that vendor tells you this is the best banana in the world, and that the slightly bruised one is poisonous. Which do you choose? You take the bright yellow banana because it looks so good. Of course, when you go to peel it, you find out that the vendor has taken a shit and painted it yellow. You have been fooled, and now you are holding a yellow turd.

This is essentially what happened with Brexit. Immediately after the vote, admissions were made that the promises given to Leave voters were utterly false – not just small lies, but outright fabricated nonsense. Voters had been played like the idiots they in fact are. Many of them, regrettably, still believe the lies and cradle that little yellow poo, hoping it somehow proves to be a banana, while others realize that they were swindled, and wish for the chance to return to the fruit market.

Of course, the politicians who are in power helped sell those shiny yellow jobbies, and they tell us: “Pipe down; the people have spoken. To start handing out real bananas now would be undemocratic.”

Ah, democracy. We hold it up to be the absolute paragon of reason in this tempestuous modern world of ours. But is it really so great? Look around and ask yourself how the fuck we are stuck with Brexit and Trump and a host of other idiotic populist yellow turds. In the era of social media, something has begun to stink, and it isn’t just those shitty bananas.

Democracy was never the perfect form of government, but it was less terrible than others. Asking the same people who watch Geordie Shore to puzzle through the intricacies of international law is a bit like asking a brain-damaged rabbit to build its own new hutch by following instructions that have been fed through an Enigma machine. That we assign everyone an equal vote in the future of our country, despite the fact that the most popular newspapers are The Sun and The Daily Mail, is proof that we need a new system.

But I digress… sort of.

The Brexit referendum ended up 52-48 in favor of leaving the EU, and to me it is quite frankly stupid to have such a small difference allow for a change of such tremendous impact. Surely for something of the enormity of leaving the EU – effectively stranding the UK alone and thrusting us into a world of uncertainty – we should have required the support of 75% of the population at minimum. Right? Is it just me that thinks a slim majority should be able to decide to damn our country? Surely altering the status quo in any significant way should require near total agreement. This isn’t like transitioning from one incompetent government to another – it’s more like asking voters to decide whether or not to implement a Purge day.

I say “our country”, but of course this issue is more complicated even than that. I am Scottish, not British, and yet my country – Scotland – is being forcibly removed from the EU due to the political idiocy and right-wing fervor of our mentally inferior cousins to the south. We are part of a union with the countries with whom we share an island, and the will of the biggest has dragged along the others. Then there’s the Ireland issue and the promises made regarding the open border…

There are so many complexities to this. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, and as is probably abundantly clear by now, I am no legal expert. But it seems undeniable: There never should have been a Brexit referendum, and there should be no Brexit. Surely no right-minded person could argue that the future looks good for Britain. We were given an out by Europe in December when it was decided that we could unilaterally revoke Article 50, and as we draw closer to a no-deal Brexit, it is time we ready ourselves for a few years of being teased by the France and Germans and do the right thing. Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster so far, and the real effects haven’t yet been felt. No good can possibly come from it.* The embarrassment of this situation can be forgotten if we put it aside and go back to figuring things out sensibly, but if we leave Europe and cast ourselves adrift, our decline as a nation will hasten and in this rapidly change world, we will flounder and sink.

 

 

* I suspect that a significant amount of the incomprehensible wishful thinking that comes from the pro-Brexiters even now stems from the old notion of Britain as powerhouse of the world. Alas, those days have come and gone. We may once have ruled the seas and a full quarter of the landmass of this planet, but we are now just a cold, rainy collection of islands whose importance comes largely from history. As part of a bigger whole, we can thrive, but alone we will fail.

Posted in essay

The Absurdity of “Cultural Appropriation”

Yesterday I watched a series of presentations by young Chinese businesspeople. Their task was to find a product or service from China, then choose a target market abroad, and figure out how to break into that market. It was an exercise in culture, as much as anything. Their assigned reading included various essays on the failures of businesses attempting to enter the Chinese market and vice versa. My job was to pick apart their presentations and find flaws in their plans, and then challenge them to defend or change their presentation.

Most of the groups picked various Chinese foods that have not yet penetrated international markets, but two of them looked at Chinese clothing. In particular, they decided to pick the qipao, and market it to consumers in the United Kingdom. One of the groups intended to hybridize the qipao with Victorian-style clothing, which I think is just a horrible idea that profoundly misunderstands modern British tastes, whereas the other thought they could simply sell the qipao as it is to British women.

Qipao_woman
A woman wearing a Qipao (Source: Wikipedia)

My question to them went a little like this:

“I think that most people in the UK and other Western countries would agree that the qipao is a beautiful and elegant item of clothing, and maybe fifty or a hundred years ago they would love to wear it. But these days people would be afraid of receiving criticism for cultural appropriation. How do you intend to get past this obstacle?”

The students were unfamiliar with the concept of cultural appropriation. In fact, if you try to explain this issue to just about anyone here in China – or, for that matter, much of Asia – they look at you as if you were insane. And I would tend to agree. To me, the whole concept is indeed insane.

The Chinese, like the Japanese and Koreans, mostly wear Western-style clothes. Their idols are American pop stars, movie stars, and basketball players, and, each year, their diets are comprised of more and more Western-style food. Their cultures are utterly permeated with American and European influences. It is hardly surprising, then, that people from this part of the world dream of the day that Westerners walk about in Asian clothing, listen to Asian music, watch Asian movies, and eat Asian foods. The idea that this could somehow be offensive to them is absurd.

The issue of cultural appropriation was widely discussed a few weeks ago after an American girl wore a qipao to her prom, and incurred the wrath of America’s liberal trolls, who said she was offending the Chinese. Meanwhile, in China, people agreed that she had done nothing wrong.

qipao
Keziah Daum in a qipao

My girlfriend has asked me about this before. Last year, she was looking for a dress to bring to Scotland, and she suggested I buy something Chinese for myself. She thought it would be nice if we both wore Chinese-style clothes when we visited. I tried to explain that British people would think I was stealing from her culture and being offensive to Chinese people.

“But it’s my idea! I’m Chinese and I want you to wear Chinese clothes!”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what you want. There are a bunch of people who think they know best, and they decide what’s right and wrong, and they’ve decided that this is offensive to you.”

We “argue” about it sometimes, although I’m entirely on her side. I am merely trying to explain what cultural appropriation is. I have no interest in defending it. I can certainly understand why it’s wrong for kids to wear offensive Halloween costumes, and that there’s a difference between respecting someone’s culture and mocking someone’s culture, but it seems that too many PC folks cannot understand these nuances.

When pressed, these critics will argue that cultural appropriation is a matter of power. The argument goes that Western countries have pushed their culture on the rest of the world for so long that it is impossible for them to steal from us. However, when Westerners take an element of another culture and incorporate it into their own, it is a form of theft. This is reasonable, except that is usually a form of respect to see something worthwhile in another culture, not to mention a natural part of intercultural exchange throughout human history. Surely it would be far worse to dismiss that other culture entirely, saying, “I’d never wear Chinese clothes! I have more class than they do!” As for the power dynamic, as my girlfriend pointed out, surely by now China has far more power and wealth than, say, Scotland, and yet no one would complain about a Chinese man playing the bagpipes.

In Asia, despite the sudden influx of Western fashion, people remain fiercely proud of their traditions, even when they don’t engage with them much themselves. A Chinese person who has never done kung-fu or played the er-hu will nonetheless tell you of the subtle sophistication of these cultural artifacts and, whenever a picture of a white person engaging with either makes it onto social media, they are not offended. On the contrary, people are filled with pride that something from their part of the world has made an impact on someone from another part of the world.

If you ask them about it, they’ll say, “Well, we have x from your country; why shouldn’t you have y from ours?” And that is exactly the point. It is precisely why cultural appropriation is a deeply ignorant concept, even if it is, in some cases, well-meaning.

To be honest, I have no interest in wearing Chinese clothes when I go back to Scotland. It’s just not my style. However, I have been in Asia for more than ten years now, and in that time I have travelled through dozens of countries. I attempt to see and experience the culture in each place I visit, and it always makes me sick to look at the limited perspectives of the people who get riled up on social media about cultural sensitivity. These folks are mostly from the US, and their entire worldview is shaped by American society and politics. They attempt to apply their morality on the globe, whilst at the same time decrying ethno- or geocentrism. The things that they say make no real sense from a global perspective. Their hearts are, mostly, in the right place, but their heads are firmly lodged inside their own rectums. They make me embarrassed to call myself liberal.

Posted in update

Winter Comes Early to Anhui

It has gotten cold this past week in Huainan and Hefei, in the middle of China’s Anhui Province. Winter has arrived earlier than usual, and it has brought unusually cold temperatures. People are saying that this winter will be one of the coldest on records, and it’s not hard to believe.

Last year we barely even had a winter. It settled in slowly and temperatures never got that low, before a long, pleasant spring set in at the end of February. It is odd that winter sometimes lasts no more than two months, and in other years it seems to drag on for five. I even remember one year when temperatures plummeted to below minus 20, when last year it barely hit freezing point.

Yet winter can be oddly beautiful in Anhui. Summer is oppressively hot, and spring and autumn are all too brief. The flowers and cherry blossoms can be pretty, but winter brings the yellows and oranges, and at this time of year you are almost guaranteed a blue sky. That makes for cold nights, of course, but in the day the ever-present sunshine is very welcome.

It is at this time of year, too, when the old people in the countryside lay out their rice to dry on the roads. It is odd in a country so determined to modernize at the expense of tradition and rural ways, yet in Huainan modernization has met stark resistance. Traffic yields to angry old ladies with pitchforks and the roads are ruled by little old men in homemade tractors.

Last weekend was my birthday and I visited Hefei to see some old friends and spend time at the Shipyard Cafe and Francesco’s Pizzeria. I walked around town in the bright sunlight and explored a park that, in all my years there, I’d somehow never before visited. I also brought friends some of my new beer. Hefei was kind to me, offering up some unusually pleasant sights and two miraculous hangover-free mornings, despite the dozens of beers and whiskeys consumed.

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I returned to Huainan on the Sunday for work, and Huainan, too, was blessed with blue skies and sunshine which made the return to work a little easier. This is what my university looks like on a particularly nice day:

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Today I took a walk around the campus to see the trees standing strikingly yellow against the bright blue skies:

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It helped with my otherwise sour mood following the shock news that the United States had elected the most objectively awful candidate for president. Although my heart goes out to my friends across the Pacific Ocean, and I worry for the future of our planet given their new leader’s determination to wreck the environment, I am at present very glad to be living in China. China is far from perfect, and its government obviously deeply flawed, but this is a country which appears to be bent on improvement, whereas in the West most nations now seem hellbent on setting the clock back several decades with their sickening turn towards far-right groups and fascism.

 

(All photos here taken with my iPhone)

Posted in update

Beatdom #17

To date, all the posts on this website have been travel-related. This one bucks that trend in that it’s about a journal which I recently published. For nine years I’ve been editing Beatdom literary journal and we just put out our seventeenth issue last week. It is, as always, about the men and women of the Beat Generation (this time around it’s more focused on the women) and the theme for this issue is politics – meaning that all the essays relate in some way to both Beat literature and political thought.

Here’s the cover:

politics6x9300

This cool cover was designed by Waylon Bacon, who has drawn many of our previous covers. Check out his website here. You can find Beatdom #17 on Amazon as a regular printed book and also on Kindle.

Below you can see the covers of all our previous issues. Most of these titles can be found on Amazon. A few of them, however, have sadly been lost over the years and only occasionally pop up on eBay and elsewhere. allbeatdoms small

My company, Beatdom Books, which prints Beatdom literary journal, also publishes books. We recently put out Eliot Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg and prior to that we’ve released another of books focused on the Beat Generation, including my own Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult.’ You can see our Beat covers below: All these books can also be found by searching “Beatdom” on Amazon.

all_beat_books copy

Posted in essay, travel

Is it Safe or Ethical to Visit North Korea?

Recently you might have seen my posts about a trip to North Korea that I took last summer. If not, then I’m sure you’ve heard about the American kid who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor there earlier this year. And if you’ve not heard about that, then I’m sure you know a few things about the world’s most secretive – and possibly the most oppressive – state.

There are then two questions you might want to ask before following in my footsteps and visiting the country. Those are:

  • Is it safe?
  • Is it ethical?

My answer to both questions is a resounding YES and I’ll explain why below.

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Is it safe to visit North Korea?

Given the recent news about Otto Warmbier, you’d be forgiven for thinking that travel to North Korea was unsafe right now. Why risk being sentenced to hard labor in a country where no one will ever be able to come visit you, right?

But remember that what Warmbier did was incredibly risky and foolish. Don’t get me wrong – I feel for the kid and his family – however, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he took an astonishing risk in a place where the punishments are well-known. Before you go to North Korea, you are warned to be respectful. Every environment has its risk factors. If you climb a mountain and jump around next to a ledge with no safety gear, you might die. If you screw around underwater on a scuba trip, you might die. Go on safari and mess with a lion? You’re going to die.

Warmbier made a mistake and was punished. It happens every day when people walk out in front of cars and it’s very sad, but we shouldn’t let that convince us that the experience of going to North Korea is somehow unsafe.

In fact, if you are polite and respectful, it is actually phenomenally safe there. There are no criminals targeting foreigners. People go to Thailand, Mexico, and Italy every day and don’t think of them as especially dangerous places, yet crime against tourists is pretty common – from petty theft to more serious stuff. In North Korea the only danger is yourself.

Having said that, if you are injured, North Korea doesn’t exactly have an abundance of quality hospitals. In order to get into the country you need pretty comprehensive medical insurance, and if something were to go wrong, you’d be glad of it. For anything major, you’d need to be medivacked to Beijing. My guides told me that in their many, many years of operation, nobody had been arrested or put in any danger, but one man had gotten sick and needed an emergency flight to a hospital in China.

People worry about war, too. Although the situation between North Korea and South Korea (or, indeed, most of the rest of the world) seems more tense than usual, it is still not an imminent threat to security. In the South, people don’t worry – Seoul is only a few miles from the DMZ, and North Korea’s artillery could do untold damage in the event of war, yet no one blinks an eye. No one is afraid of travelling to Seoul.

Last summer I was in Pyongyang when the two countries reached a huge escalation of tensions and began shelling one another as the world thought the Korean War was back on… Yet in the streets of Pyongyang, as in Seoul, life went on as normal. I sat and watched a football game between teams from North Korea and South Korea and the players even shook hands.

Humans are notoriously bad at risk assessment, and we perceive the oddest things to be dangerous. Travel to North Korea is statistically very safe, so don’t let that put you off.

 

Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?

This is perhaps the greater question, and the one with a less clear answer. The primary argument against travel to North Korea goes like this: “The North Korean government is an evil, repressive organization that is a threat to world peace and its own citizens, and all travel money goes towards funding that organization.” There is also the claim that foreigners are playing into the hands of the North Korean propaganda machine by visiting the country, and that our presence there gives de facto support to the government.

The first point seems quite convincing, and indeed is a stated reason for many people who refuse to go, or chastise those of us who do. Yet I find it wholly unconvincing. For a start, the world is full of “evil, repressive” governments. I work in China, where the government has done myriad awful things to its people over its short history. It is arguably worse than North Korea, and yet the governments and companies of the world are eager to partner up with the Chinese government in order to make money of their own. We trade with China and visit China on holiday, and a chunk of this money goes to fund their repression of Tibet and Xinjiang, their censorship of the internet, their violation of human rights, and their absurd territorial claims in the South China Sea.

I pay taxes on books sold in the United States, and have given the US government money when living there or visiting as a tourist, and that money is party used to fund vicious wars and coups around the world, or turn their police force into a minority-murdered military unit. My point is that we cannot entirely rule out travel to North Korea on the premise that it funds their government unless we restrict travel to countries with particularly open, peaceful governments – and those countries are few and far between.

Moreover, while some money does directly go to the government, much money spent by tourists in North Korea is in foreign currencies and completely off the record. We pay our tour guides, for example, in tips that are never recorded. We buy food at stalls by the roadside that are unplanned stops, and no receipts are given. This money trickles down, not up. It goes to improve the lives of the people in North Korea, and not to fill the coffers of the government.

On that same line, I’d like to point out that the policy of isolation that the world (led by the United States) has taken against North Korea nearly since the end of the Korean War is largely what has caused its horrendous modern position. It was never allowed to function freely and to succeed, whereas South Korea was propped up and supported at all stages. We are partly responsible for the plight of the North Korean people and yet we continue to use them as a political tool – keeping them locked out of the rest of the world, hoping that they will starve sufficiently that they rise up and overthrow their government, whereupon we can replace the Kim dynasty with something pro-Western.

It is a despicable policy and I’m proud to have contributed to tourism in North Korea in a small way, as it helps the people there – something in which the rest of the world seems entirely disinterested.

As to the second point, regarding the appearance of foreigners in the country, I disagree that we are merely playing into the hands of government propaganda. Foreigners are widely demonized in North Korean history books, and our appearance in the country gives us a chance to show our human side. We can interact minimally with people and show ourselves as decent. When I was there, people responded shyly but positively to a foreign presence. It was much like being in rural China. Indeed, if tourists to North Korea act in a reasonable manner, we can effectively counteract government propaganda. Think of it as the diplomacy that otherwise doesn’t occur in North Korea.

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Conclusion

I see no good reason to avoid travelling to North Korea, if it is a place that interests you. I hesitated for a long time before going last year, but after thinking it all through I took a chance and went. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and I have no regrets. Obviously, it is not for everyone. Whilst there you do have to show respect to their leaders and listen to their perverse versions of history. If you’re not comfortable bowing at a statue of Kim Jong-il, I don’t blame you, but don’t go. However, I think it is important to be exposed to things which are outside our comfort zone. Sure, you can go to Thailand and get drunk on the beach… but some places in the world really open your eyes, and for me, North Korea was one of them.

Posted in update

Just China Things

I’d meant to put up a new post this week, but I haven’t been able to. First, I’m trying to keep a regular schedule of posting photos and stories from my Africa trip during January and February. The next installment is Zimbabwe. Then there’s last year’s North Korea trip, which I’d promised to put online. Whenever North Korea is in the news and people start pontificating on political matters, I’m tempted to post some of my photos from the country, where you actually see the people. I feel it helps us stay grounded and stop silly abstract talk of war.

Unfortunately, I live in China. That means I’m subject to mindless censorship. Personally, I think that censorship results in the strangulation of culture and the withering of creativity and intellect. All those things are visible in China right now and, quite frankly, I’m eyeing the exit. July, 2017 is marked in my calendar as the leaving date. I love my job but this country is grinding me down…

But I digress…

This week is the big Communist Party Congress in Beijing where the party members “vote” on various matters of policy. Perhaps not as ridiculous as the spectacle in the United States right now in the run-up to the shitshow election in November, it is still nonetheless a bizarre festival of all that’s wrong with politics.

But never mind the implications for the wider world – my primary concern is a lack of internet access. In order to circumvent the aforementioned censorship of the internet, I’m required to use a VPN. Usually it is an annoying struggle, but spending money on a decent VPN can save a lot of hassle, especially when one works online most days. During this time of political farce, however, the government exercises its powers to shutdown access to the truth. As we know – or used to think before the rise of Trump – truth is a grave threat to bullshit.

The most commonly used VPN in China seems to be Astrill, and that was hit hard and fast. My service, ExpressVPN, stayed largely in tact until yesterday, when it faltered badly. Today has been a royal pain in my ass. Accessing almost any foreign-based website without a VPN has been nearly impossible, too.

So, for those reasons and more (think: work) I haven’t yet posted to this blog.

As means of an apology, here are two photos I’ve taken over the past 24 hours, in a low enough resolution to upload via one of the few working VPN servers I can currently access. They are the very essence of life in the bizarre land we know as The Middle Kingdom:

Posted in update

The North Korea You Don’t See – Coming Soon

Once I’m done going through all these African photos I’ve been posting lately, I’m going to start working backwards and uploading older photos and travel stories. Next up is North Korea.

Last summer, I visited North Korea to run the Mt. Paekdu half-marathon. It was one of the most amazing and eye-opening trips of my life, and changed my attitudes towards politics and the world.

On that trip I got to see inside a country that few others ever have the chance of visiting, and saw into the lives of the people who lived there. You often see stories in the Guardian and elsewhere that sensationalize it, but these are filled with bullshit. People write stories and post misleading photos in order to make sell their article. I’m not trying to say my experience was more “authentic” or anything like that, but that these other photographers and journalists aren’t interested in the true face of humanity.

In North Korea I met real humans… That shouldn’t be remotely surprising, but it is for most people. When I posted my photos and stories on Facebook, the response from people – intelligent people – was one of total shock at how life goes on in North Korea. Of course, a tour will never take you into the gulags and ghettos, but you do see far, far more than you’d ever expect, and you do meet people from all walks of life in that forgotten country.

Every time I see North Korea come up in the news I feel sadness at how we treat them. There are so many countries in this world with terrible governments – so many who are worse than the Kim dynasty – and yet we single out North Korea for our own political reasons and we sanction them and isolate them. In the end, we want to use their people as a tool. We want enough people to starve and suffer that the population rises up and overthrows the government…

Then what?

Then we’ll have shown that they were always going to fail. That their way isn’t as good as our way. It’s artificial. It’s a contrived situation. I’m not a Kim apologist. I hope that one day he is overthrown and punished and that the people know some measure of happiness. But we are making them suffer through our actions and we call ourselves goddamn humanitarians for doing so.

Posted in essay

North Koreans are not their Government

It pisses me off when I hear the hate espoused for North Korea. People seem to forget that the people are not their government. It should be obvious but when I see Facebook threads about yesterday’s H-bomb test, it invariably comes to comments like, “Let’s bomb them!” from even semi-rational people. 

Even the most reasonable argue for sanctions because they forget that North Koreans are humans who suffer from these sanctions, and that it is because of sanctions and blockades that the government has developed its militaristic hardline in the first place. 

I visited North Korea last year and let me tell you that the people are people just like anywhere else. The children are the same as children in any other country, yet we conveniently blot them from our minds when picturing the hermit kingdom.  

 Travel to North Korea may be controversial but for me it was eye opening, like travel anywhere. If you don’t want to go there then fine, but don’t forget that these are people just like anywhere else and that our approach to “dealing with” the DPRK causes their suffering.