Sartorial Sycophancy

What Venezuelan President Maduro wore in China – Frank Beyer

As Venezuela has been the recipient of over half of China’s loans to South America, the ongoing crisis there is of concern to Beijing. China continues to support the embattled government of Nicolás Maduro and, like Russia and Turkey, doesn’t recognize the opposition’s Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president in January 2019. Given that Venezuela is a major source of oil for China, the Communist Party would prefer stability and a continuation of the status quo. If the socialist revolución bolivariana started by Hugo Chávez and continued by Maduro does fall, however, the pragmatic Xi will be ready to negotiate with a new government. Guaidó, for his part, has said he wants a productive relationship with China. In light of the developing crisis, a look at Maduro’s wardrobe and actions on a trip to Beijing in 2018 gives us some insight into the relationship between the two regimes.


The Pixiu Triad

Mafia extortion of Chinese supermarkets in Argentina – Frank Beyer

In Argentina, a Chinese supermarket – supermercado chino, súper chino, argenchino or even just un chino – is not a store catering to Asian expats. The target market of these shops is the general population. In addition to several aisles of food and alcohol, there is usually a counter to buy meat, cheese and cold-cuts, and a fruit and vegetable stand. An Argentinian might be behind the meat counter, a Bolivian weighing the vegetables and a Chinese attending the till.

On September 18, 2016, on Bacacay Street in the Floresta neighborhood of the Argentinian capital city of Buenos Aires, two men on a motorbike pulled up in front of a small Chinese supermarket. One of them fired two shots through the entrance. In the aftermath there was a lot to clean up, but nobody was hurt.



The Dictator’s Smile

Jiang Zemin’s intriguing appearance on American TV – Frank Beyer

On June 4th 1989, the day before he took the famous ‘Tank Man’ photo, American photographer Jeff Widener was in Tiananmen square. Soldiers were arriving to break up the pro-democracy protests that had been ongoing since April. Widener saw an armoured car hurtle into some steel barriers erected by the protesters and crash. He imagined himself getting the Pulitzer prize if he could take a photo of what happened next. He walked towards the chaos, but a brick smashed his camera and ripped his forehead open. A soldier appeared from out of the prone vehicle with his hands raised, surrendering, but protesters descended on him with bricks and pipes. Standing there with blood dripping into his eyes, Widener woke up to the fact that the mob could be about to beat the soldier to death, and balked at taking a photo. He got the hell out of there.

The next day, Jeff was on the roof of the Beijing Hotel when a line of tanks moved towards Tiananmen square below. He had to get a photo of this and it was a near thing – he was almost out of film. He felt like a NBA star with one shot to win the game: make it and you’re a hero, miss it and you’ll regret it forever. Then it happened. A man, a lone protester, walked in front of the line of tanks, and Jeff took the photo which would become famous.


Forbidden Portrait

When Chiang Kai-shek was in place of Mao Zedong on the Forbidden City – Frank Beyer

In 2016, at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, I saw a black and white photo that didn’t compute at first. The photo featured a portrait of the Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-Shek, hung above the Tiananmen gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Chiang’s upright military posture was evident, even though he could only be seen from the shoulders up. His expression was serious and piercing; his shaved head and moustache gave him a look of grim determination. The portrait was put up to celebrate victory over the Japanese in 1945 – before which it was Sun Yat-sen’s face that had graced Tiananmen square ever since his death in 1925. Mao Zedong’s portrait replaced Chiang’s in 1949. Mao has been up there ever since, except on the odd occasion when another figure has been honoured  – like Joseph Stalin on March 9th 1953, to mark his death.


When Malaparte Met Mao

Anatomy of a fellow traveller – Frank Beyer

In 1956 the Italian novelist, Curzio Malaparte, received an invitation to travel to Beijing for a commemoration of the death of writer Lu Xun. Malaparte is most famous for his quasi-surrealist WWII novels, Kaputt and La Pelle (The Skin). In Kaputt, as a journalist and officer in the Italian army, he narrates what happened behind the Eastern Front. Episodes from Ukraine, Finland, Romania and Poland get us up close and personal with, amongst others, members of the Nazi elite. Malaparte seems to revel in the horrific subject matter, showing the abuses and hypocrisies of the Axis forces like no other. In The Skin he is a liaison officer attached to the American army, taking us on a Dantesque tour of the hell that is Naples after Allied liberation. He exposes the naivety of the Americans and the damage done to the already miserable local population.

Malaparte was a keen observer, who did not shy away from making criticisms. Why then, on his trip to China, was he so charmed by everything? Did he leave his critical faculties back in Europe?