Essays

Father of the Chinese Railway

Remembering Zhan Tianyou, China’s pioneer railway engineer – Thomas Bird

This February, the state-owned China Railway Corporation inaugurated the Year of the Pig by announcing railway spending in the region of 800 billion yuan in 2019. While the UK and USA watch their antiquated railway lines crumble, the Communist Party of China views railway development as a core project both at home – sewing the vast territory of the People’s Republic together – and abroad, providing transport infrastructure in places as diverse as Laos and Kenya as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Critics see China’s plans as semi-colonial, with tracks in Tibet and Xinjiang part of a broader placation program, while one-sided contracts in the BRI endebt poorer countries to China. China’s grand railway schemes also trouble economists, who see railways being built simply to stimulate economic growth while China Railway Corporation has, itself, a multi-billion yuan debt.

Dispatches

Taking Out the Trash in Rural China

Waste management in remote Yunnan Province – Matthew Chitwood

My friend Little Tao is a fisherman. He lives with his wife and two kids at a small wharf on the Lancang River just before it runs into the Dachao Mountain Dam. (The Lancang River is known as the Mekong once it flows outside China). Four or five nights each week, Tao loads up his nets on a long flatbed boat and points the rusty bow upriver in search of fish.

Hoping to give my friend Dave, an American who was visiting from Shanghai, one last China adventure before his imminent return to the United States for graduate school, I had called Tao to ask whether we could tag along for an evening. “Of course!” he hollered into the phone. “Come by this afternoon and we can be back by morning for your flight.” Not being overly time-conscientious also means people in the countryside are overly hospitable and ever-adaptable.

China Conversations

Rana Mitter: Pushing the Limit

Part two of a conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University, and Director of the Oxford China Centre. His books include Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-45, A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World and Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. In part of two of this interview, Jonathan Chatwin asked him about his research methods and his current work on the post-World War II period. Read part one here.

How challenging is it to get archival access in China now, and has that changed in the Xi Jinping era?

For studying the Republican period, I would say that broadly it is more challenging than it was 20 years ago. It is probably less challenging than it is for say, doing a history of the Mao period, which is one of the most sensitive areas.

Letters, Reviews

How an Academic Journal Censored My Review on Xinjiang

A squelched review of Oil and Water by Tom Cliff – Timothy Grose

On January 1, 2018, I received a request from China and Asia: A Journal in Historical Studies, a new journal sponsored by the academic publisher Brill, a respected Dutch publishing house with some 275 journals under its aegis, which claims “over three centuries of scholarly publishing.” The request from the journal was to review Tom Cliff’s book Oil and Water – an ethnography about Han settler experiences in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. I agreed, and the review had a generous November 2018 deadline as the journal would publish its first edition in early 2019. The journal’s book review editor is a trusted friend, and I was pleased to read China and Asia’s mission statement: “Its purpose is to promote communication and exchange among the global Asian studies community, especially among scholars based in Asian countries.”

After receiving several deadline reminders, I submitted the review on November 7, 2018. During those eleven months, the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang weighed heavily on my mind, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs reported to be detained in re-education camps

Dispatches

Ramadan in Kashgar

Searching for a morsel in Xinjiang – Brent Crane

Editor’s note: The Chinese authorities have often restricted Uyghurs from fasting during Ramadan. In 2014, while the author of this dispatch wandered hungrily through the streets of Kashgar, a large swath of Xinjiang’s population was forced to eat during the day. Last year, Radio Free Asia reported that Kashgari schoolchildren and their parents had to sign pledges affirming that they would not fast. This indignity is just one part of an ongoing campaign of repression that has swept one million people into internment camps. The story below is a time capsule of Uyghur life, and of the connections that we can form across religious and cultural divides, if only we are given the chance. – Anne Henochowicz

Unless you are in Kashgar during Ramadan, as a foreigner you will never go hungry in China. Eating is a national obsession, and takes on an almost sacred air. Cheap restaurants are everywhere, people are constantly talking about food, and Chinese hosts will bend over backwards to make sure you’ve eaten enough. Often I'm confronted by a fierce jabbing of chopsticks in the direction of a half-finished communal dish and the barking command, “Eat!”

So I was surprised to find myself roaming the twisting streets of Kashgar’s atmospheric old town with a rumbling stomach and diminishing chances of finding an open restaurant.