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Doubters Question China’s Corruption Push

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By Russell Leigh Moses

China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Reuters

The recent study examining the lives and labors of Communist party cadres in Shandong province is noteworthy not only because it shows that many Chinese officials have a tough time staying clean.

It’s also a telling example of the tension within China’s political circles about the best way to wage war against corruption.

The Xi leadership’s preferred approach thus far has followed two complementary tracks.

The first track has featured well-publicized takedowns of “tigers”–high-ranking party officials and even military commanders who have felt the wrath of the anticorruption crusade and will likely face trial. Making examples out of once-powerful figures like former security czar Zhou Yongkang shows both the public and party ranks that Beijing is dead serious about stopping graft.

The second part of Xi’s strategy is shaking up the way party cadres work. By pushing officials to focus on making policies that actually matter to people, Xi is also striving to “make cadres more honest and pragmatic simply by carrying out activities that will reflect better on them.” Those who don’t change their work style are subject to rectification campaigns and risk becoming political road kill.

That’s hardline stuff. It shows officials who behave badly that they can’t hide or run away.

But there are others who aren’t so sure that the current emphasis on cracking down by punishing officials will bring good results. Those skeptics say that there may be more effective ways of fighting graft in the system. One way is to look more critically at some of the ways China’s political system operates.

That’s a major reason why the Shandong study was so prominently featured across state media in the past few days. It supports a more complex view of China’s corruption problem. Specifically, it suggests that cadres might not immediately begin behaving badly. Instead, they become susceptible to a political system built more for self-promotion than sound policy-making.

According to the Shandong findings, the way forward isn’t so much reconnecting cadres to citizens. Rather, it suggests that officials should be able to rejoin their families and build a better social life. The “new normal” that Xi and his allies like to refer to isn’t normal at all, the study suggests. In fact, it’s putting pressure on officials to work even harder—leaving the root causes of corruption in the system long after the current crusade has expired.

Others voices in China are calling for different approaches.

One group favors a simple zero-tolerance policy where gifts of any sort are concerned, blaming officials for simply not being moral enough to resist enticement.

Some others want the party to stop being so concerned about what cadres do in the darkness and to start looking at what government isn’t doing well in the daytime.

For example, as one essay has it, Beijing should worry less about monitoring public opinion for dissent and focus more on acting on the reasons for discontent. Expressions of disgust from netizens aren’t signs of instability, this argument goes, but echoes of important work left undone. Castigating cadres for being corrupt has merit, this argument goes, but what’s really ailing the Chinese body politic isn’t graft but bad governance. Slapping down cadres and citizens might solve one challenge, but it leaves other social problems to smolder.

Another alternative approach calls for the party to move away from relying on abrupt inspections designed to catch cadres committing crimes. Instead it appeals for building better institutions and procedures, such as more regular audits and oversight. Combating corruption is fine, this argument goes, but clean government should be aiming to create better governance, not just cowed cadres.

After all, Beijing has historically been woefully reactive when it comes to enforcing its authority, believing that punishment after the fact solves problems. According to this point of view, fear is the best force for forward progress in the long run.

These dissents from the party line aren’t dangerous departures, but part of a larger debate about reforms in China. That’s the good news, because Xi’s leadership represents a general recognition in the Communist party that China needs new thinking to face new challenges.

The bad news is that the debate still has sharp boundaries, at least where activists are concerned. Restricting public input of any sort hampers Beijing’s ability to brainstorm other ways of tackling China’s corruption problem.

That even semi-official alternative analyses such as the Shandong study are appearing at all in the state media is a further sign that Xi’s rule isn’t dictatorial.

But it’s also a caution. It suggests that there are some who still believe Xi’s anticorruption crusade won’t ultimately do enough to stamp out the problem, and who want other options for political change placed on the table for discussion. That’s a debate that Xi surely doesn’t want.

Russell Leigh Moses is the Dean of Academics and Faculty at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system.

Talking to my family

Foreign correspondents, give to know the country they cover, but they are nothing to do with it, very different for those who are from the patch they cover…. Journalists at the BBC world service facing lots of dilemmas. Today we hear from Diloram Ibrahimova who has been working for the BBC Uzbek service for the last eight years.

I left my country a decade ago, after being granted a fellowship to Oxford University to study Muslim minorities in the USSR, but by the time I arrived at Oxford, the USSR no longer existed – my country was now Uzbekistan. The BBC heard about me, when they were in the midst of setting up new service for Uzbekistan in the Uzbek language – I was first person they contacted, and one of the first people they hired.

Unlike British correspondents who broadcast about far-flung parts of the world they have no connection with, the stories we report on are often about people and events close to home, close to our families and our lives. About a year ago I arrived at work and logged onto the computer, scanning the news agencies for stories for that day’s programme. I saw the headline ‘FBI discovered human trafficking network” “the arrest of a couple from Russia”. Great story for our audience – there are so many women from my part of the world who get caught up in prostitution and trafficking. But as I scrolled down the computer screen the names of the ‘Russians’ looked familiar – very familiar. Sardar and Nadira –arrested for illegally bringing women to America as lap dancers. But… Sardar was doing cancer research at Texas University. I felt shocked, desperately embarrassed and ashamed – Sardar was married to my sister who died ten years ago. Now he and his new wife – arrested for human trafficking? I thought about how the story would sound to our listeners in our capital Tashkent, where half of them know either my family, or Sardar’s family. Then, I stopped thinking of myself and my thoughts turned to my nephew, my sister’s only son –Timur. Where did he fit into all this – where was he, in custody with his parents? In an American jail? He was fourteen and had only joined his father a few months ago to play his part in the American dream.

This story was no longer a news item; it had turned deeply personal. I had to act, to find where my nephew was. He needed me. I remember feeling uneasy when I first discussed my predicament with my colleagues. But when I told them the whole story, they gave me their total support. After a few phone calls I established that Timur was in Texan child protection agency care awaiting a court case in El Paso, Texas in a week’s time which would establish his fate. I’d never been to America before, but I knew I had to be at that court case, and evolve a strategy to help him. I decided to adopt Timur. The only way to guarantee he would remain within our family – for the sake of my dead sister and for the sake of my nephew. Time was against me as over twenty documents needed faxing, translating, endorsing. I got my US visa, two hours before the flight, which arrived in El Paso at midnight, on the eve of the morning court hearing. There were five lawyers sitting there in the courtroom facing me, I was representing myself. At that point I was acting only as a caring relative not as a journalist. But my profession helped me to establish the true facts; there was no network and no human trafficking or "modern form of slavery" as the prosecutor put it. All my ex-relative did was to invite three women from Uzbekistan on false pretences – claiming they had jobs at Texas University when in fact they went on to work in a night club.

The hardest thing for me to do in the courtroom was to establish where my family comes from – and this was important as I was negotiating with the lawyers on where the child would go. It took me an hour to explain that the child came not from Russia but from Uzbekistan, and if they wanted to send him back, he would return not to Moscow but to our capital, Tashkent. I was lucky – there was a globe in the courtroom, which I spun round to show them. With an Uzbek name and an Uzbek passport I felt the name of the BBC helped a lot – at least they had heard of that. The court agreed; and with the reluctant backing of the boy’s father, I was allowed to adopt him.

But I couldn’t relax yet – I only had a week to get Timur’s new travel documents, so he could enter Britain. I had to report to work back in London the following Monday morning. I felt a sense of extreme urgency that week as I negotiated with British and American and Uzbek officials. I have to credit the BBC for teaching me to work to a deadline. I was able to take my American Airlines scheduled flight and arrived in London with my new son. The following day, as the tragic events of September 11th unfolded, I realised how lucky I was to have left on time.

I was relieved to arrive back in Britain; it feels safe, secure and a good place to bring up my two boys. But If I think that I will spend the rest of my life in England it makes me feel uneasy. I came to this country as a person with my world outlook already formed, not as a child, and I had already passed many major life events– childhood, getting an education, falling in love, getting married, having my first child, and witnessing death, burying both my husband and my sister. If you want to replant a mature tree, sometimes you are not sure if it will adjust itself to the soil, but a young tree is easier to transplant – The realities here are just so very different to those I have grown up with.

When I first started working at the BBC Uzbek service eight years ago, one of the hardest things was finding a school I was happy with for my son Akbar then aged seven. And as a single parent, it was a search I had to do alone. That’s when I realised that I lacked a well-established circle of friends to guide me. Back home in Uzbekistan, my family are from the intelligentsia; I might have lacked summer holidays at the seaside, or an automatic washing machine. Yet our parents sent us to best schools in Tashkent. But arriving as a newcomer to London, I found myself lost, uncertain, on the same boat as poor Kurdish asylum seekers. And I didn’t just want any English education for my son, but the very best. The only school I was able to get into was many miles from our house, built in a Soviet style concrete block with thirty six children from different ethnic backgrounds in the class. Yet inside, the education was anything but Soviet. For a whole year Akbar seemed to do only singing and dancing. Where was the learning I was lucky enough to benefit from at that age – brought up in an old Soviet school – with grammar rules, memorising long poems and reciting my multiplication tables every morning?

It was at that time that my work became more demanding. I started doing nightshifts. A succession of childminders wondered in and out my home, they came from all over the world, from Turkey, Poland, Russians who tried to convert my son to Christianity in my absence. I realised I was losing him. What was the purpose of furthering my career if I was losing my son in the care of strangers? I had to act; yet I was very reluctant to threaten my new BBC job. In the end I found a weekly boarding school, it was private education, and my family helped. I felt it was somehow shocking that I had to pay for a decent education, and even today I feel a little embarrassed as deep in my heart I am a socialist.

As an academic in Uzbekistan, my father has been listening to the BBC for over 30 years – during the Soviet times he listened secretly under his pillow. Because our service is relatively new – we are not perfect. When I talk to my father over the phone, and there is a pause in the conversation, he says: ‘do you want to hear what I thought about today’s broadcast’ – ‘no’ I scream inside, I want to speak to you because I want to share things– like how my garden pond is flourishing, and I’ve managed to keep the fish alive, – on his last trip to UK he said “please I beg you don’t forget to feed them” – but all my father wants to talk about is the story on the Russian economy ‘It wasn’t balanced, one of your producers expressed his own opinion and he shouldn’t – we are clever enough to make our own judgment. Don’t treat us like primitive listeners, when you broadcast about Russia you give us background kalinka music –don’t put this clichéd music in the background to introduce us to a Russian story’. I often agree with my parents, they make good points – and I listen carefully. But when I speak to them over the phone what I really want is to be praised wholeheartedly without a grain of criticism. I’m still your child, I need to be loved just for me not praised or criticised as a representative of the BBC.

And yet my parents are also great sources of news and programme ideas. I sometimes feel awkward mentioning my parents as a source of information during our editorial meetings and discussions- but also I know they speak their mind, when a lot of other Uzbeks are silent and prefer not to discuss what’s really important with their children. I think their open-mindedness in a culture of reticence is an inheritance – My maternal grandfather was an Afghan trader who was arrested for being a foreigner and accused of spying. My father’s father spoke out during Stalin’s purges. In 1937 my grandfather was exiled to the Far East where he was shot – we still don’t know where he is buried. After that my father’s whole family was branded an enemy of the people.

There are days in our calendar, when our broadcasts highlight my own stake in the stories which I present to our listeners. Every year on the 9th of May, Russia celebrates Victory Day, victory over the German army in the Second World War. Uzbekistan recently decided to change its commemoration to ‘Remembrance day’ a different tone reflecting official reluctance to mark what many see as a victory by Russia, the imperialistic power. But my family always saw things differently. Three of my uncles were veterans – fighting in Berlin, in Budapest, and the Baltics – and their struggles and adventures during the war were something we digested with our mother’s milk – carrying wounded soldiers under German air attacks, blinded after surviving a tank explosion, and the part they played as liberators of Europe from Nazi Germany. I know their stories so well it’s as if I had lived their lives myself.

I am aware that my mother always listens carefully to the BBC on that day, with the memories of her three veteran brothers at the front of her mind. The way we present the day – matters to her. I feel personally that I have to give my uncles recognition for their suffering, especially as the national mass media always chooses to downplay the veterans. In our meetings when we discuss how we are going to cover ‘Remembrance Day’, my colleagues want to give a different perspective, one where the soviet veterans are mocked because of the piles of medals weighing down their chests. Not that there are many veterans left. I feel the pressure of my emotions and of my family’s past, yet I am aware that I have to keep my emotions from overwhelming me – after all I am a professional.

Being at the BBC, I have learnt to appreciate the values which lie at the heart of our broadcasts – balance, impartiality, challenging those in authority. These are values which were alien to the Soviet media that surrounded me as I grew up. But I’ve also learnt that while it may be great radio to do a Jeremy Paxman, you have to be careful about protecting a vulnerable interviewee – especially if he happens to be your father.

Two years ago a strong earthquake hit Ismit in Turkey. And as usual, my colleagues hunted round for an Uzbek speaking expert to interview – as you can imagine they aren’t too many Uzbek experts who are willing to speak! I was out from the office traveling, and they tracked down my father who is a seismologist. During the interview he explained how plate tectonics work and he also mentioned that his team had prepared a map of possible hazardous earthquakes and included Ismit as a high risk area. My colleague pressed my father – ‘why wasn’t it published, why you kept it secret’, my father was forced to reveal that the Uzbek officials had stopped him releasing his findings – in order not to strain Uzbekistan’s relationship with Turkey.

After the interview was broadcast, my father was summoned to the office of the director of the institute of seismology. The director was furious, worried that what my father had said would harm Uzbekistan’s relationship with Turkey. My father was forced to resign. My mother was angry with my father too, for being so outspoken. There were many family rows and sleepless nights. When I found out I felt awful that my work had placed my father in the middle of a scandal, but also frustrated with the authorities – after all he hadn’t committed any crime – only asked to give his expertise –, which he always does willingly – he’s an earthquake pundit. Now I am very careful to protect my father and try and ensure that my colleagues don’t go anywhere near my father’s phone number.

I realise that I have had a more ‘eventful’ life than many of contemporaries – but I have learnt to accept my life as it is – I don’t need sympathy or pity from other people. My role as a translator and broadcaster of happenings in my home country has made me appreciate these stories through my perspective as an insider outsider. My personal story and the story of my country are intermingled, and I look with an openness and optimism to the future, telling my country stories about it.

EUROPE

Lifting the Soul, and the Spanish Economy, Too

By RAPHAEL MINDERAUG. 31, 2014

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A Spanish Pilgrimage, From Medieval Rite to Tourist Attraction

A Spanish Pilgrimage, From Medieval Rite to Tourist Attraction

CreditPatricia de Melo Moreira for The New York Times

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SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — There are the pilgrims who hobble along with a staff, painstakingly making their way through a monthlong journey of contemplation. Then there are the others, looking all the fresher for walking a shorter route or paying a tour operator to carry their backpacks, and more likely to be clutching a cellphone or a guidebook.

All, however, must navigate the proliferating array of souvenir shops selling Jesus key rings and T-shirts and painted scallop shells: the symbol of the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James, which ends in this city in northwestern Galicia and has become known simply as the Camino, or the Way.

The surge in popularity of the pilgrimage, which dates from the ninth century, has turned what was a spiritual obstacle course in medieval times into a booming part of modern Spain’s tourism industry. At a time when other parts of the economy are still suffering, the pilgrimage has become big business here — so much so that it has invigorated not only local economies but also a debate over how to balance mass tourism and spiritual reflection.

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FRANCE

200 MILES

Site of the shrine of St. James

GALICIA

ANDORRA

Santiago de

Compostela

PORTUGAL

Madrid

SPAIN

Aznalcázar

ALGERIA

MOROCCO

“You suddenly find yourself, exhausted, walking alongside people who are in party mood, as if they were heading to an entertainment park,” said Marie Ange de Montesquieu, who works for a Christian radio station in Paris and was completing a 480-mile route that began on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Still, she was philosophical. “It’s like life itself,” she added, “a mix of pleasant and less pleasant experiences.”

Such challenges transcend Santiago. In southern Spain, the municipality of Aznalcázar announced earlier this year that it would impose an environmental fee on pilgrims going to worship the Virgin of El Rocío, to cover the cost of cleaning up the trash left in the wake of the springtime passage. The decision generated an outcry, forcing Aznalcázar to shelve the plan.

Near Santiago, dozens of private establishments have started to compete with the network of government-owned hostels, and some municipalities have been pushing to add more official routes to the Camino, hoping to benefit as well from this tourism bonanza.

Santiago was the final resting place of St. James, and the discovery of his remains created one of the main medieval pilgrimages. Its importance dwindled because of the rise of Protestantism and the effects of the plague and conflicts, which hindered European travel.

In 1984, just 423 pilgrims were certified as having completed the route here. This year, an estimated 240,000 pilgrims are expected to come, up from 215,880 last year. The most prominent recent visitors included Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who walked a short part of the route when they held a meeting on Aug. 24.

Ahead of Ms. Merkel’s visit, Santiago’s mayor, Agustín Hernández, criticized the lack of public money spent on upgrading the access ways to his city for pilgrims. In an editorial, El Correo Gallego, a regional newspaper, urged Ms. Merkel to pressure the Spanish government to invest more in the Camino.

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The reasons for the growing popularity of the pilgrimage are not altogether clear. The Roman Catholic Church has welcomed the swelling numbers as evidence of a religious pickup, perhaps coinciding with hard economic times. The number of people attending Mass in Spain rose 5.7 percent in July from a year earlier, according to a study by the Center for Sociological Research, a government institute.

But it has no doubt helped, too, that with joblessness at about 25 percent in Spain and also high in other parts of Europe, people have more time on their hands. Many have chosen to travel, helping to leave tourism one of the few unscathed parts of the Spanish economy. Last year, Spain welcomed a record 60.6 million visitors.

Photo

Pilgrims to the shrine of St. James huddled for a photograph at the Praza do Obradoiro, in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. CreditPatricia de Melo Moreira for The New York Times

The Camino has “given me confidence that I can overcome obstacles like not having work,” said Maria João Martins, who is from Portugal and lost her job as a supermarket cashier in 2011.

Much of the Camino’s recent growth has come from abroad. Lolita Forján, the owner of a grocery store in the village of Escravitude, was excited about having recently welcomed clients from Alaska and South Africa. “Who would have thought that a pilgrim would ever show me a bank note with Mandela’s face on it?” she said.

Ms. Merkel followed in the footsteps of Germans whose presence on the Camino almost tripled in a decade, reaching 16,203 pilgrims last year. German interest rose after Hape Kerkeling, a television presenter, published a 2006 diary of his pilgrimage that became a best-seller. “The Way,” a 2010 movie featuring Martin Sheen, helped broaden awareness among Americans.

Such is the popularity of the Camino today that many of the more devout pilgrims now travel off-season to avoid the summer rush, according to Maria Angeles Fernández, the president of the Spanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the Camino de Santiago.

In the village of Faramello, a new hostel with 40 beds opened in May. “This tourism has really become the main opportunity to find work around here,” said Concha, the receptionist, who would not give her full name. Before finding this job, she had been unemployed for five years, she said.

The Spanish authorities “must strike a balance between developing tourism and maintaining the tradition of the Camino,” warned Lijia Zhang, a Beijing-based writer, who spent two weeks walking in August. “Otherwise it will lose its soul, and therefore its appeal, before too long.”

Other pilgrims describe their experience as unforgettable, even if some seasoned visitors remember more fondly earlier and less commercial times.

For pilgrims, the final hurdle comes in Santiago itself, at the office where certificates are delivered to those who have walked at least the last 100 kilometers, or 62 miles.

There, the line in August can take as long as three hours, said Walt Scherer, an American volunteer. Mr. Scherer, a former mayor of Loomis, Calif., discovered the Camino after surviving colon cancer. As a young pilgrim complained to him about the line, Mr. Scherer replied, “The first thing you should learn on the Camino is patience.”

Virginia Gómez and César Martínez, an unemployed couple from Madrid, said they were delighted to have reached Santiago but disappointed by the costs of nearly everything along the way. Some establishments did not provide free toilet paper, they said.

“I didn’t think you needed to bring a full wallet to a pilgrimage,” Ms. Gómez said.

I was saddened by the passing of Leys (real name Pierre Rickman), one of the greatest Sinologist ever.

He made a name during the Cultural Revolution by his very sharp articles/books, attacking the movement while some western lefitiest looked up to Mao as a hero – there was little information about what was happening within China.

I had the pleasure of meeting him in Canberra when I had a book launching at a book store there. unlike his sharp writing, I found an extremely friendly and humble old man. I was very impressed.

see below a piece about Leys.


Greater China

Aug 22, ’14
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SINOGRAPH
Simon Leys: An appreciation
By Francesco Sisci

The void left in both Western and Eastern culture by the death on August 11 of Sinologist Pierre Rickman (aka Simon Leys), aged 78, will be felt possibly only in the years to come. Rickman/Leys had a unique voice on China and on literature in general, which has been very influential for many China watchers and will possibly be more important in the future, as China becomes even an bigger focus of attention with its rise.

Rickman, born in Belgium in 1935, took the pseudonym of Simon Leys in the 1970s to avoid becoming persona non grata in China. He gave some scathing descriptions of the cultural and political destruction during the Cultural Revolution and denounced the

hypocrisy of the revolution’s Western defenders. Yet he was always careful in drawing a distinction between the faulty leaders and the common Chinese people.

There are many ways to approach China and the study of its culture, or Sinology as it has been called for over a century in the West. One can concentrate on the erudition, and China offers ample room for that, with so much to learn and such great differences from Western culture: thousands of characters, thousands of texts to memorize and pile up in a gigantic tower of memory. Others can concentrate on politics: again, there is much to learn there, with the obscure machinations of modern and ancient plotting. Others still can concentrate on the beauty of its arts, so different and yet so fascinating, almost mesmerizing, and so forth.

Simon Leys, unlike most and like a few others, preferred to avoid all of that, skirting all of the above and concentrating on the truth, the essence, as he wrote in his collection of essays "The Hall of Uselessness".

He explained that the task of the Chinese artist was not to reproduce objects of reality, it was not to reproduce the effects and illusions of the vision, it was not even to create something beautiful. These were all approaches proper to Western culture and art. The task of the Chinese artist was to capture the essence of a spot, a situation, a moment, and to communicate this essence in the most effective way. This was to try to be oneself in the truest way.

In the essay "Ethics and Esthetics" he quotes calligrapher Liu Xizai as saying, "In calligraphy, it is not pleasing that is difficult; what is difficult is not seeking to please. The desire to please makes the writing trite; its absence renders it ingenuous and true." And to further clarify the point, he quotes Stendhal, writing, "I believe that to be great at anything at all, you must be yourself," and Wittgenstein, commenting on Tolstoy, "There is a real man who has a right to speak."

This was the approach Leys took to Chinese culture. The effort surely was so hard, so difficult, and so deep that it must have given Leys an extra talent to see through all other things. This knack, refined through decades of deep thinking, is what gave him a unique ability to capture the essence of anything he laid eyes on, be it from the East or the West.

Leys was in fact not simply a Sinologist but someone who deeply understood Chinese classical artistic power to go to the essence, to the truth, and expanded his gaze on Western culture and politics.

He wrote in an essay that Chinese artists were amateurs, and it was demeaning for them to be paid for their work. They worked because their conscience demanded it, searching for a deep truth within themselves and in what they were doing. This ethical dynamic in their work was what made their work great.

This is a lesson Leys found expounded in China, but certainly it is true of any artist or writer, like himself. The honest effort to think hard and thoroughly is what gives life to any real work of art or any solid writing.

China provided Leys more than anything with an ethical instrument to look at reality. For this reason, his essays are equally compelling whatever he writes about. It is not his erudition that shines through (although he was greatly erudite), not his politics (although he had a clear stand, being an ardent Catholic), not even the beauty of his prose (very beautiful, although English was possibly his third language, after Flemish and French).

What made Leys most remarkable was his depth, his continuous effort to try to get to the bottom of things, to understand them, and to render them with the great simplicity proper of the people who really worked through them.

With Leys the world has lost a unique eye onto things, an eye of intellectual honesty and depth, something that should be the hallmark of any intellectual. May his lesson not be lost with him, as now more than ever we need great efforts and even greater honesty to write about the world and especially about China, which is today more difficult than ever.

Rephrasing him one must say, he was a real man with a right to speak. One should only hope to deserve the same right.

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People’s University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.

(Copyright 2014 Francesco Sisci.)

my camino experience

Posted: August 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

The mission has been accomplished.

Shortly after noon on Aug. 12, I marched into Santiago, the final destination of St. James Way, commonly known for its Spanish name El Camino, an old pilgrimage route. It took me 13 days to complete 311 km, starting from Leon.

I loved every minute of it. Hard not to, really. For someone who lives constantly in Beijing’s smudgy air, I can’t describe the pleasure I had of walking under a vast open sky. I was lucky to have mostly sunny days. For several days, the sky was a dome of blue, without even a cloud. The mountainous scenes are stunning. I passed through villages with rustic charms and medieval towns, such as Astorga and Santiago, blessed with plenty of historical monuments.

I was very lucky not to have suffered from any blisters or injuries. I had the right walking socks and shoes; my backpack was light with bare necessities. I took my time, enjoying the scenes without hurrying the journey like some did. I stopped for tea, juice or cake whenever possible. After lunch, I often took a nap, on a bench, in the shade of a tree or by a running stream. Once on a raining day, I took a long break at an open tent deep in woodland. While finishing a book I was reading (on flat areas, I learnt to read while walking), I listened to the pitter-patter of the rain and breathed in the fresh air. What a joy!

I had long heard how friendly and kind the pilgrims were towards each other. I experienced this on the first day in Leon. I shared a room with an actress from London named Katty – in Albergues (accommodation for the pilgrims) you usually share a dormitory with a dozen others – I expressed my concern that I didn’t bring enough warm clothes. She immediately offered me a long-sleeve top, which was given to her.

I laughed all along the way. The Camino is extremely sociable. I teamed up with a group of people, Patricia, a linguistically-talented German teacher and her German friends, Olga, a lovely Spanish girl from Madrid and Christian, a Norwegian photographer. (The poor guy suffered terrible blisters but nothing reduced his great sense of humour.) I was grateful to have been adopted by this Camino family. In the beginning, I didn’t book any accommodation. I wanted to stop when I felt tired and I wanted to check into somewhere I liked. Towards the end as more and more people barged into Camino, you had to book a place. Patricia, being so organized, decided where we’d stop. Olga would call and book for six beds. Each day, I was given an address. We set off at different times in the morning and turned up at the same place, with me being the last to turn up. We would meet for dinner.

During the day, I walked mostly on my own, in my own pace. I met all sorts of people.

Some come to the camino with a special quest. A lady from S. Africa did her camino as a way to honour her mother who passed away two years ago. As in Camino tradition, she brought a stone from home and placed it under a cross along the way. Others did Camino because they reached a cross road in their lives, facing choices in their careers or love life. One German man had been battling with his business partners; a lady from East Europe had issues with both her marriage and her job; a sweet gay man from Canary Island wants to have children and a family in a traditional sense but has no sexual desire towards women. Others treat it as a normal hiking holiday. For whatever the purpose, you’d certainly get something out of Camino. I can’t imagine a better way to explore Spain.

I didn’t particularly like the last four days. Suddenly more people – mostly young people – joined in:in order to get a certificate, you need at least four days’ worth of stamps collection in your passport/credential. The roads were packed with joyful and noisy travelers. The atmosphere felt more like carnival instead of Camino.

I did have a little drama – an allergy reaction. One morning, I find rashes all over my body. Patricia and a pharmacy thought it was the reaction to mosquito bites and I was given some very mild cream to stop the itching. The cream didn’t help at all. My situation got worse, rashes flaming up and my whole face puffed up. Patricia decided that I needed to see a doctor and dragged me to a medical center. (I would have gone to a pharmacy for a second opinion.) The doctors, horrified at the sight, reached the conclusion that the allergy was caused by something poisonous, most likely by some poisonous spiders. I was given an injection and a prescription to a stronger cream.

God bless the Spanish free medical care system, such a bless to the pilgrims. At the medical center, a notice read: if you are a pilgrim, please take a shower before receiving doctor’s attention. Some of my fellow travelers do smell. Once I had the pleasure of sleeping right next to an eccentric English man in his 70’s, who always wore the same woolen socks, one red and the other grey. I never noticed him doing any laundry. The smell and the snoring all around me was so overwhelming that I decided to sleep on chairs at the reception instead of my own bunk bed.

It’s remarkable how one can get used to anything. In the beginning, I tried to have my private room as I had trouble to fall asleep with a roomful of people. After a while, I slept through the night no matter what.

Despite these unromantic details, my Camino has been a memorable experience and I already plot to do it again, with my girls.

see attached pix

5562, me in front of a famous cross where people leave the stones they bring with them.

5560, a cyclist in front of a statue of an medieval pilgrime and a shell – the symbol of the Camino

5625, with my camino family, Patricia (blonde) and Olga

the first walking day

Posted: July 31, 2014 in Uncategorized

having survived the first walking day. i thought I´d take things easy and cover some 10 to 15 km. i walked 23.4 km today! from leon to a village called villa de mazarife, north of the city.

sometimes i walked alone and some other times, in the company of other pilgrims. each one has an interesting story to tell.

oh, the joy of travel.

yesterday, i had dinner with two ladies staying at the same convent – people are so friendly. the restaurant is right by the grand Cathedra of Leon. by 8.30, the sun was still shining cheerfully. I enjoyed a hearty pilgrim dinner, the spectacular view and the ringing of church bell.

now i am relaxing in the law of the hostal.

El Camino – the way

Posted: July 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

greetings from Leon in northern spain.

I am writing from Convento Santa Maria de las Carbajalas, one of the hostels for the people walk along the old pilgrim route. I´ve never stayed at a convent before.

today I obtained the passport – the credential. already I got my first stamp. so the joureney has started.

many friends have asked why I´d want to do Camino. well, why not. it´s a good way to shed off a few extra pounds and it is also a journey of enquiry when i have the time and space to ponder about the deeper meaning of my life.

and the scenery along the way is beautiful.

I arrived here today by train from Madrid where I enjoyed the warm hospitality of an indian couple, friends of a friend.

Leon is a charming lillte medieval town with a grand cathadral in the town center. I felt so happy this afternoon as I strolled in the bright sunshine along the narrow winding streets. a world away from hot, sticky Beijing.