All one believed in can turn into shadows

Rigid conceptions explode into vacuum

Plans shifting into the zone of the past

Feelings are fading that you thought would last


Wanting to anchor but boat keeps on floating

The notion of stable is quickly dispersing

Finding the rhythms in a fluid existence

Nurturing breaths help stave off the resistance


Softening gaze and forgoing self-judgment

Watching pink sparks that set glow to the darkness

Dancing through layers of grey hazy fog

Walking down slowly the long curvy path

Digital Love

Attraction, seduction, digital deduction

Illusion, confusion, sensual infusion

Soak in each other but just on the Web

Feel the connection build up in your head

Sense the vibrations of digital spell

Reach out to touch with the button at hand

Close heavy eyelids and picture your face

Screen slowly melts into physical space

Willingly shift into zone of distraction

Hang in the haze of this random attraction

Fail at retraction, give up all control

Mechanical Cures

Predict and prescribe–statistical high

Measure the pattern of human emotion

Find a new drug that helps ride through life’s motions

Cure the weird humans who still crave devotion


Measure responses to food, sleep and dreams

Calculate metrics of good self esteem

Count the reactions and test them again

Find that one formula for hiding from hell


Invent feedback channels for all human parts

Make them robotic but happy at last

Hand them control over their restless minds

Trust in machines, they will save human kind

Facing the Stillness

Glimmering devices push away the silence

Connected we appear, but inside the hollowness keeps growing like a germ

Invisible disease that we for now dismiss

Connected we appear, the self-PR machine is singing same old song

New message, new opinion, one step closer to delirium

Connected we appear, like through a space machine we travel continents and cities, but only with our minds

Our hearts and bodies left aside

Connected we appear but we all fear the quiet, the moment when we let the loneliness intrude

If only for split second to charm the speedy thoughts

Connected we appear, until facade is broken, and stillness comes like uninvited guest

It sternly stares at us with longing and forces one long deep reset


Silence of rain and freshness of spring

Feel new beginnings arise from within

Sensing the fading of melancholic tune

It is still lingering but soon to be gone

Wintery thoughts are pushed out by the new

Tiny sensations of movement push through

Head is still heavy and heart beating slow

Should I resist it or should i let go?

Melt into newness, shed layers of doom

Spring is upon me, I will soon get consumed

Democracy Promotion

Democracy promotion, truth is not an option

Spread the magic system that lets the people choose

Teach them how to value their one and only truth

Show them how to hold power to account

Gift them media freedom and transparent might

Hide commercialisation, apathy, frustration

Push aside corruption if only for a day

Don’t expose surveillance tracking us today

Or that challenging power takes you straight to jail

Democracy promotion, truth is not an option

Sell the rosy picture of our vivid dreams

Tell them that without it they will be incomplete

A Woman

Femininity, fragility, hidden vulnerability, quiet quest for instability

Imagination subverting the power

Small discontents help her climb up the tower

Moving gracefully in small lonely steps

Leaving the footprints of lovers behind

Finally seeing dim glimmers of light, sensing the imminent burst of delight


Being a woman is new to my soul

Thinking of gender is still foreign soil

Being a woman is yet new distinction

Separating humans into modes of extinction


Facing exotification, empty fascination, lazy flirtation

Embracing femininity without sexual promiscuity

Moving between desire and control

Flowing with feelings and learning to let go

Craving a touch and some inspiration

A simple embrace, no over-complication

Seeking some solace in somebody’s eyes

Brief glimpse of passion and meeting of minds

Wanting to strip off my layers of expression

Meeting you naked without hesitation

Letting the silence just fuse us together

Dream of that spirit that holds you forever

China on Ukraine: A Distracted Observer

The recent media and policy debates on the Russia-Ukraine crisis have focused primarily on perspectives of the West versus Russia. Russia’s position appears as that of an isolated mad man, with its aggression towards Ukraine inciting vast reprisals from the United States and the European Union. Russian official sources, however, say Russia is not alone, claiming to have secured China’s support.

The analysis of China’s official statements and media reports on Ukraine puts this claim in doubt. China has thus far attempted to strike a balance by acknowledging the crisis without directly criticizing Russia’s moves. Rather than championing Russia’s cause, China has favored ambiguity. Its stance on Ukraine is largely a product of complex relations between China, Russia and the United States, as well as the importance of China’s domestic objectives in directing its international engagements. Russia should not count on China for a more direct support on Ukraine and neither should the international community expect China to become an active mediator. China is most likely to remain a passive observer.

China’s official statements note its respect for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and non-interference into its internal affairs. The Foreign Ministry and China’s ambassador to the UN, Liu Jieyi, expressed concern for the crisis and urged all parties involved to adhere to international law and dialogue in resolving it. In a phone call with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday night, Xi Jinping stressed China’s support for international peace-making efforts. The focus on territorial sovereignty and international mediation brings China closer to the position of the West in dealing with Ukraine than to that of Russia. At the same time, editorials in China’s official press demonstrate an implicit support for Russia. An editorial in Huanqiu Shibao, for instance, states that “whatever happens, China’s priority is not to let Russia down,” while another opinion piece in the influential People’s Daily urges the West to abandon its Cold War mentality towards Russia. China did not endorse Russia’s actions in Crimea, but its critique of Ukraine’s recent uprising and its democratic processes more broadly, stands in line with Russia’s position. “Up until a few days ago, Ukraine’s opposition revolt, sustained by the West, used unconstitutional tactics to drive out the popularly elected president, Yanukovich,” writes one editorial. Others refer to Ukraine’s political situation as chaotic and treat protesters as trouble-makers. This line closely parallels that used by Putin in his recent press conference explaining his stance on Ukraine. Chinese media also portray Ukraine’s evolving democratic process as largely unsuccessful. One commentator compared Ukraine’s democratization to that of “a woman who suffers a miscarriage every time she becomes pregnant, inciting fear in others.” Characterizing Ukraine’s political system as a failure is yet another popular rhetoric of the Russian regime.

China, therefore, appears to be taking one step towards the international stance on Ukraine, while the other towards supporting Russia’s position. As a result, China has not played an active role in facilitating the resolution of the crisis and is unlikely to do so in the future.

Some analysts suggest China’s cautiousness is in large part a result of its economic stakes in Ukraine, but they are unlikely to be at the heart of the matter. The widely talked about bilateral agricultural deal, with China allegedly buying up to five percent of Ukraine’s arable land, is yet to be confirmed. China is interested in Ukraine’s arable land, but thus far, it is looking at future potential rather at losing its existing investments in the country. The bilateral trade of $7.3 billion is also incomparable to China’s trade with other major partners. For comparison, China’s trade with Russia is expected to reach $100 billion this year and its trade with the United States exceeded $500 billion in 2013, according to China’s official reports. So while China has become the second largest trade partner for Ukraine, Ukraine is a much less significant economic partner for China. This means that Ukraine will be likely more concerned with securing China’s future investments than the other way around. Moreover, if Russia were to maintain more dominance in Ukraine, it wouldn’t necessarily affect China’s economic opportunities there. Economics, therefore, might just serve as a convenient excuse for Chinese officials in defending their concern for Ukraine’s stability.

Remaining as neutral as possible on this conflict is a way for China to escape tensions with its two important partners, Russia and the United States. Openly criticizing Russia would jeopardize the Sino-Russian strategic relationship and a generally collaborative approach towards international crises. Xi Jinping has made several symbolic gestures in support of closer China-Russia relations. He picked Russia for his first foreign visit and was one of the few top leaders to attend the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. China’s academic and official sources stress collaborative ties and welcome Russia’s more active involvement in Asia-Pacific, as a possible counterweight to the US. Showing at least some understanding for the Russian position on Ukraine, therefore, is needed for the Chinese leadership.

At the same time, openly supporting Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine would cause unwelcome tensions with the United States, just as the two countries are working towards building a new type of major-power relationship, based on cooperation and mutual gain. Given the recent escalation over the Diaoyu Islands dispute, China might be unwilling to further test the limits of the US reactions. Despite closer Sino-Russian ties in recent years, China is still more deeply concerned about its relations with the United States, seeing it as its most significant bilateral relationship, and would not imperil them by strongly favoring Russia’s position.

Even more significant, however, are domestic constraints playing into China’s position on Ukraine. China is always watchful of democratic revolts, as it seeks to maintain domestic stability. The critique of the Ukrainian protest movement and its democratic system is a message for domestic audiences not to entertain the thought of similar uprisings. The official messages about Ukraine strongly resemble those written about other protest movements in the Middle East and North Africa. The key point is that they are messy and undesirable. China’s primary concern for preserving state sovereignty also reflects its own domestic agenda, as it continues to struggle in containing ethnic separatism. The recent mass stabbing incident at a train station in Yunnan , which authorities labeled as an act of terrorism, makes the party-state especially wary of any radical movements challenging its hold on power. Its ongoing struggle to contain ethnic separatism might also make it more sympathetic to Ukraine’s cause of maintaining territorial unity and staving off external interference. Finally, while the events in Ukraine have been unfolding, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) has been debating the future economic reform. Given the painful economic restructuring likely to be enacted in the near future, China’s leadership is more focused on domestic developments than on asserting its position in thorny international conflicts.

It is easy to dismiss China’s preference for ambiguity as predictable, given its long-standing view on territorial integrity and its general avoidance of direct involvement in international conflicts. China’s stance on Ukraine, and especially the reasoning behind its cautiousness, however, is quite telling about its evolving international behaviour under the new leadership. First, under significant pressure, China’s relationship with Russia does not exhibit that of a long-standing partnership. China will not unilaterally support Russia when it goes against its international and domestic interests. This means that Sino-Russia collission is unlikely. The US should treat it as an important relationship, but not as one directly threatening to its interests in Asia or more globally. Second, in striving to establish itself as a global super power, China will be continuously limited by its domestic considerations. While the new Chinese leaders exhibit a more assertive global outlook, it will be a challenge for them to balance their interests and resources between domestic political and economic challenges and recurrent international crises. When faced with international issues, not directly affecting China’s domestic development, China will stick to inactive involvement. Some have argued in favor of a more active role for China as a mediator in the Ukrainian crisis. China is likely to forgo this opportunity to showcase global leadership and to settle for focusing on domestic priorities at hand.

For the Love of Consumerism

The increasing dominance of consumerism in Chinese culture struck me hard on my last trip to Beijing. Officials, business people and students alike seemed submerged in the wide web of retail experience.

I did not have to wait to land in Beijing to see it. Already at the Seoul airport I ran into crowds of hyper Chinese visitors buying up Korean ginseng in bulk, as well as various duty free items. The shopkeepers could hardly keep up with the flushing crowds of Chinese customers. My flight to Beijing that followed was an intense shopaholic experience. I was seated next to a Chinese delegation to South Korea, consisting of officials and managers of large state-owned companies, including those in telecommunications and energy sectors. On their way back from Seoul they were carrying endless white plastic bags filled with duty free items: perfumes, brand name accessories, expensive creams, you name it. This, however, wasn’t enough for the insatiable crew. As the plane took off, one man from the group immediately called for the flight attendant to bring out the duty free selection. The cheerful passenger pulled out a stack of 100-rmb notes, as if proving to the staff and friends around him that he is indeed capable of buying up the entire duty free selection. “We need to wait until we reach the cruising altitude,” cautioned the flight attendant to the impatient customer. It was apparent that the Chinese-speaking attendant was not surprised by the request, but was rather bored by it, as she heard it many times on previous flights. When she finally brought out the cart filled with the all too recognizable skin care products, the same Chinese man jumped up and bought a large bag of items he seemed to pick out in seconds. “How many perfumes does one need and who do you buy them for?” I asked another member of the delegation seated next to me. “My wife gives me lists of things she needs,” he replied, as if somewhat amused by my question, and showed me the list on his latest phone gadget. The humble looking gentleman then went on to ask me about my favourite brands, admitting that while in South Korea he mainly shopped whenever he could get away from his meetings. He knew the name of every brand of cosmetic products and was most interested in telling me about them in detail. I tried to change the conversation topic to their impressions of Korean culture, but these impressions didn’t appear to extend much beyond the duty free establishments.

 In Beijing, walking around the hutongs, which used to be a peaceful get away from the bustling city, shopping overcasted the beautiful narrow streets and traditional grey roofs. The famous Nanluoguxiang now resembles a long shopping mall of China’s “ethnic” products. Traditional looking shops offering the authentic experience to any willing passerby are filled mainly with young Chinese visitors. Wearing heavy expensive cameras around their neck they are clicking away at these sights with one hand, while buying snacks and other items with the other. I went back to what used to be a more serene hutong across from the Lama Temple. New cafes charging London prices sprung up everywhere. Colourful scarves allegedly from Tibet were on display and young fashionable Chinese visitors were carefully inspecting the items.

 I walked into a shop that I visited for years. The owner, Bing, became an old acquaintance. I enquired about his business, expecting to hear an enthusiastic account about latest developments. Instead, I found my friend in a melancholic mood. “Everything now is about making and spending money. There is little about quality of life and enjoying something beyond the immediate pleasures,” he remarked shyly. “I try to find it myself, so I close the shop during the day and only open it up in the evenings. Maybe once I save enough, I’ll move somewhere else, away from the city fortunes, where the pace of life is slower and I can enjoy it more,” he added with a hopeful smile.

Harbin Reunion in Rabat

Hang, me and Amal at a Moroccan restaurant                      First meeting with Hang at the Chinese Embassy, Rabat

I met Hang at the Chinese embassy reception in Rabat, Morocco. After a long speech by the ambassador, everyone rushed towards the buffet stands, placed in the middle of a large outdoors tent covered by a transparent plastic roof. Trying to squeeze into the line I noticed a girl next to me on the same mission. Hang was unusually tall for a Chinese girl. She was not dressed up like some of the other guests and seemed at ease with herself. After our very quick introduction, she smiled broadly and started putting food on my plate. We then sat down on the floor behind the buffet and started talking. It turned out Hang was born in Harbin, the city where I spent a year conducting research. She later moved away for university and then work in Shanghai and came to Rabat a year ago to be with her husband who works for a Chinese company here. There is so much I wanted to ask her, but the reception was winding down, and we had to cut our meeting short.

A few weeks later I met Hang for a coffee and dinner. She brought a Moroccan friend along, Amal, who spent a few years in Harbin too, studying Chinese and engineering. Like Hang, Amal was in her late 20s. She didn’t wear a headscarf. She was shy at first and spoke with a bit of hesitation.

We sat down in a typical “all men cafe,” occupied mainly by men smoking and chatting incessantly. Three of us were sipping milky lattes at an outside table and conversing in Chinese. It felt so surreal that I started addressing the waitress in Chinese by mistake. After a little while we chose to escape uncomfortable gazes from the men beside us, and walk around instead. Later we settled in a cute Moroccan restaurant for some harira soup. This is where the picture above is taken.

 After initial introductions and impressions of life in Rabat, our conversation quickly moved to drawing comparisons between Morocco and China. “Things are so much more dynamic in China!” Amal said with a sense of nostalgia. “I just love the slower pace and the kind people in Rabat,” Hang commented, smiling at both of us.

 What struck me is how much leaving their home countries has been a liberating experience for both Hang and Amal. In both cases they escaped certain preordained norms and expectations, and gained new freedoms. For Amal leaving Morocco meant leaving behind a society where a woman’s place is typically at home, and where marriage is discussed much before university studies. She said the most discrimination she felt while in Harbin was from other Arab men, who were dismayed by her coming to China on her own. “How could your parents let you go??” she kept hearing…Chinese people and other foreigners were easy to get along with. She also exchanged the slow pace of Moroccan life for a fast-pace China, where so much is happening every minute, and the energy feels high as soon as you exit the airplane…Now back in Harbin, Amal is dreaming of going back to China, looking for new opportunities, but also worried about leaving her family behind again.

For Hang coming to Morocco meant leaving the high-pressure environment of Shanghai, where young people are most concerned with having a stable well-paid job, a car and an apartment. The fast pace for Hang meant no space for exploring other possibilities, and challenging herself on other levels than career growth. “All my colleagues thought I was crazy to leave a well paid stable job and move to Rabat to be with my husband….They kept telling me that I would regret it a lot,” Hang admitted. But she hasn’t regretted coming to Morocco so far. She met close Moroccan friends, and found so many people attentive and kind to her. “Morocco taught me to slow down. I feel free from all the pragmatic conventions dominating the thinking of China’s middle class,” Hang added.  She doesn’t know when she will go back, but one day she will. When she returns she might do something entirely different from industrial design she used to do back in Shanghai. For now she is embracing the uncertainty and enjoying the experience.

It seemed that through each other’s stories the two girls also learned more about their homeland. Hang was discovering new Harbinian treasures, while Amal was looking at Rabat with different eyes.

They confided that they feel more connected to each other than to people from their home country at times. The shared experiences of migration bound them together.

“I think one day we will live in China, and Amal will come with me,” Hang said with some confidence. Amal gazed away. Perhaps she was already envisioning that moment. Or maybe she was wondering if she would manage to escape local conventions once again…

Tagged , , ,