Meanwhile, in China

Joel Gray

Remember when hating Russia and Russians was the hot new thing? Vladimir Putin had just invaded Ukraine (“basically, that’s wrong,” the American Vice-President helpfully explained) and we therefore had to chuck not just Russian gas and Russian oligarchs, but also Russian literature, Russian music, and Russian people. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Bulkagov, Tchaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky—out with ’em. It was a glorious expression of our moral superiority. We showed them!

You can take your 1812 Overture and shove it, Moscow! Take your stupid and culturally appropriateive Nutcracker ballet and stick it where the sun don’t shine! And you can toss Anna Karenina right under the… bus! Haha, you thought we’d say train, but we’re not even making allusions to your contaminated literature anymore!

Russian ballerinas, conductors, opera singers, and musical virtuosos who hadn’t sufficiently denounced Vladimir Putin were simply canceled.

Western businesses pulled out of Russia not to punish Russia, but to appease the angry western activists threatening to boycott anyone who was still doing any business at all with the moral monsters of Eurasia.

I wrote about all that back in March. I opposed it then and I oppose it now, on the grounds that Russian art and Russian artists really hadn’t done anything to incur our disapproval.

So this kind of thing just embarasses me:

Chinese coffee is completely crazy—and that’s just good
Philip Róin, DR.dk, August 23

It’s a glowing tribute to the coffee culture of Shanghai.

That light-hearted little review of China’s coffee craziness comes just four days after DR published the following article:

UN report: “Reasonable to conclude” that forced labor of the Muslim minority has taken place in China
Karoline Engelund, DR.dk, August 19

That article informs us that an official UN report has just concluded that “contemporary forms of slavery” are being practiced in China (in case Colin Kaepernick is reading this, I should point out that this does not mean Uighurs are being paid millions of dollars to play American football).

After dropping some money quotes from the UN report, DR adds this (my emphasis):

The report is not the first account of human rights violations in the Chinese province.

There have previously been reports of so-called “re-education camps” where Uyghurs are believed to have been confined. DR’s China correspondent, Philip Roín, has written about that, among other things. The (linked) article reveals the accusations against China.

Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for the UN Human Rights Council, visited China and Xinjiang province in May, but has not yet published a report on her visit.

The article by Róin which Engelund referred to in the preceding passage can be found here. It was published just twelve weeks ago. It chronicles many of the ways in which the CCP has been abusing their Uighur population.

How does one go in just three months from writing paragraphs like this:

Estimates of how many of the Uyghurs who have been through the camps are between one and two million—corresponding to more than 10 percent of the entire Uyghur population.

They have been sent to the camps for growing a beard, for not eating pork, for reading banned books, and for having Whatsapp or other illegal apps on their phone. According to Rune Steenberg, the new leak helps one grasp that these really are the reasons for which the authorities have been locking them up.

“These justifications have seemed strange and downright incomprehensible, but with this leak we can see that there has not even been a better attempt within the system to legitimize these confinements,” he says.

…to writing paragraphs like this:

Take Aloha coffee shop, a small, stylishly decorated coffee shop in downtown Shanghai, where owner Xinyi serves her signature cup: “Green Wheat Fields,” a cold coffee with grapefruit juice, pomelo pulp, matcha nitrogen yogurt, and a matrem flower on top. and I only know that because Xinyi serves such a cup with a detailed review of the ingredients and the thoughts behind it. Not unlike a fine restaurant.

I chose the Green Wheat Fields coffee over the Citrus Garden coffee with lemongrass syrup, Buddha’s Hand, and Earl Gray tea. You can also choose from a few variants with whiskey.

It’s a startling juxtaposition.

How’s China, Philip?

They’re enslaving Muslims.

That’s appalling!

Maybe, but the coffee is awesome!

I don’t want to be hard on Róin: he obviously serves as DR’s China correspondent at the pleasure of the CCP, and were he to paint too accurate unharmonious a picture of life in China—which is surely very nice for the coffee lovers of Shanghai and surely much less nice for the Muslims of Xinjiang—then he would almost certainly be on the first plane back to Kastrup.

But it’s hard not to get the feeling sometimes that many journalists—or maybe it’s their editors—are unwilling to describe obvious horrors in plain language until there’s been some kind of collective agreement among their peers that they are in fact horrors.

What’s happening is Xinjiang is obviously a form of ethnic cleansing. Everyone knows it.

Ethnic cleansing is a moral horror. Everyone knows it.

But the same outfits who’ll call American Republicans fascists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists go out of their way to avoid stating the plain truth about China.

Take another look at the DR headline: the UN report only says that it’s “reasonable to conclude” that the Uighurs are being subjected to forced labor. That’s an awfully fucking passive way of saying that the Chinese Communist Party is enslaving Muslims, isn’t it?

If it’s reasonable to conclude, why not just say it?

Why would the UN might make such a damning declaration is such a tepid, timid way?

Of course it’s a reasonable conclusion. Granted. But is that the real story here? The reasonableness of the conclusion? Or is the story perhaps that the Chinese Communist Party is enslaving Muslims?

“It’s reasonable to conclude that the Nazi party engaged in inappropriate conduct.”

Is it really that hard to take an adamant stand against enslavement? Or would that be all judgey and presumptuous?

I’m old enough to remember when the global press yukked it up when Barack Obama told Mitt Romney that the 1980s were calling and wanted their foreign policy back, simply because Romney believed Russia was still the leading geopolitical threat facing America and the west. (Believe it or not, that wasn’t even ten years ago.) The collective agreement—the conventional wisdom, the establishment consensus, whatever you want to call it—the idea at that point was that we were winning Russia over to the west. It wasn’t nice to say mean things about Russia. It might be interpreted as provocative. It was not comme il faut.

A mere 16 months after Obama dropped that “zinger” on Romney, Russian tanks rolled into Crimea.

I’m not down on the Chinese people. I have no doubt that the Chinese people are individually as lovely (and as awful) as the Russian people, the Swiss people, the Chilean people, and the people in my own little suburb of Copenhagen. People are, after all, just people.

And I’ll take Róin’s word for it that the coffee in Shanghai is crazy and delicious if you’re the type of person that likes coffee polluted with extraneous accessories.

But why are we all so cozy with China and the Chinese, and so beastly with Russia and the Russians?

Is the enslavement of 1-2 million people not on the same moral scale as the invasion of a neighboring country? How about all that enslavement plus the strangling of democracy in Hong Kong, the 70+ year occupation of Tibet, the negligence (at best) that allowed a virus to escape the country and kill millions of people?

I’m not defending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Bad, wrong, foul.

I want you to imagine the reaction if Róin had penned a chatty little review of the St. Petersburg coffee scene today, painting word pictures of the lovely cup of artisanal Russian coffee served up by some lovely Olga, Masha, or Irina?

I want you to imagine the reaction if Róin had penned a chatty little review of the St. Petersburg coffee scene today (“Sonya’s signature cup is Sweet Crimean Blossom, a cold coffee with fermented beet juice, svetlatski yogurt, and a dash of Siberian vodka…”)

Of course, as Róin notes, “Starbucks has over 5,400 stores in 200 Chinese cities, and the American chain used to be cool, but over the past five years it has faced tougher competition from Chinese chains.”

How’s Starbucks doing in Russia? Here’s how:

And it’s not just Starbucks: a while back I started a list of the companies who made a big fuss about getting out of Russia while remaining in China. Alphabet, Apple, Disney, EA Sports, Intel, McDonalds, Mercedes, Microsoft, the NBA. I’d planned to updated that list from time to time; I regret that I didn’t.

They made a great show of punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine (no more Big Macs or Netflix for you, Ivan!), at great cost to themselves and their shareholders. And yet to this point one could reasonably conclude that they accomplished absolutely nothing of any benefit to Ukraine.

It was a moral decision, not a business decision, but it was also a decision based not on reason but hysteria.

If one believes that one’s business has a moral obligation not to operate in countries that violate the norms of acceptable state behavior, then doing business in or with China is inexcusable today, as it has been for years.

We’re an unserious people, we westerners. Hysterical, moody, and whiny, but above all deeply, deeply unserious.

China is an exponentially greater threat to the west than is Russia right now, and what they’ve done (and are doing) to their Uighur population is every bit as evil as what Russia has done (and is doing) to Ukrainians: what the CCP’s ethnic cleansing of Xinjiang lacks in open violence it more than makes up for in depravity. And that’s ignoring Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, and the Wuhan virus.

Well, yeah. China is an exponentially greater threat to the west than Russia is right now, and what they’ve done to their Uighur population is certainly comparable to what Russia has done to Ukrainians. They’re also suffocating democracy in Hong Kong and rattling their sabers at Taiwan.

I’m about as interested in the coffee culture of today’s Shanghai as I would have been in the coffee culture of Berlin in 1939.

Of course, the Berlin of the 1930s is still weirdly idealized as some kind of highwater mark for jazzy western decadence—as depicted in the Christopoher Isherwood novel Goodbye to Berlin, which became the Broadway play I am a Camera, which became the musical Cabaret.

Maybe one day Róin can capitalize on his coffeehouse experiences with a novel called Goodbye to Shanghai.

Sally Bowles, call your agent…

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Soren Rasmussen
Soren Rasmussen
3 months ago

You put your finger squarely on the central issue: we are profoundly unserious.

The loudly proclaimed moral outrage and collective exit from Russia once condemning Putin and Russia became the Current Thing, was in nearly every case a bit of cheap virtue signaling. The Russian market is a very small percentage of the total picture for nearly all the major Western companies, so the exit did not affect the bottom line to any great extent, and the virtue signaling points were just so delicious. (Which is not to say that sanctioning Russia is not the correct approach, but more effort and speed put into energy decoupling and increased defense and less self-righteous chest thumping and moral preening would be seemly.)

Not so with China. And what is worse, the CEOs and board members of the major Western companies have ALL had to personally explain what they were going to do to increase market share in China as part of the job interviews for their current jobs. Their jobs and bonuses are to a much larger degree depending on their ability to deliver on the promises they themselves made on that score.

Decoupling from China will hurt much, much more than with Russia.

There was someone vaguely orange who went on and on about the need to decouple seriously from China years ago (and who wanted us to increase our defenses and become less dependent on Russia for energy). But we disliked his style so we got rid him.