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The China Diaries

Discovering the new China along the trail of the Long March

Entry archive:

China at the crossroads of renewal and breakdown

Mark MacKinnon

Over a three-week train journey along the path of Chairman Mao’s historic Long March of the 1930s, correspondent Mark MacKinnon travelled into the economic giant’s heartland, beyond the horizons of Beijing and Shanghai. From rice paddies to dance clubs and corporate towers, he found the people of the rising power hopeful about prosperity but furious over corruption, and unsure of the promises of new president Xi Jinping – a country on the verge of either renewal or breakdown

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Better than a GPS? China has a dwindling number of ‘human maps’

JOHN LEHMANN

Pei Dianao is a human map. You wouldn’t know it from looking at him – the only lines on his face are wrinkles from his long years as an overnight truck driver and an oversized bump at the top of his head where some lumber once fell.

One of hundreds of human maps around China, Mr. Pei works a highway exit, just past a toll both near the main industrial area of Hangzhou. Black smoke belches from antiquated diesel trucks as they rumble past him. The 54-year-old claims to be more knowledgeable about the ever-expanding grid of roads in Hangzhou than any printed guide, smarter than any GPS, more interactive then any navigation system. If the eight-year veteran of the craft is proven wrong, you don’t have to pay him.

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What we learned on our ‘Long Ride’ around China

MARK MacKINNON

Photographer John Lehmann and I started out with the broad goal of retracing the storied Long March that Mao Zedong led his Red Army on in the 1930s. Instead of walking, we travelled mostly by rail, stopping at cities and towns along the way to take the pulse of the country that Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping, is inheriting.

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In Pictures: John Lehmann's China Diaries Tumblr

 

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Chinese women take 'rental boyfriends' home for the holidays

MARK MacKINNON

For the equivalent of $65, Zhou Qihao will let a girl take him home. For an extra $3 or so an hour, he’ll let her take him to a movie – but it costs double if she wants to have dinner beforehand.

Mr. Zhou is 24 years old, a bit taller than average at 1.78 metres, thin and “OK” looking (according to his online profile). Most of the year he works in home renovation, but with the Chinese New Year approaching – and all its attendant pressures on young women to show their parents and grandparents they’re getting closer to settling down and starting a family – he’s earning a little cash on the side as one of 260 “rental boyfriends” available on the China’s eBay-style direct-sales website, taobao.com.

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In Pictures: China's annual rail pilgrimage

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Why five tiny islands are big matter of principle in China

MARK MACKINNON

The middle-aged man walked over, wanting to share a drink with me, the only foreigner in a Tibetan-themed bar in this western Chinese city.

He toasted Canada. I toasted China. Then my new friend started talking about war.

“We must take back the Diaoyu Islands by force!” he shouted over the live music. He was referring to the quintet of uninhabited islands that Japan controls and calls Senkaku, but which China says rightfully belong to it.

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Notes from a long, long train ride through China

Mark MacKinnon

Train number: K-1058, from Chengdu in Sichuan province to Xining in Qinghai province, a cumulative 1,528 kilometres.

Number of stops: Sixteen, including ours, Lanzhou (the capital of Gansu province), 1,219 kilometres from Chengdu.

Duration: Our trip, if it ever ends, will take 21 hours and 14 minutes. Those carrying on to Xining will be on the rails for 24 hours and 29 minutes.

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In Pictures: Pictures from a long, long train ride across China

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Monks self-censoring about self-immolation

MARK MACKINNON

I had come a long way looking for answers, but the young man in the crimson robes had none he was able to give.

I met Thupten (not his real name – it would be dangerous for any monk to talk to a foreign reporter these days) at his temple in Kangding, a town almost 3,000 metres high in the mountains of Sichuan province that are the jagged staircase to the Tibetan Plateau. I had hoped to go higher, to the monasteries of Aba and Gandze that have been ablaze with hopelessness and anger for much of the past four years. I wanted to understand what might have motivated 97 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypeople to try and end their lives by setting themselves on fire. It proved impossible.

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Gap between China’s rich and poor can't be hidden in Chongqing

MARK MacKINNON

Yang Bizhi screeches with delight as a beige van pulls around the corner. She sprints after the vehicle with her greying hair bouncing in a bun on the back of her head. Four other women join the race, but Ms. Yang gets to the van first as it slows to a stop.

Soon she would be five yuan richer.

When the back of the van opens, Ms. Yang yanks a green bag three times as wide as her tiny waist onto the road, and then rolls it onto a waiting blue trolley that she pushes – at a pace defying her 48 years – up one of Chongqing’s uncountable steep hills. At the top is a department store that pays her the five yuan (about 80 cents) for getting the bag of winter clothing onto shop shelves.

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In Pictures: In pictures: Chasing a living on the streets of Chongqing

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China’s ‘left-behind children’ an embarrassing side effect of rapid development

MARK MacKINNON

Nov. 15, 2012, was a dramatic day in China. In the morning, just before noon, Xi Jinping led a line of seven men down the red carpet in the Great Hall of the People. Together they were introduced as the ruling Communist Party’s new Standing Committee of the Politburo, the board of directors of the world’s risen superpower.

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In remote Hunan, what’s a matchmaker to do?

MARK MACKINNON

Long Hongxiang has the most important job in this remote hamlet deep in the mountains of Hunan province: local matchmaker. For almost eight decades, the three-foot-high, Yoda-like “grandma” of Lower Qiantan has kept a close eye on local singles, bringing together young men and women she feels have a future together.

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Mao home a fading shrine; curiosity, not zeal, brought pilgrims in 1982

Stanley Oziewicz

Former foreign correspondent and current news editor for globeandmail.com Stan Oziewicz was The Globe and Mail’s man in China 30 years ago. In 1982, he filed this story from Shaoshan, Mao Zedong’s hometown. Last week, current China correspondent Mark MacKinnon visited Shaoshan as part of The Globe’s China Diaries.

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In China, air quality is a matter of opinion

MARK MACKINNON

I didn’t mean for the tweet to sound smug, but I suppose it could have been taken that way. “While the rest of China was coughing,” I typed Sunday, referring to the hazardous smog that has fallen over most of China, with my friends and family in Beijing breathing the worst of it, “John Lehmann and I were in lovely Fenghuang, Hunan province.”

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Understanding the deification of Chairman Mao

MARK MacKINNON

Zhang Qingling collapsed to her hands and knees in front of the six-metre-tall bronze statue of Mao Zedong, praying at the feet of the long-dead founder of the People’s Republic of China as though he were a deity who could answer her.

“I sincerely worship him with all my heart,” said the 59-year-old retired teacher, after circling the base of the statue three times with her hands folded. “I grew up in his arms. We are living very happily now, thanks to him. He prays for our families and our safety. I have a bust of Grandpa Mao in my home, and I come here every year.”

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Photos from Mao Zedong's hometown

John Lehmann

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How to have a good time in Huaihua

MARK MacKINNON

On our seven-and-a-half hour train ride south from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, to the city of Huaihua, we shared a cabin with Kelvin, a 30-year-old real estate developer from Hong Kong.

There was money to be made around Huaihua, he told us, because its 127,000 residents were renowned in China for their willingness to throw caution to the wind and spend their money.

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Supertrains latest symbol of China’s rise

MARK MacKINNON

Xia Guoxin has never been to an airport, but the diminutive 38-year-old imagines they look a little like Guangzhou’s ultramodern high-speed rail station, where she cleans the floors after the passengers board trains that hurtle north from here at whiplash-inducing speeds.

“It’s very good for China. Much better than the old train station,” the migrant worker and mother of one says with obvious pride. But she seems slightly bewildered as to why anyone needs to go anywhere at more than 300 kilometres an hour, on the rocket-shaped train that is now the world’s fastest railway.

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Newspaper becomes lightning rod for free press debate in China

MARK MACKINNON

Wang Junwei and Yang Xinhua both took to the sidewalks Thursday outside the offices of the newspaper that has become the front line for China’s free-speech debate. But the two men came to deliver very different messages.

“We like freedom! We like democracy!” shouted Mr. Wang, a 38-year-old migrant worker and father of one. The embattled Southern Weekend newspaper, he explained, was an important voice for the voiceless in China, a media outlet with a rare willingness to push the boundaries set by the country’s legion of censors.

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The Long March of Mao Zedong

Nearly eight decades ago, Mao Zedong and his Red Army were surrounded and on the verge of defeat at the hands of the nationalist Kuomintang. The Communists broke out into coastal Guangdong province and began what became known as The Long March, a strategic retreat that took them west into China’s interior and then north until they reached the safety of their base in the city of Yan’an, in Shaanxi province.

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China’s ‘little democracy’ struggles to maintain relevance

MARK MACKINNON

If you want to visit Wukan – the tiny village hailed as a Chinese experiment in democracy – it’s best that you don’t call ahead.

“If you call [to make appointments] you probably won’t be able to see anybody,” Zhang Jiangxing, a 21-year-old blogger, warned as our car approached his hometown on China’s southeast coast. Just show up, he advised. So we did.

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In photos: A long, long train ride across China

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Exploring the new China: The Globe’s Long Ride

Mark MacKinnon

Seven decades ago, Mao Zedong and his Red Army were surrounded and on the verge of defeat at the hands of the nationalist Kuomintang. The Communists broke out into coastal Guangdong province and began what became known as the Long March, a strategic retreat that took them west into China’s interior and then north until they reached the safety of their base in the city of Yan’an, in Shaanxi province.

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The China Diaries

Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, and staff photojournalist John Lehmann are exploring China at a defining moment in its modern history. Travelling mainly by rail, they will roughly retrace the path of Mao Zedong’s Long March to look at the challenges facing Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping.

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The Globe's Long Ride


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