In the past 50 days, life could only be described as unimaginable and atypical.
Beijing: What is a typical day in China like? What does China represent in today’s globalized world? What value systems do we represent?
In the past 50 days, life could only be described as unimaginable and atypical.
I. QUARANTINE. BEIJING. FEBRUARY 15, 2020.
A group of our close friends would often get together to discuss life, work, politics and spirituality. Due to the unfortunate sweeping spread of the COVID-19 virus in China and beyond, the two dozen of us who would generally be jet-setting across the globe found ourselves grounded across Greater China—some under lockdown, some voluntarily cancelling plans, some with visas revoked and some involuntarily quarantined abroad. Thanks to modern technology, China is turning to online learning and telecommuting at the largest scale yet in history. It comes as all schools are shut down indefinitely and as most cities are restricting movements of their residents.
Since two weeks ago, our group of friends decided to get together over video conferencing instead every few days to have “virtual drink sessions” to touch base. In the midst of a quarantine of unprecedented magnitude, we have been finding joy in each other’s support—with the comfort of a friendly shoulder to lean on.
“Gan Bei!”, i.e. “dry the cup/bottoms up”. At 8 pm Beijing time, decked out in fuzzy winter pyjamas, with beauty moisture face masks on, and drying our unkempt hair (due to impossibility to attend a salon) with large towels, each of us poured ourselves a little something—be it tea, shiraz or single malt. Seeing each other’s faces had a calming effect.
Elderly citizens, often critiqued by us for not masking themselves during the epidemic, in turn lament that we have not seen real war or hunger, and the current situation is nothing but an “inconvenience”. Yet, the economic machine that sustains modern society has been truly paralysed and we are now awaiting the catastrophic knock-off consequences to all of our lives.
II. TENSION. ISRAEL. JANUARY 7, 2020.
One month ago, Donald Trump pulled the trigger to assassinate Iranian general Soleimani. It in turn caused an immediate spike of regional tension in the Middle East. Having to visit the region myself, an early January trip to Israel and Jordan troubled my family, who were worrying about my safety.
Those who have not been to Israel all have different pictures of the country. Is it packed with male and female soldiers carrying loaded machine guns? Is it a land of ultra conservative religious men praying near the Western Wall? Is it an unbelievably intelligent breed of people who cook up much of the world’s new innovations? Many of these are true to some extent, yet they are all part of the normalised life in this country.
Tension, danger, peace and life—these are daily concoctions that every Israeli has to deal with. A land of few resources, in drastic contrast with “the land of milk and honey” promised by the Almighty, Israel has not been and still is not an easy place to be. Perhaps as the Chinese adage suggests, the poor thinks about change. The insecure tends to be entrepreneurial and imaginative.
An Israeli would often smile when someone asks whether it is safe to travel: “Israel is the safest country in the world.”
A virus is sucking the air out of the already asthmatic Chinese economy. Domestic business and the people behind them have everything to do with our international business footprint. Whilst working from home, instead of drowning in despair, we had more time to connect, remotely work through issues, and re-think deeply about our strategic outlook for the global businesses.
Have a little “chutzpah”! I try to tell myself. If the Israelis manage to net export fruits from a half desert, build some of the world’s best research institutions, and create a technological miracle, all being descendants of penniless immigrants, maybe history does demonstrate the possibility of creating value out of next to nothing.
Going back to the basics: a small adjustment in a debt fuelled economy might be a blessing in disguise. Unfortunately for us, our commodities and consumer driven business is directly cyclical to the macro economy. Fortunate for us, another line of our business is in healthcare, providing solutions for the critically ill through technology. Regrouping and focusing on our core advantages and trying to work through the rest is what we must do now.
III. BORDERS. JORDAN. MID-JANUARY, 2020.
Across the Dead Sea and the Jordan River lies a drastically different world. Small hills were peppered with haphazardly made tents of tin sheets and plastic covers, in conditions worse than many slums I’ve seen elsewhere. Our journey of descending from Amman towards the 400 meters-below-sea level Dead Sea cast mixed sentiments in my mind. Our jolly Jordanian driver in his fifties informed us that in recent years millions of Syrian refugees fled to his country, and the economy took a hit as a result. How are you coping with it? We asked. The driver smiled with ease: “We are used to it! This happens a lot. We understand their (Syrians’) troubles.”
Normalcy. Life under such circumstances is unimaginable to most Chinese today. Yet, with the rapid explosion of the COVID-19 virus on our soil millions of people are displaced. Wage workers are not able to go back to large cities for work due to the mandatory quarantine. In the first weeks of the outbreak, tens of thousands of people were stranded between destinations, standing with their luggage on the streets or driving hopelessly in their cars with crying babies on the endless journey in the highways. For the first time, the lives of many, we Chinese are experiencing mass displacement and are not able to return to our normal lives. Under such circumstances, we can now relate to the symptoms of others’ misery, and find strength in the support from others.
Are borders fluid? A group of so-called elites from across the globe sat together for a week on the shores of the Dead Sea. The air we breathed was packed with oxygen. Often we wondered why the discussions became heated, and yet we managed to keep our spirits up and get along amicably. The conservative stance echoed in the room reinforced the notion that borders are necessary and of utmost important for security reasons. The nonchalant elites displayed penchant for melancholy and bemoaned the lack of belonging to any one location. Only one person in the room was from the region, and her views on borders were most real and in our faces: borders keeping out refugees are the same as a stop sign to life.
A virus put a hard brake on the lifestyle of the new jet-setting elite of the Chinese. No longer would the 10-year US visa, visa-upon-landing in many countries, or even Hong Kong welcome the Chinese. Flights have been cancelled by and large. Even air-freighting emergency medical supplies into China is problematic. Borders are real within and beyond in the most definitive way for anyone living in China now. For decades, we have never felt so isolated from the world.
IV. DIALOGUE. JORDAN. MID-JANUARY, 2020.
How is China viewed in the globalized world today? In January 2020, a few of us friends from the “virtual drink session” were in Jordan with over a dozen global leaders of society. These leaders came from all over: the US, India, Central America, South East Asia and Europe. One month ago, such discussions were centred around Chinese companies’ acquisition of US strategic assets (i.e. pork), ethical issues that occurred while operating cobalt plants in Central Africa, and technological embargo towards Chinese companies by the US. Although the discussion was heated, it was constructive. There is something to be said about the human-to-human connection, and the power of dialogue.
Conversation was key to our mutual understanding. Thanks to a common language of pragmatism which served as a critical foundation of the group, and a free flow of first-handed information from our own perspectives, the roundtable was filled with quick jabs, sparks, laments and laughter. But most importantly, beyond the jovial trivialities, we began to share a common understanding and come up with solutions to problems that seemed larger than life. We were in good company: mid-western Americans with strong patriotic sentiments, argumentative Indians who always had an opinion, cynical financiers who questioned everyone’s motives, Central Americans who had seen war and peace and still inequality every day… We could always count on the few American southerners to have the most down to earth but enlightening views on complex issues.
The Chinese had to take hits blow by blow, but still managed to come out of the conversation becoming friends. After one week together, the rest of the world understood China a little bit better, and we Chinese thought a little deeper about what China and the Chinese represent in the world today. We gave everyone Chinese names, and recruited some of them to download WeChat.
The “virtual drinking buddies” call ourselves “Sugar” for the warmth and love we bring each other. As for this group of international friends, we decided to call ourselves “Salt”. On one hand, it was to commemorate our time together in the saltiest inland lake—the Dead Sea. On the other hand, we truly believed that our conversations and friendship were essential, like salt, to the world today.
V. WALLS. BEIJING. FEBRUARY 20, 2020.
One after another, foreign governments pulled embassy staff and citizens out of China, halted new visas to the Chinese, and blocked exporting from their own countries. The exterior world has shut its doors to the disease-ridden land.
In China, weeks of battling for medical supplies sent all into a frenzy, causing a mass buying of goods from all corners of the world. Many donated funds and goods towards the rescue. Many more were outspoken to create awareness and enforce change.
Walls are everywhere: around and within China. Yet, sitting in relative isolation, we are finding far greater connection with each other during this crisis. We exclaimed at the end of a live broadcast of a friend who resorted to manoeuvring an electric razor on his own head. We took careful notes as another friend gave us insider guidance on how to interpret policy incentives for business in response to the epidemic. We sent masks, rubbing alcohol, and religious prayer seals to each other as a small token of hope and care.
The quiet moments in isolation allowed us a precious space to think deeply. What do we represent? What have we brought to the world? Conspiracy theories aside, we do hold the responsibility of controlling the situation so as to care for our own families, friends, countrymen and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, may there be more channels for people to people connections that break down the walls, within and around China. Let our stories spread. Let everyone know what really happens in the everyday lives of real people. May the common language of being human prevail.
Villager. Born and raised in Beijing, educated in the US and Europe. Career in investment banking. Entrepreneur. Investor. World traveller. Avid advocate for more dialogue and a better world.