A few years ago, I travelled around China and Tibet with a friend who had lived there for a few years. Like me, he’s an obviously western male; unlike me, he has taught himself both to read and to speak Mandarin fluently—something that offered us many uneasy delights in terms of understanding rather more of what people were saying around us than they thought we could. Being called a big-nosed monkey by every other person on a street was one thing, as was the unquenchable hilarity that tended to follow a hairy Englishman speaking fluent Chinese; but the politics was quite another and, although we had the luxury of being able to treat much of it as a black farce (i.e. not our problem), we were acutely aware that those around us could not.
At the end of our several travels around the country, there were few things more entertaining than returning to Beijing and flicking through the English-language Chinese press. What country, and what people, were they writing about? It certainly wasn’t the place we’d just been in. This was a weird, parallel world, in which the only words were growth, triumph, great! and popular; this was 1950s Russia in the 21st-century, and it just didn’t work. It was hilarious. It was, in the case of the China Daily, almost as if a crack team of satirists were covertly writing the whole thing.