INSIDER

Of cobras, newspapers and the Manchurian incident

Forget the Taiwan issue and China Sea disputes with Japan, the biggest threat to national security for the Chinese people went largely unnoticed last week: 160 illegally bred king cobra snakes escaped captivity from a farm on the outskirts of Beijing.Some of the cobras, which survived a freezing winter last year in relative comfort in what was reportedly a well-managed farm, were still at large at time of writing. About 150 had been captured or killed before the press was alerted to the danger. Chinese authorities don’t like to alarm their people.

Meanwhile, Japanese obstinacy over the capture of a Chinese vessel in disputed China Sea waters and uncomfortable diplomacy over what no-one seems to know with Taiwan – or from the Chinese view, really care either – dominated newspapers.

There are lots of Chinese newspapers. In fact, this is probably the most heavily newspaper-populated country in the world, with the possible exception of India. Should we join the dots on that one?

The Chinese cobras, which would have been more at home in India, are symptomatic of what appears to be an increasing appetite for risk in business circles and the continued rise of private enterprise. Over the past 20 years, the proportion of GDP attributed to non-state-owned enterprises in mainland China has risen from less than 50 per cent to about 72 per cent last year.

Full-grown cobras sell for several thousand dollars each in the west, wholesale, so our entrepreneurial Beijing snake farmer, who is currently assisting police with their inquiries and will be probably doing so for some time, had been sitting on a nice little earner before the great reptilian escape.

Sadly, despite the plethora of newspaper sources, there has been no real clues as to how the snakes managed to elude captivity, if only briefly. An inside job? You’d have to think so.

While the poor snakes were enjoying their fleeting freedom, China officially passed Japan as having the world’s second largest economy and also commemorated the 79th anniversary of what is known in the west as ‘the Manchurian Incident’. In China it tends to be known as the ‘September 18 incident’ or the ‘Mukden incident’.

On September 18, 1931 a section of railroad near Mukden (now Shenyang) in Manchuria was mysteriously blown up, killing hundreds of train passengers. The railroad was owned by a Japanese company and an occupying Japanese army took revenge on the local population of supposed dissidents. The consensus, both in China and elsewhere, is that Japanese interests probably blew the track themselves to justify escalation of hostilities which continued up to and through World War II.

It often surprises westerners to learn that during the world war Japan had almost as many troops in China – about one million – than it had throughout the Pacific. And they were not a friendly occupying force.

So, last week, on the 79th anniversary of the Manchurian incident, people congregated, demonstrated, laid wreaths and even wept – at least for the cameras. And China celebrated its economic growth story.

The great irony is that much of that growth is due to the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit, which burns ever brighter with the tacit approval of the communist dictatorship government. Except for our snake farmer.