A Chinese conspiracy and an urban myth

Tonight I attended a farewell dinner for the conference delegates in a restaurant at Kok Tobe – the hill on which the TV tower is located overlooking the city. On the bus up to Kok Tobe, I was seated next to a Russian journalist who pointed out some of the sights of Almaty as we climbed the hill. He told me that Almaty had been destroyed twice by earthquakes. “That’s the old Hotel Kazakhstan,” he said, pointing to a large grey building in the distance. “That’s a really solid building. It would survive any earthquake. Not like your hotel.” I thanked him for his reassuring words.

Our conversation then turned to a recent trip that he had done to China, and he told me that he had visited 30 cities over 20 days. He said he believed he had uncovered a conspiracy by the Chinese government to inflate their population figures. He said apart from Beijing and Shanghai that he had visited, he didn’t believe that any of the other cities had more than two million people, and there weren’t many people living outside of the cities, because in 20 days of traveling he had seen very few people in the rural areas.

He told me that based on his observations and calculations it was impossible for there to be more than a billion people in China, as the Chinese government claims. I asked him why the Chinese government would inflate their population figures. His theory was that they were doing it to give the impression to the rest of the world that they are bigger and more powerful than they really are.

He said that he had written a story for his newspaper on his return to Moscow about his theory, but the Chinese government apparently wasn’t very happy about it, and they had sent some people from the Chinese embassy to his newspaper’s offices to complain.

He asked me if I believed there were really 1.3 billion people in China. I told him I hadn’t visited as many cities in China as he had, so it was difficult for me to express an opinion. I thought that was the diplomatic way to answer as I didn’t want to offend him by expressing doubt about his conspiracy theory, as he really seemed to believe it.

When we arrived at Kok Tobe, we had to walk a short distance to the restaurant along a path that had a good view of the sun setting over Almaty. Along the way, I noticed a statue – well four statues fixed to a metal seat actually – of the Beatles.

I asked one of the local delegates whether this commemorated a visit to Kok Tobe by the Beatles. She said no, the Beatles had never been to Kazakhstan, but they were enormously popular here like they were throughout the former USSR. She then told me about a secret four-day visit that the Beatles had made to Moscow back in 1968, and that this had resulted in the writing of the song ‘Back in the USSR’.

When I returned to the hotel, I looked the story up on Wikipedia, which said that the Beatles had never made a secret visit to Moscow, and that the song ‘Back in the USSR’ was written as a parody of the Beach Boys hit, ‘Back in the USA’. It described the purported visit to Moscow as “an urban myth that is still perpetuated today throughout Russia and many of the former Soviet republics”. The woman that had spoken to me was only in her 30s – so wouldn’t have even been born when the Beatles were supposed to have made their secret visit to Moscow. Her comments seemed to confirm the Wikipedia report about the story still being perpetuated in the former Soviet republics.

Beauty of the Big Almaty Lake

Cake and Kazakh champagne