Good blogging requires lots of

Good blogging requires lots of surfing, reading, absorbing, rejecting, questioning, checking, picking, choosing and responding, and right now, in my smoky Internet cafe in Guilin, a spectacularly beautiful gem hidden away in Guanxi Province, south China, I can’t do much of any of those things. So please bear with me as this blog continues its holding pattern. The most I can do for now is offer some observations as I travel through the country on my way to Singapore, my new home.

Last night I saw yet another dimension to the evils of China’s censorship machine. I was watching CNN in my hotel when a guest was introduced to discuss how China’s lies about SARS in Beijing were damaging the nation’s political system. This sounded interesting and I sat up to listen. Suddenly, to my utter amazement, the screen went black. It stayed black for about ten minutes with no sound. Then, just as suddenly, the picture and sound came back, just in time for me to hear the announcer thanking the speaker for his time. China is still obsessed with censoring the news and will go to any lengths to keep people in the dark about its crimes, whether we’re talking about Tiananmen Square or SARS.

For anyone who wants to believe that China has actually learned from its experience of the past few weeks, for anyone who wants to believe China now understands how dangerous it is to smother the voices of others and suppress information — I invite you to come to China and see what it is really like. I have tried to give them every benefit of the doubt, and still they emerge as paranoid thugs whose automatic response to criticism and/or scrutiny is to stifle it.

I won’t go into this topic any more, as I am on vacation and want to keep my blood pressure at a safe level. All I can say is that any changes the government is attempting to demonstrate, any new-found spirit of ‘glasnost,” is strictly cosmetic. Same old brutes, same old party.

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I am in Xi’An now.

I am in Xi’An now. Due to impossibly slow Internet connections and other headaches I will be posting infrequently for at least the next few days.

Leaving Beijing two days ago was like an escape, as though I were climbing over the Berlin Wall. I can’t go into all the frustrations and agonies of my last couple of days there. I’ll try to get back to this soon, but chances are there will be no opportunity until Wednesday. Thanks.

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Goodnight Beijing, sleep tight

For the past 8 months I have tried to tell readers about Beijing the way I see it. There’s no way I could just end all of that and not feel some nostalgia, some sense of loss, some poignant emotions. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also relieved. Beijing is not an easy place to live during the very best of times. But during a veritable panic, when the city seems to hover on the brink of total breakdown, closing its schools and businesses and hospitals….during a time like this, it’s hard not to feel as though you are being slow-roasted on a spit. With the flames being turned slowly but continuously higher and higher.

Today I oversaw the movers as they carted away my things, and tomorrow I am off to Xi’An, Yunnan (Dali, Kunming, Shangrila, Li Jian). Guilin and Hangzhou, then off to Singapore via Shanghai and Hong Kong (yes, I am actually going to HK to see old friends and pick up some belongings).

For those of you who have come to read more about SARS in Beijing, I might disappoint you tonight. My brain is too fried, and I’m too busy to keep up with it. Let me just say that tonight it seemed as though Beijing has become resigned to its plight. The mood everywhere seemed subdued, almost reticent, philosophical. (Although this, of course, may have been merely a reflection of my own mood.) The long lines at grocery stores are over, the palpable sense of fear has melted into one of acceptance. It’s still a sad city, under enormous strain, but it appears at least to be coming to grips with the nightmare.

I finally went to the Great Wall today for the first time. Gorgeous, of course, but my friend and I had it all to ourselves, just as we had the Forbidden City yesterday. Tourists are nonexistent, and you can cry looking at the desperate shopkeepers whose fates are tied to the traffic to Beijing’s tourist attractions. Yes, it’s a sad, sad city, and I can’t say I am sorry to be leaving now. Sure. I will miss the excitement of knowing I was helping to provide breaking news to readers thousands of miles away about one of the scariest stories since 9/11. But it’s definitely time to move on.

I’ll probably post for the very last time from Beijing tomorrow morning, provided my Internet connection is working. (It is down about 40 percent of the time.) In any case, thanks for adding an incredible new dimension to my life by coming here, and I hope I was able to shed just a bit of light into a country that still, for all the propaganda, thrives on keeping its people in the dark.

I know I will never, ever have an opportunity that can approach the one I had here. China, for all of your harshness, your inscrutable ways and your daily hardships, I can’t say that I do not love you. I will certainly never, ever forget you, and I thank you for making me a more tolerant and knowledgeable person. Thank you, and goodbye for now.

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Some SARS musings

One writer tells me the posts from the SARS bloggers are becoming predictable and redundant, and I’d probably agree (at least about my own blog). Still, I think there are enough nuances to make it worthwhile to tell how the SARS phenomenon is affecting life here. The first story on the news this morning (it’s approaching 8am China time) was “Officials confirm martial law will not be imposed on Beijing.” That’s good news. The remarkable thing is seeing how anouncements like this are actually soothing, as opposed to bizarre — the city is at a point where the announcer could take the “not” out of that sentence and no one would be surprised. Shocked, upset, furious, but not really surprised.

I have very little to say about SARS itself; other bloggers can do that a lot better. What to me is blogworthy is the effect it’s having on the people and the way of life in Beijing, which was a relatively complacent city just two weeks ago. I have learned volumes about the Chinese people and their government; I have seen first-hand just how weak the government’s platform is, supported almost entirely with propaganda and brute force. And now, the propaganda is irreparably weakened; no one believes a thing they hear at the moment, and thus the never-ending wave of rumors.

My own opinion is that this panic is irrational beyond words. The hysteria is absurd, as are the witch-doctor remedies people are racing to buy. It’s a case study of panic and, in some cases, stupidity. I want to flee Beijing not because of SARS but because of this hysteria, which has made life here painfully difficult and nerve-wracking. OK. the movers come in 30 minutes and they’ll be pissed if I’m sitting here blogging….

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Ominous post from The Gweilo

Ominous post from The Gweilo is a must-read for anyone wanting to believe that the Chinese Communist Party may have actually learned anything from its bungling of the SARS disaster. Apparently they haven’t. Sigh.

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Descent into Hell

A new article in the Times captures the current mood of China’s capital city:

China carried out a sweeping quarantine today of thousands of Beijing residents who have had contact with suspected carriers of a highly infectious respiratory illness, as the Communist government began a resolute campaign to combat a national health crisis.

Isolation orders were imposed on homes, factories and schools where people who developed SARS symptoms lived, worked or studied. Communist Party cells in work units and neighborhoods ferried food and other basic necessities to people confined to their homes, while monitoring them to ensure they do not flee.

Authorities wrapped white-and-yellow crime-scene tape around a city block in northwestern Beijing, sealing more than 2,000 health workers and patients inside the Beijing University People’s Hospital complex. Medical personnel there said by telephone that more than 70 staff members were suspected of having severe acute respiratory illness, or SARS, forcing the isolation of the facility.

Two of the city’s major hospitals have been closed and sealed off, and one can only wonder where this will end. I don’t believe I could exagerrate the craziness of Beijing at the moment if I wanted to. The CCTV announcer assured us in calming words that the city will not be blockaded and people will be free to travel in and out. But the very fact that a good number of the citizens here believe such steps really might be imminent says much about the current misery.

While observing all of this is, as I’ve said before, fascinating and amazing, it’s impossible not to be depressed and frightened as well. I am scheduled to fly to Yunnan in 48 hours. How will I be greeted there? I just read (sorry, I didn’t keep the link) that Hangzhou is holding passengers arriving from Beijing in isolation for two weeks. What if Yunnan decides to do the same? I know at a moment like this such thinking may sound selfish, but I have waited for this trip for more than six months, to meet my closest friend and enjoy nearly three entire weeks together touring some of the most beautiful places on the planet….Now I’m just wondering how we’re going to cope with all the stress brought on by SARS.

We went to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square today, and had them all to ourselves. Hawkers looking dazed and desperate ran up to us literally begging us to buy their tourbooks and trinkets. This is all they have, it’s their life. What if this nightmare just goes on and on?

Tomorrow will be my last day in Beijing. The movers come in the morning to take my stuff to Singapore, we head off on our great adventure Sunday morning, and I will only be able to post sporadically at best. Meanwhile, I just want to say thanks to everyone who’s come by. This site started as a naval-gazing exercize, mainly a personal journal, then it became more political and China-focused, and over the past few weeks, incredibly, it got cited in the UK Guardian (along with my blog buddies SARS Watch, bwg and Flying Chair). Suddenly the tiny trickle of onlookers swelled into a flood, at least for the past few days. I guess there aren’t many bloggers here in Beijing, and I am lucky (if that’s the right word) to be able to help offer an insider’s view of what’s going on in this madhouse. I’m afraid these posts from Beijing will soon dry up, but I’ll still report on what’s going on in the rest of China whenever I have the chance.

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China Blues Continue

Last night when I went to pick up my friend at the Beijing Airport, three taxis in a row turned me down, which is unheard of. Usually they are ecstatic to get a long ride like that. I was utterly confused. Finally, a driver agred to take me there, and it all became clear: There was a veritable sea of taxis waiting in endless lines for passengers back to the city. In other words, lots of people are leaving the city and precious few are arriving.

I stood in the airport lobby in mild shock: There was almost no one there, maybe 8 or 9 sitting by the arrivals door, no one in the halls. What is usually a circus was an empty field. My friend arrived and told me there were fewer than 30 passengrs on his flight from Tokyo.

I have to be really quick. I am gone from work and now on vacation, so I will have few opportunities to post. I’ll keep trying, at least once a day, but no promises — almost all the Internet cafes in Beijing are closed down. Later tonight I’ll be back….

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Okay, what’s next? From AP:

Okay, what’s next? From AP:

BEIJING – China shut down a major hospital in Beijing and put more than 2,000 employees under observation for severe acute respiratory syndrome Thursday, as Hong Kong health experts said the disease may be even deadlier than originally thought.

I mean, are we ever going to get a break? Will we ever see a positive headline? Beijing is a city under siege and it can only be battered so many times in a day….

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Potential Big Trouble: AIDS – SARS Duet

Thanks to Conrad, here’s a link to the scariest article I’ve seen on SARS yet, echoing Andrew Sullivan’s prophetic fears of AIDS and SARS working in tandem to devastate the poorer parts of Asia.

I have no choice, I have to quote a healthy chunk:

If just one person infected with SARS is on any of the countless trains now leaving Beijing, these trains could significantly increase the speed of the spread of SARS throughout China’s interior. The tragic irony of this exodus is that everyone leaving Beijing hopes to avoid getting SARS there, but they will in all likelihood contract and spread it throughout the country, to strangers, friends and family. Which brings us back to HIV/AIDS.

Beijing has admitted to covering up SARS statistics in order to preserve the image of normalcy. This seriously hurts the CCP’s credibility…. It is obvious that the highest levels of government in China are not averse to lying to its constituency or the world in order to maintain an image as a safe, stable environment for foreign direct investment.

Assuming that SARS makes its way to every populated area of China, it is quite plausible that China’s SARS deaths could experience a ferocious increase. SARS is an atypical pneumonia caused by a coronavirus. AIDS sufferers are particularly susceptible to pneumonias. Indeed, the most common serious infection among AIDS patients in the United States is a type of pneumonia called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), which is typically fatal if not identified and treated quickly. Identification requires a laboratory test of fluid or tissue from a patient’s lungs. Unfortunately, most of the people with AIDS, in Henan in particular, do not have access to laboratories, nor the money to pay for tests and treatment….Unfortunately, because of Beijing’s foolish handling of HIV, and now SARS, many Chinese are going to die. The question is how many.

It seems apparent from the government’s reaction to either epidemic that the economy is its top priority. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that Beijing will do little to protect China’s impoverished hinterland. This makes it quite plausible that SARS could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people in China alone.

So this is the one week of my entire life that I have designated for travel through China’s remote hinterlands. Can you believe it? Can you fucking believe it?

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SARS Strikes Home

Utter panic erupted in my own office today when the property manager called to announce that a worker in our office complex has been diagnosed with SARS. There are several towers in the complex, all connected, and the SARS patient doesn’t work in our tower. But mighty close.

The management has put up signs in the lobby with this information and is recommending companies let workers leave early today. Now nearly everyone is wearing a mask. There is only one topic in Beijing.

For months and months I have been planning my scheduled trip to South China, with tickets to fly out of Beijing on Sunday. Now I am utterly terrified and depressed. I told my best friend there was nothing to worry about and he is in transit this instant, scheduled to arrive here at 9 pm. I honestly believed it was safe, but now it doesn’t seem possible to be so sure.

The panic is palpable. My colleagues are so on edge. Today they all took me out to lunch to say their goodbyes, and when we arrived at the restaurant it was — yes — closed because of we-all-know-what. We went to a nearby Japanese place (food was wretched) and we all sat there kind of morosely, trying to chit chat, but everyone was obviously wrapped in his/her own thoughts. It was literally on our way out the door to lunch that we received the news about the SARS case in the building, and it added a new dimension to the whole drama, driving it home.

I was loooking forward to travelling around Beijing with my friend, going to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the neat restaurants I’ve found. Now I have only one desire: to get out of Beijing as fast as I can.

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