Minding the gap, Wen pledges to focus on farmers

It’s really extraordinary. if you scan all the news stories coming out about China in recent days all around the world there is a new and rather sudden emphasis on one topic — the gap between China’s rich and poor.

So it’s consistent that at the Party Congress in Beijing today, Wen laid out a strategy for economic stability, promising that agriculture is the government’s top priority in the year ahead.

Premier Wen Jiabao promised to increase spending on agriculture, education, job creation and social security this year as part of efforts to provide more assistance to the poor.

Speaking of the huge wealth gap between cities and countryside, Mr Wen says agriculture remains the government’s priority this year.

Wen said the government is planning more direct and forceful measures to support agriculture and boost farmers’ income. The central government will pump 30 billion yuan into the agricultural sector, a 20 per cent increase over last year, while urging local authorities to also invest more. The government will also abolish special agricultural taxes, such as those applied to the fish industry and certain cash crops – except tobacco – which will save farmers 4.8 billion yuan each year.

The premier also made a special mention of the government’s plan to help migrant labourers recover unpaid wages from property developers as well as from local authorities.

It sounds good, and underscores just how hard the current government is going to demonstrate its commitment to China’s disenfranchised, those left behind by the economic miracle, those who feel they have no choice but to be cockle pickers in England or migrant construction workers in Shanghai.

I know it’s boring when I say this, but I have to: I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and see if they’ll put their money where their mouth is. After watching China for more than three years I’m impressed with the new leaders who are at least acknowledging the “gap crisis” and shining the spotlight on it.

According to the article, Jiang Zemin was there as Wen spoke, seated prominently to indicate his firm grip on power. He was no doubt pleased when Wen announced an 11.6-percent increase in military spending.


The George Bush Campaign Song

I was laughing out loud. Head to Crackpot Chronicles (newly added to my blogroll, by the way) for the wickedly funny lyrics. And they wouldn’t be so funny if they weren’t so true.


Not for the weak

Thanks to Joseph Bosco for directing me to this devastating photo essay on soldiers who were seriously wounded in the Iraq war.

The pictures are upsetting enough, but the real poignancy is in the text, brief interviews with the young soldiers and how they view thir futures. Painful reading and viewing, but an important reminder that those reports we hear on the news each night and that by now leave most of us numb — those report are about more than just statistics.


China: Reversing Mao’s Revolution

This is urgent — you will all want to see this. (Well, “hear it,” actually.)

Just go here, where there is an entire special program on change in China called “Reversing the Revolution.” Be sure to click the link “Urban Poor.” Despite the poverty and misery, many of them are quite grateful for their lot. That tells us much about how things were before.

Actually, click all the links. They are all good. While it basically sheds a good light on the government, it doesn’t touch on the issues of freedom, rule of law, censorship and corruption. But there’s no denying the benefits of economic reform since Mao’s death.


More on Magnanimous Mel

Sorry, but I really can’t stand the guy. This important little article tells how the director of The Passion based many scenes on the writings of an antisemitic nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).

The bedridden visionary, who is said to have borne the stigmata and the wounds of the Crown of Thorns, is a particular source of contention for Gibson because of her depictions of Jews as bloodthirsty and venal. In “The Dolorous Passion,” for instance, she “sees” Jewish priests passing out bribes to get people to offer false testimony against Jesus and even tipping the Roman executioners. She also describes seeing Jesus’ Cross being built in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem. (Some of those details were found in an early script, but it could not be determined whether they made it into the final cut of Gibson’s film.)

And Emmerich’s 19th century biographer, the Rev. C.E. Schmoeger, wrote about how she had one vision of an “old Jewess Meyr,” who confessed to her “that Jews in our country and elsewhere strangled Christian children and used their blood for all sorts of suspicious and diabolical practices.”

Mel actually carries a piece of cloth from Emmerich’s habit wherever he goes. The money quote comes when he’s asked about her antisemitism.

“Why are they calling her a Nazi?” he is quoted by New Yorker writer Peter Boyer as saying. “Because modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church. And it’s revisionism. And they’ve been working on that one for a while.”

News to me, but I guess Mel must know, or he wouldn’t have said it….


Further discussion on Peasant Survey suppressed?

It’s that time of year again, China’s National Party Congress, when protestors and anyone who might in any way make the party look bad is silenced in one way or another, be it house arrest, temporary exile from Beijing or what have you.

That’s been the drill for years now, so no surprise to read that it’s no different this year. But I did feel disappointment to read that part of the CCP’s agenda for making everything look good and harmonious and happy includes ending all public discussion of the very controversial Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha, the publication of which I saw as a hopeful sign of a new Gorbachev-style “glasnost” in China.

This week the Communist Party’s propaganda department issued a nationwide media notice listing several books regarded as too sensitive for further public discussion. Among them was A Report on the Condition of China’s Peasants by investigative journalists Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, a harrowing account of how China’s 900 million villagers are taxed and exploited to provide funds and cheap labour for dazzling coastal and urban developments. Party propagandists said the book should not be publicised or criticised, meaning it should disappear from public discussion. However, it has not been removed from sale.

The two authors are being sued by one of the officials whose alleged depredations on peasants were detailed in the book. The official is taking action in a local court in which his son is a judge, a fact that has not appeared in the official media.

Remind me not to get too optimistic about reforms again anytime in the near future.

It seems like it was a hundred years ago, but it was only last year that the CCP reached a new low at its Party Congress, clinking champagne glasses and beaming at the magnificent implications of all its rubber-stamped amendments. Only a few weeks later, the world would be shocked to learn that SARS was spreading through Beijing, that the CCP knew it and ordered all news of it suppressed during the Congress.

I keep hearing that the new leaders are different, and I’ve been impressed at times by what I’ve seen. But the sins of last year mustn’t be forgotten so soon. It was too much of a betrayal of the people’s trust to simply slough off.

Many have said that this was a pivotal moment for the CCP, that they learned from it and would not repeat the same mistakes again. And I am willing to believe that. But as Ronald Reagan would say, “Trust, but verify.” I’m willing to believe, but they’ve got to show me the money. I’ve devoted more space to the Nongmin Diaocha than to any other topic recently. And now i read that pubic discussion is about to be suppressed. So what should I think?

Update: For a humorous look at how the Chinese media grind to a halt for the People’s Congress and spit out pukish pabulum on how dandy things are, you have to see Danwei’s post and photos.


Blazing comments

I take one day off from this blog and it suddenly takes on a life of its own in the comments to the post below on what’s going on in China. Is there any other country that has so many identities, that can be seen in so many different ways depending on who’s looking at it? What is China? Everyone has a different idea….

Unfortunately, for at least the next day or two the comments will be the only reason to come here, since I won’t have time to post. Packing and settling all my accounts is now in the final stage. I am really getting out of here. What a feeling.


Advice to China: Mind the gap

Another post on the Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha, this one over at Shanghai Eye, is poignant and distressing. And a must-read.

It not only includes some beautiful photographs and exquisite writing, it also drives home just how misleading the ever-burgeoning figures for China’s GDP can be, obfuscating the grim (and I mean, like, very, very grim) lot of China’s disenfranchised peasantry. As the peasants witness the obscene divide between themselves and China’s growing urban rich, they have to see just how awful their situation is.

The evidence uncovered by the authors [of Nongmin Diaocha] would be shocking even if it provided only the sharp facts of life in the Anhui countryside, where peasants earn about 400 RMB a year and have to pay a quarter of that to the corrupt local county government. Once you add in the violence, the intimidation, and the murder, it is obvious why so many in the rural community in Anhui have chosen to try their luck in Shanghai.

400 RMB — that’s about US $52 if I remember right. Yeah, the cost of living is low, but that’s still dirt, dirt poor. It might be better than it used to be, but it’s only relatively recently that there’s been such an enormous gulf between the poor farmer and the city dwellers driving cars and buying stocks. It’s a classic recipe for calamity.

To the government’s credit, it seems to be acutely aware of the enormous probem this gap represents. Can they do anything about it aside from the recent populist gestures? My guess is that they must have a plan. If not, would they have dared risk allowing the distribution of the Nongmin Diaocha? No, they’re not stupid; there’s a strategy here. I think.

I have no conclusions and apologize if this seems half-baked. It’s just that there seems to be some sort of shift recently, or at least that’s how it seems from the outside. Can anyone on the mainland confirm (or deny) that something’s in the air?


Mel Gibson the Merciful

Andrew Sullivan on the loving and forgiving director of The Passion:

Mel Gibson was asked what he felt about potential backlash against his movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” He responded, with classic Christian grace: “I don’t know where it’s going to fall. And quite frankly… you want to hear something? I don’t give a flying fuck.” The man who allegedly only put as much violence in his movie as occurred in the Gospels was also asked how he would greet Frank Rich, one of his more prominent critics. Gibson replied, “I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick … I want to kill his dog.” This is the man now hailed as the savior of America’s evangelical Christians. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Can you believe it? Yes, I’m afraid I can.


Is China poised to further gag portal discussion groups?

Adam links to an intriguing story from Reporters without Borders on China’s efforts to step up Internet censorship via new directives sent to the country’s big portals.

The council of state’s information bureau, which regulates online activity, explained the new directives to those in charge of China’s main Internet portals : Sohu.com, Netease.com and Sina.com.

Changes were quickly apparent in the forums on these portals, Reporters Without Borders has learned. Some discussion groups with a slightly political content or ones dealing with social issues were closed or redirected to entertainment forums (culture, people and so on). This was the case with the Sohu.com news group Xin Kong (Starry sky), which was closed and replaced by a forum not considered subversive.

It also seems that debates of a political nature have virtually disappeared from forums as a result of stricter filtering criteria used by the Ban Zhu (discussion group moderators). At the same time, there has been a surge of posts by Internet users complaining about censoring of their messages, which they are unable to post online.

Reporters without Borders warns that in the wake of these directives, US tech firm Verisign’s “decision to involve China in the management of global Internet traffic appeared extremely dangerous.” This is a topic I don’t understand well enough to comment on, but it’s spelled out in detail over at Truth Laid Bear (also via Adam). It sure sounds ominous, but Verisign says not to worry.

One can develop permanent migraines and dizzy spells trying to figure out whether censorship in China is lessening or worsening. I think the best generalization is that on social issues — sex, fashion, self-expression — things are looking better, but on political issues and anything that can make the government look bad, censorship is still tight and may be getting worse, with some big exceptions all around. After all, Vagina Monologues was just banned, while on the other hand the government has allowed the amazingly critical Nongmin Diaocha to be released to the public.

So generalizations don’t work too well. Things are zig-zagging in every conceivable direction. What are we to think?