Mandatory AIDS testing for Yunnan workers

I’m not sure if this is good or bad.

China’s southwestern province of Yunnan will require annual AIDS tests for people working in hotels, nightclubs and other entertainment outlets, a local official and the government’s Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday. Under the new rules, announced Monday and effective immediately, those testing positive will be fired, Xinhua said, citing the text of the regulation.

But Wang Yinsheng, an official with the Yunnan AIDS Prevention Center, said health authorities wouldn’t insist that those found to be infected be fired. They could instead be moved to jobs not involving contact with the public, he suggested.

The free tests are meant to identify people with HIV and AIDS in order to provide them with treatment and curb the disease’s spread, said Wang.

“Identifying this special group of people helps to reduce the chance of spreading and helps them to get timely treatment,” Wang said.

Those who test positive for HIV/AIDS or for venereal diseases would be denied a certificate of good health, without which they cannot legally work in the hospitality or service industries, Xinhua said.

They make it sound as though this is an act of altruism. But I remember the horror stories about mandatory testing for hepatitis B and the misery that ensued for those unfortunate enough to be carriers. Will those who test positive be treated with magnanimity or stigmatization? China’s track record in protecting AIDS sufferers has been less than admirable (though it’s certainly getting better).

As I said, I’m not sure whether this is good or bad. I can understand taking extreme measures to stop the spread of a disease that runs rampant among sex workers. The other side of the coin is how these people will be treated after the test.


The cynical crusade to “save” Terri Schiavo

I am so enraged, words fail me. Like every other spectacle staged by this administration, it’s all about pandering to its religious-right base in defiance of the truth, and in defiance of the law. As i said, words simply fail me, so I will use someone else’s. Please read it through to the end.

By now most people who read liberal blogs are aware that George W. Bush signed a law in Texas that expressly gave hospitals the right to remove life support if the patient could not pay and there was no hope of revival, regardless of the patient’s family’s wishes. It is called the Texas Futile Care Law. Under this law, a baby was removed from life support against his mother’s wishes in Texas just this week. A 68 year old man was given a temporary reprieve by the Texas courts just yesterday.

Those of us who read liberal blogs are also aware that Republicans have voted en masse to pull the plug (no pun intended) on medicaid funding that pays for the kind of care that someone like Terry Schiavo and many others who are not so severely brain damaged need all across this country.

Those of us who read liberal blogs also understand that that the tort reform that is being contemplated by the Republican congress would preclude malpractice claims like that which has paid for Terry Schiavo’s care thus far.

Those of us who read liberal blogs are aware that the bankruptcy bill will make it even more difficult for families who suffer a catastrophic illness like Terry Schiavos because they will not be able to declare chapter 7 bankruptcy and get a fresh start when the gargantuan medical bills become overwhelming.

And those of us who read liberal blogs also know that this grandstanding by the congress is a purely political move designed to appease the religious right and that the legal maneuverings being employed would be anathema to any true small government conservative.

Those who don’t read liberal blogs, on the other hand, are seeing a spectacle on television in which the news anchors repeatedly say that the congress is “stepping in to save Terry Schiavo” mimicking the unctuous words of Tom Delay as they grovel and leer at the family and nod sympathetically at the sanctimonious phonies who are using this issue for their political gain.

From Digby, via Atrios. It should be required reading. In addition, Mark Kleiman has a superb post on how this whole sham is being orchestrated by slimeball gay baiter and anti-abortion terrorist Randall Terry, who describes his MO in his own words:

I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.

And to think that this great country is now in the hands of these idiots and haters. It is incomprehensible, like allowing the Nazis to come to power. Words really do fail me.


Yunnan Diary 2: Shangri-La, Zhongdian, Kaiser Kuo and Man’s Search for Meaning

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The spectacular Songzanlin Temple outside Zhongdian. It was a highlight of the trip, once I overcame the challenge of climbing up 150 steep steps to get inside.

James Hilton’s little book Lost Horizon is considered strictly a grade-B novel, and yet an entire cottage industry has sprouted up around it since it was first published in 1933. Frank Capra turned it into a popular movie in 1937, and in 1973 it became a Broadway musical. It was the first paperback book ever published. The name of the mystical monastery-city Hilton describes as hidden in the mountains of the Himalayas has become a universal synonym for the utopia for which so many of us have longed for hundreds of years. Shangri-La tantalizes and lures us. The idea of an idyllic society where all are free to pursue their passions, and where moderation always rules, where the citizens live in a peaceful tranquility, yet retain their individuality and free will — it’s an image that fills us with fascination and longing.

The Shangri-La cottage industry continues to blossom in the Yunnan village of Zhongdian, nestled amid the foothills along the border with Tibet. This poor, dusty town was lucky enough a few years ago to win the official name of Shangri-La, a marketer’s dream, considering the continuous fascination of this magical name. Signs throughout the city refer to it is “Xiang ge li la” (or, somewhat less frequently, “Xiang ba la”). As the taxi drove us into town and we saw the broken street pavement and dingy buildings and wild pigs and yaks and chickens walking the streets, my first thought was, “So this is Shangri-la?”

Don’t get me wrong. Zhongdian is charming, and I am absolutely thrilled that I went there. It was one of the great highlights of this trip, and I will never forget it, the yak butter tea and boiled yak dinner and Tibetan cuisine, the incredible snow-capped mountains and the hard-working, kind people. I would recommend that every visitor to China try to make the trip to Zhongdian. We drove there from Lijiang, and the ride was utterly breathtaking (especially our stop at Tiger Leaping Gorge, which I’ll write about later). Of all the strange stops of this trip, Zhongdian was the strangest, and also one of the most rewarding.

Zhongdian is many things. Shangri-La, however, it is not. Obviously there is no such place as the Shangri-La described by Hilton (and even in the book, we are left wondering whether it was all imagined by the hero as he lay freezing in the cold after a plane crash). I see Shangri-La as a wishful fantasy of young people seduced by visions of the good Dalai Lama and a serene and blissful Tibet, a place that never, ever existed, but that Westerners like to superimpose on reality, desperately wanting to believe that there is something better, more meaningful than our Western culture. I saw two types of Westerners in Zhongdian: young hippie-types, and older Bohemian types (the kinds who dress unconventionally and smoke a lot of cigarettes, the 60-year-olds who don’t mind staying in youth hostels and who carry the Lonely Planet guidebook with them).

I was very happy to find at my hotel a book by China hand Laurence J. Brahm titled Searching for Shangri-La. It delves into this phenomenon of man’s obsession with finding Shangri-La in great detail, and looks at several of the places in the region that have been said to actually be “the real Shangri-La” (including Zhongdian). Most of all I enjoyed the chapter in which Brahm interviews rock musician Kaiser Kuo, who has many very wise, very thought-provoking observations on why Westerners continue to search for a Shangri-La that doesn’t exist, and how this search is affecting the way in which China is marketing itself. (Kaiser doesn’t use those exact words, but that’s the message I got.) He observes:

Clearly it is just an attempt to milk this new age trend for whatever it is worth, to grab middle aged people who are looking for more meaning in life. Yet, it’s an illusion. Maybe it’s not even that. It’s a kind of vulnerability which has made them accept without a real reflection mystic east philosophy while rejecting traditions handed on to them by their parents.

I’ve had some spirited (but always cordial) disagreements with Kaiser, but in this instance he is right on, and brilliant. It never ceases to amaze me to see how eager some Americans are to embrace any idea that goes against what they associate with commercialized Western culture. Thus the urge to explore traditional Chinese medicine and accupuncture (both of which I believe in, by the way), and to fall for the illusion of a real Shangri-La, to believe that it is something they can stumble onto in the hills of Tibet. Where I disagree a bit with Kaiser is his reference to this as a middle-age phenomenon. I think it’s especially prevalent among the young, especially the college-aged who are easily seduced by New Age promises that they can “change their lives” if only they take ginseng and read Buddhist poetry. I want to believe that most middle-agers (like me) know full well that Shangri-La can only be attained within oneself, and never by arriving at a specific place. And even then, it will be far from perfect.

Yaks graze alongside a Zhongdian road

I loved Zhongdian in some ways, and loved it less so in other ways. There’s very little to do there aside from visiting the gorgeous monastery and hiking around, and there is construction going on everywhere as entrepreneurs race to cash in on the village’s name. There’s also some terrible poverty, and very little that will live up to most people’s vision of Shangri-La. But if you can, I urge you to go there, at least for a couple of days. The food was superb (even though I couldn’t get used to Yak butter tea, which reminded me of warm melted homemade cheese) and the scenery stunning, and it is a slice of life you won’t see in many other places.

The real, uncommercialized Zhongdian is obviously fast disappearing. Get there while you can, before the entire village becomes another Old Lijiang — beautiful but totally commercialized and geared to the souvenir-hungry tourist. While it was not my favorite place on this trip, it may be the place I will remember and think about the most.


Yunnan Journal, part I

My trip was long and strange and wonderful. It was also challenging and sometimes difficult. I saw some of the most amazing sights of my life and ate what had to be among the most exotic food on the planet. It was also a trip that brought up quite an array of emotions and thoughts. I don’t think any other trip ever made me feel so philosophical, so consumed with thoughts on where I belong in the world and what the purpose of my life should be. It’s a shame I couldn’t live-blog the entire trip, since I had such a steady stream of observations and saw so many fascinating sights. There’s far too much for one entry, so I’m hoping to write a series of posts, each about different aspects of the trip. I also have a huge number of photos, and will try to drop them in over the next few days. Some are quite incredible. Today I’m just going to write about how the trip came to be, and how it started off.

Two years ago I set out on a trip to South China that was to culminate in a two-week journey through Yunnan Province. I had planned it for months. A friend of mine in Beijing who grew up in a Yunnan village helped me work out the details, and my closest friend in America was flying out to Beijing so we could go together.

Unfortunately, I never made it west of Guilin, where I received an urgent call from my travel agent: China was shutting down the hotels in most Yunnan cities, and the road to Lijiang had been blocked to prevent tourists from entering. It was the peak of the SARS catastrophe and China, after being caught lying through its teeth about the extent of the epidemic, was now going out of its way to demonstrate its determination to contain the disease. This was probably the right thing for the CCP to do, even though it ruiined my trip. As I wrote at the time,

I have just canceled my entire vacation in South China, and my friend and I are scrambling to figure out a way to get out of the country to a place we can afford to stay for a couple of weeks, without having to be quarantined most of the time.

China is virtually closed down, even in SARS-free zones. I appreciate the fact that they are trying to prevent the spread to rural areas. But closing down outdoor parks and open-air boats seems heavy-handed. Next post will most likely be from a different country.

The next post was from Thailand. A tumultuous year in China had come to a tumultuous close.

So there was a somewhat mystical quality to my trip to Yunnan province that ended on Thursday. It was about closure, about keeping my promise to return to China and visit the countryside that was dear to my heart, though I’d never actually seen it. It was also about keeping other, more personal promises that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that for me this was far more than an ordinary vacation.

It didn’t get off to a promising start. I had been watching the weather carefully for weeks priot to the trip and was happy to see that most days in Kunming were in the 70s, with Lijiang several degrees cooler but still quite comfortable. So a sense of dread came over me when my partner and travelling companion said to me the day before the trip, “Are you aware that it’s snowing in Kunming, and the temperature in Lijiang is between 20 and 30 degrees?” I didn’t believe it — how could the weather change so drastically in 24 hours?

I looked up the weather on the Internet and felt absolutely sick. The entire trip was about scenery and outdoor travel. The predictions for the next several days were for heavy rain and snow, with record low temperatures. A huge blast of cold air from the north had turned much of the country into an icebox. We packed gloves and scarves and winter coats and hoped for the best. Inside, I was terribly disappointed and had serious doubts about how enjoyable our much-anticipated vacation would be.

I didn’t feel much better when the pilot of my flight from Hong Kong to Kunming announced that Kunming was in the grips of “rather bizarre weather”; it was about 31 degrees and snowing heavily. What can you do? I simply resigned myself to the fact that you can’t change the weather and all I could do was make the most out of the cards God was dealing out.

Kunming, the city of eternal springtime, was a chaotic mess of slush and ice and heavy snow and absolutely zero visibility. I couldn’t even see out my taxi window as I rode to the hotel. All I could see was snow and haze. The snow was so heavy, the flight attendants handed out free plastic raincoats as we left the plane.

The hotel did little to cheer me up. The Bank Hotel (Bang Ke Fandian) has a great reputation, but the lobby was ice cold and the lights were out. This is going to be some trip, I said to myself. I met my two travelling companions at the hotel (my aforementioned friend from America and my Beijing friend who grew up in Yunnan). Because of the oppressive weather, we had dinner in the hotel restaurant. It was unheated and we wore sweaters and coats as we ate.

The next morning did little to lift my spirits. The visibility seemed to be even worse, if that were possible, and the snow was still coming down. I met the local travel agent who was handing my flights and he said it was the worst weather Yunnan had seen in 18 years. Luckily, we were scheduled to fly that morning to Xishuangbanna, down south by the China-Burma border. The weather was warmer there, and after a few days of thunderstorms it was clearing up. Would there be light at the end of the tunnel? I was still skeptical.

It was only when we alighted from the plane to Jinghong that I felt the vacation was going to be what I had envisaged. Gone were the snow and ice and gloom, replaced by fresh air and lush tropical scenery. I felt for a moment that we were in another country, and I felt a huge sigh of relief; that afternoon the sun came out and we had almost perfect weather for the duration of the trip. The cold wave lifted from Kunming the next day, and when we returned about 10 days later it was in the mid-70s.

Jinghong is interesting but unremarkable. What’s remarkable are the forests and mountains and minority villages that surround it. For the next three days we hired a taxi each morning and went on all-day outings to the differrent sights. Most spectacular was the cable car ride above the tropical rain forest, where the vistas were unbelievably beautiful, and every appeared natural and untouched by man. This was a big relief, because so much of the scenery in the area has been compromised. One issue I had as we drove through Xishuangbanna in our taxi was the desecration of so much of the natural beauty. We would see a gorgeous mountain, but then we’d see that a large section of it had been denuded of trees and strip-mined, leaving a huge ugly scar on what should have been pristine wilderness. Or we’d pass a picture-perfect scene of farmers harvesting rice or plowing a field with their water buffalo, only to have the image shattered by the hideous sight of a mountain of rotting tires or slabs of concrete or an ancient tractor rusting in the field. The contrast between the most splendid natural beauty and manmade atrocities were stark and frequent. So the rainforest trip was special, because everything was unspoiled.

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This tree is one of the big tourist attractions in the Xishuangbanna rain forest. It is a single tree that has spread itself out to become a little jungle unto itself. An entire mythology surrounds this strange natural phenomenon, as the next picture explains (click to enlarge).

single forest tree story2.JPG

We walked through the rain forest for several hours, and it was easy to forget we were in China; it felt more like Brazil or Indonesia.

I’m still recovering from the 24-hour trip home and will have a lot more to post soon.


Joseph Bosco on the death of Bill Wasz

Those who have followed this blog’s never-ending thread on OJ Simpson are aware that Bill Wasz often used my comments as a vehicle for communicating with others. Today in my comments I learned that Bill died this week; I still don’t know what the cause of death was, but I have no choice but to be suspicious. A few months ago, Bill sent me some emails that were clearly suicidal, and I even discussed my fears at that time with our mutual friend Joseph Bosco. I learned a lot about Bill from Joseph , who has a moving post about Bill’s death on his own blog. Months ago Joseph told me via email what a good person Bill was. To learn more about him and his remarkable story, please go to Joseph’s blog and follow the link to the definitive OJ-Wasz article.

I can’t say I ever “knew” Bill, but I can say that I always felt he was a good person who had some bad luck. He always impressed me with his humanity and compassion. So this really hurts.

I’ll start blogging about my trip tomorrow; right now, I’m still in shock.

Update: You’ll also want to go here for another heartfelt post about Bill. Meanwhile, not a word about it in the mainstream media. Odd.


Republicans keep alive the spirit of Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Just go there.



Back in the USA

It’s 3:30 in the morning and I got back from China about two hours ago. The first thing I did when I got home was drive to Denny’s where, in response to two weeks of Yunnan cuisine — dried goat cheese with beans, “cross-bridge noodles,” fried beef and rice cakes, boiled yak, an infinite variety of mushrooms and a host of other oddities — I gave in to a powerful craving and ordered a greasy bacon cheeseburger and luxuriated in every bite. Now I’m going to swallow an ambien and see if I can get back to a normal sleep cycle.


Yunnan Province

What a great trip. I can’t blog while I travel; there just isn’t time, and most of my hotels don’t have Internet access. (The hotel I just arrived at, the spectacular Guanfeng Hotel Lijiang, is an exception.) I’m still around, and will be back to fulltime blogging around March 19. I promise, I’ll have some good stories.