May 12

Amid the roar of mourning and remembrance over the horrible events of a year ago, there’s little new or significant I can contribute. But I can’t let the day disappear in silence, either.

Almost like 911, it seems everyone here remembers precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I was on my way to a photo shoot for a pre-Olympic event when I got the text message on my phone – there’d been a huge earthquake in Sichuan. The photographer was in the car with me and had a GPRS phone. He pulled up the story, which put us all at ease. The headline was something like, “Earthquake in Chengdu; no injuries reported.” The relief was short lived, and the headlines and text messages became increasingly dark.

The next day in my office, everyone seemed subdued. It was the children. All the children in the schools that collapsed like houses of cards. At least one of my colleagues cried as she talked to me about it. That day at the office of my main client, there was a call to donate blood, and so many hundreds of employees showed up they had to wait for many hours, the bloodmobile staying past 11 at night.

In figurative terms, May had been a shaky time for China. The Olympic Torch Relay that the government naively believed would be welcomed worldwide with open arms and smiling faces had started off as a catastrophe in London and then it achieved the impossible by becoming even worse in Paris. The riots in Tibet at the same time threatened to completely drown out China’s Olympic flame. There was the bright shining moment when, as if out of nowhere, an unknown female athlete in a wheelchair rallied China’s pride and galvanized Chinese around the world. But it was still a rough time, and “Tibet” seemed to be the one word on everyone’s mind. Until May 12.

Call if fate, or if you’re cynical enough (and I hope no one is), call it luck. As the earth roared and shifted and swallowed lives by the tens of thousands in Sichuan, everything else simply faded away, and there was only the tragedy. (Comparisons to 911 are inevitable; the big news in the weeks before was a gossipy story of a congressman’s affair with a staffer who was missing; it instantly became too trivial to even think about.) Gone were the arguments about who started the violence in Tibet or whether China should be made to shoulder responsibility for the crimes against humanity in Darfur. Everything was forgotten, and all anyone could think about was, how can we help?

All the blogs and media have stories about that today. If you search this blog, you’ll see there were many stories posted here about how the tragedy brought out the very best in China. Sadly but not surprisingly, this was followed by the stories of venal officials pocketing funds, refusing to answer parents’ questions, arresting journalists, covering up information about shoddy school construction, etc. But this time the good definitely out-shined the evil. China’s spirit of volunteerism, which many had denied exited, sprang to life as people dropped what they were doing and ran to the disaster site to help. Everyone I know gave as much money as we could. At my client’s office, the collection boxes were overflowing and had to be emptied frequently to make room for more donations.

No moment affected me more than the three minutes of silence held one week later, still my most vivid memory of the unhappy period. Hearing the sobbing and watching everyone, heads downward, struggle with a wave of emotion as the horns blared and traffic halted…. And again, another stereotype of China, where people think only of themselves, bites the dust.

This is already way longer than I intended. Thanks to China for showing all the world the great things it can do when it puts its mind to it.

Update: On a more personal note, please join me in wishing condolences to one of my very favorite bloggers (who by coincidence I linked to in this post) for his loss. Life, and death, goes on.


Mexican? Please come with us.

I’m kind of baffled by a post over at one of my favorite blogs on China’s controversial quarantining of Mexicans (and later some travelers from Canada as well).

The general theme seems to be that these measures are overly aggressive.

Yet six years ago, when the SARS virus was spreading through China, the government’s response was widely criticized as not aggressive enough: it was “evasive and tardy“. Many interpreted this as par for the course from communists, and the lesson the Weekly Standard took away, for example, was: “Democratic, accountable, transparent governments do a lot better at dealing with a health crisis than a Communist one.”

Although the Chinese government is perhaps more resilient than most when it comes to ignoring international ignominy, they certainly didn’t look good, and of course, they also had their citizens to answer to.

When the swine flu stories broke, China was ready. Armed with experience from the SARS epidemic, the government acted swiftly and aggressively, issuing a notice requiring people with flu symptoms who were flying into China from affected areas to report to quarantine authorities. They issued notices on prevention, stocked drugs and researched quick and accurate tests. They even donated aid to help Mexico, despite unsubstantiated reports from that country and others claiming that the origin of the swine flu virus was China.

Okay. I’m all for screening and acting aggressively – if you also act intelligently and rationally. And I’m always in favor of donations for worthy causes. But this is a pretty flawed argument.

The response to SARS by the CCP cannot simply be described as “evasive and tardy,“ although it was each of those things. More importantly, however, is that it was criminal, it was consciously and inexcusably irresponsible, it led to unnecessary deaths and hysteria, it was a shining example of the party holding the idiotic spectacle of its annual rubber-stamp National Party Congress above the health and well being of its citizens. It was a cover-up that so shocked the world that the government is still struggling to recover its tarnished image.

So it’s little surprise that now they would rush to show the world how zealous and diligent they are. But I see this as akin to George W. Bush ignoring documented terrorist threats that were thrust in front of his nose weeks before 19 jihadists brought America to its knees, and then using the occasion to launch an irrational and ineffective war on terror showcasing the torture of anybody rounded up by bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan and then wasting America’s resources invading a country that had nothing to do with the attack.

Not an exact parallel (the Hu administration is smarter than Bush’s) but the basic point remains: Jumping into action and “doing something” without rhyme or reason does not show aggressive leadership. To me, it’s just the opposite. But don’t just take my word for it. The WSJ has an excellent story on China’s over-zealous attempt to show how responsive they are to the health crisis. Tell me if you think this illustrates good judgment:

Mexicans who were on the flight to Shanghai with the 25-year-old flu victim complain about how China has enforced its quarantine, offering little information and only basic medical testing. Among them is a family of five, including three young children, who transited to Beijing. They were roused from their hotel room in the Chinese capital in the early hours of Saturday and whisked to an infectious diseases hospital. There, according to the father, Carlos Doormann, AeroMéxico’s finance director, they were isolated in a room with bloodstained sheets and what appeared to be mucus smeared on the walls.

“I’m frustrated and sad,” said Mr. Doormann, whose family has since been moved to the nearby Guo Men Hotel on the outskirts of the Chinese capital, where they are in quarantine along with five other Mexican nationals, including Mr. Carrillo.

According to accounts from Mexicans in the hotel, Mexican travelers arriving on various flights from Mexico and the U.S. were singled out by health officials who boarded the aircraft wearing white protective suits, masks and rubber gloves. They led away Mexican passport holders. Several travelers said Chinese television camera crews surprised them at the doors of their aircraft as they emerged. They said the filming continued through the windows of an isolation ward at the Beijing Ditan infectious diseases hospital….Chinese authorities allowed Mexico’s ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, to enter the hotel on Sunday but refused him permission to see the quarantined Mexicans or to call up to their rooms, Mexican officials said.

Welcome to China.

So to make sure my point is clear: Action for action’s sake isn’t necessarily better than no action at all. Some of those rounded up in China hadn’t even been to Mexico in recent months, but the Mexican passport was grounds enough for quarantine. None of the Mexicans rounded up like criminals showed any symptoms of the sickness. They were rounded up only because they were Mexicans. And that is irrational and hysterical.

One of the most maddening defenses I’ve read of this passport-based quarantining was in a Chinese editorial claiming this was “best for the passengers” because they’ll be under close medical supervision in case they begin to show symptoms. You see, it’s all for their sake, and it’s only because we care.

Really? Let’s go back to the WSJ:

The Mexican guests at the Guo Men Hotel have had no contact with Chinese officials, except health workers, and have no idea how long they will have to stay. “We’re held hostage here,” said Mr. Doormann. Twice each day, nurses leave thermometers outside their rooms. No other medical testing is carried out.

So before we congratulate China for their bold and aggressive tactics,let’s first ask ourselves: Do these tactics actually make anyone safer? Are their actions based on science or hysteria? (And I love the way the WSJ refers to them as “the Mexican guests at the Guo An Men hotel” – maybe a bit of black humor?)

And let me add, I thought the quarantining of the hotel in Hong Kong,while extreme, at least made sense. We had an actual infection there. In Beijing, nothing. Just fear and ignorance. Kind of like police who put on latex gloves and face masks when questioning a suspect who has AIDS. I don’t applaud them for caution, I attack them for their ignorance and bigotry.

As you can see, this topic renders me humorless. Anything that brings back memories of the CCP’s bungling of SARS in 2003 has that effect. Because, as the whistleblowing hero of that ugly event can tell you, lives were at stake. People died. And it didn’t have to be; it was an executive decision to let people die so the NPC could carry on in harmony. (If you are a new reader, please see that post for a better idea of what it was like to be here during “the good old days” of SARS. It was a pivotal moment in my first stay here.)

To end on a lighter note, I absolutely loved this post about the quarantine by another great China blogger. It starts out semi-serious:

Charitably, the jury is still out on the epidemiological efficacy of quarantining the Mexicans. Uncharitably, it was a scattershot, poorly-thought-out bit of knee-jerk policy that did for Chinese-Mexican relations what the notorious P3 incident off of Hainan did for Chinese-US relations in 2002.

And then it gets very, very funny. I wish I could feel that funny today.

Update: For some excellent perspective, please go here now.


India’s best-selling management handbook

This is truly rich: copies of the light classic Mein Kampf are flying off the shelves in India as business students seek to learn the “secrets of the author’s success.” There’s a lot they can learn from him about winning friends and influencing people, not to mention problem-solving.

Dressed for Success?

Dressed for success?

On a more serious note, this is thoroughly repulsive. I can see going through the torture of reading this stultifyingly turgid tome if you wanted to better understand one of the great aberrations of human history.

But the idea of emulating any of this beast’s “thoughts” and looking to him as some kind of role model is literally sickening.


NYT debate on simplified vs. traditional characters

Looking over the different points of view, I’d conclude simplified characters are here to stay, for better or worse.

I’ve read lots of arguments about this. I started by learning traditional characters, then had to make the switch when I moved back from Taiwan to China, and can ony speak about my own experience: Simplified characters were easier for me to learn and all in all helped accelerate my reading ability. That doesn’t mean I’m enamored with simplified characters, which can be irrational and annoying. I just know that my brain, which is much more aural than visual, processes them more easily.


Catching up

I don’t know why things feel so slow in China news-wise. Looking over the blogs, it seems the most interesting posts aren’t dealing with breaking news, but rather with advice (always carry your passport and don’t co-habitate – a kind of scary post, and a great one, too); a discussion on the tendency of expats to live in a world of other expats and an extraordinary response to that argument; and an excellent discussion from the same blog on why there is no such thing as freedom of speech on blogs or other sites that are private property (a week old, but a good read, especially for those who still believe my blog and others’ are their personal soapbox to say whatever they’d like).

As far as news over here, this seems to be the slowest period I’ve seen in China in 8 years. My quick observations on the undertone of Chinese stories as I comb the news:

1. China is going all-out to smooth over past frictions with Japan and is going way out of its way to stress that they must work together to form a new paradigm of government and finance now that the US model has been “discredited.” The crash, caused entirely by the fiscal irresponsibility of the US, is being used like the descent of Russia into corruption and near anarchy in the early 1990s, as proof of the failure of democracy and the Western model. Asia will have none of that; it’s time to create something new and forge our own path. Japan and China will do the leading. Mainly China.

2. The South China Sea is the next big hotspot, and some in the military are actually itching for war. China has been robbed of its rightful offshore territory by plunderers in both the South and East China Seas, who’ve stolen oil and natural gas that belong to China. That big recent display of China’s blue water navy was strategic and intended to carry a message, perhaps a provocative one. On the other hand, I hear from my trusted sources that while the military’s lobbying and making all the noise, there’s little support from those in the seat of power. For now, and for some time to come, the noise about the offshore plundering will be exactly that. Noise.

3. Nearly every story that involves Western media coverage of China will claim the West is actively seeking to tarnish China’s image and make them look bad. The Jackie Chan storm in a teapot was just the latest example, and the Associated Press’s choice of words amounted to nothing less than a conspiracy that can be related to how the West deifies the Dalai Lama and misrepresents Chinese history. (For an excellent bit of insight on the general topic of Western coverage of China, check out this fine post.)

4. China has overcome the financial crisis. It’s real estate market is reviving, unemployment is in check and the government’s stimulus package was an unqualified success, untouched by corruption or mismanagement. You wouldn’t know that walking through The Place or the Solana graveyardsmalls, but if the media say so, there must be something to it.

On a more mundane note, the lease on my Beijing apartment expires in mid-July, six 10 short weeks away. Time for me to make another of those life-altering choices. Stay in Beijing, move to Yunnan for a change of pace, go back to Phoenix…. I believe, and all my colleagues tell me, if there was ever a time to live in China this is it. Especially when jobs in my industry are nonexistent, especially in a city like Phoenix. The next few weeks may be full of ruminations about this as I use my blog as a cathartic device to figure out what to do with this inexplicable albatrossblessing we call life.