Where else?

These photos cracked me up and brought back a stream of anecdotes from Peter Hessler’s new book re. the oddities of driving in China.

China has some of the world’s most gracious people, some of the most sublime scenery, much of the world’s greatest art, etc. It also seems to have some of the worst drivers, for whatever reasons. Maybe it’s just a matter of giving too many cars to too many people who aren’t quite ready to be put behind the wheel.

And if it’s any consolation, friends of mine who have lived in India tell me it’s even worse over there.



First of all, if you aren’t following the Sinica podcasts on Popup Chinese, you are missing some excellent commentary on current issues in China. This one is from two days ago, and it complements this post. It is 100 percent must-hear.

A key contributor to the podcast, Gady Epstein of Forbes, now has an article on a topic that comes up a lot in that podcast, namely the staying power of the CCP and how it has maintained an iron grip on all aspects of life in China that it deems necessary to maintain control. Like the podcast, you simply have to read it.

The piece is based on the soon-to-be-released book The Party by Richard McGregor, which I’ve already pre-ordered. Judging from what Epstein writes, this is one scary book.

“The Party is like God,” a professor from People’s University in Beijing tells McGregor. “He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”

The Party is not simply an account of how the party succeeds in ruling through its mechanisms of autocracy. The party’s Achilles’ heel–its lack of any independent check on its power–undermines at every turn its efforts to police corruption, vet its members, reform its bureaucracy and respond to crises.

The maneuvering required to conduct a high-level corruption investigation sounds like it is out of a mafia movie. Taking down a Politburo member, former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, required a side deal to keep hands off of the family of former General Secretary Jiang Zemin, whose consent for the takedown was required because he was the reigning kingpin of the Shanghai faction, despite the fact that he no longer held any official leadership posts.

The party’s apparatus of control dominated every stage of decision-making in the disastrous Sanlu milk powder scandal, from covering up melamine contamination that poisoned thousands of babies to censoring media coverage that could have saved lives to blocking legal action that could have given families some measure of justice and deterred future corporate misbehavior. At every stage where some check or balance might exist in a democratic system, the one-party system failed its people.

Well, I suppose it’s not like we didn’t know the party controls the media and everything else it wants to control, and that the big SOEs are simply part of the state apparatus. But reading this, you really have to wonder how real those signs of hope we all like to point to – the increased freedom to criticize the Party, the Glasnost approach we sometimes see in the Global Times and other media, the ability of public opinion to shake the party into action as it did after Sun Zhigang’s murder or in the case of the waitress who stabbed a menacing official – you have to wonder if these aren’t just escape valves that the party cynically uses to create a sense of democracy, a sham. Because no matter how touchy-feely China seems at times, if you really get in the way of the party in a manner it feels could undermine it, you will be crushed like a gnat.

It’s easy to forget that when we see the stories about Han Han standing up to the CCP (this was an especially delightful example and I urge you to check it out, I was laughing out loud). And it’s easy to forget that no matter how earnest those wonderful cadres we know are (and so many of them really are wonderful), their earnest attempts to bring about change can only go so far. As we all know, there are limits. For all the new freedoms and rising GDP, China remains a quasi-police state. Not a Nazi Germany or North Korea-style police state, which rule by sheer terror and fear, but a less visible system of control that’s no less insidious, should you end up in its bad graces. Like the children who drank the San Lu milk, who could easily have been saved if squelching the news hadn’t been in the party’s interest.

I’m ready for the usual comments, “Yes, but it’s just as bad or worse in the US.” And although some comparisons can be drawn between the party in China and the power brokers who rule in the US, the comparison doesn’t work; ours can be brought to heel, they can go to jail, they can be dragged in front of congressional committees. They can’t be party to the poisoning of babies and then block media coverage, ensuring that yet more babies die. They can try, as some drug companies have tried to keep secret their research showing their drugs had lethal side effects. But they’ll usually be exposed and punished, if not as severely as deserved.

As Epstein says at the close of his article, most Chinese are content not to look behind the curtain and ask questions – “times are too good.” But no good times last forever, and after the ball it will be fascinating to see how the party maintains the harmony and relative stability it so cherishes today. Will it work when springtime becomes the winter of discontent?


Rock Paper Tiger: it really does rock


Rock Paper Tiger, an up-to-the-minute, kaleidoscopic romp through contemporary China with some side-stops in US-occupied Iraq, is the first novel of Lisa Brackman, better known here as the commenter “Other Lisa.” She’s also one of my best friends, and I’d been waiting to get my hands on this book for at least half a year. It will officially launch next week, but it’s already for sale here, and you should go right now and order your copy. No matter how good a friend Lisa is, I wouldn’t tell you to do that unless I loved the book. (Loved is an understatement.)

Lisa has done the impossible: created a taut, breathless thriller that along the way takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through China, the big cities, the smaller cities, the places tourists go and the country’s underbelly. She manages to weave into the narrative an endless stream of details about life in China, what living there actually feels like, such vibrant images you can touch and taste them. In effect, it’s a kind of primer on life in modern-day China, yet it never feels like we’re being lectured or taught. Each image and each description is tightly connected to the story.

Rock Paper Tiger’s plot is complex, with as many twists and turns and borderline cliff-hanger chapter endings as a Dan Brown mystery – only Lisa, unlike Brown, is a great writer.

The hero Ellie Cooper, an Iraq war veteran now living in Beijing, doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she says “Nice to meet you” to a guest at her artist friend’s apartment, Hashim, a Uighur. Hashim is in the book for all of 15 seconds, but it’s this chance and rather meaningless encounter that soon has Ellie running as fast as she can, despite a leg wound she suffered in Iraq, as she’s pursued by American mercenaries and Chinese PSB agents. And others. We never know who to trust or what’s motivating them, and we never know where Ellie’s roller-coaster chase will take us next.

Interspersed with (and related to) the chase are Ellie’s flashbacks to several years back when she served in Iraq. One fateful day she stumbled into a secret prison that bears an uncanny resemblance to Abu Ghraib, but due to a mega-dose of fear and confusion she says nothing, despite her horror and her knowledge something really bad is going on. Does this make her a party to the crime? That’s a question Ellie has to live with.

Another twist: a good portion of the story takes place online, within a video game Ellie must play in order to communicate with friends who – she hopes – can help her figure out what’s going on. The descriptions of this virtual world and the challenges she meets there, like being attacked by a nine-headed bird are among the most imaginative in the book.

Every scene is jammed with imagery, but never to the point of being cluttered. If you’ve never been to China you may think Lisa is exaggerating. If anything, her descriptions are often understated, and hilarious. Here’s Ellie, trying to hide from her pursuers after she arrives in Chengdu:

I catch a cab outside the train station, take note of the giant statue of Mao with his arm outstretched like he’s directing traffic – or maybe he’s just trying to greet the patrons of the shopping malls and the Starbucks down the street.

I get to the backpackers’ joint, wedged between a hotpot restaurant and a camping-supply store on a narrow lane.

“No baggage?” asks the…clerk? Manager? You can’t call somebody a “concierge” when he’s sitting behind a scarred desk in a beige room containing a bulletin board leprous with notices about treks to Tibet and Jiuzhaigou and dubious job offers to teach English, a pressboard bookcase overflowing with paperbacks, and a pile of backpacks heaped in one corner.

Lisa similarly brings to life aspects of China that many of us take for granted: train travel (hard seats, soft sleepers and hard sleepers), Internet bars, dumpling houses, VPNs, Beijing art colonies, the lifestyle of the nouveau riche, the seedy karaoke bar of a backwater village, the sulfurous air of a coal mining city, the pollution (just about everywhere), the way Chinese people always ask your age and whether you’re married…. For everything she observes (and that’s a lot of things) she comes up with an image, often startling. How can she come up with so many images, and how can they all be this satisfying? Some new buildings in Beijing, for example, are “glassy high-rises with green Chinese-style roofs perched on top, like somebody put party hats on the heads of awkward giants.”

What impressed me the most is that Lisa does the same with the flashbacks to Iraq – the imagery is just as detailed and precise. She’s been to China many times, but never to Iraq. People who served in Iraq will have a hard time believing Lisa didn’t.

Imagery and style and the thrill are one thing. But those are practically ancillary to what’s at the heart of the story and that is Ellie Cooper’s humanity and essential goodness. She’s been to hell and back (in Iraq), only to be betrayed by her husband in China, and she’s in constant pain – her popping percocets becomes a kind of punctuation of her various circumstances. You have no choice but to admire her.

The book leaves several loose ends loose. The fate of some key characters remains unresolved, and we’re also left wondering whether certain characters are heroes or villains. But that’s okay; the ambiguousness keeps you wondering when the book is over, and maybe that’s partly why you can’t get these people out of your head.

I admit, I had trouble reading the first few chapters of Rock Paper Tiger. The main issue was that I know Lisa, and since the book is written in the first person I kept hearing Lisa’s actual voice doing the narration. Ellie Cooper often speaks in sentence fragments, and she constantly appends the phrase, “I guess” to just about any thought she has. That little voice in my head kept saying, “But Lisa doesn’t talk like this!” Then, after about four chapters Lisa disappeared, Ellie took over, and I succumbed.

I always try to find something to criticize in a book I rave about in order to show “balance.” But I can’t criticize much here. Sometimes I wondered whether readers who know nothing about China might not find some of the images confusing, like a reference to someone wearing a “Cui Jian t-shirt,” and they might get thrown when they see the word “fuwuyuan” (which soon gets defined by context). And maybe a part of me wanted all of the mysteries explained. Maybe, but not much. (The final episode of Lost last night was far more frustrating in this regard.)

But those aren’t even criticisms. Rock Paper Tiger totally rocks in every way. It is so intense and trippy, so full of exotic images and astonishing characters who aren’t what you first believe, I kept thinking, “This is perfect material for a movie.” I hope all of you get to read it, but I hope more than anything that some producer somewhere hears about this thriller on steroids and puts it on the screen where it ultimately belongs.

And this is her first novel. I can’t imagine anyone reading it and not thirsting for the next one.


Book Review: Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone

Every Man Dies Alone is a rare book, one that to my knowledge has no precedent. It is a novel, based on an actual Gestapo file, that takes the reader into the daily life of everyday people living in Hitler’s Germany. What is unprecedented is that it was written by someone who lived through the nightmare and wrote his book almost immediately afterward, soon after which he died of a morphine overdose.

The book is also rare because it has languished, virtually unknown outside of Germany for more than half a century, which is completely inexplicable. This is a great and powerful book and one of the most penetrating and disturbing examinations of life in a totalitarian society, written before the historians and anthropologists wrote the books that have shaped so many of our impressions of the Third Reich.

Not that those impressions we have are inaccurate. But many of the histories were written years, even generations after the fact. This book was obviously incubating as the horror was living itself out, and emerged, more than 500 pages, only months after the last shots were fired in May 1945. Most of the first-hand accounts we’re familiar with came from the victims of Nazism, like the Diary of Ann Frank or the many Shoah stories. This book comes from a much different perspective, from the eyes of German citizens. (And I know, the Germans were victims of Nazism also, but they were also its enabler, whether they meant to be or not.)

There are probably too many fictional embellishments to the plot to categorize this as historical fiction, but it does what good historical fiction is supposed to: it takes you right there, so you feel the terror of the housewife being interrogated by an odious Gestapo official, you hear her prison door clank shut, leaving her in darkness, and you experience for yourself the confusion, rage and frustration of parents who are told their son has been killed in a war they don’t understand.

For more than two years, starting in 1941, a working-class husband and wife in Berlin actually decided to defy Hitler and do what they could to raise the consciousness of their countrymen, to tell them Hitler was a monster who invaded Russia with no provocation and was killing wholesale the flower of Germany’s youth. Their effort seems ridiculous: they would hand-write postcards with anti-Hitler messages and calls for worker sabotage, and drop them on the windowsills and in the stairwells of hundreds of buildings, hoping they would be read, passed around, and hopefully help turn people against Nazism. And that was all. But they had to do something, and by doing this small thing they placed themselves on a moral plane above the perpetrators and collaborators. They were heroes, fully aware they would eventually die for their crime.

Their effort was a total failure. Of the hundreds of postcards they dropped off, all but a tiny fraction were immediately handed over to the Gestapo. People wanted no part of the hopeless campaign. One day the couple slipped up and were caught by the Gestapo, tried and beheaded.

Fallada’s book offers a fictionalized account of this couple that includes a wide cast of unforgettable characters, nearly all of them repulsive. Take whatever your impression is of life under the Nazis, make it a hundred times worse, and you have Fallada’s world. And the book begins in 1940, when the Nazis were at their peak of power, having just swallowed continental Europe whole and appearing invincible. But even then, the German people were living in a stage of constant fear, and fear is what permeates every page of the book. A world of informers, extortionists, corrupt officials, a browbeaten population terrified into believing it must report everything to the Gestapo, lest they come under suspicion as an accomplice.

Nearly every scene is drowned in treachery, and often in blood. Totally innocent people are swept up, tortured and put to death over the most casual passing reference by the postcard-writing wife. And the Gestapo always wins. Torture, extortion and the threat of the concentration camps always get people to talk.

Every Man Dies Alone is a mystery novel, a breathless thriller about a two-year chase. It follows the Gestapo step by step as they pursue their prey, recording in painstaking detail the destruction and fear they leave in their wake. But I saw it most of all as a window into the lives of the “ordinary people” of Germany. Many of them hated Hitler and hated the atmosphere of terror. And yet they played along, and even gave the cards to the Gestapo. We are reminded that many Germans despised Hitler, especially after Stalingrad, but by the time war was declared in 1939 it was too late, they had handed Hitler total power, and now all they could do was survive as best they could. And yes, many, many others followed him blindly, believing in him until the very end.

The postcard couple are at the core of the book, but surrounding them is a constellation of supporting characters – low lives, Hitler Youth, a Jew in hiding, a compassionate judge who sees exactly what’s happening to Germany, a postal worker who learns her beloved son is smashing the skulls of Jewish babies in Russia, die-hard radicalized Nazis, and others who begin to have their doubts….

Each of these characters is interesting, each leaves a strong impression. But I have to say, several are one-dimensional, and Fallada spends way too much time going into their individual stories. (This is particularly true in the case of Enno Kluge, a compulsive gambler and con man who somehow gets involved, mistakenly, in the investigation; he ends up shot in the head and thrown in a river. Intriguing, but Fallada definitely gives us too much information.)

Also, the book is a little too long. It dragged for about 100 pages in the middle, but then took on ferocious speed as the Gestapo zeros in. The style isn’t rich or florid; it is simple and straightforward. But I hung on every word, and found myself reading late into the night.

Primo Levi called this, “The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.” I won’t disagree, though there’s so little to compare it to – there was hardly any organized German resistance to speak of until Stauffenberg’s ill-fated plot in 1944. It especially makes you wonder, to what extent were the ordinary German people responsible for the blight of Hitler, a question that has mystified me since I can first remember learning who Hitler was.

I lived in Germany as a college student, my former history professor served in the Waffen SS, I’ve spoken with countless students whose parents participated in Hitler rallies and I’ve read a fearful number of books about German history. I always am left with the same question, how much did the “ordinary Germans” know and to what extent can they be held accountable? Fallada helped me better understand all the forces pressing against the ordinary German seeking to survive in a time when death and betrayal were a possibility with each knock on the door. I will never know the actual answer, will never have a perfect understanding of this impossible question. But Every Man Dies Alone gave me a new perspective, and showed me what the Nazi terror meant for the simple factory worker, the mail deliverer, the lowlife pimp and gambler, the retired judge who knew what justice meant. I don’t think you can fully understand life in Nazi Germany if you don’t read this book.

As a quick note: I discovered this book quite fortuitously, when I was led to this article. This was the description that moved me to order it:

What was it like? I would ask myself, the years I lived in Berlin. What was it like in the leafy Grunewald neighborhood to watch your Jewish neighbors — lawyers, businessmen, dentists — trooping head bowed to the nearby train station for transport eastward to extinction?

With what measure of fear, denial, calculation, conscience and contempt did neighbors who had proved their Aryan stock to Hitler’s butchers make their accommodations with this Jewish exodus? How good did the schnapps taste and how effectively did it wash down the shame?

Now I know. Thanks to Hans Fallada’s extraordinary “Every Man Dies Alone,” just published in the United States more than 60 years after it first appeared in Germany, I know. What Irène Némirovsky’s “Suite Française” did for wartime France after six decades in obscurity, Fallada does for wartime Berlin. Like all great art, it transports, in this instance to a world where, “The Third Reich kept springing surprises on its antagonists: It was vile beyond all vileness.”

Fallada, born Rudolf Ditzen, wrote his novel in less than a month right after the war and just before his death in 1947 at the age of 53. The Nazi hell he evokes is not so much recalled as rendered, whole and alive. The prose is sinuous and gritty, like the city he describes. Dialogue often veers toward sadistic folly with a barbaric logic that takes the breath away.

Yes, it definitely takes the breath away. I’m grateful to the writer for steering me to this book I’d never heard of. Few novels can hold you and move you like this one.


New photocopy rules for Tibetans

I know, their lives are better, their roads are better, their schools are better, they get more funding than any other minority and they’re grateful the shackles of serfdom have been lifted. Still, no one can tell me there is not at least a hint of a police-state to life under Tibet’s benefactors.

People in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa will have to register their names if they want to make photocopies. City shopkeepers say the authorities are particularly concerned about material printed in Tibetan.

This appears to be an attempt to prevent ordinary people from printing political pamphlets and other documents. It suggests the security forces still have a tight grip on the city, two years after serious riots.

Individuals wanting to photocopy documents will have to show their ID cards and have the information recorded. Companies will have to register their names and addresses, the number of copies they want and provide the name of the manager in charge of the work. The police say they will carry out checks and punish any shop that does not abide by the new regulation.

Photocopying outlets in Lhasa told the BBC that the rule is primarily aimed at the Tibetan language. One shopkeeper said she would not now make copies of documents in Tibetan without police approval first. Material printed in Chinese does not seem to be too much of a problem.

The authorities say the change is aimed at stopping criminals carrying out illegal activities. But the suspicion is that it is directed at those who might want to print political pamphlets critical of the Chinese government.

Gee, who would have guessed about that last part?

[Deleted the rest of this post sorry; for writing such self-righteous drivel. It happens sometime, especially when I rush a post before I need to go out.]


Desperately seeking fewer China blogs

As you may have noticed, my posts have been much fewer and farther between. The main reason? I’m not in China anymore. The posts I enjoy writing and that I feel really make a difference (I hope) for the reader are never about current events, but about my personal experiences in China and the people I meet there.

Obviously, being sentenced to the strip malls of America’s Southwest doesn’t give me much opportunity to write these types of posts. I feel especially irrelevant now that there are so many superb China blogs out there (along with many more mediocre ones), and I know there’s not that much I can add to the conversation, especially when I’m 12,000 miles away from where the conversation’s taking place.

This has been weighing on me a lot lately, and this excellent post by another blogger showed me I’m not the only one who thinks China now has too many blogs, including my own.

Have you ever noticed how many English-language Chinese blogs (say that five times fast!) there are?

Sadly, I believe the time has come to drastically reduce the number of these truly redundant boards, these mostly paltry attempts to reinvent the wheel by reprising what’s already been written countless times online. We must begin to streamline these available offerings into a tight fist of “absolute-must-go-to” sites. Absolute online musts which shouldn’t be missed, in other words, with the rest somehow shunted off to the sidelines, clearly delineated as minor league attempts to achieve the same effect as the A-Listers.

I observed this recently while surfing through the offerings at Hao Hao Report, the creation of Ryan McLaughlin, a fellow “crazy Canuck,” and bionic blogger in his own right. I was astounded by the volume of stuff posted there, with seemingly less regard (not no regard, just less) for post quality or post appropriateness. It had been mentioned to me a few weeks ago by a China-blogging fellow and after devoting a considerable amount of time to Hao Hao during yesterday’s European afternoon, I couldn’t agree with the chap more.

In a situation of decentralized Chinese cities, say, where the wonders of the interwebs were unavailable to geographically-disparate expats in search of relevant information or in order to commiserate or seek out fellow-foreign succor, it made sense to have 20 different expatriate magazines or 35 different expatriate newspapers, each replicating the content of the rest. That made sense from an old world media perspective.

But in a Chinese marketplace where everything is being funneled around at the fingering of a hyper-sensitive touchpad, how many redundancies should the market allow?

Yes, I know what it feels like to be redundant. He then goes on to list what makes a great blog, and names the China blogs he feels meet his criteria. Alas, I’m not there, but I shouldn’t be. I stopped being a China blog nearly 10 months ago (10 months?!).

Man’s search for relevancy. I’m not sure yet where (or if) I’ll find mine, but I also know I don’t want to stop blogging, even if, as in the first couple months of this blog, I’m the only reader, and even if I’m not able to write the ideal blog post like the ones I cited above.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of China blogs out there now, way too many, and if this one isn’t on your daily read list anymore I totally understand.


US funding of Falun Gong’s GIFC software

Few topics ignite such automatic and knee-jerk responses as Falun Gong, so let me get the disclaimers out of the way up front: I have never been a supporter of FLG, which I see as a kooky cult. On the other hand, I’ve never been a supporter of the CCP’s harsh (to put it mildly) reaction to them, and I’ve been especially put off over the years by the sloganeering and tape-recorded rants that the topic arouses among the fenqing.

We all know the pre-recorded tapes, the ones that describe the “Dalai Lama clique,” or refer to Taiwan as “a baby needing to return to its mother’s arms,” and the ones that thank god Deng had the courage to open fire on the students lest China’s economic miracle be nipped in the bud and the nation hurled into chaos and corruption like Russia after the Soviet Bloc evaporated.

The scripts for FLG are equally predictable: their leader is a lunatic who believes, among other things, that he can fly. They don’t allow practitioners to see a doctor when they’re sick, causing a terrible threat of disease and loss of life. They recruit and multiply and they can’t be trusted. Of course, the No. 1 script is the “dangerous cult,” a phrase that has been permanently soldered onto the words Falun Gong and can be heard in virtually every conversation with Chinese people about it.

I’ve always believed the cult part, and I’ve never believed the dangerous part. I would see FLG members practicing their breathing exercises outside the National Museum in Taibei, and while they may have looked odd they certainly didn’t seem to be threatening anyone. In Country Driving, Peter Hessler describes how the family he shadows in Book Two participated in the dangerous cult before it was banned:

Falun Gong was hard to define. – in some ways it felt like a religion or philosophy, but it was also a basic exercise routine. All of these elements combined to create something enormously popular, and this was especially true in the economically challenged parts of northern China. In Sancha, practitioners liked having a new structure to their lives, and soon others began to join them. By the late 1990s, it seemed most villagers met every morning on the lot at the top of the dead-end road. Cao Chunmei and Wei Ziqi became part of the faithful, and years later she described that period fondly. “Wei Ziqi didn’t drink or smoke in those days, because Falun Gong says you shouldn’t do that. And he was so angry then. It seemed the people in the village were happy we all spent time together in the morning.

I can think of other things that sound a bit more dangerous than that.

Which brings me to a post that’s already several days old but that gave me enough pause that I knew I wanted to write about it. It’s by one of my very favorite bloggers, Custer, whose site is featured prominently on my blogroll. What the argument boils down to, in effect, is that since the Chinese government goes ballistic at the every mention of FLG and is hypersensitive to the point of derangement on the subject, it was a “terrible idea” for the US to give funding to software developers affiliated with our dangerous cult.

Regard­less of your feel­ings about whether FLG is an “evil cult”, there is no rea­son what­so­ever to give a ton of money to an FLG-affiliated group unless you’re inten­tion­ally try­ing to piss off Bei­jing.

That “ton of money”? $1.5 million. From the article he links to:

State Department officials recently called the group, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, offering it $1.5 million, according to Shiyu Zhou, one of the group’s founders. A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the offer.

The decision, which came as the United States and China have recently moved to improve ties after months of tension, appears likely to irritate Beijing just as the two are set to resume a dialogue on human rights Wednesday for the first time in two years.

“GIFC is an organization run by elements of the Falun Gong cult, which is bent on vilifying the Chinese government with fabricated lies, undermining Chinese social stability and sabotaging China-U.S. relations,” said Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “We’re strongly opposed to the U.S. government providing whatever assistance to such an anti-China organization.”

I do understand that China is very, very sensitive and we need to go on tippy-toe whenever one of those touchy subjects like Taiwan and Tibet and FLG are in play. But to what extent do we allow that touchiness to affect our policies and determine who to fund and who not to? At what point does cooperation become appeasement? Back to the blog post:

Granted, the con­cept itself is a bit antag­o­nis­tic — devel­op­ing soft­ware to ensure Chi­nese peo­ple can cir­cum­vent the GFW — but it’s the kind of for­eign antag­o­nism plenty of Chi­nese neti­zens could get behind, espe­cially those who haven’t yet fig­ured out how to jump the GFW but are inter­ested in it. By con­nect­ing the soft­ware with FLG, the State Depart­ment is vir­tu­ally guar­an­tee­ing a polemic response from the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, but let’s be hon­est, that’s prob­a­bly going to hap­pen any­way. The dif­fer­ence is that this approach is also sure to piss off plenty of Chi­nese neti­zens who might oth­er­wise sup­port it.

Yes indeed, offering freedom to those who do not have it will always be “antagonistic” to those depriving them of that freedom. (And I’m not saying the CCP doesn’t give its people plenty of freedoms; they do. But they sure don’t give them Internet freedom.) And yes, this certainly inflamed the usual suspects in the fenqing sector (which isn’t really that hard to do) and hurt some feelings in Beijing. And why did the US do this? Custer explains:

The answer, as it turns out, is lob­by­ists. The deci­sion to choose GIFC fol­lowed a four-year lob­by­ing cam­paign by the group, and caused a bit of con­tro­versy within the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post. There was also a fair amount of pres­sure, appar­ently, as the lob­by­ing cam­paign also tar­geted the media

And here I must take issue with the bolded part. It was not the FLG, or at least not only the FLG, that did the lobbying. From the article:

The decision to fund GIFC followed a three-year lobbying campaign by Washington insiders, congressional pressure and opposition from some human rights advocates and Internet experts. It was also controversial within the Obama administration, sources said, despite the commitment of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Internet freedom.

In fact, if you read the article, most of the lobbying was done by one man, Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, and not the FLG. Not only is this key piece of information missing, but so is the history of the GIFC software, Freegate, which is not some kooky FLG concoction. Back to the Washington Post:

Freegate figured prominently in the demonstrations that rocked Tehran last year as Iranian dissidents used it to access Twitter and YouTube, which were blocked in Iran, to organize protests and post videos of the marches.

At times, the traffic from Iran was so heavy that GIFC officials had to limit Iranian access, said [Shiyu] Zhou, who serves as GIFC’s deputy director. He said the main element preventing GIFC from expanding its current system — which can accommodate 1.5 million users a day — is its lack of servers.

But, he added, the $1.5 million funding from the U.S. government will not be enough. “We had asked for $4 million,” he said. “For this little amount of money we don’t expect to achieve the things we really want.”

One NYT columnist (not my favorite) had this to say about the software last year:

Freegate amounts to a dissident’s cyberkit. E-mails sent with it can be encrypted. And after a session is complete, a press of a button eliminates any sign that it was used on that computer.

The consortium also makes available variants of the software, such as Ultrasurf, and other software to evade censors is available from Tor Project and the University of Toronto.

Originally, Freegate was available only in Chinese and English, but a growing number of people have been using it in other countries, such as Myanmar. Responding to the growing use of Freegate in Iran, the consortium introduced a Farsi-language version last July — and usage there skyrocketed.

Soon almost as many Iranians were using it as Chinese, straining server capacity (many Chinese are wary of Freegate because of its links to Falun Gong, which even ordinary citizens often distrust). The engineers in the consortium, worrying that the Iran traffic would crash their servers, dropped access in Iran in January but restored it before the Iran election.

“We know the pain of people in closed societies, and we do want to accommodate them,” Mr. Zhou said.

So I think it’s important that readers know there is greater context to this story, and it is not a case of the US throwing money willy-nilly at the FLG. No matter how much we may dislike the cult, we have to give credit where it’s due, and this software certainly deserves some credit. It may even deserve funding, even if it results in some long faces over in Zhongnanhai and in Beida dorm rooms.

The other script present in some of the comments is the FLG’s rejection of medical treatment, something I find abhorrent but certainly no justification for the harsh repression of the cult starting in 1999. I don’t know how many people have died as a result of this belief, and I don’t know how many practitioners abided by it. Looking at what Hessler writes and other accounts I’ve read, most of the practitioners saw it as exercise, something enjoyable to do, just as they enjoy dancing in groups on the street as the weather warms up.

But the most important contextual nugget missing is the actual reason why FLG is so terrifying to the Chinese government, and it is mentioned in the WaPo article (and I’ve mentioned it in this blog numerous times before): in 1999, some 10,000 FLG practitioners surrounded the home of a party official (some accounts say it was closer to 20,000) in Beijing. The crackdown that ensued, harsh even by CCP standards, had nothing to do with concern for the lives of practitioners refusing medical help. (Were this such a pressing concern the government would clean up its hospitals and take other steps to protect citizens’ lives like cracking down on cars speeding through pedestrian cross-walks.)

No, any organization that can, pre-Twitter, spread its message to tens of thousands of Chinese citizens and motivate them to appear at a set destination at a moment’s notice is going to scare the living shit out of the Chinese Communist Party. To cite the leader’s belief that he can fly or his various nutty mantras as reasons for why the party forbids them (as some of the commenters do) is disingenuous. Those things are irrelevant. The medical issue is irrelevant. The FLG was amorphous and nebulous and out of reach of the party and had an unprecedented ability to mobilize the masses. And that is something the CCP will under no circumstances tolerate, and any group with power like that must be crushed at all costs. As if they care that the leader thinks he can fly.

Yes, giving the teensy $1.5 million grant to the GIFC was sure to rumple party feathers. And no, I do not support or like the FLG. But China gives direct comfort to far more execrable characters like Kim Jong-Il and Robert Mugabe, and you don’t see many Americans weeping in their coffee because as much as it might offend us we can shrug it off, or complain about it rationally. We know China does stuff like that. And besides, the software, unlike the FLG, has shown that it can be used for a good purpose and is not a tool of the devil. I’m very sorry if Chinese people are upset, but when seen in context this was not a terrible idea or an act of aggression. There are many more substantive things to raise hell about.


Life after Google

A translation/blurb from China Media Project:

Changjiang Daily columnist Liu Hongbo (刘洪波) writes in Southern Metropolis Daily today about the business of paid search engine results at China’s market-leading search engine, Baidu, which has a virtual monopoly in mainland China after the recent departure of Google. The top results for a search of the term “Great Wall,” for example, are all products and commercial interests.

Liu writes: “Today, Baidu is the pride of the [Chinese] Internet age, as though [people believe] it is a victorious Chinese search engine, and it is virtually without competitors. However, this does not mean that Baidu has the right to provide a distorted picture of the information world, to artificially control our browsing and brainwash people.”

Compare to Google. You decide which search engine you’d rather use as your default.

Update: While I’m on the topic of censorship, I wanted to point out an excellent piece on the horrifying spate of attacks on children in China in recent months. Yes, the US has had as many if not more such attacks. What’s different is how the media handles them.

After the first attack, in which a man stabbed and killed eight children outside an elementary school in Fujian Province on March 23, the Internet and government media bubbled with outrage, and the state-run Xinhua news service issued a lengthy study of the loner who committed the crime.

But on Friday, after three consecutive days of spontaneous and inexplicable assaults on children as young as 3, the media went silent. News of the latest attack, at the Shangzhuang Primary School in Shandong Province, vanished from the headlines on major Internet portals, replaced by an announcement that the government had assembled a team of 22 experts to help the education system set things right.

Posts on social networking sites indicated the change in tone came from the Communist Party’s central propaganda department, which directs and censors coverage of major news events.

If it was a classic response, born of Leninist dogma that dictates that bad news be buried and the state’s heroism trumpeted, it was still understandable after a week of what were apparently copycat crimes.

Yet some aspects of the assaults — the alacrity with which they were copied by new assailants, to cite one example — raised questions among some Chinese about whether something else was at work here. Curiously, the four attacks in March and April mirror a series of assaults in August and September 2004, in which students in four other schools and a day care center were attacked by knife-wielding men who stabbed dozens of children.

One theme echoed in some Internet postings was the feeling by many Chinese citizens that they had little power in the face of authority, and few ways to right wrongs. One posting compared the attacks to a notorious rampage in July 2008 by a man who said he felt he had been wronged by the police. In a single attack in Shanghai, the man, Yang Jia, stabbed six police officers to death — and he became a national hero by the time he was executed that November.

One person who posted in a chat room pointed out that after the attack in March, a student wrote a letter to the assailant, saying, “If you’ve got hatred, please go to kill the corrupted official.”

“Isn’t it shocking to hear such assertions come from a child?” the poster wrote. “But in fact, this is a collective perception shared by the entire society. That’s why Yang Jia was hailed as a hero after killing innocent police.

Maybe there’s trouble in paradise? If so, don’t expect to see much about it in the paper or in your Baidu searches.