Two cats on a mat

I posted this on Facebook a few days ago and want to immortalize it on my blog. I had washed a small rug and put it on my front porch to dry and my two gorgeous cats immediately colonized it. (Click to enlarge.) What is life without cats?

Update: Today one of the cats climbed up on the roof and made his way to the front porch awning, where he held court all day, 12 feet from the ground.

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Xu Zhiyong gets 4 years for being a great civil servant

A week ago, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker wrote an excellent profile of a man who should be considered a national hero, Xu Zhiyong, who fought for greater government transparency to rein in corruption. I recommend everyone read it to see how this was no ordinary activist, but a courageous reformer whose crime was founding a grass-roots movement to promote citizens’ rights and rule of law.

[In 2009] Xu was known for his work as a legal activist, one who had made the rare choice to push for reform not from outside the system but from deep within it—he ran for, and won, a seat on a local district assembly in Beijing. In his work as a lawyer, he had been honored by the government for investigating contaminated baby formula and helping people who had been locked up by local governments in unofficial jails. In 2002, state television named him one of the “Top Ten Figures in the Rule of Law.” Xu projected a nearly evangelical sense of civic consciousness. In 2007, Susan Jakes, then a reporter for Time , wrote of him, “Xu is probably the person most committed to public service that I’ve met in China, and possibly in my whole life.” It was the kind of story that the Chinese press likes to promote now and then as evidence of the country’s capacity for pluralism within the wider confines of Party rule. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based weekly, quoted him as saying.

As you probably know by now, today Xu, lauded a mere four years ago as a hero, was sentenced to four years in prison for organizing a crowd to disrupt public order. The news just broke, and I can’t find any articles in English yet, but according to several posts on Twitter, Xu said at the trial “this destroys the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system.” The sentence, the finale of a mock trial, will send out shock waves to all Chinese reformers. It was inevitable — you don’t get put on trial in China without being found guilty — but it is still a shock. Not a surprise, but a shock, a frightening reminder of just how, for all the new freedoms and rights and openness, there are still fat red lines that must not be crossed, like demanding a crackdown on government corruption. This is meant to cause shock waves, it’s a wake-up call to all activists: kick the hornet’s nest and we will come for you, no matter who you are.

As Osnos writes in his story, the great irony here is that Xi Jinping says one of his top priorities is rooting out government corruption and putting corrupt officials on trial. He is crusading even more zealously, however, for complete control over the flow of information in China, tightening the controls of censorship, especially on the Internet. As Osnos notes, “To tame the unruly power of the Web, the Supreme People’s Court declared that “false defamatory” comments, viewed five thousand times or forwarded five hundred times, could result in a prison sentence of up to three years.”

This story, like that of Liu Xiaobo, will create some international outrage and will reinforce stereotypes of China remaining a prickly authoritarian state that remains terrified of public scrutiny. It won’t matter a bit. This story is for China’s domestic consumption, and sends a clear and powerful message. It’s a tragedy.

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America’s epic fail

There are times when I almost wish the US was being led by an authoritarian government like China’s so it could get things done with no nonsense or political bravado. I say I “almost” wish that because, of course, there is enough bad that comes with authoritarianism to make democracy, for all its wretched faults, the best way to govern. But still, at the moment the notion of having the CCP run things is tempting.

We are now in the middle of the most shocking game of chicken we’ve ever seen in this country’s history. It is utterly unprecedented and frightening. The very idea that the US might default on its debts should scare everyone shitless. The fact that the Republicans needlessly forced the government to shut down ten days ago tells us this is no ordinary inter-party feud. The far right of the Republican party poses an existential threat to our democracy itself.

Andrew Sullivan, who should be a daily read, puts it succinctly:

How does one party that has lost two presidential elections and a Supreme Court case – as well as two Senate elections – think it has the right to shut down the entire government and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury to get its way on universal healthcare now? I see no quid pro quo even. Just pure blackmail, resting on understandable and predictable public concern whenever a major reform is enacted. But what has to be resisted is any idea that this is government or politics as usual. It is an attack on the governance and the constitutional order of the United States.

When ideologies become as calcified, as cocooned and as extremist as those galvanizing the GOP, the American system of government cannot work. But I fear this nullification of the last two elections is a deliberate attempt to ensure that the American system of government as we have known it cannot work. It cannot, must not work, in the mindset of these radicals, because they simply do not accept the legitimacy of a President and Congress of the opposing party. The GOP does not regard the president as merely wrong – but as illegitimate. Not misguided – illegitimate.

Underneath it all run the venomous tendrils of racism. I saw on the news just yesterday an interview with one of the most radical GOP congressmen and he said we still didn’t know if Obama is American or Kenyan. From day one the far right has challenged Obama’s legitimacy in a shameful spectacle of outrageous accusations. He is different; he is not like you and me. He is not a real American. Everything he does must be challenged and overturned at any cost. Any cost. Right now, I’m embarrassed to be an American. I wish we could bring in the CCP for a few days to crack down on the radicals, then send them on their way once the debt ceiling is raised and the country has no fear of default.

I’ve never worried about the future of the US like I’m worrying now. I think ultimately there will be a bargain, and the Republicans will back down about defunding the Affordable Care Act, a totally lost cause, a stupid cause. But that they dare take the country right to the brink of default, threatening the stability of the entire world, tells us just how dangerous these people are. And we’re stuck with them. Thanks to gerrymandering, the far-right loons are almost guaranteed reelection, and we may go through this nightmare again and again. This isn’t democracy, it’s a perversion of democracy, a shameless attempt to delegitimize the elected president and impose the agenda of the right, one that the American public rejected in the last election. The Tea Party is the greatest blight on the history of America since the end of Jim Crow. Let’s hope they sicken enough Americans for them to lose control of the House in 2014. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best, maybe the only hope America has.

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New blog

I know, I just wrote that I’m culling my blogroll, but now I want to take a second to introduce a new blog I’ve been enjoying, My China Kanfa. Please check it out. It’s intelligent, perceptive, and it updates frequently.

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Living in China: the Hammer Drill

I am almost certain that everyone who has lived in China has experienced the machine-gun staccato of the hammer drill being used to renovate an apartment in your building. It starts at the crack of dawn and makes sleep literally impossible. The walls shake, the roar of the machine breaks the sound barrier. I think I can say that for everyone it is one of their most unpleasant memories.

My friend and commenter Shanghai Slim recently sent me and other friends a brief description of life in the age of the hammer drill, along with an MP3 in which you can actually hear for yourself what this experience is like. Below is Slim’s letter followed by the MP3. Whatever you do, you MUST listen to the recording.

———————————–
Every place has things to love and things to … not love. In China, one of the latter is the pervasive racket of the place. The endless construction work, incessant horn honking, stores blasting distorted music through outside speakers, supermarket workers bellowing through portable amplifiers … sometimes it can drive you batty. An mp3 player becomes survival gear. At least during the summer, the clattering chorus of the cicadas drowns out some of it.

I think anyone living in a Chinese city – local or foreigner – will agree that one of the most annoying sounds in China is the hammer drill.

When you buy a new home in China (most urban Chinese live in what Americans would call “condo” apartments), you get a bare concrete shell. The only thing installed is the windows. Here and there PVC pokes out of the wall with some wiring or a temporary spigot, places where future electrical and water systems will be connected. The buyer spends several months and a big chunk of change “decorating” the new apartment, which includes installing all lighting, plumbing, electrical, flooring, closets, cabinets, counters and a/c units before painting, appliances and furniture. This work is often managed by decorating agencies.

When someone buys a used apartment, they typically rip everything out and start over with bare concrete. In the process it’s not unusual to make some changes to the floor plan by altering interior walls (hopefully not – but sometimes! – load-bearing walls). Chinese highrise apartments are typically built with solid steel-reinforced concrete walls, with concrete-covered brick used for non-load bearing interior walls.

A key tool used in decorating is the hammer drill, a heavy duty electric drill with a special feature, the drill shaft rapidly vibrates in-and-out as the bit spins. This allows the bit to pulverize as it whirls, which makes drilling into hard substances like concrete or masonry faster and easier.

When Chinese “decoration” workers make holes in walls, cut out sections of walls, or install anything attached to a wall, they typically use hammer drills. Major cuts are made by drilling “dotted lines” and then sledge hammering out the section to be removed. As you can imagine, cutting that way requires making a lot of holes. So do things like attaching flooring or wall paneling.

If you are in the same room as someone using a hammer drill, it does not sound much different from a standard electric drill – a whizzing, whining sound. However, the sound is amplified as it reverberates through solid concrete walls. The pounding and grinding action of the bit makes a distinctive staccato roaring that is just unbelievably loud and unbelievably annoying. If hammer drilling is taking place anywhere within several floors of you, you’re going to know about it.

I don’t know how to adequately describe this sound, even terms like “skull-cracking” somehow fall short. So it seemed a better idea to simply record a short example and let you hear for yourself (mp3 file attached). Sorry for the sound quality, this was recorded using my mp3 player, the general impression is accurate. Warning – please start the recording at low volume.

The drilling in the recording is happening in the apartment above mine, directly over my head, so it’s a little louder than most episodes. On the other hand, this is just a single hammer drill, it’s not uncommon for a crew to use more than one. In new buildings, multiple crews may be working at the same time.

The recording was made on the third day of drilling, fortunately that was the last day of intense work. Over the three weeks since, it has tapered off to sporadic bursts.

I don’t know how this kind of work is handled in American apartment buildings, I never lived in a concrete building there. If any of you know, please fill me in!

Hope you enjoy a quiet peaceful day!

Sounds of China – The Hammer Drill

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My blogroll and the slow asphyxiation of China-related blogs

I wanted to note that I’ve culled nearly half of my blogroll under the category, “Pearls of the Orient.” All the blogs I deleted had failed to update for some months and are depressing reminders of just how obsolete blogs have become. Right now the only really good Chinese-focused blogs that update constantly is this one, which is always a lot of fun, and this old warhorse. Even ESWN hardly ever posts nowadays. [Update: forgot to mention this impressive blog, which updates frequently.)

I have almost no interest in blogging anymore, as I now, like everyone else, use social media to offer my links and commentary. At the same time, I don’t want to shut the blog down (yet), as I still get occasional flashes of inspiration. So excuse me while The Peking Duck continues operating on life support.

To those whose blogs were taken off my blogroll: please email me if you plan to update and keep your blogs active, and I’ll add them again. Thanks.

There is a fine post about the current China-blog doldrums over here. It raises the question: “Can you blog about China without being there? Probably – but it will have to be a different kind of blogging.”

It will be a very different kind of blogging. I had far more to say on this site while I was living in China. Living in a desert thousands of miles away makes it difficult to keep the flame going.

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Will China ever legalize gay marriage?

You can read my new post on the subject over at China Law Blog. The post is in response to recent pro-gay marriage rulings in the US and the question, Can that ever happen in China?

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Traditional Chinese Medicine: Fact or fantasy?

Another great article by James Palmer, one of the very smartest people it’s been my pleasure to meet in Beijing. His in-depth look at the efficacy of TCM — “an odd, dangerous mix of sense and nonsense” — and its future in China is a delightful read.

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Snowden, the NSA, Heroism and China

Everyone seems to have a post up today about whether Edward Snowden, the high-school dropout who became a contractor for the NSA and leaked a copious amount of secret data this week, is a saint or sinner. I say we still can’t say for sure, but, knowing it will cost me some friends, I lean toward the latter. But before I explain why I am suspicious and wary of Snowden, let me say that I’ve found the whole dust-up in the media the past few days to be somewhat head-scratching. I mean, how many of us really had no idea the NSA was chronicling our online and telecom data? That’s what they are there for, for better or worse — to accumulate vast amounts of data and comb through it. Do I like that? No, and it opens the door to abuse. But did America sign off on it and give it its blessing? Of course we did. It’s all permitted under the vile Patriot Act, it’s all legal. Watch movies like the 1998 Enemy of the State or the Jason Bourne series or read Ron Suskind’s books like The One Percent Solution and it’s all spelled out, it is no secret: the NSA knows everything you’re saying, emailing, surfing, etc. How can anyone actually be surprised? Americans went hysterical after 911 and accepted — no, celebrated — a new lack of privacy. I remember the polls that came out after Bush decided to circumvent the FISA court and allow authorities to listen in on any phone conversations. The overwhelming number of Americans were in favor of it. Bush said, “If someone’s calling Al Qaeda I want to know about it,” and the public lapped it up. We accepted it. Today’s NSA and all its power to watch over us is a product of our own making.

Let me make another point before I get to Snowden. One of the most appallingly irresponsible acts performed by the media as this story broke was the Washington Post’s reporting that the big Internet companies like Google and Facebook had agreed to give the NSA “direct access” to their servers, allowing them to pore over the personal data of millions of users. Only problem was that it was false — soon the WaPo backpedaled on the story and took back the line about “direct access.” You can read all about this bad journalism here — one of the best analysis of how the media screwed up this story. Snip:

Has our collective attention span become so ridiculously short that we’re suddenly shocked by news of the NSA attaining data about Americans as a means of fighting evildoers? Has everyone been asleep for the last 12 years?

To summarize, yes, the NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But the NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.

Speaking for myself on that front, I’m not apologizing for anyone. I’m merely noting that Greenwald and the Washington Post reported inaccurate information.

The Daily Beast adds:

But even in the past few days, some aspects of the program originally reported as terrifying and incontrovertible fact have changed. For instance, the Post claimed that the NSA was “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies” with the express consent of the companies involved. The Guardian made similar claims. But as one intelligence source told CNET, the program is “not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian. None of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.” The Post updated its story, no longer claiming that major tech companies such as Google and Facebook provided the NSA with direct access to their servers. As tech journalist Ed Bott wrote, “Almost no one who reacted to the story initially did so with any skepticism about the Post’s sources or its conclusions.”

This was one of the worst rushes to judgment I’d ever seen. The rush to canonize Snowden by the likes of Ron Paul, Glenn Beck and, of course, Glenn Greenwald and others on both the left and right seems to me altogether misguided. I urge you all to see Jeffrey Toobin’s piece in The New Yorker, maybe the most sensible piece I’ve seen on Snowden yet.

[S]ome, including my colleague John Cassidy, are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower. He is neither. He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison….And what of his decision to leak the documents? Doing so was, as he more or less acknowledges, a crime. Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime. But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling. “When you see everything you realize that some of these things are abusive,” he said. “The awareness of wrongdoing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up. It was a natural process.” These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business’s phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done.

So, finally, how is this all being received over in China? I predicted in an earlier thread that the story would have little to no resonance there, and so far that seems to be the case. From the Atlantic:

And if you head over to Xinhua, a state-run paper, you’ll notice that there’s no mention of Snowden in the top 10 stories on the site’s front page. There’s not even really a Xinhua report to be had on Snowden — there’s something on the NSA as a “spy agency” categorized as a video report. In that category, which isn’t advertised on Xinhua’s front page, it’s at least the top story (pictured at right). Whether that’s a conscious news/propaganda decision to order to avoid sparking a conversation that might come back to China — well, it’s hard to tell, and it’s still a bit early in the news cycle. But remember this is the United States and digital intelligence and, the Chinese government has accused the U.S. of hacking its sites, and this Snowden thing is the biggest hacking leak story in U.S. history, apparently, so you’d think China’s papers wouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to make this a bigger deal.

The hand-wringing will continue and self-righteous blowhards like Greenwald (who I used to love and used to link to until he became so cloyingly moralistic) will continue to leak out more bad stories about the NSA — he’s already promised, “More to come!” — and Snowden will continue to be consecrated by the likes of Michael Moore and Ron Paul, but I say let’s take a step back and look at what he’s really all about, and whether this was an act of selfless defiance of an evil authority or an act of narcissism, and a criminal one at that. I mean, as much as I may sympathize with the message that the NSA has too much power and control, we remain a nation of laws, and should every contractor who has agreed to keep the data they deal with confidential split his gut and reveal the nation’s secrets? I’m a big supporter of Daniel Ellsberg and believed what he did was a pure act of conscience, and whose revelations — and this is important — caused no harm to anyone but instead awakened the nation to the bright shining lie that was Vietnam. I don’t put Snowden in that category. He is relishing the publicity, and has done no one any service except those who want to see America in turmoil.

Update: My former nemesis Charles Johnson is doing a remarkable job chronicling this story and revealing how shaky Snowden’s foundation is. Just keep scrolling.

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Back in the motherland

I arrived in Beijing last night and will be in China for 17 days, if anyone wants to gt together. The itinerary will be Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. If my VPN keeps working I’ll try to make periodic updates. Nice to be here, pollution and traffic and all.

Update: Forgot to add, Fuck the firewall. Nastier than ever.

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