Why am I not surprised?

A long and excellent post by one of the very best bloggers out there concludes with a recommendation and a link to a video that sounds like a must-see. But alas, when I click the link, I get the following message:

Thanks for your interest in Google Video.

Currently, the playback feature of Google Video isn’t available in your country.

We hope to make this feature available more widely in the future, and we really appreciate your patience.

That’s sweet of them. But I won’t hold my breath; this is, for all its progress, still China, and some things are changing faster than a bat out of hell , and some things aren’t changing at all. While the choices and conveniences here have expanded exponentially even from just a few years ago, it still took me two hours to open a bank account today, with just as much idiotic paperwork and mindless, non-stop paper stamping as four years ago. And even then they screwed it up and I had to go back to fix it.

The colleague who accompanied me kept apologizing, but I was laughing. It was nothing new and nothing unexpected, I assured her. Just like that discouraging and rather squishy message from Google. You just get used to it, or you get out of here. I’m used to it.


China’s Internet back to normal?

There was a front-page headline in China Daily yesterday proclaiming China’s Internet was almost fully recovered from the havoc caused by a broken cable off the Taiwan coast. In at most two more weeks, the article said, the Internet here would be 100 percent up and running.

Over the past 24 hours, the change has been dramatic. I can now access my site in seconds from my office (though I would never look at my site while at the office). I can actually watch youtube videos and download files (from home, of course) and open multiple browser windows – things that were unthinkable just a few days ago.

So it’s a shame that I still won’t be able to post for the foreseeable future. Sometimes in life we have to make really painful decisions. This one’s especially painful, since I just got to Beijing and people were expecting lots of first-hand commentary on life here.

I think anyone who has ever worked on a huge PR project with unending deadline pressure can relate to my situation. And since it’s global, I need to be on the phone at the oddest hours of the night and morning; you hardly feel like it’s your own life you’re living. On the other hand….I am really enjoying the work and giving it 100 percent. It’s good to know that you’re really making a difference and making a contribution. In Taiwan I often felt I was just…there. Now at least I am being fully utilized (pardon the jargon) and getting paid for what I like to do most, writing and working with the media.

So rejoice in the China Internet’s resurrection, even though this blog will still be laying relatively low (guest writers, however, have been doing some great stuff here lately). It won’t be forever, but it will be for some months to come.


Uighurs’ Detention Conditions Condemned: Guantanamo update

Following up on a story posted here by Lisa in 2005, this morning’s WaPo has an update on the complicated legal limbo for 13 Uighurs turned over for bounty to US forces in Pakistan in 2002. The 13 are being held in isolation at the high-security Camp 6 section of Guantanamo base. Lawyers for the 13 this week filed a complaint requesting an expedited review of the Uighurs‘ confinement and legal status.

The Uighurs’…detention by the U.S. military, after being sold for bounty by Pakistanis in early 2002, has long attracted controversy. The men had just arrived from Afghanistan, where, they said, they had received limited military training because they opposed Chinese government control of their native region. But they said they never were allied with the Taliban or opposed to the United States, and had fled to Pakistan only to escape the U.S. bombing campaign.

By 2005, U.S. military review panels determined that five of the 18 captured Uighurs were “no longer enemy combatants,” but they continued to be held at the Guantanamo Bay prison until their release last year. The panels did not reach that conclusion about the other 13, though all had given similar accounts of their activities during the reviews, according to declassified transcripts of the sessions.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in December 2005 that the government was unlawfully imprisoning the Uighurs who were found not to be combatants.

Because China views Uighurs as members of a rebellious ethnic minority, the U.S. government declined to return the five men to China, where they faced retribution, and dozens of other nations refused to accept them. Ultimately they were sent last year from Guantanamo Bay to Albania, where they are housed in a compound run by the United Nations.

The affadavit filed on Monday expressed serious concerns about the conditions under which the men were being held:

In Camp 6, the Uighurs are alone in metal cells throughout the day, are prohibited for the most part from conversing with others, and take all their meals through a metal slot in the door, lawyer P. Sabin Willett said in his affidavit, which was based on what he was told during his visit Jan. 15-18. They have little or no access to sunlight or fresh air, have had nothing new to read in their native language for the past several years, and are sometimes told to undertake solitary recreation at night, he said.

“They pass days of infinite tedium and loneliness,” according to Willett’s court filing. One Uighur’s “neighbor is constantly hearing voices, shouting out, and being punished. All describe a feeling of despair . . . and abandonment by the world.” Another Uighur, named Abdusumet, spoke of hearing voices himself and appeared extremely anxious during Willett’s visit, tapping the floor uncontrollably, he said.

The account matches another offered by Brian Neff, a lawyer who in mid-December visited a Yemeni imprisoned in Camp 6. “Detainees in Camp 6 are not supposed to talk to others, they are punished for shouting, and if they talk during walks outside they will be punished,” Neff said in an e-mail yesterday. “We are extremely concerned about the . . . conditions of Camp 6 — in particular, the fact that the detainees there are being held in near-total isolation, cut off from the outside world and any meaningful contact.”

Officials at Guantanamo deny that the prisoners are treated inhumanely.

The men’s legal status remains depressingly bleak. Nobody wants to repatriate them to China and few other countries are willing to accept them. Granting them asylum in the US would seem too hot a political potato to merit consideration. Meanwhile, these men wait in a purgatory of isolated 10×10 metal boxes.


LAT: “Was 9/11 really that bad?”

Interesting article with a title calculated to provoke: David A. Bell writes in the LA Times that the 9/11 attacks might have been a horrible act of mass murder, but “history says we are overreacting.”

I generally wince whenever I read the phrase “history says…” and Bell’s piece is in places certainly wince-worthy as well as in places quite thought provoking. In terms of the latter, towards the end of the essay, Bell asks why the United States has felt the need to frame every conflict since World War II as a bitter fight for survival against evil. He argues:

Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms – viewing every threat as existential – is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.

Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.

The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind’s infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.

The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves ‘enlightened,’ but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.

Ever since, the enlightened dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of modern total war have been bound closely to each other in the West. Precisely when the Enlightenment hopes glowed most brightly, wars often took on an especially hideous character.

I find it personally very difficult to feel any less of a ‘reaction’ to the hideous attacks of 9/11 simply because the body count doesn’t measure up to ‘history.’ What happened on 9/11 should never be minimized. I do think however that the rhetoric of a dualistic end-game battle between good/evil obscures the complexities of international conflict in the 21st century and blinds policymakers to possible solutions to prevent future attacks. Bell’s argument provides some answers as to the origins of this kind of ‘total war’ mentality. I think the theology of Christian funadmentalism that is part and parcel of this president’s worldview is also partially to blame. Life is not an episode of “24” and our leaders would be wise to stop thinking in such apocalyptic terms lest that thinking leads to a prophecy self-fulfilled.
via Arts & Letters Daily


“A Decade off our Lives”: Notes from the frontlines of China’s environmental catastrophe

I (Jeremiah) returned to China this month after two years. Two things I noticed about Beijing: the service is better and the air is worse. There’s no getting around it, anyone who lives in China can relate numerous anecdotal details of the environmental costs to China’s rapid growth. It’s all around us. But how to measure these costs? Just how bad is the situtation and what, if anything, can be done to reverse this long march to environmental catastrophe?

Via CDT comes a trio of articles first posted on the China Dialogue website. Dave mentioned this bilingual site back in October of last year, and it’s a great resource for anyone interested in environmental issues in China.

The first article is a two-parter by Jiang Gaoming, a chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany, and Gao Jixi, chief specialist and head of the Institute of Ecology at the China Academy of Environmental Sciences. (So we’re not talking a couple of anti-state backpacking hippies here…) Their article, “The Terrible Cost of China’s Growth” provides some beyond sobering statistics (downright terrifying really) on the effects of economic development throughout China. Their article argues that all of China’s myriad ecosystems are under considerable ecological strain, and the authors demonstrate quite clearly how current development practices and levels of economic growth are simply unsustainable by any measure.

Over the past 27 years, China has adhered to an economic model characterised by high levels of pollution, emissions and power consumption, combined with low levels of efficiency. It has repeated the ‘pollute first, clean up later’ model that Western nations adhered to during their early stages of capital accumulation.

The Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu once wrote: ‘Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure,’ yet we can only reflect that while our country endures, our hills and rivers have been devastated. Environmental degradation harms public health, affects social stability and holds back China’s sustainable economic growth. It is a major problem, one which threatens not only the development but also the survival of the Chinese people.

The authors are clear that economic growth at the expense of China’s environment is not an option:

At one time, China’s economists proudly proclaimed the country to be the ‘factory of the world.’ But unfortunately, this manufacturing has been characterised by a high consumption of energy and resources, large emissions of pollutants and low added value. And while China has exported many goods to foreign – and mostly developed – countries, we have kept the pollution for ourselves.

China needs to produce 100 million pairs of trousers in order to purchase one Boeing aeroplane. The country manufactures seven billion pairs of shoes a year, more than the world can wear at one time. And the price China pays for this manufacturing, in terms of increased pollution, is an extortionate one.

Professor Jiang and Gao propose a series of measures that they feel will help to improve the situation on the ground. These include increased use of the rule of law to enforce environmental regulations, making local officials accountable using environmental as well as economic benchmarks to measure performance, and by building an “ecological civilization”: encouraging China’s citizens to take an active rather than passive role in preserving the environment.

The second article, by Chen Yu, looks at the environmental damage being done to the “cradle of China’s civilization”: the Yellow River. Reporting from Ningxia, Chen quotes a local taxi driver:

“Living here takes a decade off our lives…Everywhere the sky is full of black fumes, like storm clouds. You can’t see the sun; even in the daytime you need to put your headlights on.”

Finally, journalist Liu Jianqiang interviews SEPA director Pan Yue and asks: who is it that is damaging China’s environment? Surprisingly, Pan Yue didn’t just give the stock answers of ‘development first” that one might expect from a government official. Liu writes:

Pan Yue, outspoken as ever, rejects the claim that living with pollution is a ‘humane’ alternative to poverty, and holds that China’s bureaucracy is at fault. In China, he says, economic growth trumps all else and local government officials, who rely on their superiors – rather than an electorate – for jobs and advancement, are judged according to their contribution to GDP. As a result, they pursue economic growth at any cost to the environment.

Liu however disagrees slightly with Pan Yue’s interpretation as only half the story and so Liu presses Pan for a fuller explanation. Liu reports:

A ‘coalition of special interests,’ combined with the flawed evaluation of officials’ performance, is what is causing environmental degradation, [Pan] said. Officials aim to boost their records by supporting heavy industry, while the businesses they protect convert our shared, environmental resources into profits. As a consequence, they not only interfere with central government’s macroeconomic controls but also infringe on the rights of the public.

This is the truth of the matter. Although Pan did not say explicitly that local government and business form a special interest group, the Chinese reader can understand that this is the case, simply by observing what is done to China’s environment on a daily basis.

All three articles are must-reads in their entirety.


HNN: Dictatorship a Phase in Democratic Development?

Thinking of Mao and also of a discussion last month on this site, I came across this article from the History News Network on dictatorships and democracies. The article argues that dictatorship is a phase–a rather common one really–that societies pass through on the path from monarchical rule to democracy.

Evidently great cultural changes occur from monarchy to democracy which create dictatorships. Most of the historical monarchs imposed great restrictions upon freedom of speech and action. This was customary and largely accepted so the subjects of such regimens felt that to raise questions outside of the permitted topics was improper if not disloyal.

Loyalty to the king was ingrained in folk feeling. Above all, a monarchial people often had considerable confidence in the king and his family with the prestige of generations of royalty behind it. The solemn ceremonies of coronation, public anniversaries and burial, place royalty before the people as the symbol of folk unity. He is human like the peasant but his acts of state approach divinity.

Even when a wretched king was replaced by revolution, the creation of a republic was a shock to a large portion of the people. The republic brought numbers of ideas which had previously been suppressed. The political horizon was unfamiliar and difficult to understand. No king was present as the single and certain source of authority to reassure the people.

The people had no republican traditions to fall back upon and the early problems of the new radicals caused many people to question the validity of the democratic process. Thus, after the first enthusiasm of the new era had passed, the people often became disappointed in the republic.

It was easy for them to flee from their new liberties. Their flight was not back to the king, however, since they still remembered his particular failings and the people had enjoyed the exhilaration of republican unity. The more confident spirits had experienced the joy of self-government as well as the freedom of speech and press.

Thus the citizen was caught between the older pattern of thought instilled into him by generations of rulers and intellectual convictions that had as yet little root in the experience of the masses. This conflict of states of mind tended to produce a restlessness in the body politic. The political atmosphere is surcharged with tension, much like the heavy atmosphere before a violent electrical storm.

The author is basing his arguments on observations of modern Europe and I question whether we can say that there are any ‘inevitable’ stages of history, but I do think his description could be used as a useful jumping off point for how this process has played out/will play out in China in the 20th and 21st centuries.


How Now Mao?

Ross Terrill has a piece (may be blocked in the PRC) in the Wilson Quarterly on all things Mao. It’s a longish piece, worth a quick read. Terrill’s ideas are rather well known and won’t come as a particular shock to TPD readers who have discussed the subject of Terrill and Mao back and forth on numerous occasions.

I did find one passage however rather interesting and perhaps worthy of conversation. Terrill wants to know why the Chinese have been so quick to embrace “Mao the cultural icon” and so quick to forget “Mao the brutal dictator.” Terrill argues that it is part of a larger process by which “New Chinese Man” wishes to forget politics in general and to wish away the presence of the state as a factor in his daily life. (Terrill even goes so far as to connect this with the anti-state traditions found in some Daoist writings.) This, Terrill further argues, was part of the overall transition from the Mao to the Deng eras:

In subsequent years, the totalitarian party-state became an authoritarian party-state. Under totalitarianism, it is said, many things are forbidden and the remaining things you must do; under authoritarianism, many things are forbidden and the remaining things you may do. Today, the retention of power and economic development, rather than the pursuit of ideological phantoms, is the drive around which the political process arranges itself. With Mao’s ‘new’ Chinese man gone, the ‘old’ Chinese man of family values and entrepreneurial spirit seems alive and ­well.

The passing of totalitarianism has brought into view some tentative realms of freedom, including partial property rights and the beginnings of autonomy for lawyers, journalists, and other professionals. Above all, there now exists for most people the freedom to ignore politics. Yet the institutionalization of the new space opening up for Chinese citizens has barely begun.”

Terrill is right to be pessimistic towards the “New Chinese Man’s” wish that the state simply leave him be. But the presence of cracks, those spaces that Terrill refers to as “tenative realms of freedom,” suggest some glimmer of optimism as well. What to make of this?

Discussing the evolution of Mao’s own ideas on “freedom” Terrill writes:

Yet Mao’s impulse toward freedom was crippled at its heart. What is freedom for the individual? One viable form is freedom to act as you please as long as you do not inhibit a like freedom for others. A second notion is that an individual is free to the degree she is able to realize herself. The mature Mao believed in neither of these two concepts of freedom, though he was closer to the second than to the first. He knew the kind of citizens he wanted in China. It was not for each person to realize himself, but for all to become suitable building blocks for Mao’s Chinese update of Sparta.

So here we have Terrill defining Mao’s possible definitions of “freedom,” one of those words for which so many people have their own definition. Kris Kristofferson (via Janis Joplin) had his. I suppose one’s views of freedom’s “tentative realms” in China depends on one’s own definition of the term. I wonder, though, how the word might be defined by today’s Chinese? Would it accord with a “Western” notion (if such a thing could even be said to exist) of the word? Is China more “free” now than 10 years ago and is this a trend that is likely to continue? Let’s put it out there, shall we?


Hu Jintao to “purify” China’s Internet

I don’t like the sound of this at all. The CCP is many things, but subtle and compassionate they are not. So when they talk about giving “guidance” to “purify the Internet,” one is reminded of past examples of their gentle guidance – like imprisoning the “stainless steel mouse” and destroying the lives of idealistic young people who wanted only to make China a more democratic place. What they refer to as guidance and purification most likely means more repression and more censorship.

Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Jintao has vowed to “purify” the Internet, state media reported on Wednesday, describing a top-level meeting that discussed ways to master the country’s sprawling, unruly online population.

Hu made the comments as the ruling party’s Politburo — its 24-member leading council — was studying China’s Internet, which claimed 137 million registered users at the end of 2006.

Hu, a strait-laced communist with little sympathy for cultural relaxation, did not directly mention censorship.

But he made it clear that the Communist Party was looking to ensure it keeps control of China’s Internet users, often more interested in salacious pictures, bloodthirsty games and political scandal than Marxist lessons.

The party had to “strengthen administration and development of our country’s Internet culture”, Hu told the meeting on Tuesday, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

“Maintain the initiative in opinion on the Internet and raise the level of guidance online,” he said. “We must promote civilized running and use of the Internet and purify the Internet environment.”

Ostensibly the chief targets of this purification effort are porn and violent games. But censorship of any kind of talk that poses the slightest risk to China’s much celebrated “harmony” has always been high up on Hu’s list of priorities, so I have to be skeptical that he only has dirty pictures and games in his sites. If he really wants to purify the Internet, how about cracking down on those shrill nationalistic sites that stir up never-ending hatred of the Japanese, and, more recently, of Starbucks?

Update: This is a site I generally detest, but it makes a clever comparison of Hu’s obsession with purification with that of a famous character from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove:

General Jack D. Ripper: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: No, I don’t think I do, sir, no.

General Jack D. Ripper: He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.



Message From Richard

Richard says he cannot get into the site – not the front-end or the back-end, so he can neither post nor comment. Hopefully this catastrophe will be fixed soon, but for now Richard has no choice but to be silent. Frustrating beyond words.


Xinjiang Celebrates 2,500 Years of Continuous Funkiness

This story caught my eye on Christmas Day:

Chinese scientists have carefully stripped a 2,800-year-old mummy, only to find the corpse underneath the delicate attire of a possible shaman priest had decayed and broken at the neck and arms.

But research work on the mummy would continue, said Dr. Li Xiao, head of the heritage bureau in Turpan, of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region… Archaeologists found a sack of marijuana leaves buried alongside the mummy. He also wore huge earrings of copper and gold, and a turquoise necklace, and held a copper laced stick in his right hand and a bronze axe in the left. His hands were crossed in front of his chest. “From his outfit and the marijuana leaves, we assume he was a shaman,” said Li. “He must have been between 40 and 50 years old when he died.”

George Clinton?

But now they’ve gone a step forward in an article that will no doubt be translated soon titled “2500 Year old Marijuana Unearthed in Turpan Cemetary”, in which researchers declare that it is quite possibly the worlds oldest grass. According to Dr. Jiang Hong’en, when the pot was unearthed in 2003, “it was still green, as if it had just been plucked, and completely intact”. Dr. Jiang said the Kunming Botanical Insititute confirmed the bud was 2,500 years old. Anonymous sources quote that the doctors discussed the results and concluded “Dude. *Cough* *Cough* It’s really sticky!”. They then rambled for several hours about how Uyghurs are actually “really f**kin chill” and how they could have East Turkestan is they promised a regular hook-up.

Hopefully they kicked back with funky Xinjiang beats courtesy of Fausto of Shirley and Spinoza Internet Radio (h/t Opposite End of China).