Blog Closed

For at least two weeks, anyway. I go to America in 48 hours and won’t be back to China until July 16. I am really interested in seeing what it’s like not to have this blog chained to my ankle. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find that not running a blog is my winning formula for peace of mind, harmony and better health. (I’ve been doing poorly in all three areas lately, and the blog is definitely a factor.) Meanwhile, should any guest blogger want to contribute, feel free. But I’m out of here. Thanks for visiting.


Americans in China for Obama ’08

It’s taken me a long time to decide on this, but I do think Obama is now our best bet and I intend to support him and, hopefully, to vote for him come 2008. I still like John Edwards but I don’t think he can win. A part of me was hoping Al Gore would slip into the race, but that seems increasingly unlikely. I’ll vote for Hillary if I have to, but my heart won’t be in it. (My heart will be in expunging the Republicans, not in electing Hillary.)

I can vote for Obama, however, with enthusiasm. I think he’s the kind of person who would fulfill a deep need in Americans’ souls for a moral, commanding leader, someone who can resurrect our battered reputation and recapture the respect America once enjoyed. Someone who can actually lead.

The ability to communicate ideas to the masses and inspire them is probably a president’s most important quality, which is why the presidents we remember most were those skilled in rhetoric – JFK, Lincoln, FDR, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, for example. A president is, in effect, a super-lobbyist above all else, and the ability to sell ideas and move the people to take action or accept sacrifice or consider new ideas – that’s what the president is there for. And in this regard, Obama is simply unsurpassed (though Edwards ranks a not-so-distant second). Of course, a silver tongue alone does not a perfect candidate make. But I am in tune with Obama’s perspective on many issues, like religion and healthcare and the responsibility of a government to its citizens and, yes, China. And Taiwan. And no, I don’t have the time or energy to detail what these positions are, but you can read his position paper on China here. I know it won’t please everyone, but it’s rational and clear-headed.

Finally, I donated money to the Obama campaign earlier today, and I hope others of you in China and elsewhere will do the same. Time to win the country back after all these agonizing years. Time to elect a real person back into the White House. Time to become a real country again.


Yahoo blocked in China

Has been since last night – I can’t get any emails. You can read more about the massive blackout here. I’ve been amazed as I’ve tried to get from site to site over the past 24 hours. Many that opened with no problem just a day ago are sealed tight. Sometimes there seems to be zero rhyme or reason (make that always). Part two of the WaPo’s sensational report on Cheney is inacessible, while the first and third parts open just fine. Tried different proxies, no luck. If I don’t respond to your emails, you know why.

UPDATE: Yahoo is back on as of 11:06 a.m., Beijing time. – Jeremiah

From Richard: Thanks, Jeremiah. The Nanny has seemed particularly excitable lately. And so fickle.


The Mobile is mightier than the Pen; or how to organise protests in China

Blink and you’d miss it.

Many people will have heard how a text message campaign halted construction of a chemical plant in Xiamen. What wasn’t as widely reported was the follow-up to it – peaceful, public protest not just once, but twice.

Mobilised by mobile

The text message in Xiamen, circulated in late May, called for a rally outside the city government’s headquarters on June 1st to protest against plans to build a huge chemical factory on a site, pictured above, in the suburbs. It compared building the $1.4 billion plant for making paraxylene, used in polyester, to dropping an “atomic bomb” on Xiamen. It warned readers that the factory could cause leukaemia and birth deformities among the city’s 2.3m residents and their offspring (hence the choice of June 1st, children’s day in China).

The response was remarkable. Xiamen has a thriving economy and little history of protest. Yet many thousands of people rallied and marched, even though it was Friday, a working day, and as usual hot and humid. They came mostly from China’s fast-growing middle class, a group the Communist Party usually regards as a dependable bulwark of support. In many Chinese cities there have been small-scale middle-class protests over issues related to property rights. But they are rarely directed at city governments.

Even more remarkable is that the protest occurred in the face of clear government disapproval. Civil servants were warned they might be punished for taking part. Government offices even required their employees to keep working on the weekend of June 2nd and 3rd to prevent them taking to the streets. On May 30th the government appeared to make a big concession by announcing a suspension of the project pending a further environmental review. But the protest went ahead two days later anyway. At one point some people shouted slogans calling on the city’s party chief, He Lifeng, to resign, but the demonstration was peaceful. Thousands marched again on June 2nd.

What is interesting is that no one tried to stop the marchers. Even though the march was peaceful, government officials are always concerned by any protest against “the established order” (unless foreigners not especially favoured by Beijing are the target). Clearly the city’s bosses didn’t have the nerve stop the protestors, despite the fearsome reputation China has for crushing dissidence. This isn’t a sign that the authorities are becoming more tolerant – in my mind it suggests that Chinese can actually stand up to them as a group. As the Economist continues, the response was to try to find the “ringleaders”, not even to deploy the Police to stop them marching a second time.

In Xiamen, having made their last-minute concession, officials are now trying to track down behind-the-scenes organisers of the protests (some residents believe property developers, worried about the impact of the project on prices, encouraged people to take part). Notices have been put up in residential buildings calling on protesters to surrender themselves to police.

However, their chance of success is limited.

But such tactics inspire far less fear than they did in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Some residents say they now want a referendum on the project. A professor at Xiamen University says that if the project’s opponents win, a new “environmental consciousness” will spread to other Chinese cities.

When I used to comment that environmental concerns could play a big part in motivating citizens against government policy, a lot of Chinese would poo-poo that suggestion claiming that Chinese “just want to get rich”. But what is the point of getting rich if you can’t enjoy it properly? Pollution can rather put a crimp in your day, especially the lives of your children. If anything, now that many Chinese are richer they will start to demand a cleaner environment for them and their families so they can get the maximum enjoyment out of their money.

This is not good for the CCP. Despite a lot of talk about the environment, it still sees full-blown economic growth as the only road forward for China. Otherwise it would put performance on reducing pollution ahead of economic growth in terms of rating officials’ performance – I have not heard a word to suggest they have or will do that. Yes, it’s good to be green, but not at the cost of growth. Beijing effectively said that when it refused to commit to any targets for CO2 emissions, whether in terms of limiting increases or reducing current levels.

The fact the CCP is against prioritising the environment will increasingly bring it into conflict with Chinese who suffer from pollution. This isn’t just a few peasants, but includes more and more city-dwellers (as the Xiamen episode indicates) who want a healthy, not just wealthy, lifestyle. This isn’t some “hippy idealism” about it being wrong to pollute – it’s about how people live on a day-to-day basis, something they can’t escape from.

The question is, how fast will this “environmental consciousness” spread? Doubtless we shall see over the coming years. I certainly hope the Xiamen protestors emerge victorious from their battle, so that organised opposition to unchecked economic growth spreads more quickly across China. For China cannot ever hope to flourish in the future if it doesn’t tackle pollution seriously. I would like to hope the central government will respond first, but I have a feeling it will require mass public feeling to get them to take the problem seriously enough.


New Youth Study Group

Of all the stories I posted on, none grabbed me the way this one did – a story of four college students sentenced to spend the best years of their lives rotting in a Chinese jail for the heinous crime of…creating a group dedicated to the study of democracy.

I am very glad to see a new web site dedicated solely to the cause of seeking their release. Please go there, and please do what you can to spread the word and to help.

I know, it feels like there’s not much we can do, but simply being aware is an important antecedent to creating change and making a difference.


Quote of the day

From Glenn Greenwald’s new book.

Write it down. Memorize it. Bind it between your eyes. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

The president who vowed to lead America in a moral crusade to win hearts and minds around the world has so inflamed anti-American sentiment that America’s moral standing in the world is at an all-time low. The president who vowed to defend the Good in the world from the forces of Evil has caused the United States to be held in deep contempt by large segments of virtually every country on every continent of the world, including large portions of nations with which the U.S. has historically been allied. The president who vowed to undertake a war in defense of American values and freedoms has presided over such radical departures from the defining values and liberties of this country that many Americans find their country and its government unrecognizable. And the president who vowed to lead the war for freedom and democracy has made torture, rendition, abductions, lawless detentions of even our own citizens, secret ‘black site’ prisons, Abu Ghraib dog leashes, and orange Guantanamo jumpsuits the strange, new symbols of America around the world.

In sum, the great and tragic irony of the Bush presidency is that its morally convicted foundations have yielded some of the most morally grotesque acts and radical departures from American values in our country’s history. The president who insists that he is driven by a clear and compelling moral framework, in which the forces of Good and Evil battle toward a decisive resolution, has done more than almost any American in history to make the world question on which side of that battle this country is fighting. The more convinced President Bush and his followers become of the unchallengeable righteousness of their cause, the fewer limits they recognize. And America’s moral standing in the world, and our national character, continue to erode to previously unthinkable depths.

I’ve pretty much given up writing posts about Bush and Iraq and the war on America’s core values. It’s simply too draining, and all I’m ever left with is despair. All the evidence is out there already for everyone to see, and I can’t keep banging my head against the wall, knowing nothing will change until we completely excise this administration from power. For all of China’s sins, I am glad to be living here now – not only because I’m loving my work and my life here, but because I don’t have to live in America. I never thought I’d say that. 911 changed everything, but Bush changed everything even more. 911 was our opportunity to unite the world, and look at the impossible train wreck. If we had hired consultants and asked them to design a plan for alienating all our friends and creating countless new enemies we couldn’t have done better. A tragic legacy, and one we’ll be paying for for the rest of our lives.


Separate universes

When I was a boy, my parents taught me about Hitler’s attempted extermination of the Jews, creating very early on my insatiable curiosity for all matters related to what would later be referred to as the Holocaust. It seemed so incomprehensible in so many ways. I read about people in Germany who heard the whispers of gas chambers in Poland, and of brutality beyond all belief right next door in the lovely suburb of Dachau. And they pushed the rumors aside, not wanting to know, because they were doing alright and to question was dangerous. But there is no doubt they saw their Jewish friends and neighbors disappearing, and most said nothing. And I marvelled at that and wondered how it was possible.

Today I understand it a little better. While the situation isn’t exactly analogous, I would say that most of us in Beijing know about the atrocities being performed in other, less visible and developed parts of China. To those who have been here a long time, the story of the Shanxi province brick factory using slave labor came as no surprise at all. It happens all over China, they tell me. And yet I, too, I have to admit, feel distant from such atrocities. It is as if they occur in a separate universe. Here in Beijing we have at least the semblance of rule of law, and we are comfortable and secure. Most of us. Life is good. When we hear about the brutality taking place not so far away, we may feel some outrage, we may even speak out, but then the lure of Beijng’s prosperity lulls us back into the sense of peace and of hope. China is getting better, we tell ourselves, and we can’t change the system overnight. Baby steps. Give the Party space so they can grow and acquire wisdom via osmosis as positive influences continue to raise the tide, lifting up all ships.

I began thinking about this phenomenon after I read a story linked by a commenter of yet more horror stories of slave and child labor. The kinds of stories that, were this any other country, would enrage people to the point of demanding immediate justice. But this isn’t like other countries. Here we are so tolerant, so concerned about shaking things up, lest the goose that lays all those golden eggs should be harmed. The article made me wonder how we could all remain silent; but then, I realized that like the rest of us, I wanted to push it out of my mind and focus on what really matters, making money in the booming Chinese economy. I didn’t want to think like that, I simply observed myself thinking that way. And it bothered me.

Here’s a glimpse of what’s going on right in the backyard of Munich Beijing:

Just within a week or so of the brick kiln story, there were several reports of labor abuses against children. A 14-year-old boy was killed in an explosion while filling a tank with napthalene at a chemical factory near Nanjing. A 15-year-old boy was dragged into a cotton gin and crushed to death in Nanchang after working a succession of 20-hour days. And 70 girls from rural Henan Province were brought by their teacher to work at a grape processing plant in Ningbo, where their hands bled from working 16-hour shifts.

From the densely packed factory zones of Guangdong Province to the street markets, kitchens and brothels of major cities, to the primitive factories of China’s relatively poor western provinces, child labor is a daily fact of life, experts here say, and one that the government, preoccupied with economic growth, has traditionally turned a blind eye to.

‘In order to achieve modernization, people will go to any ends to earn money, to advance their interests, leaving behind morality, humanity and even a little bit of compassion, let alone the law or regulations, which are poorly implemented,’ said Hu Jindou, a professor of economics at the University of Technology in Beijing. ‘Everything is about the economy now, just like everything was about politics in the Mao era, and forced labor or child labor is far from an isolated phenomenon. It is rooted deeply in today’s reality, a combination of capitalism, socialism, feudalism and slavery.’

….This was underscored by another story that emerged the same week the kiln factory abuses were revealed. Students from the Dayin Middle School in Sichuan Province, in China’s interior, complained in newspaper reports about a work-study program in which they were shipped to an electronics assembly plant hundreds of miles away, in the industrial boomtown of Dongguan, which is near the coast.

The students told about having to work 14-hour days, with mandatory overtime, and having their wages withheld. In some instances, they said, those who wished to quit the program had no way of telephoning their families or paying for transportation home.

The article tells us in painful detail how local authorities participated in what amounts to the kidnapping and enslavement of children. It’s a story so morally repugnant, so despicable in every way you’d think those living in the country where these offenses are perpetrated would be up in arms. And some are. But most of us shrug it off; it’s uncomfortable to dwell on such depressing matters, and if we don’t think about it, it’ll go away, at least figuratively.

And it works. It is very easy to have a hell of a time here and love just about every minute of if. Just focus on the positive – hundreds of millions lifted from poverty, an economy so robust it can shake the world, a mood of hope and irrepressible optimism. We can say the same about “that other country,” where life was glorious, and everyone chose to look away from the horrors right around the corner. The rising tide lifted all ships, or almost all. And no one cared to look at the ships that were being pulled down, it was just so irritating, such a downer.

I’m not complaining here about anyone – only myself. I’ve watched the change within myself as I got intoxicated on the never-ending story of success and prosperity. Stories like these, of the child labor and and mentally retarded slaves being beaten to death, they arouse me for a while, they infuriate me, and then it’s back to work, back to the bright side of China where we don’t have to worry about the poor souls in the other universe who are being enslaved, maimed, killed. These articles remind us of the inconvenient truth we’d rather not hear about, the elephant in the living room corner we hope will just go away if we don’t give it too much thought. And I’m guilty. At least it’s given me greater insight into how the human mind works, and how we can block out just about anything if by doing so we can feel safe and warm. Anything.


Accessing blogspot sites in China (and what about typepad?)

Jeremiah offers a quick fix solution.

Meanwhile, I can’t access any typepad sites here in Beijing, though I could last week. Wikipedia, too, has been on and off. A constant game of cat and mouse….

It’s a brilliant strategy. I’m sure all the reporters who flock to Beijing for the Olympics will be enchanted to discover how many sites they can’t access.

Still too deep in work to come up with a killer post. I’m working on one now, but can’t say when it’ll be ready.

Update: I see Sam has already reported on the blocking of his typepad site.


Freedom of Speech

Just read it.

Ah, the sweet scent of reform.


All roads lead to China

This is, quite simply, the scariest article yet about the poisonous products being exported from China to your supermarket shelves. It’s about the willful efforts of Chinese companies to block the FDA’s frantic attempts to trace the source of the poison and cut it off. You have to read it to believe it. No wonder it’s featured as the No. 1 leading story in today’s Sunday Times. It’s a story of dogged detective work, cover-ups, corruption and death. Tremendous kudos to the Times for having the fortitude to pin this amazing story down in such detail. Again, it is simply unbelievable. Don’t miss the part about Sinochem refusing to give the investigators the phone number for the company it knew was poisoning people. Is this the best the world’s next great superpower can do? Yes, it’s a developing country, but these are rich, educated businessmen and party officials indulging in outright sleaze. And, in effect, murder.

This is what good journalism should be. It’s thorough, step by step and backed up with lots of names and quotes. And it reads like a thriller. Amazing.

No excerpts – you have to read it.