I try  to present a nuanced picture of my host country. I try to highlight its successes and also the built-in prejudices China often faces, especially over emotional and complex issues like Tibet. I try to distinguish between different parts of the Chinese government, to make it clear I know the government (like most governments) is not categorically evil, that many bureaucrats are doing the best they can to improve a country that faces daunting problems. I try to point out the economic impact of China’s rise and the extraordinary success of Hu Jintao’s ruthless, pragmatic and daring foreign policy strategy, how he has managed to re-stack the deck, and not the way America would like.

So the reason for the boring and somewhat defensive preamble is that I just came across one of those sickening stories that brings back all the animosity I felt for the CCP back in 2002-3. I know this is almost certainly the fault of local officials in Guizhou and not the central party in Beijing. And it’s one of those agonizing stories that we keep hoping will stop appearing as local leaders realize they can no longer contain and keep secret their malfeasances. And still, the stories appear.

The cause for hope: at least we are reading about it and it has made the world headlines thanks to the Internet. The cause for anxiety is that these things are often hushed up and forgotten.

And I know, we killed American Indians and kept slaves in the US, and we supported eugenics and gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan. And I know China’s a great country and has a lot to deal with. But when any country allows what appear to be acts of barbarism like this to take place, the story has to be told.


Best Olympics ever, but not if you like sailing

Mutant seaweed may sink sailing hopes at Beijing Olympics

They have battled dense smog, strong tides and no wind but now British sailors training for the Beijing Games are contending with mutant seaweed that has invaded the Olympic venue in China.

The bright green algae, described as “thick as a carpet”, is making it impossible for dinghies to navigate the course that will host the Olympic regattas in less than two months.

Wrapping itself around keels, bringing the boats to a standstill, the seaweed is believed by experts to have drifted in from the Yellow Sea to the eastern coastal city on the back of bad weather during the past month.

Apparently China has deployed a rapid-reaction force of skilled engineers to deal with this problem.

Local fishermen are struggling to clear the area, armed only with their nets slung over the side of their small boats.

So what exactly is plan B, if this doesn’t work?

But of course this has nothing to do with China’s ever more serious pollution problem.

The theories about its cause include recent inland flooding caused by typhoons and global warming. Chinese officials deny that its presence in Qingdao — now living up to the Chinese translation of “green island” — is the result of pollution.

But, hey, I guess there’s no problem because China isn’t expecting to win any medals in this area anyway….


The great Beijing Olympic apartment scam

All of us living in Beijing know our landlords have been salivating for months over the windfall they just know they’re going to make by jacking up rents through the roof. Some were planning to rent out their not-so-special places for $40,000 (USD) just for the month of August. My own evil landlord told me he was inflating my already high rent by nearly 50 percent when my lease expires in July. 

So I’ve been watching the apartment market in Beijing carefully for the past three months, and one thing I can say with a fair degree of certainty: there is a significant apartment glut in Beijing and many of the greedy landlords (like my own) who rejected very reasonable offers because they had RMB signs in their eyes are going to be badly fucked, and they deserve to be fucked.

I’ve been watching Beijing apartments on Craigslist, for example, and in just the past two weeks there’s been something akin to a meltdown. Prices at Fortune Plaza and Central Park and Sun City and the likes have dropped dramatically. By waiting this long, 30 days before my lease expires, I was able to land a pretty good deal in a popular Dongzhimen complex, with 30 percent more floor space than my current apartment at just a slightly higher rent. And it’s a better location (I am so tired of living in the CBD). I move in on July 19. My current landlord, who insisted he could rent the place out for an obscene price, is going to be screwed. As of the past week, there are now many apartments the same size in the same building on the market for way less. The bubble is finally bursting. And with my not moving out until July 19, he’ll have a hard time getting it marketed and made ready for the next tenant in time for August. I always paid my rent early and offered him a very fair compromise. But no, he wanted the sun and the moon and the stars. As the old saying goes, pigs get slaughtered. 

Rents here are still high, especially when you think of what they were just two years ago. But a lot of landlords were fantasizing, and the reality is just dawning on them. Instead of wallowing in cash, they’re going to have to hustle just to get someone to move in at all. Well, they brought this on themselves, and I won’t shed any tears for them. 

Beijing is now so insanely over-built, I think after the Games it will once again be a buyer’s market for years to come.




“Beijing Welcomes the World!”

Just read this.  What on earth are they thinking?


Zhongguo Hearts Jesus

Quick, check out the link to a new Frontline video about how Christianity is spreading through China and being practiced by record numbers, from underground churches hiding in remote rural caves to Beijing, where Hu Jintao has been working hard to improve ties with the Vatican.  The special just aired a couple of hours ago, and I won’t be surprised if the link is soon blocked here, as was Frontline’s superb special two years ago on the Tiananmen Tank Man.

Religious freedom is another area in China that seems to be “getting better,” but some of the stories about the harassment and arrest of Christians, even in these open-minded and reformist times, are pretty wrenching.  I haven’t seen the video yet (my broadband is hopelessly slow) but a friend of mine who saw it in the US just a few hours ago writes:

The one thing that struck me was how many poor people from the cities, but mostly from more rural areas, are joining these “home churches.” The ministers see their mission as reaching out to the people that the economic surge has left behind. That’s where the growth is. According to the Frontline report, there are now as many Christians in China as there are Party members. Meanwhile the CCCP response is to beef up the “official” Christian church which most people see for what it is: a means to maintain control.

At one point they showed this huge non-descript modern building which is the home of one of the largest official Christian congregations (I think they said 4000 members.) It wasn’t named for a saint or any usual Protestant name. In huge letters in Latin and Chinese it said “Christian Church.” The pastors for these official churches are actually trained in theology in government schools so that they know how to integrate the Communist message with the gospel. How convenient.

Lots of material and interviews at the Frontline site, for anyone interested in this subject.  It’s a good sign that Chinese Christians from underground churches are willing to appear on the record and speak out, but it may be a bit premature to hail the arrival of full religious freedom here.  A final clip from the synopsis:

At the most recent Communist Party congress, President Hu Jintao made an historic move, adding the word “religion” to the party constitution for the first time. He urged party leaders to strike what he called a harmonious balance between church and state.

But not everyone trusts the party’s new friendly face toward religion. Fan Yafeng, a lawyer specializing in religious freedom, tells Osnos that the government’s acceptance of Christianity is strategic.

“To control the Chinese society, the government sometimes chooses to be lenient and sometimes tough,” he says.

As Osnos goes back one more time to see house church leader Zhang Mingzuan, he learns about how Zhang was arrested just a few months ago.

“I was preaching, about 12 o’clock, and people from the Bureau of Religious Affairs came in with the police.  I was in the middle of my preaching,” he explained.

“All we’re doing is believing in Jesus, nothing else. If there is no religious freedom, how can the country be in a harmonious state?”

I think the Party leaders see it from the exact opposite perspective: If there IS religious freedom how can the country be in a harmonious state? Harmonious is code for conformist, uniformity, unquestioning. Once you start giving people choice, especially in who they answer to, that harmony is threatened.


China’s Word/Phrase of the Year

In the US, I would nominate “subprime.” In China, my suggestion is “visa policy.

With the Beijing Olympics less than two months away, hotel operators, travel agencies, and foreign businessmen say new Chinese visa restrictions are proving bad for business, casting a pall over Beijing during what was supposed to be a busy and jubilant tourist season leading up to the Olympic Games.

Chinese authorities acknowledged putting new visa restrictions in place in May — after foreign embassies reported fewer visas being granted and tighter, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, restrictions. The government did not release guidelines detailing the changes in policy; it often does not. But a foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said in May that they would be temporary.

On Monday, Hu Bin, a visa official at the foreign ministry, said the ministry had no statistics on the number of visa denials, but that the new policies were put in place for “security considerations.”

Travel business analysts had forecast that the Games would bring 500,000 foreign visitors and an extra $4.5 billion in revenue to Beijing this summer. But now, even though some five-star hotels are fully booked for the Olympics, many economists are beginning to doubt the city will get the kind of economic windfall it was hoping for.

Many hotels in Beijing are struggling to find guests; some large travel agencies have temporarily closed branches; and people scheduled to travel here for seminars and conferences are canceling. The number of foreign tourists visiting Beijing fell sharply in May, dropping by 14 percent, according to the city’s statistics bureau.

Beijing residents, meanwhile, are complaining that heightened security measures could spoil what was supposed to be Beijing’s long anticipated coming-out party. Despite years of careful preparation — including teaching taxi drivers English and instructing locals in how to wait in a line (not common here), and spending billions on mammoth building projects for these Games — Beijing is starting to appear less welcoming to foreigners.

“Business is so bleak,” said Di Jian, the sales manager at the Capital Hotel in Beijing. “Since May, very few foreigners have checked in. Our occupancy rate has dropped by 40 percent.”

I have been apartment hunting (finally found a new place) and there is now a sizable glut of places. Those landlords who’ve held up thinking that August would make them gazillionaires are in for a rude shock, largely thanks to their government’s ham-fisted policies. Prices are higher, for sure, but not outrageous, and as August 8 approaches they will have to drop further. I keep hearing how people are staying away largely due to the misery and complications of getting a visa. Foreigners I know who live here as freelancers are getting very creative (I won’t give away any secrets).

This seems to be the cocktail party topic of choice throughout Beijing, mainly because it’s simply bewildering. You can’t open the door and slam it shut at the same time. Yeah, you need to be careful and keep security top of mind. Getting through security at a US airport now is a descent into hell, but at least you know you’ll eventually get through in a fairly reasonable amount of time, ridiculous as the bureaucracy is. With getting a visa, the outcome is far less certain, and a high level of anxiety is practically guaranteed because there are so many unknowns and gray areas.

Most bewildering is that the self-inflicted visa mess flies in the face of all of China’s goals: to open up the country to the world; to show that they have emerged from a prickly authoritarian state defined by its mindless bureaucracy to a modern superpower defined by its adorable fuwas and slick skyscrapers; to give tourism the greatest boost ever and encourage the masses around the world to head over. So once again, the country I love mystifies me with its irrational, self-defeating, hopelessly confused rules.

And to add the balance we all crave, the US mystifies me as well, and every time I see airport security grab one of those lethal tubes of toothpaste and chuck it into the tall clear plastic bin I wonder just how nutty governments can be. At least with the US, I kind of see why they go through the ridiculous procedures. In the case of the visa policy, I see neither rhyme nor reason, only a murky, unthought-through self-imposed mess.



The Chinese Medal Factory

Two pieces in the NYT today on the misery of being selected by the state to train as an athlete, each driving home the inherent cruelty in this system. The article also make you wonder whether this is what sports was meant to be. They way you wondered about those East German athletes before the wall came down, the ones injected with hormones and looked like grotesque versions of Charles Atlas.

From the first article:

Yang, one of China’s most successful water sports athletes, has never lived in his apartment. He has not seen his parents in three years. At 24, he lives 250 miles away at his sport’s training center, where he is preparing for the Beijing Olympics.

Yang said he could not stand his life.

For nearly a decade, he has tried to quit canoeing, he told The New York Times during an interview at the training center. He said he would rather attend college or start a business, but acknowledged that he was ill-equipped to do either one.

Many Chinese sports schools, in which more than 250,000 children are enrolled, focus on training at the expense of education. Critics, like the former Olympic diving coach Yu Fen, are calling for changes. They say athletes are unprepared to leave the sports system that has raised them.

“I do not want to work as an athlete, but as an athlete here I have no freedom to choose my future,” Yang said, speaking through the team’s official interpreter. “As a child, I didn’t learn anything but sport, and now what do I do? I can’t do anything else. I have my own dreams, but it is very difficult. I don’t have the foundation to make them come true.”

The article notes, depressingly, that even champion athletes often end up miserable, having trouble paying their bills and having to deal with the effects of hormones they were shot up with. 

Article two is more upsetting, focusing on how Chinese athletes are pressed to keep on training and winning despite injuries. The story of the other Hu Jia – not the activist, but the gold medallist diver – who seriously injured his eye during training, is especially painful.

The parents of the diver, Hu Jia, had surrendered him to trainers from the Chinese sports establishment at the age of 10, and had seen little of him since then. In an interview with a Chinese newspaper after the diver’s injury, his father suggested that this was sacrifice enough. Had he known his son risked blindness, the father said, “I would never have sent him off to dive.”

But less than two months before China hosts the Olympics for the first time, Mr. Hu is training and competing fiercely again, aiming to bolster a national diving squad that China hopes will dominate the sport this summer.

“The Beijing Olympics is an enormous glory to our generation,” Mr. Hu, whose other retina was also injured, was quoted in the Chinese media as saying last year. Speaking of another gold medal, he added, “I will do my utmost to grab one, unless my eyes are really blind.”

Gold medallists here become super-heroes and are showered in gifts and lucrative sponsorships; their faces are everywhere, at least for a few years. It was diver Tian Liang who was ubiquitous when I was here in 2002. Now it’s hurdler Liu Xiang. Is it worth winning all these spoils at the sacrifice of your eyesight? Apparently to Hu Jia it is.

I interviewed a Chinese medallist a few years ago, and it was then that I learned about the “medal factory,” about being torn away from your family and forced to train up to 12 hours a day and living a life essentially of a slave – often a pampered, well-fed and celebrated slave, but a slave nonetheless. Again, it makes you wonder about what it means to be an “amateur” athlete and whether this is what the creators of the moder-day Olympic Games had in mind. 

Read the two articles for the details. It is a good snapshot of the world of athletics in China, a topic that will win increasing coverage this summer as Chinese athletes win one gold medal after another.


Beijing then and now

We all know about China’s meteoric growth and super-duper-dramatic change and yada yada. Still, this article by a former China Daily reporter who worked here in the 80s and returned for the first time in a quarter of a century makes for splendid reading. Here, for example, is his description of the Workers’ Stadium, now surrounded by haute cuisine eateries:

Back then, the stadium had a much more sinister role: as a giant courtroom for show trials for criminals and subversives. The men – almost all were men – were rounded up during regular nationwide ‘crackdowns’ on crime. I saw them, shackled, handcuffed, heads shaven and hung in shame, being paraded through the streets in open lorries. Each had a placard hanging from his neck announcing his crime: murderer, rapist, thief. They were driven to the stadium where they were jeered at by thousands of workers bused in to witness the trials.

There were, in fact, no trials at all. The men’s alleged crimes were read out, they were declared guilty and the crowd bellowed, ‘Kill the criminals!’ The offenders were driven to a field outside Beijing where they were ordered to kneel, before being shot in the back of the head. As a final punishment, their families were sent a bill for the bullet. The next day, on posters around the city, a grisly red tick was placed next to each of the men’s names and photographs, signifying that they had been executed. I asked a Chinese friend how the authorities could be sure that these men were guilty. ‘They would not have been arrested if they were not guilty,’ he replied, surprised by the naivety of my question.

(In a few days I’ll be moving to a new place three blocks away from the stadium. I hope the ghosts don’t wake me up.) Lots of other good images in the article. Sobering to think that Beijing has changed that much, and even more so to remember that there are still plenty of places in China here where the exact same stuff is still going on.


Lijia Zhang’s “Socialism is Great”

I went to a party a few weeks ago where I was introduced to a woman who immediately struck me as someone who is determined – somebody with a strong will and an interesting story to tell.  What amused me afterwards was how whenever I brought up her name to one of my expat friends who’ve lived here forever, they all had more or less the same reaction: a smile; not necessarily the humorous kind of smile, but one that seemed to say, “I know Lijia Zhang well and she is someone you don’t want to mess with.” Could be; within ten minutes of knowing her, I had opened my wallet and ponied up a couple hundred yuan to buy a copy of her wonderful book, Socialism is Great, copies of which she was conveniently carrying with her in a bag for on-the-spot sales opportunities.

Is Lijia Zhang tough as nails and strong willed? Damn straight she is, and it is this toughness and resolve that allowed her to pull herself up from her proverbial bootsrtaps, teaching herself to learn flawless English and rising from a situation of utter grimness to become a writer and commentator to be reckoned with.

This is a different kind of book about China. It’s not about how China is rising, or about the business opportunities here or about guanxi or an exploration of the mysterious Chinese psyche. It’s the story of how Lijia Zhang was forced by her mother at the age of 16 to work in a factory that manufactures missiles, abandoning her dreams of going to university to become a journalist. It’s about China in the 1980s, a period some of us have a hard time visualizing.  I can “see” the Cultural Revolution, and I saw the students gathering in the square in the spring of 1989. What I have a harder time visualizing is the period in-between, that very painful time when people were adjusting to tectonic shifts in how they lived and worked. A time when many of the insanities of the CR persisted, such as spying on your colleagues and reporting on them, a time when the iron rice bowl was still the norm for nearly everyone, and the prevalent mindset was still one of conformity and uniformity.

The Liming Machine Factory in Nanjing becomes Lijia’s life, and it redefines the concept of bleakness.

As soon as the factory off-work horn sounded, loud broadcasts screech to life: the factory had its own propaganda studio. Breathless announcers told moving stories of model workers like Master Wang, socialist-minded and professionally proficient, who continued to operate his turning machine despite serious illness. Loudspeakers were the most widespread propaganda tool the Chinese Communists used, installed in every factory, school, village, neighborhood committee hall, and army camp – even in moving trains and aboard ships.

Everything about Liming is drab, gray, dreary and dispiriting.  And insane in a manner that seems unique to Communist dictatorships.  Everyone knows they are living a lie, that all the slogans plastered everywhere about hard work and the glories of socialism are utter bullshit.  For all the pious sloganeering, it’s a world of treachery and cunning, of keeping your “enemies” out of power so you can hold onto your own power. Now, there’s a little of that in every organization (it’s called politics), but here it’s carried to insane extremes because just about no one is actually doing anything. It’s all about making yourself look busy, knowing you are doing nothing while mouthing off about how socialism is great.  Everyone has agreed to play the same insane game.  Images of the surrealism of North Korea come inevitably to mind.

And yet Lijia stands up to authority, says what is on her mind and pays the price with demerits and public humiliation. But nothing can stop her. Reading classics like Jane Eyre she forces herself to learn English, joining classes and studying with an obsessive passion.  Her story is almost impossible to believe, her transition from a worker in the sulfurous and joyless Liming factory to a writer and commentator on BBC and NPR trumping just about every conceivable Cinderella story. When you hear her speak it is next to impossible to believe she taught herself English.

This is a family story and a deeply personal one. I won’t go into the details of Lijia’s uniquely dysfunctional family or the men she meets and falls in love with. Suffice it to say that she takes you right there, to their crowded house, to her lovers’ bedrooms.  You can hear her mother shrieking at her loser husband and you can feel her anguish as she briefly describes the public execution of a teenage boy she went to school with.  Like any good memoir, it offers an historiographic snapshot of its time, a period of almost unimaginable tumult as the Mao mentality collided with that of capitalism.

The book ends, rather mysteriously, with Lijia being arrested and fingerprinted for her “unpatriotic” behavior during the 1989 incident, during which she led a protest march outside her factory.  She makes you understand just how exhilarating this brief moment was, when everyone joined together to stand up to a cruel authority and why everyone joined in, with Lijia as always leading the parade, never sheepishly following.

The book isn’t perfect. I got frustrated with the writer’s tendency to embellish nearly every scene, even of events from decades ago, with details that she hopes will make it more real. Unfortunately, this sometimes has the opposite effect, making me wonder whether she is going out of her way to create an effect. For example, she recall a conversation with a friend from more than 20 years ago; the friend complains her house is too small, and Lijia adds, “Before sitting down on her usual chair by the window, she folded up a newspaper on the table.” Now, maybe some of us remember our conversations of two decades ago (I do), but do we really remember such fine details? They abound throuighout the book – a problem I had with another book by a forceful lady, Wild Swans, where every description of what happened decades ago is accompanied by a description of what kind of leaves are blossoming on a nearby tree.

But that is a very small complaint. This book will move you, and you will find new hope in the human spirit and man’s amazing ability to continue striving even in the face of insuperable odds. You’ll feel the claustrophobic and noxious spirit of the factory where nearly no one can be trusted. An amazing little book, and an amazing woman. Let her come across as tough and indomitable. That’s exactly why she has achieved her spectacular success, by refusing to let others do her thinking for her, and for standing up to those who were trying to hold her down, from her own mother to her co-workers to the police officer who fingerprints her after her arrest in 1989.


BBC will show Olympic protests

From Richard Spencer in the Telegraph:

The BBC, the only British broadcaster with access to stadiums this summer, says it cannot be expected to hide demonstrations if they happen at events where they have cameras.

Its decision, which it stresses will be applied “responsibly”, will increase Beijing’s nervousness as the Games approach.

The Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, BOCOG, has already had angry exchanges with the world’s leading broadcasters who complain of delays over permits to bring their equipment into the country and to deploy them around the city.

At stake is not only control over what sort of events can be broadcast, but also increasingly tight restrictions on shooting locations, with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and other sites with important symbolic value on the list of those off-limits to broadcasters.

Despite promises of unprecedented access for the world’s media during the games, it is becoming clear to many journalists in Beijing that the government and BOCOG are increasingly wary of allowing in so many prying eyes, roving cameras, and possible hidden agendas. This has sparked tension between representatives of the foreign media and their Chinese handlers.

Dave Gordon, head of major sports events for the BBC, told The Daily Telegraph that Beijing had become “more difficult” for broadcasters than the Moscow Games in 1980.

He said international representatives had tried to get answers for two years on whether the Olympic broadcasting agency that provides the only feed of the actual events would show footage of protests if they occurred.

“They fudge the question,” he said. “They won’t commit to saying yes, they will cover it or no, they will not cover it. They put a lot of stress on the importance of covering the sport. I think we have to draw our own conclusions.”

Mr Gordon said the BBC paid a lot of attention to “responsible” coverage of protests and whether 24-hour rolling news meant coverage of individual protests might become disproportionate.

But he added it was unthinkable that if its own cameras in the stadium picked up a protest it would not be shown. “We have to cover the Olympics warts and all,” he said.

“Warts and all” is a standard worth discussing. For as much as BOCOG and the Chinese government love to whine about how ‘foreigners’ are politicizing the Olympics, only the most naive or disingenuous would deny that the Beijing games have always come with striking political overtones. For both the government and people, these games are about more than medals and celebrity hurdlers. On my television set nightly and in conversations around Beijing I inevitably hear the refrain of ‘celebrating new China’ and ‘demonstrating to the world how far China has come (back).’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but if one is inviting guests over to admire the new draperies, can we fault the visitors for whispering amongst themselves if they also happen to see your child has a black eye?

I remember the extensive coverage of the 1996 pipe bombing during the Atlanta games. It was news and it had to be covered. Atlanta received an enormous amount of scrutiny and criticism, not only for security but also for being–until 2008–the most commercialized games in Olympic history. Such was the antipathy that at the closing ceremonies then IOC president Juan Antonio Saramanch withheld his usual polite ‘best games ever’ compliment. Sure there were some bruised feelings in the Peach Tree State, but people got over it. If something similar happened in Beijing, what would be the response?

In terms of television feeds and media access, at issue is this: What are the rights and responsibilities of broadcasters covering the games? Should they only show sports or do they also have an obligation to take a broader perspective in the event of protests and demonstrations, or even a single act of defiance by an athlete with an agenda? Any thoughts?