It’s only two weeks away

It’s that time of year again. How will you be celebrating Serf Emancipation Day?

I find it kind of droll that on the big day I’ll be in the Long Beach Opera House watching this. An eerie coincidence. My heart, of course, will be with those who were liberated, whether they wanted to be or not.


“Xiaozi” – I know quite a few

Great post on a phrase I hadn’t heard before.

And let me take this opportunity to offer a few links to China-related blog posts I’m enjoying:

Mark’s China Blog on Peter Hessler.

Xujun’s excellent review of China 2013.

Custer on the Dalai Lama’s use of public relations vs. the PRC’s (truly a must-read).

Now that my big project is mostly over I’ll try to post more often. It was a big success, the only downside being I had to work out of Shanghai for a week and I find it next to impossible to relate to that city. I realize the issue there is probably with me and not with Shanghai; I’m sure if I spent more time there and got familiar enough with the city to find my bearings I’d love it as much as Beijing or Kunming. Well, maybe.


Top 5 China events of the decade (for me)

A week ago the Shanghaiist asked me if I’d prepare an end-of-year or end-of-decade list of what were for me the top 5 China-related event.

Now that the post has been up on their site a few days, I’m reprinting it here for posterity. These are not necessarily the most important things that happened. The Sichuan earthquake, for example, is more important than some of my other choices. There were too many to choose from, like Sun Zhigang, the tainted milk scandal and Hu’s tremendously important strides in bringing Africa closer to China. Instead, these are the items that touched me on a very personal level, inspiring me to feel joy or outrage, hope or gloom.

From Shanghaiist:

Richard Burger worked in Greater China (mostly the PRC) as a PR executive for more than six years, the last few months of which he spent as editor and columnist for the English-language Chinese daily newspaper The Global Times. He is also the author of one of the oldest and most respected China blogs, The Peking Duck

What a difference ten years has made for China, from the new kid on the block to one of the world’s most influential movers and shakers. Since 2000, China has turned the notion of “New World Order” on its head.

During those 10 years we’ve watched China experience some breathtaking highs and painful lows. I first started watching China early in 2001, when I moved from the US to Hong Kong, and still remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I heard the big news that made it to No.1 on my Personal Five Most Significant China Stories of the decade.

1. July 13, 2001: Beijing is named host city for 2008 Olympic Games

This announcement created a wave of euphoria that only intensified as the Opening Ceremony approached. From the moment it was reported until the Olympic Green was locked down at the end of August 2008 we’ve never seen so many people so motivated for so many years over a sports competition. Nothing since has ever topped this one.

2. April 20, 2003: Chinese government holds live on-air SARS press conference

I know, that sounds kind of dry. But if you were there watching it live you’ll know just how jaw-dropping it was. Some of the world’s most tight-lipped, rarely seen leaders took live questions from the international media pool in Beijing and revealed there were hundreds more known cases of SARS in Beijing than they’d admitted earlier. Afterwards, the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing were fired for negligence of duty and the May holiday was canceled to keep people from traveling. Live and in person, we watched China’s government realize that being a global power demands accountability.

3. April 7, 2008: A Chinese hero is born

It couldn’t have been better scripted by the propaganda department: A graceful young woman, an Olympic torchbearer confined to a wheelchair, is attacked in full public view in Paris by a pro-Tibet activist determined to grab the Olympic torch from her hands. She refuses to yield, using her body to protect the torch as if it were a child. The timing was incredible: China was reeling from criticism of its handling of ethnic tension in Tibet, and photos of the emotionally charged scene galvanized the global Chinese community and created a groundswell of national pride just when China needed it. This sense of commonality and closing rank was to be matched only by the volunteerism generated by the Sichuan earthquake the next month – a close runner-up for this list.

4. June 16, 2009: Chinese court frees Deng Yujiao

The release of Deng Yujiao, the 21-year-old Chinese karaoke waitress turned folk hero who stabbed to death a drunken party official who tried to force her to have sex, resonated with everyone in China. Originally found guilty of murder, her plight captured the imagination of Chinese activists and netizens and her release was historic, proving that with enough pressure from an energized and outraged public the Chinese government will respond to injustices that in the past were swept under the carpet. We’ll know in the year ahead if it truly marked a turning point.

5. June 2009 – present: Post-Olympic communication crackdown

After opening its Internet more than ever before for the 2008 Olympic Games, China took a sharp swerve in the opposite direction the next year. The ominous clouds of heightened censorship moved in prior to the 20th anniversary of the “Tiananamen Square Incident” with the banning of Chinese and English-language social media sites and it kept getting worse right through the October 1 festivities, with no end in sight to this day. Many had misread the April 20, 2003 press conference as a sign China was ready to open up. In some ways it has, but the Internet remains more censored than ever.


I know we all have our different picks for a list like this. So feel free to suggest your own.


May 12

Amid the roar of mourning and remembrance over the horrible events of a year ago, there’s little new or significant I can contribute. But I can’t let the day disappear in silence, either.

Almost like 911, it seems everyone here remembers precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I was on my way to a photo shoot for a pre-Olympic event when I got the text message on my phone – there’d been a huge earthquake in Sichuan. The photographer was in the car with me and had a GPRS phone. He pulled up the story, which put us all at ease. The headline was something like, “Earthquake in Chengdu; no injuries reported.” The relief was short lived, and the headlines and text messages became increasingly dark.

The next day in my office, everyone seemed subdued. It was the children. All the children in the schools that collapsed like houses of cards. At least one of my colleagues cried as she talked to me about it. That day at the office of my main client, there was a call to donate blood, and so many hundreds of employees showed up they had to wait for many hours, the bloodmobile staying past 11 at night.

In figurative terms, May had been a shaky time for China. The Olympic Torch Relay that the government naively believed would be welcomed worldwide with open arms and smiling faces had started off as a catastrophe in London and then it achieved the impossible by becoming even worse in Paris. The riots in Tibet at the same time threatened to completely drown out China’s Olympic flame. There was the bright shining moment when, as if out of nowhere, an unknown female athlete in a wheelchair rallied China’s pride and galvanized Chinese around the world. But it was still a rough time, and “Tibet” seemed to be the one word on everyone’s mind. Until May 12.

Call if fate, or if you’re cynical enough (and I hope no one is), call it luck. As the earth roared and shifted and swallowed lives by the tens of thousands in Sichuan, everything else simply faded away, and there was only the tragedy. (Comparisons to 911 are inevitable; the big news in the weeks before was a gossipy story of a congressman’s affair with a staffer who was missing; it instantly became too trivial to even think about.) Gone were the arguments about who started the violence in Tibet or whether China should be made to shoulder responsibility for the crimes against humanity in Darfur. Everything was forgotten, and all anyone could think about was, how can we help?

All the blogs and media have stories about that today. If you search this blog, you’ll see there were many stories posted here about how the tragedy brought out the very best in China. Sadly but not surprisingly, this was followed by the stories of venal officials pocketing funds, refusing to answer parents’ questions, arresting journalists, covering up information about shoddy school construction, etc. But this time the good definitely out-shined the evil. China’s spirit of volunteerism, which many had denied exited, sprang to life as people dropped what they were doing and ran to the disaster site to help. Everyone I know gave as much money as we could. At my client’s office, the collection boxes were overflowing and had to be emptied frequently to make room for more donations.

No moment affected me more than the three minutes of silence held one week later, still my most vivid memory of the unhappy period. Hearing the sobbing and watching everyone, heads downward, struggle with a wave of emotion as the horns blared and traffic halted…. And again, another stereotype of China, where people think only of themselves, bites the dust.

This is already way longer than I intended. Thanks to China for showing all the world the great things it can do when it puts its mind to it.

Update: On a more personal note, please join me in wishing condolences to one of my very favorite bloggers (who by coincidence I linked to in this post) for his loss. Life, and death, goes on.


Catching up

I don’t know why things feel so slow in China news-wise. Looking over the blogs, it seems the most interesting posts aren’t dealing with breaking news, but rather with advice (always carry your passport and don’t co-habitate – a kind of scary post, and a great one, too); a discussion on the tendency of expats to live in a world of other expats and an extraordinary response to that argument; and an excellent discussion from the same blog on why there is no such thing as freedom of speech on blogs or other sites that are private property (a week old, but a good read, especially for those who still believe my blog and others’ are their personal soapbox to say whatever they’d like).

As far as news over here, this seems to be the slowest period I’ve seen in China in 8 years. My quick observations on the undertone of Chinese stories as I comb the news:

1. China is going all-out to smooth over past frictions with Japan and is going way out of its way to stress that they must work together to form a new paradigm of government and finance now that the US model has been “discredited.” The crash, caused entirely by the fiscal irresponsibility of the US, is being used like the descent of Russia into corruption and near anarchy in the early 1990s, as proof of the failure of democracy and the Western model. Asia will have none of that; it’s time to create something new and forge our own path. Japan and China will do the leading. Mainly China.

2. The South China Sea is the next big hotspot, and some in the military are actually itching for war. China has been robbed of its rightful offshore territory by plunderers in both the South and East China Seas, who’ve stolen oil and natural gas that belong to China. That big recent display of China’s blue water navy was strategic and intended to carry a message, perhaps a provocative one. On the other hand, I hear from my trusted sources that while the military’s lobbying and making all the noise, there’s little support from those in the seat of power. For now, and for some time to come, the noise about the offshore plundering will be exactly that. Noise.

3. Nearly every story that involves Western media coverage of China will claim the West is actively seeking to tarnish China’s image and make them look bad. The Jackie Chan storm in a teapot was just the latest example, and the Associated Press’s choice of words amounted to nothing less than a conspiracy that can be related to how the West deifies the Dalai Lama and misrepresents Chinese history. (For an excellent bit of insight on the general topic of Western coverage of China, check out this fine post.)

4. China has overcome the financial crisis. It’s real estate market is reviving, unemployment is in check and the government’s stimulus package was an unqualified success, untouched by corruption or mismanagement. You wouldn’t know that walking through The Place or the Solana graveyardsmalls, but if the media say so, there must be something to it.

On a more mundane note, the lease on my Beijing apartment expires in mid-July, six 10 short weeks away. Time for me to make another of those life-altering choices. Stay in Beijing, move to Yunnan for a change of pace, go back to Phoenix…. I believe, and all my colleagues tell me, if there was ever a time to live in China this is it. Especially when jobs in my industry are nonexistent, especially in a city like Phoenix. The next few weeks may be full of ruminations about this as I use my blog as a cathartic device to figure out what to do with this inexplicable albatrossblessing we call life.


Pico Iyer on the Dalai Lama and Tibet (“hell on earth”)

Readers know I approach Tibet cautiously, aware that it’s the most emotionally loaded of all topics (after the Nanjing massacre, Yasukuni Shrine, Tiananmen Square, Taiwan independence, etc.), and knowing the situation there is not as black and white as some media in the West make it out to be.

That said, one of my very favorite journalists has written a piece on the topic, including a description of several interactions with the Dalai Lama, that paint a very dark picture of the situation in Tibet,and a very positive one of the DL. His conclusions:

As Tibet enters its second half- century as an oppressed nation—this fall marks the sixtieth anniversary of the arrival of People’s Liberation Army troops in eastern Tibet—there is a sense that what happens there has implications for us all, not just in its environmental consequences, but in its political ones as well. How China deals with Tibet will affect its relations with Taiwan, and if Beijing does come to its senses and takes a more enlightened and farsighted approach to Tibet —as small a threat to it, population-wise, as Idaho might be to the US—it will inevitably win the respect of the larger world and do much to secure its own legacy. Part of the unusual fascination of the China–Tibet issue, after all, is that it seems to suggest a larger question beyond the geopolitical: How much can anyone live on bread alone, and to what extent does some sense of inner wealth either trump or at least make sense of all the material riches we might gain? It’s no surprise, perhaps, that 100,000 Han Chinese have already taken up the study of Tibetan Buddhism, and their numbers are rising quickly.

The Dalai Lama has done his bit by announcing himself “semi-retired,” something like a “senior adviser,” in his own words; if Beijing thinks he is the cause of the recent disturbances and problems in Tibet, he has been effectively saying, he will gladly take himself out of the equation altogether to see if that can help. The Tibetans in Tibet have endured a lifetime of oppression with uncommon patience and fortitude. Now it remains only for China to be as “realistic” and transparent in its handling of Tibet as, the Dalai Lama noted, it was in the wake of the tragic earthquake in Sichuan last summer. His final words to the Chinese students, some of whom were sobbing and working Tibetan Buddhist rosaries as he spoke, were “Investigate, investigate. Analyze, analyze.” He left the Chinese professors with the words, “Keep out the propaganda. Keep out our Tibetan side, too, our emotions. Study the situation!” Two days later, however, as he was addressing the journalists in Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, another Tibetan man was imprisoned, for five years, according to Human Rights Watch. His crime? Daring to tell relatives abroad about what is happening inside Tibet.

I try very hard to learn about the situation in Tibet from Chinese eyes (and this is my favorite article on that subject). I hope my Chinese friends and readers will likewise see what Iyer has to say, and think about whether the topic is perhaps more multidimensional than they’re taught in school. (And that goes for my Western readers as well, come to think of it.)

I remember one of the first times I heard of the Dalai Lama, back in the late 1980s when I was attending a pop “self-actualization” seminar on – pardon the Nietzschean title – the “power of the will.” The seminar leader told us how through sheer force of will, upon the invasion by evil and aggressive Chinese troops, the DL magically transported himself out of Tibet and landed, Star Trek-style, in the hills of India. And that’s how a lot of people in the West saw (and continue to see) him; not necessarily as a super-man, but as a mystical force, existing on a different and higher plane than us mortals.

I no longer think of him as angelic or infallible, as a force of pure good at war with forces of pure evil. But I do think of him as more than a jackal, and of his followers as more than a clique. Again, there’s a middle ground somewhere. What I do know is that after reading Iyer’s piece, I have a deeper respect for the DL (and I admit, living here for a long time can distort your perceptions).

This link is via ESWN, and I thank him for it.

This was a pre-dinner quickie. Hope to elaborate when I get time. Much more to the article than I could comment on tonight. And no, I haven’t forgotten how the standard of living in Tibet rose after the “emancipation” and how much investment China has poured into Tibet. Two sides to every story.


Radio Free Asia’s Tibet “coverage,” and more

Alice Poon of Asia Sentinel pointed me to this most interesting post about Radio Free Asia and the neocons behind the RFA’s curtain. The post is a real shocker, and causes one to wonder if the entire Tibet issue hasn’t been manipulated to further the agenda of PNAC and the AEI. One brief sample; the writer has just documented article after article after article in which RFA casually refers to “unconfirmed reports” of Chinese killing Tibetan monks.

All of these “unconfirmed” reports originating from Radio Free Asia appear to contradict eyewitness reports from a BBC reporter on the ground during the riots and a German reporter that interviewed local Tibetans in Lhasa that I have linked to below.

Watch and listen to this from Exile Government spokesperson Dawa Tsering as he explains how they gather information for dissemination on RFA and more shockingly, his rationalization that beating Chinese and Hui people is “non-violent” and that the deaths of the 5 young girls, the 10 month old baby and others that were immolated as they hid from the rioters were “accidents” because they didn’t run away fast enough. This is the epitome of bad PR and irresponsible journalism as well as a heretical view of non-violent Buddhism.

The post is a shocker. You have no choice but to wonder how we can hope to separate news from propaganda. This is why, in two separate threads, I tried to ask readers for proof that the blue-clothed “goons” who ran alongside the torchbearers had indeed acted like “storm troopers” or “Nazis” or “thugs.” You definitely get an impression from various reports that they were thugs, but you get nothing more than an impression – no one can cite any example of behavior that parallels that of Nazi storm troopers. It was a perfect example of the media leaving an impression with nothing to back it up except vague fears over sunglass-wearing, expressionless bodyguards who were doing their job, i.e., keeping people back from the person they were protecting.

In the same Asia Sentinel post, Alice Poon also directs us to an oldie but goodie on the “myths and realities” of Tibet, written in 1998 but worth reading today.

Western concepts of Tibet embrace more myth than reality. The idea that Tibet is an oppressed nation composed of peaceful Buddhists who never did anyone any harm distorts history. In fact the belief that the Dalai Lama is the leader of world Buddhism rather than being just the leader of one sect among more than 1,700 “Living Buddhas” of this unique Tibetan form of the faith displays a parochial view of world religions.

The myth, of course, is an outgrowth of Tibet’s former inaccessibility, which has fostered illusions about this mysterious land in the midst of the Himalayan Mountains — illusions that have been skillfully promoted for political purposes by the Dalai Lama’s advocates. The myth will inevitably die, as all myths do, but until this happens, it would be wise to learn a few useful facts about this area of China.

First, Tibet has been a part of China ever since it was merged into that country in 1239, when the Mongols began creating the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). This was before Marco Polo reached China from Europe and more than two centuries before Columbus sailed to the New World. True, China’s hold on this area sometimes appeared somewhat loose, but neither the Chinese nor many Tibetans have ever denied that Tibet has been a part of China from the Yuan Dynasty to this very day.

This article, by the son of American missionaries who grew up in China, takes on a lot of myths about Tibet. After reading it, I can only wonder, if China has done so much good in Tibet, then why is it so dreadful in telling the story to the world? Is it simply because the “Dalai Lama clique” keeps undercutting them with better PR? Or is there truly a darker side to all the love and joy China has brought to Tibet? I’m still trying to figure it out for myself, and find it perhaps the murkiest, most misunderstood and confused topic in modern history.

Posted by Richard (not Raj)