Thursday, March 31, 2005

"Seeking Unskilled Workers"

China is no longer a "bottomless pool" of cheap, migrant labor, at least in manufacturing centers like Guangdong Province, according to this account in the International Herald Tribune:
It has been nine months since the government of Guangdong Province, across from Hong Kong, first acknowledged an acute shortage of workers. And the situation has not improved: In February the provincial government said one million workers were needed in this highly industrialized part of China that is, without exaggeration, the factory to the world, making everything from sneakers to mobile phones.

Officially the shortage represents around 5 percent of the Guangdong migrant work force, but a study done by the provincial statistics office shows a broad-based problem: 70 percent of 329 companies surveyed said they were having difficulties recruiting workers.

Experts say the shortage has many causes: monthly wages are too low - often around 500 yuan, or $60 - to attract workers from far-off provinces. Word has spread about poor working conditions in some factories. And there is less incentive for farmers to get jobs in the city because food prices and government subsidies have risen.
The shortage has enabled workers to be picky about what jobs they'll take - and technology like cell phones (there are now more than 329 million cell phone users in China) has helped workers spread the word about which employers exploit their laborers:
"I heard a case where a factory deducted 20 yuan a month for salaries because they said they were providing drinking water to their workers," said Vincent Leung, a human resources manager at Epson, the printer manufacturer.

"Their reputation is so bad," Leung said of some Guangdong factories. "Now they are paying the price. They cannot find workers."
Workers of the world, unite - but first, download your ring tones...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


ESWN has translated the infamous Chapter 6 of a recently banned Chinese novella, "Serve the People." The Guardian summarizes it thusly:
Set in 1967 - at the peak of the Mao cult during the Cultural Revolution - the novel tells the story of the bored wife of a military commander who takes advantage of her husband's absence to seduce a young peasant soldier. As a signal that the orderly's services are desired in the bedroom, she leaves the slogan Serve the People on the kitchen table.
"Serve the People" is one of Mao's best known sayings (through the Cultural Revolution, Premier Zhou Enlai wore only one small Mao button, with this slogan on it), so we are already entering dangerous territory here...

After three days and nights together (the Commander is elsewhere, probably chairing a struggle session or something), the two lovers are exhausted and spent, unsure of their feelings, irritated with each other. The wife, Liu Lian, puts a plaster statue of Mao underneath soldier Wu's uniform, and when he starts to dress, the statue breaks. Liu threatens to call the Security Detail; Wu has committed the ultimate Cultural Revolution sin - he's defaced an image of the Great Helmsman.

This is all a ruse to reignite Wu's passion, and it works, in spades. Soon the two engage in a literal orgy of lovemaking and smashing Mao memorabilia, ripping up his posters, pissing on his epigrams, each declaring to be the bigger counter-revolutionary who loves the other more:
He found four copies of books by Chairman Mao, ripped the books up, urinated on them and then threw them into the wastebasket in the toilet.

She took out all the chopsticks that had the highest directive printed on them, broke them and threw them into the garbage bin.

He took all the MSG bottles that had Chairman Mao heads printed on them, poured the contents into a bowl and put grey ashes into the bottles instead.

I don't know how all of this comes across if you aren't familiar with recent Chinese history, but I found it shocking, albeit from a distance (after all, it's not my history), and pretty damn funny. I think the humor is intentional, and I also think the author has some pretty serious intentions. During the Cultural Revolution, there was nothing more important, at least in one's public conduct, than loyalty to the Great Helmsman. Placing love, or at least passion above that loyalty, smashing the icons that embody it, is an embrace of individualism over the bonds of the state and of the community, a piss in the eye of both Mao worship and Confucian fealty.

The novella may be banned but is apparently readily available on the internet.

Thanks to ESNW for providing the translation and links - do check out his site. There are a multitude of great posts and links, as usual...

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

"Two-thirds of world's resources 'used up' "

This according to an article in today's Manchester Guardian.
A report backed by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries - some of them world leaders in their fields - today warns that the almost two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure.

The study contains what its authors call "a stark warning" for the entire world. The wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries and other habitats that recycle air, water and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably damaged. In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself.

"Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted," it says.

A link to my post "To Consume Is Glorious" over at Peking Duck prompted an interesting and revealing discussion. Certain respondents stated that all of this concern over diminishing resources is overblown, that humankind has the ability to innovate out of any problem we create. I too have a certain amount of faith in man's capacity to innovate. But what will be lost in the meantime? And how much of what is lost can really ever be recovered?

Thanks to SusanHu, Booman Tribune's crack front-page diarist, for this link.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Link Round Up

A note - Blogger will be offline for a while tomorrow afternoon for system upgrades - which I hope will reduce the problems some of you have encountered while trying to leave comments and that have now and again prevented bloglet updates from going out.

I've been adding links slowly to the site but thought I might be at the point where some introductions were in order. I'm not going to bother to put the links in this post since you can find all of them on my site easily enough.

In order of appearance:

Salon - the premier online magazine of politics and culture. You have to subscribe, or you can get a day pass and view the contents for free. This is one of the only publications, print or otherwise, that I subscribe to. I recommend it highly.

One A Day: for those studying Chinese, "One A Day" offers a daily proverb for your study, in both simplified and traditional characters.

Peking Duck: one of the best blogs on China (and American politics) out there, and my inspiration for starting this blog.

Hullabaloo: a great political blog. Digby is an excellent writer whose posts are consistently worthwhile. I believe he won this year's Koufax award (best lefty blogs) for best individual blog.

James Wolcott: Vanity Fair's Wolcott is scathing, hilarious, concise.

Running Dog: excellent China news blog, high snark factor keeps it entertaining.

Asia Times: excellent internet publication based in Hong Kong, with in-depth reporting on Asia and elsewhere - some fine Iraq stories, for example.

eastsouthwestnorth: another great blog focusing on China but with other news of interest. ESWN has had to cut down his site somewhat - too much time and bandwidth - but still offers plenty of fresh, interesting content.

Sinosplice: this Shanghai-based blog focuses on living in China and Chinese language (a recent hilarious post details the less than precise Chinese subtitling of the film "Closer," for example). John also provides a truly heroic list of China-related blogs - I don't know how he keeps up.

Booman Tribune: a new political blog started by a group of Daily Kos contributors who wanted a little more room to stretch out. Booman preserves the quality of much of Kos' political posts and adds a more personal, communal vibe. I'm cross-posting some of my stuff over there. And I always learn something new when I check in.

Real History: a look behind the headlines, at news that doesn't get covered in the mainstream media by an expert in the Kennedy assasinations.

Child of Illusion: well-written, thoughtful blog focusing on environmental issues and their social impact.

Flogging the Simian: I've just added this one, so I don't know it well yet - the author is a regular contributor at Kos and Booman. She lives in Romania and has an encyclopedic knowledge of...well, just about every country in the world from my brief persual. She posts news round ups that cover stories you might not read elsewhere.

Along the Journey: a hard blog to characterize, the author, a Canadian, writes about writing, about the nature of blogs and about crossing cultures.

I hope this round up motivates you to check out some of these fine sites. I'll be adding more links in the future...and yes...I sense the organizing of these links into categories will occur in the near future...

"When will we have 'green' model workers?"

This is the question posed in an article in the English-language China Daily. The author refers to the spread of the Japanese phenomenae of karoshi -
"death by overwork" - to "the increasingly market-driven, competition-laden Chinese society" - the author's words, not mine.
It would be absurd if the nation were busily planting additional trees and working towards cleaner air on the one hand, and continued to ignore the unhealthy aspects of its people's work lives on the other hand.

In any case, the traditional scholar's lifestyle of all work and no relaxation should no longer be held up as a virtue. The model workers of this new age should set an example of a good balance of work and life, just as good economic growth should be a proper combination of speed and quality.

The government should require all employers, especially those who hire those needed for their intellect, to take a crash course on how to protect their most valuable asset - their workers.
I find it heartening that in spite of the continued censorship of sensitive political topics, such social problems are increasingly and openly discussed in today's China. It may not seem like much if you are accustomed to a free press (or in the case of today's mass media in the U.S., an incredible simulation of one), but I think of the propaganda of a few years ago, extolling the virtues of the self-sacrificing "model worker" and conclude that China has come a long way, that questioning social norms is the first step to improving social conditions. Beijing's Zhongguancun area, where most of the city's universities and research institutes are clustered, the life expectancy of staff members has experienced a decline from a decade ago, from between 58 and 59 to between 53 and 54.

One may have further questions about these brief reports, as any thinking individual would. But how on earth these figures were drawn is one matter. How to define the value of life is another. What is the point if, when the economy is growing at an ever-faster speed, its engineers and scientists enjoy shorter and shorter lives to savour the fruits of their endeavours?
When I was first in China, all those years ago, I remember feeling as though I were a virus. That I brought with me the seeds of my culture, that they would be planted and spread here in spite of any efforts to limit the exposure of the disease I carried. I realize I have badly mixed my metaphors here, but in a sense this is an accurate representation of how I felt at the time. I knew the culture I represented had many positive things to offer China. I also knew that China would be hard-pressed to pick and choose. That you got the good with the bad. The consumerism, the commercialization of everything, the unwitting pressure to define yourself by what you possessed, all of these things came with our market-driven, "free" society.

There is a middle way, I believe. It is not the way currently preached by autocrats who do not believe that China is ready for democracy. It is not the way of the current regime in Washington, which will not admit there's a legitimate purpose for government beyond wars of aggression that enrich their cronies. It is a way that balances the dynamics of the market with social justice and responsiblity towards the community. That encourages the development of "green" workers and values the well-being of each individual. There is a middle way that many of us are searching for, if we can only find it.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging

Wolfgang Has A Drinking Problem
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

About a year ago, Wolfgang developed a new habit. He would walk across the stove (regardless of whether a burner was on or not) so he could stand in the sink and wait until I turn on the faucet for him. He doesn't care for the fancy cat fountain with the lovely stream of fresh water. Only the kitchen sink will do...

To Consume Is Glorious

I must remember to make the Asia Times a daily stop on my web browsings - and so should you if you are interested in news and analysis about Asia or a different perspective on global events than what you'll get in the US or UK papers.

Today's edition features an article focusing on the global ecological consequences of China's increasing wealth.
...if those increased incomes translate into the kind of lifestyle currently enjoyed by most US citizens, Chinese demands will overwhelm what the planet can provide, according to the analysis, "Learning from China: Why the Western Economic Model Will Not Work for the World". While geopoliticians worry whether China will integrate itself into the current Western-dominated international system, Lester Brown, EPI's founder, is far more worried about the impact of a wealthy China on the Earth's diminishing resource base.

"If it does not work for China," he notes, "it will not work for India, which has an economy growing at 7% per year and a population projected to surpass China's by 2030."
Brown lays out the potential consequences of a China whose consumers emulate the lifestyle currently enjoyed by most Americans - and concludes that the earth simply does not have the raw materials to sustain such consumption. Just one example:
If by 2031 the Chinese use oil at the same rate as the US does today, it would need 99 million barrels of oil a day, or 20 million barrels per day more than the entire world currently produces.
Brown's purpose is not to chide Chinese for wanting to grow rich and consume like Americans, but rather to suggest that all of us, Americans most certainly included, must adjust our patterns of consumption and adopt more sustainable lifestyles.
"The point of this exercise of projections," writes Brown, "is not to blame China for consuming so much, but rather to learn what happens when a large segment of humanity moves quickly up the global economic ladder ... Plan A, business as usual, is no longer a viable option. We need to turn quickly to Plan B before the geopolitics of oil, grain and raw-material scarcity lead to economic instability, political conflict, and disruption of the social order on which economic progress depends."
We do have a choice. As bleak as I sometimes believe the future for our planet might be, as disgusted and despairing of my country's direction as I am at present, a part of me still maintains what I guess is that quintessential American trait of optimism - excitement, even. Just think. We could devote ourselves to developing alternative technologies and energy sources - a Manhattan Project to rid ourselves of fossil fuel dependency. We could dedicate ourselves to preserving our wild places and restoring our wounded lands. Such a project could revitalize our economy and rejuvenate our soul.

Okay, it probably won't happen. Until of course the day that it must.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"360 Million Chinese Without Safe Drinking Water"

Further evidence that China's environmental crisis may be its biggest obstacle on the Long March to modernization and prosperity:

More than 360 million rural Chinese lack safe drinking water and cities are facing chronic shortages, raising serious health concerns, senior officials warned...

..."Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are afflicted with various diseases from drinking water that contains too much fluorine, arsenic, sodium sulfate or bitter salt," said Wang Shucheng, minister of water resources...

...A plan approved in principle Wednesday by the State Council or cabinet pledged to provide safe drinking water to 20 million people in rural areas by the end of 2006, Xinhua news agency reported.

The plan emphasized strict monitoring of usage of chemical fertilisers and pesticide and a ban on factory construction near water sources.

Part of the problem lies in China's unchecked economic growth, which has led to severe water pollution and imbalances in the ecosystem.

Data collected from 345 sections of 175 mainstream rivers by the ministry in January showed only about 47 percent of the water was drinkable, the China Daily reported.

A survey of water quality of 52 lakes across the country conducted at the same time showed water in half of them was heavily polluted and 35 percent of ground water was undrinkable due to pollution.

Two Stories

Two stories appeared on facing pages of today's Los Angeles Times. The first begins:
An Afghan detainee in U.S. custody was so brutalized before his death that his thigh tissue was "pulpified," a forensic pathologist testified Tuesday at a preliminary hearing for a military police officer charged in the 2002 assault.

"It was similar to injuries of a person run over by a bus," said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, who performed an autopsy on the detainee, identified only as Dilawar.
Colonel Rouse's testimony came at a hearing for Army Pfc. Willie V. Brand, to determine whether he should be court-martialed for his mistreatment of two Afghan detainees, both of whom died in U.S. custody.
Army investigators testified that Brand acknowledged that he delivered more than 30 consecutive knee strikes to Dilawar as he stood in shackles, his arms chained to a ceiling. But Brand defended his actions, telling investigators that his superiors were aware that the blows were routinely delivered to force detainees to comply with the guards' orders.

"I did what everybody else did. It was not according to doctrine, but that was standard practice. That was how things were done," Brand said in a statement.
As for the second story:
Bush administration lawyers urged the Supreme Court on Tuesday to dismiss a lawsuit against Iraq brought by U.S. pilots and soldiers who were captured and tortured by Saddam Hussein's regime during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, saying the president believed it could hurt the rebuilding effort in Iraq...

...The 17 former POWs and their families sued Iraq under a 1996 law that opened the courthouse door to claims against terrorist states that practice torture, bombings and hijackings. They said they had been beaten, starved and subjected to electric shocks when they were held as prisoners by the Iraqis. Some emerged with broken bones as well as psychological injuries that have yet to heal.

The lead plaintiff, Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, was in a plane that was shot down by a surface-to-air missile Jan. 17, 1991. He ejected from his plane but suffered a neck injury. He was taken prisoner, blindfolded and handcuffed, and then beaten until he lost consciousness.

His nose was broken, his skull fractured, and he lost 30 pounds during his 47 days of captivity.

Sometimes I run out of words...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Decline and Fall

Last week one of my trio of elderly cats got very sick. I took her to the vet; we tried some things; it didn't really seem to help. She's old after all, and had been slowing down a bit in recent months. I prepared myself for the worst. This is what happens with animals; they don't generally live as long as we do, but if you are an animal person, it's still hard to get used to. And this cat has been with me a long time. We've been through a lot together, and though I recognize it's silly to call a cat a friend, she certainly has been a wonderful companion.

Contemplating the end of her companionship led me into a thicket of reflection on loss and attendant grief. It's been a sort of death-oriented couple of months for me - a memorial for an old boss and mentor, and most significantly, the death of a close family friend after a long illness, a woman I'd known all my life, my mother's best friend since childhood.

We grieve for the loss of such people because they were dear to us, because they enriched our lives, and huge pieces of our lives go with them when they pass. Because they were people who truly brought light into the world, and when they are gone, the world seems a little more cold and cruel.

And with that, blam, the world hits you. And all the days you sort of skated through in a haze, maybe a pleasant one but a haze none the less, evaporate into a hard-edged, more lunar sort of landscape. It's not like I don't know this every day; every day I read the paper and absorb the latest outrage, but on these days, the sheer madness into which this country seems to have descended is less an intellectual contruct than a punch in the gut, or perhaps more accurately, a shiv, something that stabs deep and bleeds slowly.

Drilling in ANWR and giving Humvee owners tax breaks. Blathering on about democracy while torturing people and calling it "professional interrogation" and "extraordinary rendition." Passing a federal law to keep a nearly brain-dead woman on a feeding tube while threatening to cut the Medicare and limiting the kinds of lawsuits that have provided this woman with her medical care. Passing bankruptcy "reform" that will keep victims of extraordinary medical costs in endless debtor penury. Passing laws in Texas that allow medical facilities to disconnect life support of black babies against their indigent mother's wishes! Hell, killing people in Texas prisons on a pretext of justice, even born again Christian women who have repented their sins. Should I even bother to talk about the war? A war fought on the flimsiest of pretexts, on a foundation of lies, whose architects thought they could do it for cheap and wasted thousands of lives - thousands of lives are over, gone forever, as a consequence of their arrogance. And George Bush talks about "erring on the side of life?" Please.

This country is becoming something that I might understand but don't want to accept. Something shameful and stupid and cruel.

Last week, George Kennan died at the age of 101. He was widely regarded as the architect of American Cold War policy. He later came to regret that his ideas of containment became his legacy. No doubt he felt that what applied to the Soviet Union at a particular point in history did not apply universally to all regimes which we might find distasteful. He became a leading advocate of arms control and the abolishment of nuclear weapons. Kennan, in addition to his career as a diplomat, was a historian and scholar, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
In the epilogue to "Sketches From a Life," one of his later works, he wrote:

"I am startled to note the bleakness of the impressions of my own country…. I view the United States of these last years of the 20th century as essentially a tragic country, endowed with magnificent natural resources which it is rapidly wasting and exhausting, and with an intellectual and artistic intelligentsia of great talent and originality of which the dominant political forces of the country have little understanding or regard. Its voice is normally silenced or outshouted by the commercial media. It is probably condemned to remain indefinitely, like the Russian intelligentsia in the 19th century, a helpless spectator of the disturbing course of a nation's life."

I think about leaving the country. I think, in a few years, when my geriatric kitties have passed and I have fulfilled my obligations and have a small sum of money as my reward for years of work and compromise, I will leave America behind and go somewhere else, someplace where I won't be responsible, where I can have a decent life and mourn the decline of my country from a distance.

But not just yet. Kitty and I went back to the vet last night, and the vet tried something new. And now the cat is running around, eating, climbing up on things and sitting on my lap like she's done for the past 15 years or so. I don't know how long this recovery will last, but at her age, I figure any additional quality time is a gift.

These are the things that hold me back. Family, friends, animals, a comfortable cottage, a pleasant life. The days where the lunar landscape of Bush's America is obscured by the soft atmosphere of love and kindness that swaddles my own little corner of the world...

A New Euphemism

Director of the CIA Porter Goss testified to Congress the other day that he could not say for certain whether CIA interrogation techniques used on foreign terrorism suspects since 9/11 were permissible under Federal laws prohibiting torture.
"At this time, there are no 'techniques,' if I could say, that are being employed that are in any way against the law or would meet - would be considered torture or anything like that," Mr. Goss said in response to one question.

When he was asked several minutes later whether he could say the same about techniques employed by the agency since the campaign against Al Qaeda expanded in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks in the United States, he said, "I am not able to tell you that."

He added that he might be able to elaborate after the committee went into closed session to take classified testimony...
...Asked about the legality of practices in the past, a government official said, "The C.I.A. has always complied with the legal guidelines it received from the Department of Justice in regard to interrogation."

Hmmmm, let's see...would those be the guidelines defining torture as any method that produce pain "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure"? Guidelines drafted in part by our new Attorney General, Alberto "Torquemada" Gonzales? Because, I dunno, I'd think you could hurt somebody pretty badly without actually killing them, that is, if you know what you're doing. And luckily for those terrorist suspects, they're in the hands of professionals:
In the session, Mr. Goss was challenged by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. When Mr. McCain asked Mr. Goss about the C.I.A.'s previously reported use of a technique known as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is made to believe that he will drown, Mr. Goss replied only that the approach fell into "an area of what I will call professional interrogation techniques."

He vigorously defended "professional interrogation" as an important tool in efforts against terrorism, saying that it had resulted in "documented successes" in averting atacks and capturing important suspects. Mr. Goss said that Congress had been kept fully informed of the techniques used by the C.I.A., and that those currently being used did not constitute torture,which is prohibited by law.
Sure. Rewrite the laws, redefine torture and call it "professional interrogation."

"Water-boarding." "Stress positions." Forced nudity, sexual humiliation, sodomy, beatings resulting in broken bones and to leave such things to the professionals.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging

Spike & Wolfgang
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

Okay, well, Saturday, actually. But look, you get TWO cats! And I've got one on my lap right now as I type this...

Thursday, March 17, 2005

"U.S. Won't Chide China Over Human Rights"

Citing recent Chinese steps to ease up on political prisoners and religious practices, the Bush administration decided Thursday to forgo a showdown with China over its record on human rights at a 53-nation U.N. human rights conference...

...The State Department report Feb. 28 described China as an authoritarian state that denies its citizens freedom to oppose the political system. The government used war on terror as a pretext for cracking down on peaceful Uighur separatists and does not permit outsiders to monitor the human rights situation in the country, the report to Congress said.

China fired back by denouncing the United States for crime and poverty and for abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq...
Glass houses, stones; Mister Pot, meet Mister Kettle, etc..

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

"China's Economic Miracle Will End Soon"

You know, I read a series of articles about government control of public discourse in China, and I think, maybe things haven't changed that much since 1979, when the closest thing there was to public dissent was Democracy Wall, and we know how that turned out.

Then I read something like this stunning interview with China's Deputy Minister of the Environment, Pan Yue, which I found via Dan Washburn's Shanghai Diaries (thanks to JR for bringing this site to my attention). Pan Yue bluntly states that China's current model for growth is not sustainable because of the environmental destruction it has wreaked. According to Pan:
This miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.

... Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn't include the costs for health. Then there's the human suffering: In Bejing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment. Lung cancer has emerged as the No. 1 cause of death.

Pan goes on to advocate a "green domestic product" and blast "influential officials, companies and local governments" who trash the environnment to line their own pockets.

All I can say is, there a Pan Yue fan club? Can I start one?

I Want My War TV

The Los Angeles Times reports that, thanks to the portability and affordability of video and DVD technology, US troops in Iraq are making their own music videos of the Iraq War. Filled with images of dead, mutilated Iraqis, with the sophisticated editing on the beat that seems hard-wired into a generation raised on MTV, these DVDs document what's really going on with our troops in the Iraqi meat-grinder.

It's easy to condemn these budding auteurs, and in fact many of their fellow soldiers are appalled at the practice. But we shouldn't dismiss the practice as merely voyeurism. According to Daniel Nelson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine:
What seems disrespectful or a trivialization is also a way for soldiers to distance themselves from the trauma...which says: "I don't want to see what I've done or experienced as real."

The creation of videos resembles what Nelson has seen in his work with traumatized children and Vietnam veterans, he said.

"How do we create the story about our lives?" he asked. "Part of the healing process is for them to create a narrative, to organize an emotional story that allows them to get a handle on it."
I think this is probably true. And I think, how is it, once again, that America will have yet another generation of traumatized young people in need of emotional healing, whose only way of making sense of their lives is to set the deaths they have witnessed, the deaths they have caused, to heavy metal music?

People wonder why we have so much violence in our culture, and I'll tell you, this is one reason why. Because generation after generation, we send our kids to war. And lately, we send our kids to war for no good reason.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

China Round-Up

With attention focused on China because of the National People's Congress, press coverage of China has been particularly heavy the past few weeks. The Los Angeles Times has published a series of interesting stories which are all worth your time.

First up is an article about the skyrocketing divorce rate in China, caused by the simplification of divorce laws, which previously required the permission of one's work unit to dissolve a marriage.
"I think it was [socialism theorist Friedrich] Engels who said a marriage without love is amoral," said Shen, the divorce lawyer. "People should have the freedom to choose. I think it's a sign of progress."
But increased freedoms tend to provoke a conservative response, as Olympic gold medalist Tian Liang recently discovered when he attempted to cash in on his newfound celebrity with a string of lucrative endorsement deals. Instead, he was kicked off the team and heavily criticised by the government athletic association for making unauthorized business deals and "tarnishing the sport's image." It is Tian's misfortune to serve as an object lesson in the government's campaign to restore traditional values to modern China.
Under the slogan "A Harmonious Society," President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have laid out a two-part vision for their administration: to bring the ruling Communist Party back to its core values of discipline, virtue and collective effort; and to focus resources and political will on the have-nots, including the rural poor, migrants and urban laborers left behind by two decades of growth...

...Singling out a high-profile figure to make a point is "the old China peeking through," said Andrew Mertha of Washington University. But the mores set forth by Hu and Wen have several tangible goals: By championing the underclass and shunning immodest behavior, they are drawing sharp contrasts to the imperious style of former President Jiang Zemin, who focused on the urban elite, snazzy technology and splashy architecture.

More fundamentally, the leaders hope to defuse the growing instability and discontent fueled by China's yawning wealth gap, potentially a huge challenge to their rule. There were 58,000 protests and riots across the country in 2003, or 160 a day, many over perceived abuses by local authorities, according to government statistics, which could be underreporting the problem...

..Many analysts welcome their focus on alleviating poverty for such a large swath of China's, and the world's, population.

But Hu and Wen's emphasis on greater virtue, old-style Communist study sessions and renewed party discipline worries some. They see in this a willingness to keep the party above the law, able to act as it sees fit rather than establish modern institutions with checks and balances to curb malfeasance and inefficiency.
Finally, the suicide of a government bureaucrat in charge of generating economic statistics for the provincial city of Bengbu prompts a discussion of the unreliability of China's GDP figures. The story might remind those of you familiar with China's recent history of the sorts of distortions in grain production that occurred during the Great Leap Forward, to devastating effect.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has a couple great stories as well. Of particular interest is this article about the censorship of Prime Minister Wen Jiabiao's recent remarks to national and international journalists at the close of the NPC. What is remarkable about this incident is that Wen's remarks were broadcast live to domestic Chinese audiences - giving any observant viewer the rare chance to observe blatant censorship in action. Even more remarkable is what this incident implies about the structures of power in today's China.
"It certainly appears that the Propaganda Department has more authority than even some top leaders," said Jiao Guobiao, a professor at Beijing University who wrote an exposé on the workings of the department last year. "They enforce the party line."...

...Earlier Communist leaders like Mao developed reputations as revolutionaries who could rock the world's most populous nation with pithy asides. But the editing of Mr. Wen may underscore the official contention that today's leadership governs by elite consensus, not the whims of one man.

His boss, Hu Jintao, now China's top leader, often appears more like a creature of the party that created him than its chief. Mr. Hu almost never gives interviews or utters spontaneous comments in public, making it difficult to distinguish his own priorities, or even his personality, from the party he heads...
On a more positive note, the NYT reports on a new policy to eliminate rural school fees. This is very good news for China's rural poor, who have struggled in market-driven China to educate their children. Onerous school fees are thought to have prompted several suicides and rage killings by poor students in recent years...

All of these articles are well-worth a full read.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

China Acts to Reduce Use of Death Penalty

Last night at the gym I caught the beginning of 48 Hours: Mystery! at the tail end of my work-out. 48 Hours: Mystery deals primarily with unsolved crimes and cases where the person convicted of the crime in all likelihood is innocent of it. Such was the case presented this Saturday. I am a sucker for this kind of thing (my favorite recreational reading is a good mystery), so I rushed home and watched the rest of what turned out to be a disturbing story of police coercion, sloppy detective work and a rush to judgment that has cost a young man more than twelve years of his life in prison.

Horrific as this story is, it could of course be worse. The young man who is currently alive in jail could have been given the death penalty. He could have been killed already (especially if he'd had the misfortune to have been convicted in Texas), after which point any redress, while not exactly besides the point, can't possibly begin to correct the injustice committed.

I realize this may put me in the minority, but I'm very much against the death penalty. You can't unkill an innocent man, for one thing. And I question the logic whereby we condemn killing but allow the state to execute people in our name. I share little common ground with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, but I vividly recall a statement he made in an interview a number of years ago, in which he denounced the death penalty because he believes that it "increases the level of barbarism in society." I couldn't agree more.

Which is why I was very heartened to receive this story from JR, who comments here and at Peking Duck.
China hinted at reform of the death penalty on Wednesday in a supreme court report to parliament that also touched issues ranging from corruption to social order in the face of rapid change…

…The top court relinquished the power of final review in death penalty cases during a crime-fighting campaign in the 1980s, but the leadership has been studying how to restore that power to help regulate use of the death sentence.

Officials say the move would simplify an irregular process and some estimates say it could quickly reduce the number of executions by 30 percent.

Lower courts have been criticised for lack of professionalism and consistency in meting out the death penalty, but some have been reluctant to relinquish the power…

…Currently, 68 crimes can merit the death penalty in China and most are non-violent. Experts had called for a "kill fewer, kill carefully" policy towards suspects of non-violent crimes, state media said in August.

Well, "kill fewer, kill carefully" may not not reach the level of Gandhi, but it's a start. It's not just those we execute and their families and friends who are affected by the death penalty, I believe. It is the executioners as well, the killers who belong to us. It is everyone who participates in the machinery of death. This kind of state-sanctioned violence is like a virus that makes its way through a society. It infects and coarsens us all, cheapening the value of individual lives. If we ask ourselves honestly, what sort of place do we wish to live in, I believe that the answer will not include one in which people are sacrificed to feed our notion of righteous revenge, which is really a mask for inchoate, unexamined frustration and rage.

Thanks to JR, for bringing this story to my attention.

"Green Walls & Black Holes"

This article over at Running Dog will give you an idea of the magnitude of China's environmental crisis. The snark factor at Running Dog runs a little high (for those who may not appreciate snark - what can I say, I've linked to Running Dog AND James Wolcott, so that might tell you something about my snarkability...or would it be snarkasm?), but their reporting is always worth a look...

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Beijing Book City

A fascinating, long article on the emerging Chinese publishing industry in Sunday's New York Times. Just go read it; I think you'll enjoy...right here...if you miss it or can't access, let me know; I've archived it.

BTW I've been to Book City several times, and the place is as overwhelming as author Mike Meyer reports. It is not, however, my favorite store to buy Chinese language materials. There's a tiny HSK bookstore off Wudaokou, close to the Qinghua campus, tucked away in this older, low-rent compound that caters to Japanese students. All you have to do is walk in the door, and they'll give you a 20% student discount. Nice, friendly, helpful folks, so don't believe it when people tell you there's no such thing as good service in China.

This Explains It...

My first guest blogger ever provides some insight into that utterly bizarre Russell Crowe kidnapping story. In case you haven't heard about this, several years ago the New Zealand actor apparently was the target of a kidnapping plot - which he now says was planned by Al Qaeda. Apparently Al Qaeda wanted to abduct a Western cultural icon - and Crowe, fresh from his Oscar winning performance in GLADIATOR, seemed to fit their requirements...


By Evil Willow

Cultural De-Stabilization of the West, indeed...

So, when I first heard about this, I thought,
Look! Up in the sky, Miss Piggy and Porky Pig ARE
FLYING! Shit! Who Knew?

Then, I thought. The omnipotent and immeasurably
brilliant Mr. Crowe's knowledge of Arabic languages is
probably a little rusty (no pun intended). So, I'm
sure his translation of what Osama or some other
high-ranking Al-Qaida (Al-Qaidan?)operative is off by
a few words. You know this order came high from

Osama and/or one of his most trusted minions probably
said something like,
'You know this Russell Crowe fellow. He's really
working my last nerve. Plus, I always liked the other
guy from "L.A. Confidential" better. You know the
hot, thin one who was in that movie that was backward?
I want Crowe to go away now. We can release a press
statement about how we committed this act to
culturally de-stabilize the Western infidels or
something. I'm just sick of him!'

I got a picture of Osama with a list of Western public
figures who the al-Qaida could destroy as a symbolic
gesture to, um, de-stabilize Western cultural
Let's see,
1. The pope? Nope
2. Dubya? Nope.
3. Condi? Nope.
4. Dan Rather. Nope. Plus, he got fired from his
job. Nobody likes a loser.
How about one of those over-compensated Hollywood
Let's see -
1. Harrison Ford, star of the last century? Nah.
2. Julia Roberts, still the biggest female star on
the planet? Nope. Plus, who will raise her children?
Those 15 nannies?
3. Tom Cruise? Nah, I mean, sure we're Al-Qaida and
we're scary and all, but those Scientologists? Don't
wanna piss them off!
4. Johnny Carson? Woops! Nah.
5. Mel Gibson? He made Jesus Christ an It-boy again.
Nah. He's scarier than the Scientologists.
6. Hey, waitaminuit -- that guy, the one who's 1/19th
Maori warrior. You know the one who looks like the
model for Chucky the killer doll? Yeah! Him. Once
we get HIM out of the way, we will bring the West to
its knees.

Yeah, I'm sure that's the way it played out in Osama's

Bored Now.


Thank you, Evil Willow. I'll sleep much better tonight...

Friday, March 11, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging

feline laptop
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

A Green China?

How is it, ask the cynics in Beijing, that the Chinese government can pass some of the most beautiful laws in the world yet end up with one of the ugliest environments?
Jonathan Watts, reporting from Beijing for Great Britain's Manchester Guardian, is not all that optimistic that China's recently passed landmark renewable energy law will yield its intended goals.
The renewable energy law, which was approved by the standing committee of the National People's Congress on February 28, is - on paper at least - an impressively ambitious attempt to tackle some of the planet's worst problems of acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Its central pledge is that China - the world's second biggest producer of carbon dioxide after the United States - will increase its use of renewables, such as solar, wind, biomass, tidal and hydropower, to 10% of its total energy supply by 2010.
China, with some of the world's worst pollution (urban air is so bad that respiratory problems have become the leading cause of death), has compelling reasons to go green. And it does seem that environmental awareness is increasing in China. On my trip last year, I noticed billboards sprouting everywhere touting a green China and urging Chinese people to protect the environment. Of course, signs and billboards do not a cleaner environment make, but they do indicate at least some intention of the government to educate and mobilize its citizens.

What may stop such positive rhetoric and well-intentioned, even revolutionary regulations from having their intended affect is the same problem that affects so many other aspects of Chinese society: the lack of a strong rule of law that can overcome local power structures. Watt pinpoints this nicely:
...the law looks certain to run into the same wall of provincial non-cooperation that has stymied numerous other fine-sounding central government policies.

As in many countries, the problem is compounded by the weakness of the environment agency relative to economic and industrial ministries. China's state environmental planning agency is under no illusions about its clout. Earlier this year, it revealed that barely a third of the 586 plans for new power plants had been submitted to the agency for environmental assessments as stipulated by government guidelines.
There are signs for optimism, however.
To its credit, the agency has fought back with a surprisingly forceful campaign to halt the 20 most wasteful and environmentally risky projects. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has given strong backing to such moves and the government has committed itself to introduce "green-weighted GDP" figures, which would deduct environmental costs from output figures.
In Watt's formulation, it's too early to feel optimistic, given the huge obstacles that China's environmentalists face, both the magnitude of the existing environmental crisis and the entrenched strength of their opposition, the provincial powerbrokers and businessmen looking to line their pockets by building "public works" projects unhindered by regulations and environmental niceties. "It is just as possible that these fine sounding policies will go the same ugly way as so many of their predecessors," Watt writes. Probably true. But personally I'm going with optimism. The Chinese government should be applauded for their ambitious response to a very real global crisis. First you have to admit there's a problem, after all. Unlike our current President, who from his rapacious environmental policies probably figures that the Second Coming will take care of all the resulting messiness just fine...

You can read the complete article here...

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Hu's Next?

(I'm really sorry about that. But I've had this song theme running through the blog titles, and....okay, I'm still really sorry. Onward)

The abrupt departure of Hong Kong's Beijing appointed Tung Chee-Hwa signals the full consolidation of power by President Hu Jintao's administration and the end of outgoing leader Jiang Zemin's influence, according to China watchers.
Though the 67-year-old Tung insisted it was his idea to step down with two years left in his term, commentators said Beijing pressured him to get out following mounting public discontent, moving him to a high-level post as a government adviser.

If Hu was behind Tung's departure, it would be the Chinese leader's boldest move yet to put his own stamp on government following a drawn-out handover of power that began in 2002 when he replaced Jiang Zemin as head of the ruling Communist Party.

"If Jiang Zemin had stayed in power, I don't see this happening at all," said Steve Tsang, a Chinese politics specialist at Britain's Oxford University.

Quiet and more businesslike than the gregarious Jiang, Hu has promised more responsive government, with officials held accountable.

But until now, Jiang has lingered in the background despite his official departure. The 78-year-old former president held onto a powerful post until last year as chairman of a party commission that runs China's military. He didn't give up his last official title until this week, when he resigned as head of a ceremonial government military panel....

..."People usually see Tung as Jiang Zemin's man and the very fact that his resignation was accepted was a reflection that Jiang may no longer have any influence," said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology...

...Jiang was picked in 1989 to rebuild a ruling party that was nearly torn apart by a power struggle after the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. He was known as a master consensus-builder, but his government was accused of letting economic and social problems fester.

Hu's government already has shown its willingness to act swiftly when officials slip up. China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing were fired in 2003 for mishandling the SARS outbreak...

"What one has seen," Tsang said, "is a show of decisiveness and political acumen that was not so visible under Jiang Zemin — that they could see the problem and were prepared to deal with it."...

But the move doesn't reflect any concessions by Hu's government to pressure for democratic change or hold out the promise of more political openness on the communist mainland, said Tsang.

"I don't think Hu Jintao is any more open or liberal than Jiang Zemin," he said.

It also isn't clear how the new style might affect dealings with Taiwan, the self-ruled island that split from the communist mainland in 1949 following a civil war...

...Hu's government introduced the controversial bill that China's parliament is expected to pass on Monday authorizing a military attack if Taiwan pursues formal independence. The measure codifies into law longtime mainland threats to attack the island.

"We have seen Hu Jintao consolidating his position, and he is in more of a position to take a tougher stand or make more concessions toward Taipei," Tsang said. "But which way he will go still depends on politics and policies in Beijing."
To paraphrase Zhou Enlai, it is still too soon to say...

Over at Sinosplice is a very interesting conversation prompted by long time China blogger Hank's announcement that he was putting a halt to his blog, the "Laowai Monologues" because of work pressure and threats from local Chinese authorities. Many of the participants, myself included, mourned the end of Hank's blog and were saddened that censorship is still such in China that he felt he could no longer safely continue it. And then an anonymous blogger made an interesting point. "Is it just me, or is it not the case that anyone, in any country, who writes negatively about his colleagues, particularly his boss, in public can expect to suffer job insecurity if it comes to their attention? If I was in the UK blogging about a crap boss I would fully expect to lose my job if it came to light, regardless of how crap he was, or otherwise."

Other Chinese commentators went on to say that certainly a Chinese American in the US would be hesitant to speak out strongly against Bush, or that circumstances in America could change in the future for the worst in terms of being able to freely express one's political opinions.

Regardless of how much I despise Bush and hate the direction he's taken this country, the damage he's done to the Constitution and to the rule of law, his codifying torture, for god's sake - these things violate the very best aspects of this nation's fundamental character - still, you simply can't equate equate the repression of political speech here and in China. Bush is a cowardly, incompetent, draft-dodging, cocaine-abusing, sadistic little chickenhawk weasel...nyah, nyah, nyah...


People in the States have gotten fired for what they've posted on their blogs about their day jobs. I work in a corporation and I can tell you - you don't have the same protections in a corporate environment in terms of speech, search and seizure and an expectation of privacy that you do outside of the workplace. I may not get thrown in jail for what I say or do in the workplace, but I could certainly get fired for it. Some of these rules are only appropriate - there's no place for harrassment and hateful speech in the workplace. But getting fired for what one might say about one's job in one's private blog on one's own time?

Well, I guess the argument is that such an attitude indicates a disgruntled employee, who isn't a part of the "team" and is potentially damaging the company's reputation. Why should a company continue to employ such a person?

Which brings me back to China. What we've seen of Hu so far, of his governing style, reminds me somewhat of a corporate executive: demanding accountability, punishing incompetence and not permitting much external criticism. Certainly there are some positives and strengths to this style of governing.

But public service is not the same as working for a corporation. We've been going down this road, this mania for the privatization of everything, even those things which constitute the greater public good, those things held in common for all of us: our infrastructure, our air and water and wilderness, our schools, our prisons, even our armed forces. I think it's fair to say that overall the results so far have not been promising (for example, for a look at the sad state of America's infrastructure, go here). Some things belong in the public sphere, not in the hands of for profit industry.

And we've seen what happens when corporate power is not held in check by laws and public institutions. You end up with Enrons, corrupt, unrestrained beasts that lie and cheat and rip us off, lay waste to peoples' lives, whose officers enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us, who buy political influence and manipulate laws so they can further corrupt the system for their benefit.

President Hu may be an honest man. Perhaps even an incorruptible one. But what if his successor is not?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Another Country

At the risk of oversharing, I had my second ever mammogram this AM. Yes, I've gotten to the age where this is something I'm supposed to do on a semi-regular basis. I've never really thought much about breast cancer, never had much fear of getting it and have probably been less than viligant about the whole issue. Eventually, however, I do generally get around to doing what I should, so this morning, off I went to the "Breast Center" of a Westside hospital.

Of course I was five minutes late (I could say that this was because I couldn't find the doctor's order, which is true, but in all honesty, I am just about always five minutes late to anything in the morning). I apologized to the receptionist at the center, noting that the patient before me had signed in 15 minutes early for her appointment. "Probably how you're supposed to do things, right?" I joked.

"Oh, it's not a problem at all. Some people come in too early. Soon as our doors open, they're waiting. No reason for it."

Per her instructions, I took my seat. The Breast Center was set up with some money, I thought. It's named after a woman - a cancer victim? Survivor? Relative of same? It has nice furniture. Kind of brocade style, a little Laura Ashley or English cottage or something. I sat in a wing-backed chair and started reading my LA Times. Next to me, a trim woman in an interesting black suit with leather piping, spoke into her cell phone: "Well, how much is it? Then I want to buy a thousand shares." And I'm spinning all sorts of scenarios. Is she here for a mammogram? Does she have cancer? Isn't this the kind of overly theatrical irony one finds in some Hollywood film, the high-powered businesswoman doing deals in the waiting room of the Breast Center, soon to be struck down by cancer?

After she completes the call, she rests her head in her hands for a moment. What if it's true, I wonder?

I don't have to wait too long. A volunteer conducts me to the dressing room. We pass the Positive Image Center, basically a gift store with hats and wigs and such for cancer patients. What is it about that same damn hat for women with cancer, you know, the one that's round with a small round brim and a bow at one side? It looks like something that an extremely Orthodox female Jewish settler in the Gaza would wear, to cover her head for God. Not fashion forward.

We pass a series of rooms. A social worker. Financial counseling. Financial counseling! I think, how wrong is this, that in a moment of extreme personal crisis, dealing with your own mortality for crissakes, you have to cope with financial counseling? I think about that damned bankruptcy bill oiling its way through Congress, the one written by and for credit card companies that will make it far more difficult for people to declare bankruptcy. We're encouraging personal responsibility, they say. Well, the majority of bankruptcies in America are triggered by a health crisis. By that shock of fate. One moment, you are fine. The next, you have entered another country, the country of illness. It is not the same as your native land. It is hospital corridors, gurnies in the halls, patients shuffling down them pulling their IV stands. It is odd pastel shades, doctors and nurses and orderlies in scrubs, plastic tubes, the beeping of machinery. It's an old woman sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital gown. A breast cancer patient. "Excuse me," her son says. "She needs someone to take her to the restroom."

In the dressing room, another woman, much younger than I am and accompanied by her mother, wishes me luck. I make some friendly reply. It just hadn't occured to me that I needed any luck. This is just a routine check-up, right? And I think, I should have wished her luck back. At her age, why is she even getting a mammogram, unless there's already some indication of a problem?

I get my mammogram. The process is intrinsically undignified. I mean, you are putting your breast on a plate and squishing it like you're preparing some sort of pannini. But this doesn't really bother me that much. There's an odd sort of humor to it that I can't precisely pinpoint.

The technician is professional, friendly enough if not exactly personable. That's fine too. After she checks the films to make sure they came out okay, she goes to her station and starts preparing the plates for the next patient. "You're all finished here," she says. She does not look at me.

I thank her and leave. And I wonder, did she not look at me because she saw some problem on my films? Was she afraid that if she looked at me, it would show on her face, what she saw?

I make my way through the hospital and out to the parking lot. And by the time I'm back in my car, I've forgotten about it, pretty much. I'm back in my familiar country, the country where I am whole and healthy and need not fear slipping into the abyss...

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Censorship and Social Harmony

Two interesting and tangentially related China stories in the New York Times the other day. The first deals with China's rapidly growing gulf between the rich and the poor, and the new Chinese administration's emphasis on the problem. President Hu Jintao has made "building a harmonious society through scientific development" the ideological centerpiece of his policies:
The ideological campaign emphasizes the need to reduce social conflict and take a step back from the pro-growth orientation of previous leadership.
All of this will no doubt be the major topic of discussion at the 2005 National People's Conference, which opens in Beijing this weekend.
"At past meetings, the stress was on fast growth - how many bridges were built, how tall the new buildings are," said Hu Jinguang, a legal scholar at People's University in Beijing who follows the workings of the legislature. "Now the main emphasis is on social well-being and spreading the wealth."

...Delegates will also discuss changing land development laws to make it harder for local governments to seize farmland to build factories, offices, hotels or shopping malls. China now has millions of landless peasants, and their circumstances and growing discontent are not entirely unlike the conditions the Communists exploited to rise to power in 1949.
Questions remain, however, as to whether the proposed changes will occur at the structural level necessary to fundamentally improve the lives of the rural poor and those otherwise left behind in China's booming economy.
"This new leadership is much more concerned with disadvantaged groups," said Hu Xingdou, a management expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology and an outspoken critic of the government. "But they have to consider institutionalizing this stream of thought so it is not just the idea of a benevolent leader."
Moreover, since becoming Party chief, Hu has clamped down on public discourse about such issues, increasing media censorship. Which brings us to story number two, about the ongoing battle between Chinese censors and Chinese internet users.
For many China watchers, the holding of a National People's Congress beginning this weekend is an ideal occasion for gleaning the inner workings of this country's closed political system. For specialists in China's Internet controls, though, the gathering of legislators and top political leaders offers a chance to measure the state of the art of Web censorship.

The authorities set the tone earlier this week, summoning the managers of the country's main Internet providers, major portals and Internet cafe chains and warning them against allowing "subversive content" to appear online.
China's "Great Firewall" is the most sophisticated systems of internet control and censorship in the world. But of course, users will find their way around practically anything.
"What they are doing is a little bit like sticking fingers into the dike," said Stephen Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon who formerly developed technologies for allowing ordinary Chinese to avoid government censorship. "Beijing is investing heavily in keeping the lid on, and they've been pretty successful at controlling what appears. But there is always going to be uncontrolled activity around the edges."
The article reports on how the government's efforts to control internet discourse seemed to have paid off after the death of Zhao Ziyang, with little overt discussion on media websites and web forums. Underneath that, however, web surfers used euphemism, mispellings, encryption and so on, to divert government censors. On college campuses, "University bulletin boards lit up with heavy traffic just after Mr. Zhao's death was announced. But for all of the hits on the news item related to his death, virtually no comments were posted, creating a false impression of lack of interest."

It's hard to understand through what logic President Hu arrived at the conclusion that restricting public discussion of problems will somehow lead to greater social harmony - if we don't talk about it, then it doesn't exist, maybe? But Hu has acknowledged these problems exist; addressing these inequalities has been one of the biggest distinctions between his administration and that of and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Does the government fear that if too many of the left-behind are able to give public voice to their discontent, this will somehow lead to greater unrest and chaos? Or, worse: that they will find each other and organize, demand their own power rather than count on a system that has failed them?

Some in China are publicly questioning this logic, advocating that the government stop internet censorship.
"All of the big mistakes made in China since 1949 have had to do with a lack of information," said Guo Liang, an Internet expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Lower levels of government have come to understand this, and I believe that since the SARS epidemic, upper levels may be beginning to understand this, too."
This, at least, is a reason for optimism in my book: that in today's China, there are "experts" like Guo Liang and Hu Xingdou who feel compelled to speak out and seem unafraid to do so. Twenty or thirty years ago, such frank discussion was pretty much unheard of. Now, as squeamish as the government might be of the notion of "public intellectuals," it seems the intellectuals are helping to create a true "public" discourse, a real dialog between the rulers and the ruled. Maybe, someday soon, the masses will have a voice in this conversation as well.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Ever Regal Murphy

The Ever Regal Murphy
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

It's her world...we just live in it.

The First Lisa at Kampachi

The First Lisa at Kampachi
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

Lisa X. joins Billy and me at Kampachi. We are not having fugu, so I'm not sure why she looks so worried...

Thursday, March 03, 2005

If You Knew Fugu...

Billy has been taking me to Kampachi for more than a dozen years. Kampachi is the best sushi bar I've ever been to: very traditional, very Japanese, with a master chef who appreciates customers with adventurous tastes. Billy, who has been going to Kampachi since the 1980s, often says that no matter how many times he's been there, every visit brings at least one dish he's never tried before. Which given Billy's experience with and understanding of sushi, is really saying something. At Kampachi, they call Billy "Sushi Ken" - not because they don't know his name, but because "Ken" means "master" (or something along those lines). Billy's knowledge of sushi (and just about every other major cuisine you could name) is encyclopedic. He and the master chef discuss ingredients, philosophies of Japanese food, its presentation, the aesthetics and culture. So going to Kampachi is more than a gustatory experience - it's an intellectual one as well (you can read Billy's review of Kamapchi here).

But oh, the many different, tantalizing flavors, textures, subtle combinations. As much as we enjoy talking during these long, drawn-out meals, there will come a point - several - heck, at least one for just about every dish - where we're reduced to happy sighs and embarrassingly orgasmic moans. Damn, the food is good.

The other night, while sitting at the sushi bar, someone - I forget who - commented on a handwritten sign in Japanese posted on the wall. "That says, 'fire,'" I pipe up. "And that one's...wind." One of the chefs has studied some Chinese, so towards the end of the evening, when I've had a couple sakes, we generally exchange a few words.

"It's for fugu," the chef explains.

"You can get fugu?" Billy asks, more than casually interested.

"Yes. From Japan. Just order four days in advance."

Now, I've heard of fugu. It's a blowfish of some sort, considered a delicacy (and a very expensive one) in Japan. Partially because it's very poisonous, and has to be prepared just right in order to ensure repeat business from your clientele. Who, if the fugu isn't prepared just right, can drop dead on the spot from respiratory paralysis.

By the time I've returned from the restroom, Billy has determined that a special fugu dinner is just what's needed as a belated celebration of my birthday.

The next Wednesday, Billy, Pete (an old research buddy and my original link to Billy - the two of them are childhood friends) and my sister, Dana, meet at Kampachi for our arranged fugu dinner.

I'd very much been looking forward to the dinner. But for some reason I'd been reluctant to make too many jokes about death by fugu in the preceding email exchanges. Because, of course, that wasn't going to happen. Was it? I mean, this is one of the best sushi chefs in greater Los Angeles. Surely there was nothing to worry about. Probably the whole danger aspect was exaggerated anyway.

Still, I avoided telling anyone exactly what the dinner was about. Just, because, well, you know...

The day of the dinner, I did a little research. The preparation of fugu is tightly regulated, I was happy to discover. Chefs are rigorously trained. Hardly anyone is poisoned by fugu these days, even if the amount of toxin in the liver is enough to kill thirty grown men; the poisonings that do occur tend to happen in outlying areas of Japan, with chefs who aren't properly certified. So what if the Lonely Planet website quoted a line from a Japanese poem: "Last night he and I ate fugu; today I helped carry his coffin." That was from, like, ages ago. And that crack about fugu being the dining equivalent of bungee-jumping...kind of a cheap shot, really.

In truth, I am not a bungee-jumping person. I tend to be cautious and analytical. And a great spinner of worst-case scenarios. God, how embarrasing would it be if I died from fugu poisoning?

We sat in the tatami room, Billy, Pete, Dana and I, drinking hot sake and waiting for our fugu. By now we were cracking jokes. Fugu dinners are highly ritualized (for a more positive account than Lonely Planet's, go here, and for additional interesting information, here). Fugu sashimi comes on a huge platter, sliced thin to the point of translucence. Special scallions from Japan, tiny green reeds, are rolled up in the fugu, which is dipped in ponzu sauce. You can add a kind of daikon relish and more scallions if you'd like.

But when the fugu platter came, we all kind of stared at it for a while.

"I'm not going first," I announced.

Billy, true to form, took the first bite.

And when he didn't die, we all plunged in, quickly putting aside any thoughts of danger or mortality. It seemed the most normal, delightful thing in the world, to be sitting in that tatami room, drinking sake and eating fugu with good friends.

Fugu has a delicate flavor and a slightly rubbery texture. The first bite, I thought I felt that tingling of the lips and tongue that marks the residual toxin and is so prized by afficionados, but I can't be certain. "Do you think it's so prized because it can kill you?" I ask Billy, thinking of a Japanese proverb I'd read earlier in the day: "Those who eat fugu soup are stupid. But those who don't eat fugu soup are also stupid."

"It's because of the delicacy of the flavor," Billy replies. "Keep in mind that the ultimate expression of Japanese cuisine is a plain custard."

I think it's a little of both, an expression of the contrasts, the light and the dark, the attempt at balance, that are so much a part of Japanese culture. I think of another poem I'd read:
I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.

After the sashimi, the server - I hesitate to call her a waitress, she is something above that - brings us something that she isn't sure we'll like. Hot sake in big covered cups, in which soaks a fugu fin. It's absolutely delicious - a sort of cross between sake and a meaty broth. Next, we made soup: a huge clay pot of water on a gas burner, in which we spooned chunks of fugu, onions, tofu, greens and mushrooms. Simple, plain, unspiced and unornamented. It's ironic, the juxtaposition of this prized, gourmet ingredient and almost peasant fare.

All the while we talked, we toasted, we laughed. We celebrated our lives and our friendships. And I think perhaps this is part of the meaning of a fugu dinner. We're all of us living on the edge of dying. We can mourn, and sometimes we must. And we can celebrate. Also because we must.

And for dessert, we had toro.