Friday, December 21, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Traffic Crashes Chinese Anti-Corruption Website

From the Associated Press:
BEIJING -- A new Web site created by China's anti-corruption bureau crashed after barely a day because too many visitors tried to log on to register complaints, state media said Wednesday.

The National Bureau of Corruption Prevention was formed in September to tackle mounting corruption scandals involving government and Communist Party officials.

It set up a Web site Monday that allowed the public to leave comments about its work, but the strain of too many visitors brought down the site Tuesday, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.

The site was back online Wednesday and had 16 pages comprising more than 250 comments, which ranged from complaints about the promotion of public officials to criticism about the Web site itself.
I'm too sleep-deprived to say anything very intelligible about this, except to comment that when a government opens itself up to take complaints, it had better follow through — but by following through, it also empowers citizens who see by their participation that they are able to change things.

Okay, that was knee-jerk profundity at best.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Al Gore in Bali

Here's some much needed inspiration from Al Gore. I'm finally starting to accept that he won't be President — because he's found something more important to do.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Done...for now...

Some of you know that I've been working on a novel...and working...and working...

I just finished another draft. I sincerely hope this is the last draft, or at least if I have to do another one, it will be because some publisher wants to buy the thing.

It's been a long process. Frustrating, satisfying, exhausting, invigorating. Sometimes all at once.

I'm going to sit with it for a few days — maybe even a few weeks — before I send it off to the agent who requested the rewrites. No guarantees. We'll see. Depending on how that goes, maybe I'll blog about it some day. This agent really changed my perception of what agents do and the passion at least some have for their work — and this particular individual has been a joy to work with, regardless of the outcome.

In the meantime, here is a great piece on how provincial interests frequently trump Beijing's attempts to control environmental problems and conserve energy. It illustrates something I've talked about here on many occasions — the fragmented nature of power in today's China and the challenge of creating a consistent rule of law even as the central government attempts to continue monopolizing political authority. Have a look.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Picket Fences

For the first time in my life, I've had to cross picket lines, and I'm not liking it much. The Writers Guild of America is on strike. There's no threat or expectation that non-Guild members shouldn't cross; it's not that kind of picket line. Yet there is an odd resonance with labor movements past that I hadn't expected. The picketers wear snappy red T-shirts with WGA logos; there are special "strike" editions that I wish I could buy. The signs are good too, especially the 30s style with a lightning bolt ending in a fountain pen and the word "Strike!" superimposed over it. Reminds me of the old RKO logo.

The writers ask for drivers to honk in support. All day long I hear the horns, and when I have to cross the street, I see who is responding: drivers in Prius and MINIs and even BMWs. Toyotas and Focus and all variety of beaters. Truckers in particular blast their air-horns. The writers cheer.

I'm on the writers' side too, and I've honked when I've driven past. How could I not? The writers look like me. If my life had gone a different way, I could have easily been one of them.

Most of the people I work with support the writers as well. We all know what's at stake. As one Guild spokesperson put it, this isn't about the Rich versus the Richer, and there's a reason that truckers are honking in support.

Hollywood creates a lot of wealth, and what's focused on in the popular media are the extremes — the mega-salaries, the superstars, the cartoon excesses. What gets lost in such stereotypes is the reality for most people who work in the Industry. Hollywood creates a lot of decent-paying jobs that allow for reasonable middle-class to upper middle-class lifestyles. That's the bulk of the industry.

I found the following numbers in yesterday's Dead Tree edition of the Los Angeles Times and am thus far unable to find a link, but have a look:
Total paid in DVD/VHS residuals to WGA members in 2006: $56.6 million.

Severance package of Viacom's outsted chief Tom Freston: $60 million

Average production cost (excluding marketing) of studio movie in '06: $65.8 million

Compensation paid to CBS chief Leslie Moonves in 2006: $28.6 million.
Needless to say, it's tough to take management's pleas of poverty seriously when they pay a guy more than the annual total of all residuals paid to the WGA — for fucking up.

The writers' strike is about being fairly compensated in a very lucrative industry. It is about having some small ownership over the fruits of one's labor.

I've watched with increasing dismay, anger and outright horror the economic trends in this country. No less an expert than Warren Buffet feels that there is fundamental unfairness in our current tax structure. And this fundamental unfairness goes well beyond taxes.

We live in an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. It's a rigged game, designed to funnel money out of the middle class (and upper middle class for that matter) and divert it instead to a handful of very wealthy people. Once you have that much wealth and power concentrated in so few people, it becomes very difficult for "ordinary" peoples' interests to be represented in any meaningful way.

Marx's notion of "wage slavery" seems all too descriptive these days.

I've never been a Marxist, and I believe in capitalism as an efficient mechanism to organize a society. But there's another necessary component, and that is social justice. There are as well values that transcend the marketplace — abstract notions of community that are not always easily quantified. I've never understood why so many social conservatives are market fundamentalists when unfettered capitalism is so destructive to traditional values. There are communal interests that both consist of and transcend the aggregate of individual ones.

So, go Writers Guild of America! Strike a blow for decent wages and the ownership of one's own labors! And let's all hope the strike ends soon. Otherwise we are faced with a season of "reality" shows like Farmer Takes a Wife and Clash of the Choirs.

Really. No one wants to see that.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A final note on disasters...

This Christian Science Monitor article details some of the things that California and specifically San Diego has done right to deal with living in disaster-prone areas. As the piece points out, we've still got a long way to go. But, as an example:
Not only has California allowed higher insurance rates to send signals to homeowners who live recklessly in risky danger zones, it is also imposing tougher property standards. In San Diego County especially, officials have learned many lessons from the 2003 wildfires – the largest in California's recent history – that killed 16 people and destroyed 2,458 homes.

In a new defensive policy known as "shelter in place," the county set construction and landscape codes in 2004 for new homes in fire-prone areas. These included the use of noncombustible roof materials, indoor sprinklers, fire-resistant vegetation, and a 100-foot-wide protection perimeter.

The result? In five new subdivisions that met those codes, this month's wildfires raced by them and not a single house was lost.

In addition, San Diego County has removed much of the area's fire-vulnerable underbrush. It set up a mass notification system that helped quickly evacuate more than half a million people in danger of the fast-moving flames.
Note that aside from allowing higher insurance rates, all of the effective measures taken are government policies — not some libertarian fantasy of individual ownership and the invisible hand of the marketplace.

And as a final p.s. — Go Chargers!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Enough already

It really pisses me off to see how right wingers and idiots are holding up the differences between the fires in San Diego and Hurricane Katrina as some kind of proof that, well, white people are more civilized than those black folks in New Orleans.

Tbogg, The Rude Pundit and Steve Lopez of the LA Times put this better than I could (even if I did have time to write a proper post), but just to be really clear about things, you simply can't compare the fires, which burned in the suburbs and left the city center and infrastructure intact, with a hurricane that pretty much took out everything.

Further, far from an example of Republican efficiency at work, the fires in San Diego were made worse by a tax-cutting mentality that refuses to do what's necessary to create a county fire-fighting force and the developers and the bought politicians who have run the city for years building in places where they shouldn't (e.g, combustible chaparral-covered hillsides and canyons).

I do think California handles disasters better than Louisiana. Correct me if I'm wrong (I'm not an expert), but Louisiana does not exactly have a reputation for good, clean government. California, meanwhile, has a lot of experience in dealing with large-scale disasters. We have these huge fires nearly every year and a big earthquake every decade or so. We should have a better idea how to cope.

Monday, October 22, 2007

California Burning

Horrific day today in Southern California. Much of my hometown San Diego is on fire, including local landmarks like the Wild Animal Park — the smaller animals, including cheetahs and condors, have been evacuated to a fire-resistant shelter on the premises; the larger animals, the elephants and lions and giraffes, are left to their savannah-like habitats, which have large ponds they can escape to if necessary...but still...

Visualize San Diego County, up against the ocean. Picture the city proper, surrounded by a crescent of suburbs and back country. Nearly that entire crescent is on fire or under threat, with fires threatening to burn to the ocean in places.

Solana Beach, Leucadia, Del Mar, being evacuated. I can't picture it.

I grew up in those beach towns, back when that's what they were — unpretentious surfer havens. Cheap Mexican restaurants. I've never been able to fully accept the changes there, the condos, the housing tracts, the influx of money. Seeing these places in recent years makes me feel like a refuge in my own hometown. I'll never go back. I wouldn't be able to afford it. And I no longer want to.

But watching these fires, I feel the pull of where I was born. This was my place. This is where I came from.

Here's San Diego for you: Qualcomm Stadium has been pressed into service as an evacuation center. That's home of the Chargers, former home of the Padres (who moved to much nicer digs downtown).

So many volunteers showed up at Qualcomm with pizza and sandwiches that the authorities are telling everybody to wait until tomorrow to come, because they have too much food, and it will spoil. Meanwhile, some of the concessions at the Stadium have opened up to feed the refugees.

Meaning, fish tacos will be served. Because you can't go to the Q without having a fish taco.

We do pretty well in California with disasters — sure, we had the LA riots in '92, but look how well we handled the Northridge Quake in '93.

The corruption and incompetence of San Diego government in recent years could fill several books, but there still seems to be some basic ability of the government to function and for people to feel that they have some connection to each other. Yeah, there's folks looting the burnt-out shells of houses in Rancho Bernardo; there is righteous anger over the lack of coordination, of fire equipment — why the hell isn't the Navy out there with their infrared-equipped helicopters? No one seems to have a good answer.

But there will be fish tacos.

UPDATE: And massage therapists. Only in California....

Monday, October 15, 2007

Back to the salt mines...

Or the chain gang...or whatever lame metaphor you'd like to use for going back to work on a project that never seems to be finished.

Yep, it's a new round of rewrites for the Book that Ate My Blog...and it may sound like I'm bitching, but I'm really not. It's an opportunity, and my only real worry is that I won't be up for the job, because I've got a lot of work to do, and some of it won't be easy.

A lot of the stuff I normally blog about — China, the staggering crimes of the Bush Administration, stuff like that — has been subsumed (is that a word?) into this novel (which I nonetheless promise is NOT didactic!). So I haven't been as driven to blog about it. But I'll try to at least put up pointers to great articles you might have missed while I once again lose myself in rewrites.

Creative transfusion, STAT!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

I'm baaack....kinda

Okay, so my hiatus was a tad bit longer than a couple of days...but the novel I've been complaining about is sort of like a vampire. It's sucked nearly all of my creative energy dry. Not that I'm complaining. Much. I'm still working on it, and it's getting better.

I just need a couple transfusions before I'm back blogging again...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Back in a couple days...

Yelapa Beach
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa
The book is done (for now); the query sent, and I'm taking off for a few days of beach and margaritas. Enjoy your week!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Must Read

I'm still working on my book (see, the thing about novels is, well, they're novels, and just because you finish a draft or three doesn't mean you're done) but wanted to call attention to a truly excellent piece by Peter Hessler (author of River Town and Oracle Bones at National Geographic. It's called "China's Instant Cities" and is a fascinating look at the nearly unimaginable pace of development through the life of a project near Wenzhou, in Zhejiang. Wenzhou people are known throughout China for their enterprise and resolve, with towns in the region specializing in everything from shoes to zippers to cigarette lighters. In this lengthy portrait, an aspiring Wenzhou businessman stakes his fortune on...the little rings that adjust bra straps.

H/T to China Law Blog for finding this gem.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

My kind of car!

Now this is what I call sustainable energy:
SHINANOMACHI, Japan (Reuters) - Japanese motorists may one day pump their cars full of sake, the fermented rice wine that is Japan's national drink, if a pilot project to create sake fuel is a hit with locals in this mountain resort.

The government-funded project at Shinanomachi, 200 kilometres (124 miles) northwest of Tokyo, will produce cheap rice-origin ethanol brew with the help of local farmers who will donate farm waste such as rice hulls to be turned into ethanol.

"We want to present the next generation a preferable blue print -- a self-sustainable use of local fuels," said Yasuo Igarashi, a professor of applied microbiology at the University of Tokyo who heads the three year project.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Year of the Pig

More bad news about the safety of China's food supply and the willingness of the Chinese government to share necessary information to the rest of the world:
A mysterious epidemic is killing pigs in southeastern China, but international and Hong Kong authorities said today that the Chinese government is providing little information about it, or about the contaminated wheat gluten that has caused deaths and illnesses in other animals...

...Because pigs can catch many of the same diseases as people, including bird flu, the two U.N. agencies maintain global networks to track and investigate unexplained patterns of pig deaths.

Hong Kong television broadcasts and newspapers were full of lurid accounts today of pigs staggering around with blood pouring from their bodies in Gaoyao and neighboring Yunfu, both in Guangdong Province. The Apple Daily newspaper said that as many as 80 percent of the pigs in the area had died, that panicky farmers were selling ailing animals at deep discounts and that pig carcasses were floating in a river.

The reports in Hong Kong said the disease began killing pigs after the Chinese New Year celebrations in February, and is now spreading. But state-controlled news outlets in China have reported almost nothing about the pig deaths, and very little about the wheat gluten problem...

Monday, April 30, 2007

It's not just about pet food

Sorry for my silence. I've been working on my book, and I owe various people reads on their projects. But the New York Times has a story up about the pet food contamination scandal that claims adulteration with melamine is an open secret in China, and that it's been in the human food chain for a long time:
Workers at the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Company say they commonly add the chemical melamine in the process of making animal feed. Melamine appears as protein but has no nutritional value.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”...

...The pet food case is also putting China’s agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.

In recent years, for instance, China’s food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim.

For their part, Chinese officials dispute any suggestion that melamine from the country could have killed pets. But regulators here on Friday banned the use of melamine in vegetable proteins made for export or for use in domestic food supplies.

Yet what is clear from visiting this region of northeast China is that for years melamine has been quietly mixed into Chinese animal feed and then sold to unsuspecting farmers as protein-rich pig, poultry and fish feed.
"If there's no accident, there won't be any regulation..."

It's no surprise to anyone who's followed contemporary China closely that unscrupulous business owners cut corners to lower costs and increase profits. But I place the blame on our own cutthroat, corporatist system as well. Where was the FDA? What happened to food safety?

Remember how Ronald Reagan helped to demonize the government? What was that cute joke of his, "the nine scariest words in the English language — 'I'm with the government, and I'm here to help." So we've cut services, privatized, outsourced, basically allowed the agencies that are supposed to be working for our benefit to be gutted and co-opted, to the point where the state of California had to sue the Environmental Protection Agency in order to regulate tail-pipe emissions...and poisoned pets, contaminates in the human food chain, are just one result.

There's something deeply wrong with the current logic of globalization, when the United States, one of the world's agricultural powerhouses, is importing substandard food products from China, simply because they are "cheaper."

"Cheaper"? What are the real costs here? To our health. To our environment. The amount of fossil fuels burned to transport this stuff here alone should give us pause.

It's past time to start factoring in the social and environmental costs of doing business when we consider the definition of profitability.

H/T to SusanHu of No Quarter and Itchmo

UPDATE The FDA announced that it will limit the import of certain Chinese food products until they can be proven safe, to include "wheat gluten, rice gluten, rice protein, rice protein concentrate, corn gluten, corn gluten meal, corn by-products, soy protein, soy gluten, mung-bean protein and amino acids" - ingredients found in everything "from noodles to breakfast bars." They've also confirmed that pet deaths are in the thousands, not the few dozen they've insisted on, against all evidence.

Stay tuned.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Back Online

With a zippy new computer and a fast DSL connection. Posts to follow.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Stoopid Internets

I've been having one computer/internet issue after another. No internet access at home - no computer at home! So my blogging hiatus continues. More soon...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

End of the line

My last day in Beijing, I decided to check out a wine bar some friends had told me about, in a hutong by the Lama Temple. The Vineyard Cafe is charming, with a decent selection of wines at (for China) decent prices. I spent a while chatting with one of the owners, Will, and promised that I would bring in a bottle from California next time I was in town - California wines don't seem to have the market penetration in China that the Australians and South Americans do.

I didn't have wine, though, since I was returning to California the next day and would have plenty of that soon enough. Instead I tried an imported British ale, Abbott. It was very good, fresh, and compared to the Yanjing and Qingdaos I'd been downing, strong.

Which might explain my decision to ride the #1 Subway line all the way east to the end. Yes, including the Ba Tong extension.

You ride the #1 subway line west, you're heading in the direction of some of greater Beijing's prettier scenery, the Fragrant Hills. I was tempted to go that way, to the end of the line at Pingguoyuan, catch a taxi to the temples there. But after that beer, I was more in the mood for something weirder. I mean, who knew what was out at the eastern end? Some place called "Tu Qiao." Nothing in my "Lonely Planet Beijing" about Tu Qiao, or anything out that way (though when I briefly emerged at Shihui East to transfer to the Ba Tong extension, I saw signs for a "Red Sandalwood Museum." Next time).

I noted that one of the stops on the Ba Tong was called "Tongzhou Bei Yuan" That was sort of intriguing. A lot of artists live in the countryside around Tongzhou, though not right off the subway, from what I knew. I could have made arrangements to go and see some of the studios, but I'd already visited a number of artists' communities and galleries. It's not the art that interests me so much as the environments in which it operates, and there isn't supposed to be a real scene out there - a lot of artists have moved to Tongzhou to get away from those kinds of bohemian distractions.

But if Tongzhou Bei Yuan is any indication, this is a pretty post-modern version of the scholar or Daoist's retreat to the countryside.

"That area has got to be the butt-end of Beijing," one of my friends remarked later. "It's where depressed urban professionals live to commute to their boring jobs in the city." I don't know about the degree of depression of the residents, but it's true that the scenery is not exactly inspiring.

A couple of stops before the Ba Tong extension, the subway emerges from underground. The landscape that passes by the windows is flat, featureless, the ranks of apartment blocks and malls and older white tile fronted businesses wrapped in a grayish yellow haze. The area didn't strike me as impoverished; there are plenty of new, glassy buildings, but at first glance there's absolutely nothing to distinguish this place from any other part of modern Beijing, any other part of modern China, for that matter. Sometimes, you could see what it had been like, before Beijing swallowed it up: remnants of red-brick commune buildings and factories, the occasional temple surrounded by restaurants, travel agencies, laundries, appliance stores and netbars.

It's the kind of place where, you look out the window around Tongzhou Bei, and see some new, upper-middle class type apartment buildings, solid, stocky constructions of rusty brown slabs and marble trim, and the buildings are called: "Rotterdam," "Toronto," "Marseilles," "Bordeaux," and "Seattle."

I mean, why "Seattle"?

Why not, I guess.

Otherwise, the most notable moment of my ride to Tu Qiao came when a female dwarf tried to cheat me on the price of an English-language Beijing Tourist Map.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A day in Beijing

In all of my recent trips to China, I've gone someplace I've never been - or at least haven't seen in 25 odd years. Except this last trip. I had some vague ambitions - visit Kaifang, maybe, or Putuoshan - but I justed ended up going to Beijing and Shanghai. I hung out with friends, explored random neighborhoods, read a few books. I mean, it's not as though I haven't seen plenty of temples and historic sites, and I find that I just as much enjoy slowing down, wandering around, looking at "ordinary" things - trying to take the measure of what the rhythms of life are like in this place, imagining my own life, in a way, if I'd ended up here instead of there.

My last two days in Beijing, I'd thought maybe I'd go visit a mountain village I'd read good things about - you know, a scenic, quaint sort of place, the China of one's imagination rather than the urban realities that I'd been experiencing. But I didn't get around to it. Instead, one day while looking for a restaurant, I went the wrong way and came upon Tuanjiehu Park - and the "hu" in "Tuanjiehu."

Tuanjiehu means "Unite Lake." Though Tuanjiehu is a pretty cute little neighborhood, I figured the lake part was one of those left-over place names, a palimpsest from the Ming Dynasty or some time when there was a lake, back when this part of Beijing just inside of the 3rd Ring Road was countryside instead of city. But the lake is a more recent artifact, from China's Maoist past, though at times that era seems as impossibly remote as any other dead emperor's. Tuanjiehu Park was founded by workers, who were exhorted to create a peoples' park on the site of an old cement works. Or papermill. Unfortunately I didn't take notes. Along with the lake, it features a "southern style garden layout," pavillions, a roller rink, a "children's carnie" and a massive artificial beach and pool with wave machine. The beach was closed, unfortunately, drained and faded in the last days of winter, its blues and yellows bleached and peeling. But it's a nice park. Fat goldfish swim in the murky lake. At the entrance, an older man wrote lines of calligraphy with a giant brush on the pavement, using water for ink. The characters were beautiful, it seemed to me, and watching him write them was poetry itself, the way he handled the massive brush with such a light touch and precision; then watching the characters shrivel and fade into blotches on the cement.

I strolled through the park. In one area, a group of middle-aged ladies practiced a drum and cymbal dance routine, marching in circles, led by the cymbal player. Further along, a man wearing hipster black sunglasses played a traditional Chinese tune on a saxophone. I loved that, thinking, it was so nice for once to hear someone making live music, not to hear some cheesy, distorted recording blaring in a public place. I got that around the next bend, at the roller rink.

Back at the entrance, some elderly men and women had begun a tai chi session, and a few high school students had gathered to watch a younger man attempt the water calligraphy.

"Hello!" one of them called out to me. "Hello!" And then: "Welcome to China!"

"Xie xie nimen," I called back.

They giggled, said, "oh, she speaks Chinese," and in a way it surprises me that people in a city like Beijing, where there are so many foreigners who speak Chinese would still be surprised by a foreigner who does (and mine is not great). Regardless, I walked away with a big smile on my face, because how many times does someone out of the blue welcome you to their country?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Drinking with the Manchurian Hairdressers

In Shanghai I stayed with my friend Tim, who has got to be the perfect host. However, there was a price to be paid for his hospitality, he warned me. "We have to go drinking with the barbershop guys."

I thought this seemed like a fine idea. I'd met the hairdressers last year, the staff of the barbershop where Tim gets his hair cut. Apparently they're always bugging him about when he's going to bring some of his American friends by. They are quite a colorful bunch, mohawked, streaked and dyed hair, fancy embroidered jeans and Renaissance-style shirts. All of them are from Harbin, in Manchuria, though the Boss (e.g., "Laoban") has lived in Shanghai since he was a kid.

I wasn't sure why the occasion had an element of dread for Tim, since he likes the guys a lot. Plus, we were only going about a half-block from Tim's apartment, to a restaurant across from the barbershop.

I started to get an idea when I saw the amount of beer involved. "Harbin" Brand, naturally.

There were five of them, and Tim and me, and we started with a case of large bottles - I don't know metric well enough to tell you how large, but they're big. Everything seemed to require a toast, and toasting is "Ganbei!" - meaning you have to drink it down.

Well, I'm a girl, right? I figured I had to be exempt from some of this.

I figured wrong.

"Lisa," Laoban would say. "Nide yanjingde yanse zhen piaoliang." - "Your eyes are such a beautiful color." Now, the Boss is probably a good 10 years younger than I am, a stocky guy with the sides of his head shaved and somewhat bloodshot eyes (he'd already been out drinking today, he informed us, and his head wasn't feeling very good, but such was the importance of this occasion that he made the sacrifice of drinking more. Much more). This did not stop him from being a real flirt. Laoban liked my eyes, told me I should wear bright colors more often and not so much black, and all the guys liked my standard Beijing accent. I told him that I was way too old for him. He insisted this was not the case.

Then, somehow I ended up with a new husband, the kid Tim had nicknamed "Mozart" because of his hairdo, which could certainly be described as baroque. Mozart looks like he's about 18, with delicate good looks and a high-pitched voice - if they were still casting men in the female Peking Opera roles, he'd probably be a prime candidate.

I can't remember quite how this happened, because I think we'd finished the first case of beer by this point. After that, it was never one more bottle, it was always two. Laoban insisted.

Then we had to sing. This is one situation where all those years of singing in a rock band pays off. I belted out a couple of verses of "Hang On Sloopy" (something I can manage regardless of degree of drunkeness). The guys were surprised and impressed. If you are going to find yourself in the role of performing dog, it helps to know the tricks.

But like Tim said, he wouldn't go along with the barbershop boys if it weren't in good fun and good spirits. The next day, I had two text messages from Mozart, addressed to "Beautiful Friend," asking how my day was going.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Much has been written about the differences and rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai. In the past, I've always come down on the Beijing side. How not? The time I spent in Beijing in '79 had an inestimable impact on my life, even if it had its traumatic aspects. Besides, I didn't actually visit Shanghai until 1993, for the first Shanghai International Film Festival. At the time I was too jaw-agaped with the vast changes in China to even absorb much about the character of the city.

When I visited Shanghai again last year, I came away with a much more positive impression.Shanghai may be a chaotic mega-opolis, but it strikes me as more pedestrian-orientedthan Beijing - at least there are more neighborhoods that you can easily walk, especially along the Bund and the French Concession.

Shanghai people have a reputation in China as being, well, a little stuck-up and unfriendly. I didn't find this to be the case. For one thing, there are so many "New Shanghai People" - "WaiDi Ren" from outside of the city - that the character of Shanghainese has changeda great deal. You don't hear nearly as much Shanghai dialect as you once did,which used to be a way of excluding outsiders.

Northerners are considered more uncouth, but also more friendly and genuine. Why citizens of the cultural capital of China are regarded as somewhat uncivilized, I couldn't say. I will note that taxi drivers in Beijing are almost universally Northerners (many with near-impenetrable Dongbei accents - so "rrr" ladened that they would be prime participants for "International Talk Like A Pirate" Day). The shopgirls that work in places like Silk Alley and Hongqiao Market are almost all from the South. These are the kinds of shopping areas where you will get ripped off right and left if you aren't careful, end up with counterfeit bills, pay far too much for fake brands, even if you do speak Chinese and are therefore "a friend of China, so I give you the special Chinese price!". I ran into plenty of girls who gave me that speech. I also had some of the nicest encounters of my trip, chatting with some of these women, the ones who didn't try to rip me offor treat me like a cash machine on legs. One, another person born in the Year of the Boar, immediately tied a second red string around my wrist, just to make sure I had enough luck to get through the trials of my animal year. If you didn't know this, your animal year can be a very good year or a really bad year - there's a lot of energy and challenges you have to deal with, apparently, and it can go either way. I figure I need all the luck I can get.

Anyway, I always feels a little silly making blanket generalizations about millions of people, even if Chinese themselves tend to do it.

One thing I'm pretty sure of, however. Beijingers swear more than Shanghai people. My friend Tim, a long-time Shanghai resident, tells me that Shanghainese consider expressions like: "ta ma de!" pretty strong stuff. I'd always heard that "ta ma de!" (literally, "his mother!" but used like, "son of a bitch!" or "dammit!") was very mild and even used in mixed company. Certainly it's nothing compared to what I heard in a Beijing net bar the other day. This was one of the dumpier netbars I've ever been to, off Jiu Gulou Dajie - that's Old Drum Tower Street for you waiguoren, probably one of the most picturesque areas left in Beijing. This bar is down an alley, up three flights of stairs above some weird-ass department store selling cheap shoes. Dimly lit, painted beige and third-world green, sagging and dusty gold curtains, upholstered metal chairs with gaping holes in the seat, the only decoration occasional posters of warrior chicks in armored bikinis. A smoke-filled room with "no smoking" signs on the wall. Row after row of young Chinese guys played online games - maybe three women in the place, other than the workers, and one foreigner (me).

The gamers were a rowdy bunch. The guy next to me was particularly intense, with a friend coming over now and then to perch on the arm of my chair and offer advice on killing attacking demons. Everyone was cursing like crazy, shouts I could hear from the other side of the room. Stuff that Chinese friends had taught me and expressions right out of one of my favorite books, "Outrageous Chinese - Beijing Street Language." Stuff like: "Wo c**!" "Sha b*!" "Ma b*!" and, I believe,"Shou c** ni ma b*!" which is far too nasty for me to translate on a public forum.

The guy's little elf avatar must have really gotten nailed by one of those demons...

I found this whole scene incredibly entertaining. For one thing, how often do you get to have your spotty knowledge of Chinese obscenities confirmed? For another, I had used Chinese netbars as frequent settings in the novel I just finished, the one I submitted to the First Chapters contest at I got mostly positive responses from the opening chapter of my submission (that's all that has beenposted so far), but one complaint I had from a number of readers was the amount of profanity. I'd thought the language appropriate to the tone of the book and the narrator's voice, but apparently this really flips some peoples' switches.

Now I'm thinking, "Hah!" Because if a gamer next to me in a netbar says stuff like "Wo c**!" and all that talk about some guy's mother's hoo-hah every five seconds, I figure I pretty much got it right.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

"Great Firewall, Oh How I Loathe You!"

I'm here in Beijing, in a net bar off Qianmen Dajie. Qianmen is the street that runs from the end of Tiananmen Square, on a straight southern line leading out of the old Imperial City. I hadn't been to this part of Beijing in a few years, and like everywhere in this construction-crazed mega-city, things have changed.

The entire length of Qianmen itself is covered by giant, two story high temporary walls with murals on them that say, more or less, "The world loves Beijing. The world will love Qianmen! Welcome Great Olympics!" or words to that effect. Qianmen, it appears, is getting its Olympic facelift, leaving the avenue for now no sidewalks, no storefronts, just walls blank save for the ubiquitous slogan.

I walked a ways down Qianmen until I saw a path between the scaffolds, leading into a narrow lane where hawkers set up adhoc stalls selling shoes, clothes, phonecards and toys. Following that a ways I found myself on Dazhalan Street, a traditional shopping area of teashops, restaurants and small department stores - the kind of place that looks more like the China in your imagination than the one that actually exists, for the most part.

This is one of the last remaining areas of hutongs, the old alleyways and courtyard homes traditional to Beijing, left in the city, and it's impossible to tell from the decaying condition of many of the medieval buildings whether the intention is to repair them or knock them down. Everywhere you look, some monolith skyscraper goes up, some of them taking up entire city blocks. Beijing is not a pedestrian friendly city; in spite of its monuments and historic sites, it has few public spaces for its residents to gather. Most everything of that sort is behind walls, through gates, and in a way Beijing's new development is a new iteration of that tradition. Inside these massive new buildings are shopping malls, offices, restaurants, net-bars, gyms, luxury apartments - huge interior spaces, mazes where people do their business and live their lives.

I'm staying in Chaoyang, in a small hotel off Tuanjiehu, a place that looks more like Beijing's past than its rushing present. The area is hard to navigate, with its narrow lanes, low-slung - no skyscrapers here; the tallest buildings theold-style brick apartment blocks, six stories at most. Across the alley from my hotel are a little laundry, a small convenience shop, a place that sells purified water systems. There's an elementary school up the street. I don't need an alarm; the kids wake me up every AM promptly at 8. It's a pleasant place, quiet most of the time, except for around 3:30, when the kids get out from school and their parents come to pick them up, and that kind of noise is the sort that's mostly joyful.

I like it here, in Beijing. I find it oddly comfortable, in spite of the fact that it's a far from omfortable place. Oh, there are definite downsides. The Great Firewall, for one - the internet censorship system that restricts the flow of information. It's oddly arbitrary - I can read Salon, the New York Times, the Washington Post - until suddenly I can't, because some article or another was deemed threatening or unsuitable.

The night I got here, I was delighted to find that blogspot was no longer blocked, at least not in Beijing. I could access the blog, log in and write a post. However, I couldn't publish the post. Damn you, Great Firewall! You tease me with this pretense of openness!

But I figure it's just a question of time. The Great Wall didn't keep the barbarians out; the Great Firewall can't stop the blog-hoards forever.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Getting the Hell out of Dodge...

Argh. Well, for all my promises of increased blogging, I can't say I've returned to any sort of productivity. Right now I'm getting ready to go to Beijing for a couple of weeks. This is something like my ninth China trip, so it's not exactly a big adventure at this point. I know my way around, I see that dorky statue/construction in the Beijing Airport that looks like a combination of Tinker-Toys and something from the late, lamented Disney Monsanto ride, and I feel oddly at home.

In any case, it's not traveling that stresses me out. It's getting ready to go. I always have a million things to do and not enough time, and even if I did have enough time, I manage to procrastinate to the point where I'm up all night before I go throwing crap in a suitcase without a lot of planning. My house is a mess, I need to do laundry, bills to pay, and then there are the cats, I have to make sure their cat-sitter is on board, gotta leave my office in some semblance of order, and what to do with my car, thanks to street cleaning regulations? Passports, visas, e-receipts, drugs, books and gifts, and I always forget something.

But hey. Tonight I did my taxes. I used TurboTax online and opted for automatic deposit of my refund. I actually did the Snoopy dance after I hit the button for "file your returns."

Cat-food, purchased. Books, ditto. Gifts, not yet. Bills still to pay. And much laundry to do.

I deal with my odd anxiety about flying, the sense that I've picked the wrong day, the wrong time, the flight that will fall out of the sky at random. I worry about my elderly cat. Will she be okay without me? Will my cat-sitter give her the proper meds and lap time? I wonder if my staff will fall upon each other with teeth and nails in my absence. I print up a list of my bank accounts and debts and put it in my desk cubby-hole, just in case.

Sometimes I think, who needs this aggravation? I could just take two weeks off, sit on my couch in my pleasant Venice house, write, take walks, eat out, go to the gym. Why fly halfway around the world, dragging an ill-packed suitcase?

The moment I reach the airport, it's all okay. All the stress falls away, like a heavy coat shed in the sun. I find a bar and have a microbrew. I'm on vacation. Drop me just about anywhere, and I'll be okay.

Friday, February 16, 2007

I'm baaack....

I've been completely consumed with life, work and a novel-writing contest at There is much I could say about the Gather experience, but it's late and I'm tired so I'm going to stick to the positives: I "met" some really cool people.

One of them has inspired me to make some of my band's music available on one of those internets. I don't know that you can post music on Blogger, so I've put it up on my Vox blog.

"Sheraton Arms" is a song that I started writing during the Reagan years and finished during Bush 1. The last time I sang in public, I sang this song, at an anti-war fundraiser the night before Bush 2 started bombing Baghdad. It pisses me off more than I can say that this song is more relevant now than it was when I wrote it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why I haven't been blogging....

I've been totally consumed by's First Chapters contest for unpublished novelists. Gather has been described as "MySpace for the NPR set." I'm not so sure about that. I've pretty much only dealt with the contest, which is being sponsored by Borders and Simon & Schuster. The prize is a book deal, and money.

So far, Gather has received something like 1700 entries, illustrating both the notion that everyone indeed does have a book inside of them, and that not all books should ever come outside. It's a real mixed bag. A lot of truly wretched stuff, a fair amount that's mediocre, a smaller percentage that's competent, and a few really good submissions.

I have an entry in the contest. I'm not going to post the link here, because I'm not into spreading my identity around the web. If you'd like to check it out, drop me a line at my gmail address listed above. I'd love to get your feedback.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Heckuva Job, Brownie!

Why does this not surprise me?
Brown told a group of graduate students Friday that some in the White House had suggested the federal government should take charge in Louisiana because Blanco was a Democrat, while leaving Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, in control in his state...

..."Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking, 'We had to federalize Louisiana because she's a white, female Democratic governor, and we have a chance to rub her nose in it,'" he said, without naming names. "'We can't do it to Haley (Barbour) because Haley's a white male Republican governor. And we can't do a thing to him. So we're just gonna federalize Louisiana.'"...

...Blanco reacted sharply to Brown's remarks.

"This is exactly what we were living but could not bring ourselves to believe. Karl Rove was playing politics while our people were dying," Blanco said through a spokeswoman, referring to Bush's top political strategist. "The federal effort was delayed, and now the public knows why. It's disgusting."
Every time I hear something like this, I'm reminded of how a former Bush Administration official once characterized the Bush White House:
"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus...What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."
Everything is political. Nothing else matters. Except maybe marketing. Think back to Sept. 2002, in the run-up to the 2002 midterm elections, as the Bush Administration made its case for the Iraq War. Why now, some asked, eleven years after the Gulf War, with Saddam Hussein's regime crippled by sanctions, kept in a box by no-fly zones? White House chief of staff Andrew Card had the answer:
"From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What? No lattes?

A Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum, if you'd prefer) may be forced out, after a CCTV anchorman declared the coffee house "undermined the Forbidden City's solemnity and trampled over Chinese culture," on his blog.

Unlike all those souvenir stands, "art" exhibits and snackbars, which clearly exemplify the highest flowering of the Qing Dynasty.

I'll admit, I was pretty appalled when I first heard that there was a Starbucks on the Imperial City grounds (though the article says it opened in 2000, I swear it was there in Dec. 1999, my first trip back to Beijing in 20 years). But when I actually saw the store, I couldn't get too worked up about it. If you haven't been there, the Starbucks is tucked into a small, traditional gallery, and is actually rather easy to miss.

Besides, it was freezing cold that day, and yeah, I had a double espresso, and I liked it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

So, President Bush proposes to not only "surge" in Iraq but expand the war to Iran and Syria.

Because, you know, things have gone so well so far.

The staggering hubris and stupidity of this "plan" are difficult for me to put into words. Here's a Los Angeles Times article that provides a little perspective on how this is going over in the region (though the title, "Mideast shaking its head" seems a bit of an understatement. "Shaking its head"?!).

Keith Olbermann has a few words as well. If you can't access youtube, try this crooksandliars link.

A few other words do occur to me, words from John Kerry, who was not always as verbally obtuse as he is now. You've probably heard them before.

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

We had to burn the village, etc.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Don't Call Us...

Okay. I'm a good liberal. A progressive, even. I'm "PC" in that I believe one should err on the side of politeness and respect. I think globalization is inevitable, and I heart immigrants.

I'm a multi-cultural kinda gal, you know?

But as the Animating Spirit of the Universe is my witness...



It's a combination of things. Poor language skills, lousy phone lines, and a lack of cultural fluency that generally turns what should be simple transactions into bizarre and frustrating parallel monologues, often compounded by the fact that "Justin" and "Sophie" are reading from canned scripts that only sometimes match the situation you've called about.

I once refinanced my mortgage because the bank I'd been using outsourced their customer service overseas. Maybe it's just me, but I'm not comfortable discussing my property taxes with someone in Bangalore who I'm not sure understands what I'm trying to do and what I need.

Two recent examples.

I wanted to bundle my phone and internet service and keep both my old phone number and my email address. My email provider said they could do that and save me something like seventy bucks a month. What's not to like?

Well, for starters, there would be suddenly not being able to receive calls and getting a robot "Extension (your phone number here) is not available" message if you tried to call me. My service had been switched without warning, but only halfway.

I spent about two hours on the phone trying to straighten this out, to a call center that I'm guessing was in India.

The first representative told me that my phone service had been switched, but not my DSL, and that according to their IT engineers, they had to be switched at the same time. Therefore, my options were:

1. Change my phone number.
2. Switch my service back to my original provider, and then put the order in all over again, and make the switch in 4-6 weeks.

My response was: "Unacceptable. I am not changing my phone number. Unacceptable. I don't know how long it will take for my current provider to make the switch. Unbelievable. I don't understand why the voice and DSL can't be switched at separate times." And, further: "You created this problem, not me. I am your customer. You are not giving me confidence in your service. You need to fix the problem for me."

Her response boiled down to: "I am very sorry for the inconvenience." Repeat ad infinitum.

After going around and around, even getting on the phone with my old service provider and confirming that I couldn't even talk to anyone until Monday, and it would be a new order, I finally said: "I realize this isn't your fault, but I want to speak to a supervisor."

More time on hold to the canned strains of Vivald's 4 Seasons. Eventually, a supervisor "Vivian," came on the line.

Now here's where I make an exception to my loathing of overseas call-centers. Vivian was really good. She explained the situation, what had actually happened (I won't bore you with the details) and that the DSL switch was scheduled for January 15th.

"Ah-HAH! So you CAN switch them at different times. I knew it!"

So I asked if there was any way to access the voice mailbox and change the message to let people know that my phone was wonky and to call me on my cell. She thought maybe that could be done. She also said that she could have my calls forwarded from my land-line to my cell phone until the problem was fixed.

We couldn't change the voicemail message, but Option #2 worked like a charm.

Credit where credit is due - Vivian, wherever you are, you rock!

But apparently, that's why she's a supervisor, and it took two hours of my time to find her and get some help.

Here's another example. This just happened tonight. I was booking my plane ticket to Beijing on the internet. I got a great fare, on sale. The sale lasted through Jan. 9. I selected the flight, the seats, clicked to purchase, and all of the sudden, my ticket was $100.00 more.

This cannot be, said I. I refused to accept it. I called the airline.

Somewhere in Bangalore, "Jonathan" took my call.

"Maybe the fare is over," he suggested.

"No," I insisted. "It was $667.00 when I chose it and selected my seats, just now. Then I went to purchase, and it was $775. The sale goes through January 9. It is still January 9 where I am."

"You have to call web support. I cannot see the information. I will transfer you."

After sitting on hold for ten minutes or so, I decided Jonathan's solution was b.s., hung up and called Reservations again.

This time I got someone in the States. She was extremely helpful. She looked up the flight and said, "Oh. That should be $667.00. I don't understand what the problem on the web was, but I can book it for you."

The whole transaction took maybe ten minutes, and it only took that long because I was so pathetically grateful to deal with someone who could actually help me achieve my desired outcome, and I told her so.

"I'm not really allowed to say anything negative," she told me, after hearing my tale of woe. "But we hear this all the time. And I'm just sorry you had to go through that."

Let me be clear about this - I blame American companies who think they are saving money by outsourcing customer service overseas. Maybe they are saving personnel costs, but they are costing me, their customer, time and a considerable amount of goodwill, and they are creating aggravation and anger at a level that has prompted me to change whom I do business with. Oh yeah, Capital One. I'm talking about you! Citibank, you too!

One more.

I was trying to find a business I'd used in the past in my area. The number on the web now belongs to a private individual. So I called information to see if I could find an updated one.

I got an operator in freakin' India.

"There is no listing for this business in...("hiss!" "crackle!") Santa Monica."

Here's the thing: back in the day, if you called an operator, they frequently were people who lived in your area. They might even know something about the business you were trying to find. They were local! Neighbors!

Okay. I know that there's a price to be paid for a 24 hour world. I was dealing with my phone problems on a Friday night, from 9 PM until after 11. Maybe in the Olden Days I just would have been S.O.L. until more normal business hours.

But it's like I said to the second airline customer service representative. I expect language barriers when I travel overseas. That's part of the package. And if I don't understand what's going on, that's pretty much my problem.

But when I'm sitting on my couch in Los Angeles, California, trying to get some help with whatever it is I'm dealing with, I want to deal with someone who is at least on my continent.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Five Things...

Boy, there's a whole lot about these intranets that I just don't know. For example, blog memes or meme tags. This is kind of the blog equivalent of a chain letter, except nobody promises you riches if you tag 12 of your friends and doom if you don't. In this case, I was tagged by Lao Lu, who got tagged by Richard, who got tagged by China Law Blog, and before that, CLB can tell you if you want to know.

Anyway, "5 Things You Didn't Know About Me." Now, I have some issues with this. Some people who read this blog will know just about any 5 things that I'm willing to share, so I guess it's really "5 Things That Most Of You Didn't Know About Me And Why Should You Care?" But be that as it may...

1. My first attempt at a novel came when I was five years old at most. It was to be an ambitious epic about two cats who went camping. The problem was, I did not know how to spell "camping," and my mother was on the phone while I was trying to write the first chapter and wouldn't tell me. Thanks, Mom. I hope you realize the loss of this masterwork for the ages is on your head.

2. I manage to combine an obsessive/compulsive streak with a short attention span, meaning: I can focus on long, complicated projects on the one hand and get dreadfully bored with many things on the other. This might explain how I ended up with six minors, no major, enough units for a masters and no undergraduate degree (the minors, for the record, were: writing, visual arts, political science, German, Chinese Studies, and music literature. I think).

3. I turned 21 in Kunming, China, during a total eclipse of the sun. To be completely accurate, the eclipse was on the day after my birthday in China, but I figure in the place of my birth, San Diego, CA, it was a day earlier, and therefore my actual birthday. I sort of vaguely recall that a solar eclipse is supposed to mark the death of the old and the beginning of the new, a rebirth of sorts, and indicate major changes in one's life. While I'm disinclined to take such things too literally, being in China at that age completely changed the direction of my life, for good or for ill (I still haven't figured out which).

4. If you've read this blog from the beginning, you already know that I used to be the singer/songwriter/bassist of an LA-area band. We got some good reviews in the local music press, and pretty much no actual success. We did however play together for over ten years and have a really good time doing so. I'm still friends with those guys (hey, one of them is my sister) and spend nearly every Christmas Eve with the guitar player and his family and friends (and then there's drummer Todd's "Last Monday Before Christmas Musicians' Party, which I never miss either).

Way back at the beginning of my so-called music career (not counting the cover band I had in college), a guy who used to be one of the main engineers for Motown told me I had talent, but if I wanted to succeed, I needed to make some choices. In the immediate future, I needed to ditch the guitar player I was working with at the time or at the very least, not do any of his songs. The band needed to be about me, and I had to be the only lead singer. Both of those things ended up happening. He also gave me a football metaphor for life: "You can't make them throw you the football. But you can be ready to catch it if they do."

To this day, I don't know if they never threw me the ball or if I just dropped it.

Anyway, even if you knew I had a band, bet you didn't know that I'm left-handed, but I still play the bass right-handed. So there.

5. In the movie Undercover Brother, there's a karaoke scene where Eddie Griffin and Denise Richards sing "Ebony and Ivory." The backup vocals for the karaoke track were done by me and my friend Christy, who was music coordinator for the film and begged me to go with her to the studio and arrange and sing the backups. I don't know how well you can hear our efforts over Griffin and Richards (I never did see the movie), the results were pretty magnificantly cheesy on our end. The three of us, Christy, me and the producer/engineer, laughed our asses off after nearly every take. The downside: for weeks afterwards I had that stupid song embedded in my brain. All of the back-up vocals, the orchestration, the cheesy lyrics...I would wake up every night around 4 AM with "Together A-LLIVE!!!" echoing in my head. It wasn't pretty.

Now I have to pass the pain on to some other poor bloggin' slobs...Here it goes...

Zhadi, Redzilla, SusanUnPC, Real History Lisa.

Hey, if any of you guys don't wanna do this, I totally understand.

Just remember. Edgar P. Collingsworth broke the chain. Two weeks later, his business partner embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from their firm and ran off to the Cayman Islands with Mrs. Collingsworth, leaving Edgar alone, penniless and afflicted with a severe case of gout.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Things fall apart?

British writer Will Hutton began research for his upcoming book on China's astounding economic and political rise believing that "China was so different that it could carry on adapting its model, living without democracy or European enlightenment values." In the course of his research, he changed his mind. After detailing the staggering growth of China's economy, the global reach of its political power, the abandonment of anything resembling Maoist doctrine, Hutton concludes:
But for all that, it remains communist. The maxims of Marxist-Leninst-Maoist thought have to stand, however much the party tries to stretch the boundaries, because they are the basis for one-party rule. Yet the system so spawned is reaching its limits. For example, China's state-owned and directed banks cannot carry on channelling hundreds of billions of pounds of peasant savings into the financing of a frenzy of infrastructure and heavy industrial investment. The borrowers habitually pay interest only fitfully, and rarely repay the debt, even as the debt mountain explodes. The financial system is vulnerable to any economic setback.

Equally, China is reaching the limits of the capacity to increase its exports, which, in 2007, will surpass $1 trillion, by 25 per cent a year. At this rate of growth, they will reach $5 trillion by 2020 or sooner, representing more than half of today's world trade. Is that likely? Are there ships and ports on sufficient scale to move such volumes - and will Western markets stay uncomplainingly open? Every year, it is also acquiring $200bn of foreign exchange reserves as it rigs its currency to keep its exports competitive. Can even China insulate its domestic financial system from such fantastic growth in its reserves and stop inflation rising? Already, there are ominous signs that inflationary pressures are increasing.
Hutton goes on to discuss China's environmental crisis, which has been covered here on so many occasions that I don't think it's necessary to restate it now. His basic argument is that "it is the lack of independent scrutiny and accountability that lie behind the massive waste of investment and China's destruction of its environment alike."
Enterprises are accountable to no one but the Communist party for their actions; there is no network of civil society, plural public institutions and independent media to create pressure for enterprises to become more environmentally efficient. Watchdogs, whistleblowers, independent judges and accountable government are not just good in themselves as custodians of justice; they also keep capitalism honest and efficient and would curb environmental costs that reach an amazing 12 per cent of GDP. As importantly, they are part of the institutional network that constitutes an independent public realm that includes free intellectual inquiry, free trade unions and independent audit. It is this 'enlightenment infrastructure' that I regard in both the West and East as the essential underpinning of a healthy society. The individual detained for years without a fair trial is part of the same malign system that prevents a company from expecting to be able to correct a commercial wrong in a court, or have a judgment in its favour implemented, if it were against the party interest.

The impact is pernicious. The reason why so few Britons can name a great Chinese brand or company, despite China's export success, is that there aren't any. China needs to build them, but doing that in a one-party authoritarian state, where the party second-guesses business strategy for ideological and political ends, is impossible. In any case, nearly three-fifths of its exports and nearly all its hi-tech exports are made by non-Chinese, foreign firms, another expression of China's weakness. The state still owns the lion's share of China's business and what it does not own, it reserves the right to direct politically.
Hutton believes that the world cannot afford a China that dominates the globe without achieving some form of democratic transformation. From what I can suss out about him, he's no neocon; he's also no cultural relativist and makes a strong case for the superiority - and universality - of Western enlightenment values, which he believes China desperately needs to achieve its stated "peaceful rise":
Britain and the West take our enlightenment inheritance too easily for granted, and do not see how central it is to everything we are, whether technological advance, trust or well-being. We neither cherish it sufficiently nor live by its exacting standards. We share too quickly the criticism of non-Western societies that we are hypocrites. What China has taught me, paradoxically, is the value of the West, and how crucial it is that we practise what we preach. If we don't, the writing is on the wall - for us and China.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. Nowhere in Hutton's piece does he make a case that certain traditional Chinese values might be advantageous or even virtuous in the modern world (in fact, quite the opposite). I can't help it - I'm a good liberal, and this makes me uncomfortable. I'd venture, a little tentatively, since this is only a small excerpt from a much longer work, that this lack and even downright dismissal of 5,000 years of cultural traditions somewhat undercuts Hutton's larger argument.

I will say, however, that my first time in China, back in the beginning days of Deng Xiaoping's reforms, gave me an appreciation for the American Constitution, Bill of Rights and the rule of law that I'd never had before. And also, as Hutton states, the absolute necessity of following our own values.

As for China's future, Hutton concludes:
My belief is that what is unsustainable is not sustained. Change came in the Soviet Union with the fifth generation of leaders after the revolution; the fifth generation of China's leaders succeed today's President Hu Jintao in 2012. No political change will happen until after then, but my guess is that sometime in the mid to late 2010s, the growing Chinese middle class will want to hold Chinese officials and politicians to account for how they spend their taxes and for their political choices. What nobody can predict is whether that will produce another Tiananmen, repression and maybe war if China's communists pick a fight to sustain legitimacy at home or an Eastern European velvet revolution and political freedoms.
So what do you think?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Power Outage

Last night we had a really hellacious windstorm in Venice - strongest and most prolonged winds I can recall in my nearly two decades of living there. I really thought my little shack by the sea was going to blow away. It survived intact, but the power went down around 9 AM and as of this writing is still down. I had a couple things I wanted to post, but I guess they'll have to wait.

Happy weekend, everyone.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Stop me if you've heard this before...

Howard French has a new piece on the contradictions of modern China. These are all familiar themes, mostly of the "beneath the glittering surface lurk serious problems" variety, but French summarizes them well. The key graphs:

The intent here is not to slight China's economic achievement, which in the past quarter-century has truly been all but miraculous. The point is to say that so much remains to be done here, including most of the hard work.

China's outstanding tasks tend to be of the kind that evade quick and simple measurement and will certainly not loom large in the calculations of the graph paper and ruler gang.

The people who inhabit the world's oldest unitary state have a common nationality, but they have yet to construct commonly held bonds of citizenship, which allow for the sharing of other people's problems and of each other's dreams.

The road thus far for China has been built on an official religion: the cult of GDP growth. China has built roads and buildings in dizzying quantities. And at the individual level, Chinese people are acquiring things just as fast as they can, but there seems to be little other rhyme or reason to life here for the time being.

The predominant reason for this is the government, which reserves for itself the right to proclaim causes and strikes down anyone who insists on articulating a different agenda too loudly. Similarly, it tightly controls the right of association, meaning that any group of any size must be organized under the government's aegis.

The result is an atrophied sense of the individual and of civic participation, from which the country and its people are just now awakening, and not a moment too soon.
Sounds about right to me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Wow...what a game

My not-so-secret shame...I love football. For one thing, I find football the perfect accompaniment to cleaning my house, sorting papers, doing laundry - all the mundane stuff I hate to do. There's plenty of breaks, and if you miss something, they'll show it again.

There's things I don't like about football - the violence & injuries, certain aspects of the surrounding culture - but I love the game, the athleticism, the strategy. Football is a smart game (in fact I keep meaning to buy a copy of "Football for Dummies" to help me understand it better). And it's a drama, with its four-act structure, reversals of fortune, characters and storylines.

Which is a roundabout way of asking, "Holy shit! Did anyone watch the Fiesta Bowl tonight?!" Non-BCS underdogs Boise State beat one of college football's elite teams, the Oklahoma Sooners, 43-42, in overtime. One of the best football games I've ever seen, with jaw-dropping plays that looked like something you'd see in a movie. A fifty-yard touchdown play to tie with seven seconds left in regulation, on 4th and 18, with a pass and a lateral? A fake throw and a Statue of Liberty (really!) for a two-point conversion to win (oops - that was the play that tied it in overtime. The winning play was even weirder. Oops again. I had it right the first time. Here's a better recap). Unbelievable.

And the star running back proposed to his head cheerleader girlfriend live on national television.

'Twere well it were done quickly


Happy New Year. It seems we've rung in the new by hanging Bush's bete noire. Ding-dong, Saddam is dead. New Year coincided with an important Muslim holiday as well, Eid Al-Adha, celebrating the end of the hajj, in the last month of the Islamic calendar:
The Festival of the Sacrifice commemorates the God's gift of the ram in place of the biblical patriarch Ibrahim's (Abraham's) son Isma'il (Ishmael). (In Judaism and Christianity, the child in this story is Ishmael's brother Isaac.) During the festival, families that can afford to do so sacrifice an animal such as a sheep, goat, camel, or cow, and then divide the meat among themselves, the poor, and friends and neighbours.
I suppose you could look on Saddam's execution as a sacrifice of sorts, but for what, and to whom?

Morbid curiousity led me to the cell-phone video of the execution. I watched up to the point of the hanging, and stopped. It is a profoundly depressing piece of history. A number of commentators have remarked on its similarity to the Al Qaeda beheading videos, and I would have to agree.

Saddam's execution takes place in a small, dark cell, cement walls, dimly lit; according to one account I heard, the floors are still stained in places by the blood of those who had died before him, by his orders. The guards and executioners wear ski masks and civilian clothes. At the end, they taunt Hussein. There are shouts of "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!" in support of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi'ite cleric and militia leader.

God knows how many times this video has been seen by now. Enough to inflame the Sunni Arab world, furious at the shabby, degrading way a Sunni former head of state was dispatched. Enough to demonstrate the degree to which Shi'ite militias have infiltrated the government of "New Iraq" - or are the government, more accurately.

Enough to show the proportion of justice to revenge.

There's been a considerable amount of debate on the culpability of American authorities in this execution. Our government claims to have had nothing to do with the decision. I've heard credible accounts that American officials were suprised by the haste of the whole process, the speed with which the execution was conducted. And on the one hand, it's hard to understand why American authorities would encourage an action certain to provoke more sectarian violence. On the other, the cynical part of me wonders if more violence was needed to justify the "surge" in American troops the Bush Administration so very much wants. As well, one should never underestimate the extent to which the Bush Administration can utterly fuck things up. And the conspiratorial aspect of my nature wonders about the secrets Saddam takes with him. After all, he was our man in the Iraq/Iran War before he was our Hitler d'jour.

In the end, I'm not sure it matters. The perception will be that America was behind Saddam's execution, and perceptions are as potent a fuel as realities, it seems.

Yeah, he was a brutal dictator; he murdered thousands of people, and I'm not blind to the poetic justice of his being put down like a dog in the same execution chamber where he'd had people slaughtered in his name. But this was not the kind of justice I want done in mine. Blood spilled over blood, staining the hands of us all.
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return,
To plague the inventor; this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.