Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Happy Holidays - Just To P.O. Bill O'Reilly

To start, I am not a religious person. I have probably seen the inside of a church more often as a tourist - you know, gazing at the gorgeous, stained glass windows and medieval statuary - than for any occasion of worship. But I like Christmas. I like the trees and the wreaths and the pretty colored lights, and the cheesy decorations. I like the carols and the songs. I like getting together with friends and family. Hey, I like presents!

You move away from home, and, if you're lucky, you start to form your own traditions and holiday rituals. I have a number of them. Every year, I say I'm going to get my own tree, and then I never do. Ditto with sending out Christmas cards. And I shop at the last minute.

Then there are the social gatherings. There's the annual work "holiday party," which is generally a bore. Plus, it usually occurs during my annual "Christmas cold." I don't get sick that often, but I will, every year, get sick in December. It's like, all the hard work of the year is over, okay, you can get sick now. This year it came slightly early, but made up for that by lingering as a mild sinus infection.

And then there is, for me, the traumatic holiday psychic reading.

Now, I can't claim this as a full-fledged ritual yet, as it's only happened twice. But it's happened within the context of one of my genuine annual events, Jodie's Christmas party.

I can always count on Jodie to have this party, even when she claims she isn't going to have it. At the last minute, she'll change her mind. It will start as, "well, maybe I'll have a few friends over for potluck," and morph into a full-fledged party in about 48 hours after she announces it. With the party comes the psychic.

I am like a little kid in many ways. "Oooh, there's a psychic? Cool! Sign me up!"

I was fourth on the list. This was not the best set-up for the psychic, as she was in residence in the front sitting room where the stereo was located - the stereo which is so sophisticated and complicated that no one can figure out how to make the speakers work in the main house. So this poor woman is trying to give psychic readings with Johnny Mathis crooning "White Christmas" loudly in the background, in the hopes that the music will be heard in the living room too.

Plus, she had a cold and couldn't stop coughing. "I never get sick," she told me. "But I've been in bed for the last week."

This particular psychic does a combination computer-assisted astrologic ("I use Indian astrology, so this may not look familiar to you") and tarot card reading, helped by her spirit guides, one of whom is Merlin - I don't know whether this is the Merlin or some other less well-known spirit guide. And I didn't ask.

Because, as mentioned above, this was a sort of traumatic psychic experience. Oh, it started out harmlessly enough.

"I can see by your chart that you're a very creative person. Do you see yourself as a spiritual warrior?"

Me: "Erm...I don't know."

From there, it was all trauma, baby. Without going into all the details, let's just say that my chart made her want to cry, and that she gave me her card, saying, "I haven't given this card to anyone else, but I think you could really benefit from an extended reading and some healing soul work."

To her credit (I think), I surveyed others who'd had readings, and in fact, none of them received business cards.

Afterwards, I shrugged it off and went forth to mingle. I had a nice time. Towards the end of the evening, I mentioned the trauma aspects of the experience to several friends (and nope, they hadn't gotten business cards either).

One of them said, "Oh my god. Don't you remember?"


"I saw that psychic and I thought you must have recognized her, and I couldn't believe you signed up for a reading."

And she proceeds to tell me how, several years ago, I'd had an even more traumatic reading with this psychic, to the extent that I came out of it teary-eyed and mumbling about how this was a great capper to a really shitty year.

I thought about this. I sort of, kind of, remembered it. I couldn't pin down the year, though. I'm thinking, huh, maybe 1997, that kind of sucked, but my friend insisted it was more recent than that. Now I'm thinking, it must have been 2002; the end of that year was just a tad gnarly.

Lest you think this is the result of, oh, too much drugs and alcohol, I've always had a kind of weird memory. I mean, I can remember song lyrics (and tunes and orchestrations) pretty much forever; I'm good with foreign languages and facts; I can learn lines for plays and up to a point, recall conversations with a high degree of accuracy. But in terms of that last category, I only remember up to a point. Then I might remember that something bad or intense happened, but I can't remember what it was.

Certain events I remember with a high degree of vividness. Or I forget the actual events and remember the relevant sensory details. This is the kind of stuff I mine when I'm writing fiction (and for whatever it's worth, I'm pretty good at writing fiction. Apparently I'm better at creating characters than directly deconstructing my own).

And if you remind me what happened, I usually will remember it myself.

Unfortunately, my friend with the better event memory didn't witness the first traumatic psychic reading, so I'm still not sure what the psychic said that got me so upset that Christmas party...erm...whenever it was...okay, I'm going with 2002.

This year, I wasn't all that upset. I've learned to accept that, as much as I in general enjoy the holiday season, for me it is also suffused with an inevitable melancholy. Another year has passed. My life is pretty good, but there are things I think I'm missing. Some of what's lacking I could name, some of it...

Well, I'm just not sure. There's the inchoate sense that I'm not quite doing what I could be doing, what I should be doing, but I don't know how to get from where I am to a place I can't even define.

Jodie's party is only one of several gatherings that I attend this time of year. There's the Monday Before Christmas Musicians' Party. Working musicians tend to work this time of year, so one of my former bandmates has always thrown a big bash on the Monday before Christmas, when musicians are more likely to have an off-night. He mixes up this concoction called "Gin Alexanders" in a blender - the starter is something that's decades old and passed down from family members to the next generation, and it lives in the freezer, in the dark, until it's loosed in December, and the resulting drink tastes like a minty milkshake that will drop you to your knees if you aren't careful. And he serves Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale - more my speed. I see people I see maybe a few times a year; we talk politics (good, lefty politics, because these are musicians we're talking about) and stay up really late, and eat samosas and drink beer.

Then, Christmas Eve. My other bandmate has, for the last ten years or so, thrown a party. His parents were from Sicily, which means the party includes a huge vat of cioppino. My job is to bring the desert wine. I did this once, sort of by accident, and Tony's mom, born and raised in Sicily, was so pleased that I did it every year. When she passed away a few years ago, I brought a couple of bottles to her wake.

This year, I brought a bottle of excellent port (from Lion's Peak Winery - try their cabernet!). About the time we opened it up, Dave sat down at the upright piano and started playing tunes - Christmas songs, Vince Guaraldi. Tony got out his guitar. One guy had brought his hollow-body metal electric bass along - that came out too. Christmas blues came next. I had to sing "Rocky Raccoon" - because Tony's wife, Nancy, asks me to every year, mainly for the line, "But everyone knew her as Nancy."

We do some Beatles. A guy with a great soul voice sings "My Girl," and hey, this is a houseful of musicians, so we have an entire girl choir for the backups.

And somewhere in the middle of this impromptu but predictable jam session - it happens every year - I am having this flurry of thoughts, like: this is what most people in America have lost, the ability to get together and entertain each other, to sing and play and make a joyful noise.

And, more importantly: this is what I do, every year. To bring some ritual and meaning and joy into my life.

Christmas day, I drive to my folks' house. We exchange gifts, eat party mix and ham and pie. I will read at least one mystery novel. My mom and I will take a walk. I'm in no hurry for this to change. I want it to go on as long as possible. All of it. Jodie's party, the musicians' party, Christmas Eve at Tony & Nancy's, Christmas with my folks (and New Years Eve with Billy, but that's another story).

If there are things I am missing, there are so many more things that I have.

I'm not so sure about the traumatic psychic readings, though.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sometimes We Get Burned...

And the only thing to do is correct the record ASAP:
The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.
. Rest of thes tory is here.

So rest easy, everyone - you can hang on to your Little Red Books for now...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

China's Gemstone Workers - How You Can Help

Last week I posted an article about the horrific conditions in China's gemstone industry. Now I'd like to direct you to a Hong-Kong based campaign advocating better working conditions in the Chinese gemstone industry, via CSR's Stephen Frost. There were some technical problems with the campaign's website, but it's up and running now. Please take a minute to sign their letter - you can send it to Hong Kong, American or European jewelry associations, depending on where you're located.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

My Little Red Book

It takes a lot to flabbergast me these days. I mean is anyone really shocked by the relevation that the NSA is engaged in domestic surveillance, authorized by the Preznit, without any judicial review, not even by the secret court which generally reviews such things (apparently any kind of oversight is too much oversight for the Bush Administration, which certainly leads one to question just whom they are surveilling, and why).

Here's what it took for me to gaze upon my computer screen in slack-jawed amazement: this story, via the invaluable Digby, about a student who was visited by agents from Homeland Security because, wait for it...

He tried to check out a copy of Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book" from a university library.

No, really.
Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

"I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book," Professor Pontbriand said. "Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it."...

...The professors had been asked to comment on a report that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to spy on as many as 500 people at any given time since 2002 in this country.

The eavesdropping was apparently done without warrants.

The Little Red Book, is a collection of quotations and speech excerpts from Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung.

In the 1950s and '60s, during the Cultural Revolution in China, it was required reading. Although there are abridged versions available, the student asked for a version translated directly from the original book.

The student told Professor Pontbriand and Dr. Williams that the Homeland Security agents told him the book was on a "watch list." They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student, the professors said.

Dr. Williams said in his research, he regularly contacts people in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other Muslim hot spots, and suspects that some of his calls are monitored.

"My instinct is that there is a lot more monitoring than we think," he said.

Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.

"I shudder to think of all the students I've had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that," he said. "Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless."
So can I just say, I am so going to Guantanamo? I mean, I have maybe four Little Red Books floating around my house, in both English and Chinese, including one featuring Mao's then "Closest Comrade in Arms" Lin Biao's calligraphy on the frontispiece, which I figure, given the brief tenancy of anyone occupying that particular position, has got to be some kind of collector's item.

In fact, I've had one of my "Xiao Hong Shu" since high school, when my school represented "Red China" in the annual Model United Nations conference. Which, come to think of it, is probably another black mark on my permanent record.

And boy, if any of these hard-working Homeland Security agents have actually surveyed my house - I'm doomed. What would they make of the wall of books dealing with the history of the Peoples Republic of China? The Collected Works of Mao Zedong? The compilations of CCP documents? The framed Four Modernizations posters on my wall, one of the "Peoples' Premier," Zhou Enlai, showing his domestic side, spinning yarn in Yenan, the other of a rosey-cheeked, chubby baby holding up this, well, I'm not sure what it's supposed to be, some kind of festive, lantern thingie with a nuclear atom in the center and a rocket ship on top? Not to mention my, erm, Chairman Mao piggybank.

Remind me again. Was it ultra-leftist, unreconstructed Red Guards who flew planes into the WTC?

But maybe I've got this whole thing wrong. Maybe owning such things isn't the problem. Given the obsession that the Bush Administration seems to have with wanting to access library records (without the patrons' knowledge), well, maybe it's libraries that are the real danger here, the subterranean threat to American security.

Just remember: if library cards are terrorized, soon only terrorists will have library cards. Or something.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

One Life, One Story...

No reporter does a better job of illuminating the vast complexity of modern Chinese life on a human scale than the Los Angeles Times's Ching-Ching Ni. A few months back, I blogged about an incredibly moving piece of hers, "Loving Others' Rejects, the story of an old man and his wife who rescue abandoned babies, literally from garbage heaps and the side of the road.

Now, Ni has written about the struggle of a young man who is dying from lung disease caused by years of working in a gemstone factory. I hesitate to edit Ni's work, so here's the beginning:
The boulders were as big as farm animals, and for $20 a month Feng Xingzhong's job was to slice them with an electric saw, cutting the hulks into fillets small enough to throw into a bowl.

Other workers in the jewelry factory would trim the pieces of jade, turquoise, onyx and other gemstones into little hearts and beads, polish them, drill holes and string them onto earrings, bracelets and necklaces to be shipped off to American shoppers.

Feng thought little about that, or anything else during his earsplitting 12-hour shift. By day's end, he looked like a coal miner emerging from the shaft, covered from head to toe in red, green or yellow dust, depending on the stone he had been cutting.

From age 18 to 26, Feng toiled without so much as a mask, trying to turn himself from an impoverished peasant into a prosperous city worker. He married a fellow employee, had two sons.

"We had a beautiful dream," Feng said. "To make some money, go home and start a small business."

Today, Feng hopes mostly to live long enough to collect some money from the factory where he developed silicosis, an incurable ailment known as dust lung that kills more than 24,000 Chinese workers each year in professions such as mining, quarrying, construction and shipbuilding.

Most slowly suffocate without protest. But not Feng. He sought workers' compensation. He sued his employer in two courts. He picketed near the company headquarters. He went to arbitration with the help of a Hong Kong labor group and even won a judgment.

But he hasn't received so much as a penny.
The area where Feng worked, near Shenzhen, processes some 70% of the world's semiprecious stone jewelry, much of which ends up exported to US wholesalers. Not surprisingly, conditions in many of these factories are dismal:
When Feng started in the early 1990s, his factory, called Gaoya, had about 50 employees. The crowded workshop had no ventilation system.

"We asked for masks, but they said no. There was no why," Feng said. "They knew we were peasants thrilled to have a factory job."
Ni details Feng's struggle to collect what he's owed, in the face of incredible obstacles. The company literally packed up and moved its factory to avoid workers' lawsuits; it further evaded them by changing its name - by one letter:
Furious, he tried in 2002 to apply for workers' compensation from the Labor Dispute Arbitration Committee in Haifeng. His factory had moved there from nearby Huizhou and changed its name from Gaoya to Gaoyi.

He was turned down on the grounds that the factory where he had worked was in Huizhou.

Next, he tried to sue. But two courts rejected his case, ruling that the factory in Haifeng was not the same business as the one in Huizhou.

"They changed their name from Gaoya to Gaoyi," Feng said. "One letter, and they are able to dodge all responsibility."
Feng continues to struggle, and a group called the China Labor Bulletin is helping him with his case and living expenses. So far, victory has proven elusive:
The group relaunched his claim against Gaoya through an arbitration committee in Huidong County, the site of the factory where he worked. He sought $76,000 in compensation for his disability and to cover medical and living expenses for himself and his family...

...In May, the committee ruled in favor of Feng. The factory was ordered to pay him $3,800 for medical expenses, plus $100 a month for the rest of his life.

It was a hollow victory. Staphany Wong, the Labor Bulletin case worker assisting Feng, said officials ordered the defunct Gaoya factory to pay Feng, not the working Gaoyi factory.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of Feng and his family's grinding poverty, the motivation that drove him to work in such wretched conditions, in the hope of bettering their lives.
As Feng waits in Shenzhen for his appeal to move through the bureaucracy, his family is scattered and struggling to survive.

His wife is working in another city. Her room is too run-down and cramped for Feng to live there full time, and there is no phone or fax to allow him to keep up with his case.

His sons, now 8 and 10, rarely see their parents. They still live in the remote village where they were born, looked after by Feng's ailing, widowed mother.

Large cobwebs dangle from the concrete walls of their farmhouse, and bugs crawl in the kitchen. All they have to spice up their meals of rice and scavenged vegetables is salt, held in a dirty sack. Barefoot and dressed in dirty clothes, the children kill time watching a tiny black-and-white TV with one blurry channel showing cartoons in the afternoons.

Feng has not told his mother about his ailment. But she suspects he is dying.

"I know a guy from our village who did the same work, he died three years ago. I think my son has the same disease…. I know he probably won't live long," said Li Sulan, 64, who is blind in one eye.

Her biggest worry is her grandchildren. "If my son dies and I die too, and his wife doesn't come back, what's going to happen to these kids?" she said.

Li calls her son from the village pay phone, crying and asking when he'll come home. Feng always tells her soon. Very soon.

"I want to go home, to take care of her and the kids," he said. "But I can't. I have no money."
Read the whole thing. And think about how many more stories there are like this, behind the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the gadgets with which we amuse ourselves...

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dongzhou Update

From AFP:
The official who gave the order for security forces to open fire on a group of demonstrators in southern China last week, which state press says claimed the lives of at least three people, has been arrested.

The official Guangzhou Daily newspaper did not give the name or title of the official or specify when he had been detained but said he had been arrested for his decision to open fire on the villagers' demonstration.

China on Saturday broke its silence on the protest, acknowledging demonstrators were killed when police opened fire and put the death toll at three -- far fewer than the dozens described by residents.

The official Xinhua news agency said police fired into a mob of explosives-lobbing protesters on Tuesday after being blockaded near Shanwei city, Guangdong province.

Hundreds of armed villagers had earlier attacked them in a "serious violation of the law", Xinhua said, quoting a Shanwei government report.

One villager said on condition of anonymity that 30 people were killed while the New York Times quoted residents as saying that "as many as 20" died.
Yes, it's once again time to quote Zhou Enlai, when asked for his opinion of the French Revolution...

"It's too soon to tell."

Turning Point?

The LA Times files its report on Dongzhou today. Much of the information is similar to the accounts posted below. But the story asks an essential question, the answer to which I believe will profoundly affect China's immediate future - and specifically, the future of the Hu/Wen administration and perhaps the CCP's continued monopoly on political power:
Residents said the police who opened fired Tuesday appeared to be from the area, but reinforcements sent later were outsiders equipped with armor, shields and machine guns. Experts said it was unclear whether local police had panicked and exceeded their authority, or whether there had been a policy shift by the central government.

"Part of the pattern is continued tension and inadequate central control over local governments," said Sharon Hom, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights in China. "This doesn't take Beijing off the hook, but there are tensions between local police and other arms of government. It's not a monolith."

Jean-Philippe Beja, a senor fellow with the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research, said the central government usually opposes strong shows of force. But indications are that Beijing also gave more authority to local officials to deal with unrest after villagers in Taishi, also in Guangdong province, tried to eject a local official over corruption charges.
If this is yet another case of a corrupt, out-of-control local government that the central government has been unable to bring to heel, well, then Hu and Wen still have some time to make good on their promises of greater "social harmony" and bringing some economic justice to the rural masses who have been left behind by China's "Economic Miracle." But if this escalated use of deadly force comes as a result of a policy change by the central government...

Well, then Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen had better prepare themselves for a very bumpy ride. And perhaps a rather short ride as well.

No regime in China has been able to survive very long or very well if it loses the support of the peasant masses. By the Chinese government's own account, there were around 76,000 significant demonstrations in China last year, which if nothing else, indicates an increasingly desperate - and emboldened - population. There aren't enough police, there aren't enough soldiers, and empty promises have lost their power to pacify the millions of Chinese who have very little to lose, who are quickly adopting modern organizing tools and are able to communicate with others across distances who feel as they do.

Hu has made things worse for himself by cracking down on China's media, which could at least give honest reports on local problems about which the central government would otherwise be unaware (I know that there is some debate as to whether this crackdown is Hu's doing or the remnants of that bad old Shanghai clique, and I'll hold that possiblity open). Hamfisted, violent responses to poor people with legitimate grievances open the door to levels of chaos which China has not seen in a long time.

I can't say this scenario is something that I would celebrate, because the pain and misery which are likely to result would be staggering. And if the current regime were to collapse, what would rise in its place?

On a lighter (?) note (now that was a poor segue!), check out Richard's take-down of Xinhua's account of what happened at Dongzhou. Y'know, just a bunch of criminals and hooligans disturbing the social harmony again...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Death in the Countryside

Howard French reports on a deadly protest in southern China:
Residents of a fishing village near Hong Kong said that as many as 20 people had been killed by paramilitary police in an unusually violent clash that marked an escalation in the widespread social protests that have roiled the Chinese countryside. Villagers said that as many as 50 other residents remain unaccounted for since the shooting. It is the largest known use of force by secur1ty forces against ordinary citizens since the killings around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The violence began after dark in the town of Dongzhou on Tuesday evening. Terrified residents said their hamlet has remained occupied by thousands of security forces, who have blocked off all access roads and are reportedly arresting residents who attempt to leave the area in the wake of the heavily armed assault.

"From about 7 p.m. the police started firing tear gas into the crowd, but this failed to scare people," said a resident who gave his name only as Li and claimed to have been at the scene, where a relative of his was killed. "Later, we heard more than 10 explosions, and thought they were just detonators, so nobody was scared. At about 8 p.m. they started using guns, shooting bullets into the ground, but not really targeting anybody.

"Finally, at about 10 p.m. they started killing people."

The use of live ammunition to put down a protest is almost unheard of in China, where the authorities have come to rely on rapid deployment of huge numbers of security forces, tear gas, water cannons and other non-lethal measures. But Chinese authorities have become increasingly nervous in recent months over the proliferation of demonstrations across the countryside, particularly in heavily industrialized eastern provinces like Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiansu. By the government's tally there were 74,000 riots or other significant public disturbances in 2004, a big jump from previous years.
As with so many of disturbances in rural China, the demonstration at Dongzhou began over a land dispute, in which land was seized to build a coal-fired generator. Farmers claimed they were not properly compensated for the lands seized, and villagers worried over potential pollution from the plant. Additionally, authorities planned to fill in a local bay, which for generations had supported the area's fishermen. The villagers' complaints led to arrests, which led to a burgeoning protest movement that now has apparently triggered an unusually violent and harsh response from authorities, all of which French chronicles in detail.
Early reports from the village said the police opened fire only after villagers began throwing homemade b0mbs and other miss1les, but villagers reached by telephone today denied this, saying that a few farmers had launched ordinary fireworks at the police as part of their protest. "Those were not bombs, they were fireworks, the kind that fly up into the sky," said one witness reached by telephone. "The organizers didn't have any money, so someone bought fireworks and placed them there. At the moment the trouble started many of the demonstrators were holding them, and of those who held fireworks, almost everyone was killed."...

..The Chinese government has yet to issue a statement about the incident, nor has it been reported in the state media. Reached by telephone, an official in the city of Shanwei, which has jurisdiction over the village, said, "Yes, there was an incident, but we don't know the details." The official said an official announcement would be made on Saturday.

Villagers said that in addition to the regular security forces, the authorities had enlisted thugs from local organized crime groups to help put down the demonstration. "They had knives and sticks in their hands, and they were two or three layers thick, lining the road," one man said. "They stood in front of the armed police, and when the tear gas was launched, the thugs were all ducking."...

Over the last three days, residents of the village say that other than people looking for their missing relatives, few people have dared go outside. Meanwhile, the police and other security forces have reportedly combed the village house by house, looking for leaders of the demonstration and making arrests.

Residents said that after the villagers' demonstration was suppressed a senior Communist Party official came to the hamlet from the nearby city of Shanwei and addressed residents with a megaphone. "Shanwei and Dongzhou are still good friends," the party official said. "We're not here against you. We are here to make the construction of the Red Sea Bay better. Later, the official reportedly told visitors, "all of the families who have people who died must send a representative to the police for a solution."

Today, a group of 100 or so bereaved villagers gathered at a bridge leading into the town, briefly blocking access to security forces hoisting a white banner whose black-ink characters read: "The dead suffered a wrong. Uphold justice."
The AP reports:
Armed with guns and shields, hundreds of riot police sealed off a southern Chinese village after fatally shooting as many as 10 demonstrators and were searching for the protest organizers, villagers said Friday...

...Police fired into the crowd and ki11ed a handful of people, mostly men, villagers reached by telephone said Friday. Accounts of the death toll ranged from two and 10, with many missing.

Although security forces often use tear gas and truncheons to disperse demonstrators, it is extremely rare for them to fire into a crowd...

...State media have made no mention of the incident and both provincial and local governments have repeatedly refused to comment. This is typical in China, where the ruling Communist Party controls the media and lower-level authorities are leery of releasing information without permission from the central government.

All the villagers said they were nervous and scared and most did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. One man said the situation was still "tumultuous."

A 14-year-old girl said a local official visited the village on Friday and called the sho0tings "a misunderstanding."

"He said (he) hoped it wouldn't become a big issue," the girl said over the telephone. "This is not a misunderstanding. I am afraid. I haven't been to school in days."

She added, "Come save us."

Another villager said there were at least 10 deaths.

"The riot police are gathered outside our village. We've been surrounded," she said, sobbing. "Most of the police are armed. We dare not to go out of our home."

"We are not allowed to buy food outside the village. They asked the nearby villagers not to sell us goods," the woman said. "The government did not give us proper compensation for using our land to build the development zone and plants. Now they come and shoot us. I don't know what to say."
It will be interesting to hear what sorts of responses come out of the local and central governments. The fact that such uses of force remain rare in China has to be a reflection of central government policy - and one to their credit. With protests on the rise throughout rural China, one wonders if this escalation of force marks a turning point in official policy or is yet another example of a local government running rampant over the rights and lives of its citizens.

Coming hard on the heels of the Harbin crisis, will the central government respond in a way that increases confidence? Or instills fear?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pink Cadillac

I'm not sure what to make of this:
Four years after the death of Mary Kay Ash, nearly 350,000 Chinese women are emulating the icon, some earning big money selling TimeWise cleansers and facial whitening masks.

In every province, they're reading her books, which have been translated into Chinese, and singing her songs, like "That Mary Kay Enthusiasm," in Mandarin.

This fall, a few began driving her car, a pink Cadillac.

A decade after Mary Kay entered the country, China represents its second-largest market, even though a 1998 ban on direct sales threatened to ruin the venture. Within another 10 years, executives predict, this Asian giant could surpass the United States to be the No. 1 market.

The direct seller of skin care and cosmetics owes much of its success to an amazing marketing feat.

In a nation still coming to terms with memories of Mao Zedong and his Communist teachings, Mary Kay has gotten Chinese women to identify with a Caucasian cosmetics mogul with big hair.
This article, from the Dallas Morning News (and what city would better understand Big Hair?), had me alternately chuckling and shaking my head in the sheer wonder of just how weird the world can be. It profiles several Chinese Mary Kay distributors, some of whom are making six figure incomes. And it explains some of the adjustments that Mary Kay has had to make for the Chinese market:
In a country lacking religious freedom, Ash's mantra - "God first, family second and career third" - became "Faith first, family second and career third." "Principle" is often used instead of "faith". And unlike in the United States, prayers are absent from large company gatherings.

The company also discovered it needed to broaden the appeal of its culture. In addition to Ash's principles, such as her belief in the beautiful potential inside each and every human being, it added Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" to its employee training seminars starting in 2000.

But one of its biggest challenges involved something much more mundane: where to hold its annual seminar.

The seminar, modeled after the one held every summer in Dallas, brings together the company's managers and thousands of its sales force members for award ceremonies, executive speeches and educational sessions. The event helps motivate Mary Kay's sales force each year.

Two years ago, the Chinese government, which is suspicious of large gatherings, told Mary Kay it couldn't hold its seminar. It wanted the company to conduct smaller meetings around the country. But that would have defeated the seminar's purpose.

So Mary Kay moved the event last year to Hong Kong. This past August, attendance reached 16,000.
But many of Mary Kay's traditions have been transplanted to China intact. The pink cadillacs, for example. Mary Kays' books and songs (including "That Mary Kay Enthusiasm"), translated into Mandarin. And this:
The day Hao officially debuts as a national sales distributor is filled with ceremony.

Twenty-one lower-level Mary Kay distributors, women Hao helps, form a circle around her. The lights go out. And the smell of melting candle wax begins to fill the air.

With her husband and 7-year-old daughter looking on, Hao calls out the name of each distributor. She gives each a hug, a personal note and a candle in the shape of a small ball of pink roses.

A few distributors silently cry. Others dab at their eyes. Gradually, a glowing circle of pink lights appears in the middle of the room.

Then, Hao picks up a tall pink candle and places it at the bottom of a giant heart-shaped candleholder. Her distributors follow her, setting their lit candle balls in the slots around the pink heart.

Everyone gathers around the now burning symbol of love, clasps hands and silently makes a wish. Together, the women blow out the candles and clap.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Springtime In Harbin

The Harbin water crisis is far from over, according to this article from the AP:
A top Russian environmental official tried to reassure the population Tuesday by drinking a glass of water on television. But a spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature said the river faced "ecological catastrophe" from the 50-mile-long slick of chemicals floating toward the Russian border from China.

"There will be an effect on nature plants and fish will die and economic damage," said Ilya Mitasov, a Moscow-based spokesman for the global environmental organization.

The pollution will result in massive fish deaths and force city residents and industries to search for alternative sources of water, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The only way to get rid of the toxic chemicals including cancer-causing benzene is evaporation, but the water temperature would have to be 68 to start that process, Mitasov said. Currently it's about 50 and there is ice on some stretches of the river, which ultimately feeds into the Sea of Okhotsk.

"The benzene will remain in the ice until spring, and the (situation) will be dragged out," Mitasov said.
Meanwhile, Der Spiegel (via the invaluable Salon.com) features this grim summary of the evironmental costs of China's economic miracle:
Even if water began flowing once again to the city's residents on Tuesday, the horrific environmental catastrophe reveals the flipside of the socialist economic miracle. Secretiveness and sluggish crisis management highlight the price the Chinese are paying for their boom. And even as Westerners envy the half-communist, half-capitalist country for its impressive growth figures and endless backyard market, China is no longer merely the world's factory. It is also the world's toxic waste dump.

China's rise as a global power, achieved with high economic growth rates, is reminiscent of the conditions in the era of early capitalism. Everything that drives production is good, and everything that slows it down -- safety technology, for example, that prevents industrial accidents from leading to massive factory explosions -- is harmful. The result is exploding tanks, burning factories, collapsing mine pits and all manner of toxic leaks. According to official statistics, 350 Chinese die each day in industrial accidents, but the unofficial figure is likely to be much higher. "Occupational safety is a serious problem, because the number of accidents and deaths remains high," said Wang Dexue, deputy director of the State Office of Occupational Safety, commenting on the horrifying figures from the country's manufacturing industries.

Adding to the problems are economic reforms that have made many businessmen greedy. China's laissez-faire brand of socialism doesn't prevent executives from spending their money on cars and villas instead of investing it in worker safety and environmental protection. Although the government is constantly vowing to monitor manufacturers more closely, local officials and party leaders are often in bed with the captains of industry in China. This Mafia-like alliance between the politically and economically ambitious is known as "local protectionism."

Chen Bangzhu, an environmental expert on Beijing's Parliamentary Council, says he recognizes an "irrational development" in his country. In an interview earlier this year, Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the government environmental agency, SEPA, predicted a bitter end to the economic miracle. "This boom will soon come to an end," he said in an interview with Der Spiegel, "because the environment isn't cooperating anymore." The negative consequences of the boom are devastating. Five of the world's 10 most polluted cities are in China. More than two-thirds of all Chinese rivers and lakes are turning into sewers -- even before the recent accident, the Songhua River was hardly a model of cleanliness -- and more than 360 million people have no access to clean drinking water. A toxic soup splashes through the country's waterways, while people living along the banks die from cancer at above-average rates. Nowadays, the then 72-year-old former party chairman Mao Zedong's legendary swimming outing in the Yangtze River in 1966 would no longer be seen as evidence of his strength, but more as a suicide attempt...

...The People's Republic, which could soon surpass the United States as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, has lost its ecological balance and is paying a heavy price as a result. About 400,000 people die prematurely each year because of the polluted air they breathe. Experts estimate the annual loss at 8 to 15 percent of the gross domestic product -- or up to $250 billion -- a figure that does not include the costs of treating cancer, skin conditions and bronchitis.

The Chinese leadership has become increasingly concerned about the possibility that environmental damage could jeopardize China's industrial ascent. After the Harbin incident, even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao admitted that the environmental situation is "bleak" and called for "sustainable growth." But many other party leaders see this kind of talk as nothing but Western social nonsense. They prefer to follow the lead of Mao, who summed up his take on the environment in 1958 when he said, "Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield its way." Today's comrades, profiting handsomely from industrial growth, believe it is cheaper to clean up in the distant future than to invest in protecting the environment today.
Of course, such attitudes aren't unique to China. I could cite our current Administration in the US, with its disbelief in global warming and its infinite faith in the power of more drilling (and foreign wars) to solve our energy issues. Or, going back a couple of administrations, I could mention former Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who did not think we needed to concern ourselves overmuch with conserving resources for future generations, because in his words, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns." Such faith is touching, in a way, as is the faith of the Chinese Communist Party's materialists, who believe we can innovate our way out of any crisis we create, or at least can leave the mess for our children to take care of - as opposed to the faith of the Bush Administration, which preaches that the mess simply does not exist. But the grownups in the room, in China, America and elsewhere, realize that the longer we wait, the greater the reckoning. Whether the grownups can take charge from the greedy, selfish children who all too often seem to be treating the world as their playpen, before that playpen collapses under the weight of its own filth, remains to be seen.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

China's Press Kicks Some...

So you know how I'm always pontificating about how a grassroots environmental movement has the potential to be a democratizing force in China? Newsweek thinks so too:
In China, where the ruling Communist Party discourages or outright crushes any attempts at grass-roots movements, environmental protection is one of the only areas of activism that is thriving. Led by an increasingly feisty domestic media, some crusading lawyers and a few maverick bureaucrats, the Chinese are beginning to demand information from corporations and their government about the harmful effects of rapid economic development on the environment. In some cases, the public pressure has worked; in a few cases, even the state agency that regulates the environment has joined sides with environmentalists.
More notably, the Newsweek account contains a fascinating chronology of who knew what when, and just how important the role of China's press was in exposing the disaster:
On Monday afternoon, Nov. 21, an editor at one of China’s most aggressive magazines, China Newsweek (not related to this publication), spotted a curious headline on the Internet. Harbin officials had announced they were cutting off water to residents for four days to make repairs. Finding it odd that an entire city’s water supply would be shut down at once, the editor called her boss to brainstorm. Rumors that an imminent earthquake was behind the mysterious “repairs” had been circulating on the Internet, but the two editors’ suspected the recent chemical plant explosion in Jilin was behind the mysterious shutdown. When they consulted maps of the two provinces and the location of the plant, they agreed the two events must be related.

With only 24 hours to press time, China Newsweek called a well-placed source in Harbin, who all but confirmed their suspicions. “He said the river had been contaminated, but the government had not publicized this,” the editor told NEWSWEEK. At dawn, the magazine sent three reporters to Jilin and Harbin to get the story, before the government intervened to stop them. “We knew that if we didn’t do the story then, we might not be able to do it the next week,” said an editor, who asked that she not be named because of the sensitive nature of the situation. “The seriousness of this incident could affect the future of a lot of officials in the Northeast.”

The China Newsweek story came out Nov. 24, about one day after the country’s environmental regulators finally owned up to the contamination that had left more than three million people who lived in and around Harbin without running water. The story provided details about which government officials knew what and when. It reported that the governor of Heilongjiang province had told 400 officials in a closed meeting that the city of Harbin had lied about the water-supply shutdown because it was waiting for permission from higher authorities to disclose the spill and didn’t want to contradict Jilin official reports. And it said that the cover-up ended only after provincial officials in Heilongjiang sent a desperate request for guidance to the central government. The editor of China Newsweek said she hoped the story would show people the harm done by “the conflicting interests of government officials from neighboring parts of the river.”
CDT also links to a fascinating blog from a Chinese journalist, and Jilin native, who provides an insider's look at the factory where the disaster originated. Here's a taste:
The political rumors in Beijing these past few days are that the governor or party chief of Jilin Province and the CEO of CNPC will soon be sacked and replaced. Maybe not so fast. But one thing is for sure: for lower-level bureacrats, heads are going to roll. At least I hope so. Roll, roll, you stupid heads. There has been so many mayors of Jilin in recent years that even my parents lost count. And the local chief manager of CNPC's Jilin subsidiary looks like dead meat. Workers were already complaining so much about this guy. Fascist, was the word the used the most. Apparently this guy, Yu Li, introduced draconian rules and is pathetically obsessed with appearnce: workers are fined when they don't don their uniforms and masks neatly, when they forget to put on a name badge for work, when they don't walk in a straight line on factory grouds -- hell, sounds like first-years at Westpoint. All workers must put down whatever they are doing when there's a snowstorm in the winter, to clean snow off the paths, or somebody will be find. "My first concern everyday was not safe production anymore," a distant relative who works at 101st Factory told me. "It was making sure I look OK for the job. I had to check if I was wearing my badge properly when I rushed to the explosion site during the rescue -- I was afaid I'd be fined even when I was trying to dillute toxic chemicals and save lives."
Be sure to check out the Newsweek article and especially, the blog - there's lots more.

Sorry About That...

From the AP:
HARBIN, China - Visiting Premier Wen Jiabao ordered local leaders to clean up toxic benzene by Sunday night from the river that provides water for this northeast city, where residents spent a fourth day Saturday without supplies in freezing weather.

The foreign minister, meanwhile, delivered an unusual public apology to Moscow for possible damage from the spill on the Songhua River, which is flowing toward a city in the Russian Far East.

Beijing's show of care and contrition was almost unprecedented and represented an effort to restore its damaged standing with both China's public and Moscow, a key diplomatic partner...

...Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing's apology to Russian Ambassador Sergei Razov was reported on the state television evening news, which is seen by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

"Li Zhaoxing expressed his sincere apology on behalf of the Chinese government for the possible harm that this major environmental pollution incident could bring to the Russian people downstream," the report said.

It was an extraordinary step for the newscast, which usually carries only positive reports about China's foreign relations...
Here's one form of apology I wish corporate wrongdoers in the US would adopt:
The plant was run by a subsidiary of China's biggest oil company, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., which issued an apology this week and sent executives to help dig wells in Harbin.
Meanwhile, the UK Guardian reports on how the crisis has impacted Harbin's poorest residents:
For the first time in her life Mrs Li is thinking of splashing out on a bottle of water. It may only cost 7p, but for the migrant mother living in one of the city of Harbin's poorest neighbourhoods, anything but tap water has, until now, been an unthinkable extravagance.

Decision time is looming. Since China's biggest recent pollution scare prompted the authorities to cut off water supplies two days ago, the 25-year-old has conserved every drop. She no longer washes the family's hair and clothes. She eats only bread, buns and other food that does not require water for cooking. And, though it worries her immensely, she has stopped boiling her baby's bottle to keep it sterile.

But her family's supplies are already running out. Unlike most of the rest of the city's 3.5 million residents, she had no bath or barrels to fill when the government warned everyone to prepare for a dry patch. Instead, the family of three drink and wash from three small buckets that are fast emptying.

"We can probably manage for a day or two more, but if it goes on much longer I'll be very worried," she said. "I never imagined this would happen when I came to live in the city."...

...Despite freezing temperatures, people queue on the streets with kettles and flasks when the emergency water tanker, a converted street cleaning truck, pulls in once a day with fresh supplies. For some there is even an air of festivity. "It's a bit like the war," says one veteran. "Everyone pulling together and the [communist] party providing for us."

But in the poorer parts of town there is resentment that the burden and the risk are not being equally shared. "It is all right for the rich and the communist cadres," said Zhu Yuan Liang, a scrap collector. "But most people are poor and cannot afford to waste money on bottled water."
The Guardian article also contains an interesting speculation::
The exposure of the cover-up may have been a ploy by central government to make companies and local authorities more responsible for the environment. According to Chinese journalists the order to go public came directly from the state council - led by prime minister Wen Jiabao. A day later Mr Wen held a meeting with ministers in which he emphasised the environmental woes facing China.

It Takes A Village

The Washington Post has an epic recounting of the Taishi protests, detailing the support from outside political activists (including Lu Banglie, whose beating at the hands of hired thugs sparked international outrage) and Beijing intellectuals who came of political age in 1989. The article is too long and too detailed for me to adequately summarize it, but here are a few highlights:
...Taishi has become a milestone in the peasant uprisings that increasingly are breaking out around China, generating open concern in President Hu Jintao's government and in the Communist Party. In Taishi's rebellion, outraged local farmers for the first time received help from outside political activists and Beijing-based intellectuals whose politics were shaped in part by the 1989 democracy movement.

The cooperation between local peasant protesters and veteran activists pursuing a national political agenda -- pushing China toward democracy -- was hailed by Chinese and foreign civil rights advocates as a significant advance. By helping peasants learn from others, they saw a promise of generating more democracy in China's village elections. And by aggressively promoting coverage in Chinese and foreign media through multiple Web postings and broadcasts of cell phone text messages, they thought they had found a way to pressure the authorities. Liu Xiaobo, a well known Beijing activist and writer, said on an overseas-based Web site popular with dissidents, "Civil elites working together with grass-roots villagers created a new method to safeguard villagers' human rights." He added, "Domestic intellectuals and Internet users have provided tremendous support and also brought massive attention among Western media."

But for the government and Communist Party, the coming together of disgruntled peasants and political activists in Taishi caused alarm. It raised the specter of a nascent national leadership and coordination for what so far has been an unconnected series of violent outbursts, usually over local economic issues, each of which has had homegrown leaders without broader ambitions...

...The authorities in charge of Taishi cracked down hard. They sent in riot police to break up protests. They branded the activists as "plotters" and threw several of them in jail on charges of inciting social disorder. Lu was detained for a day even before the beating. The offices of some were rifled, they said, and their houses were put under surveillance. Some went into hiding.

Most of all, the authorities made sure that Taishi remained under the leadership of Chen Jingshen, the elected village chief and, simultaneously, the unelected Communist Party secretary. He was the target of the angry peasants, who charged that he bribed his way to victory in last April's vote and siphoned off thousands of dollars in village funds over the last several years.
Notable is the attempt by the organizers and Taishi's protesters to use China's laws to achieve their goals:
Yang and Lu, two veteran activists, quietly got involved in the struggle. They advised the Taishi villagers on what options were open to them under China's election laws, Lu said, and inspired them by recounting Lu's experience in booting out a corrupt leader back home in Hubei province. Basing their demand on the election law and its recall provision, Feng and Liang filed a formal recall motion on July 29. According to Lu and the district government, the motion was drafted with help from Lu and Yang.

It carried more than 400 signatures, meeting the threshold of endorsement by 20 percent of Taishi's 1,500 registered voters.

Villagers gathered two days later in an open square. From atop a heap of bricks, as local reporters and other witnesses looked on, Feng read a section from Chinese law books saying village accounts must be published every six months and villagers had the right to recall Chen.

"The law will be our guardian," he vowed.
What followed was an escalating series of sit-ins, hunger strikes and protests as the local government attempted to remove the town's ledgers to avoid any outside audit that would reveal village chief Chen's alleged financial improprieties. Riot police eventually cleared the protesters, who included elderly women, using batons and high-pressure hoses. In spite of this set-back, it appeared for a time that the villagers might have actually achieved their objectives:
Then, in a surprise turn of events, the district government announced that the recall motion was proved valid and villagers should choose an election committee to organize a new vote for village chief, scheduled for the middle of October. The protests should now stop, it said, and activists with "ulterior motives" should be ignored.

On first glance, this seemed like a triumph for the villagers. The official party newspaper, People's Daily, hailed the outcome as a model for village elections and pointed to signs of "a democratic environment built upon rationality and legality."

But then the district government arbitrarily chose all candidates for the seven-person election committee -- and all were local officials loyal to Chen.

Outraged, the still-defiant villagers threatened to boycott the vote. Seeking to prevent more violence, the district government swiftly relented and allowed another slate to run as well. The vote was held Sept. 16; all the unofficial candidates were elected and none of the government's slate.

The seven committee members now had four weeks to organize a new vote for village chief. But somewhere in the government and party bureaucracy -- activists believe it was at a senior level in Beijing -- officials had decided Chen would not be replaced, lest a precedent be set.
Under pressure and repeated threats, a majority of the petitioners withdrew their signatures, and the recall vote was canceled.

The article concludes with a quote from Lu, the peasant activist, who vows to continue his organizing: "I will definitely continue. But how to do it is the question now."

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Harbin Update

AP has an update:
The 50-mile-long patch of water carrying toxic benzene began entering Harbin, a city of 3.8 million people in China's northeast, before dawn, the government said. It was expected to take 40 hours to pass.

"After it passes ... we will have to make efforts to disinfect the water," Shi Zhongxin, director of the city's water bureau, said on state television. He gave no details...

...The city government announced it was digging 100 new wells.

On Thursday, thousands of one-liter bottles of drinking water stood in huge stacks outside wholesale shops. Families bought them by the dozen to take home by bicycle, while sidewalk vendors pushed carts straining under hundreds of bottles...

...China's central government confirmed for the first time Wednesday that the shutdown was a result of a "major water pollution incident." Local officials earlier disclosed the reason, but officials in Beijing had refused to comment...

...The explosion, which forced the evacuation of 10,000 people, was blamed on human error in a facility processing benzene, which is used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents and pesticides. Short-term exposure can cause drowsiness, dizziness and unconsciousness.

A top official with China's environmental watchdog said Thursday the company overseeing the plant should be held responsible — state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., which is the country's largest oil company.

"We will be very clear about who's responsible. It is the chemical plant of the CNPC in Jilin province," Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said at a news conference.

Zhang did not give any more details but said investigators were looking into criminal responsibility.

He also had no details on what authorities would do to protect against long-term damage to the river and surrounding soil.

In neighboring Russia, news reports said concern was growing in the border city of Khabarovsk, about 435 miles downriver from Harbin.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said officials briefed the Russian Embassy twice this week and both sides have agreed to share information....

...Zhang said China did no wrong in waiting until this week to tell Russia about the effects of the Nov. 13 accident. "There are different levels of reporting," he said, explaining that local officials along the river were told first.

"It will be another 14 days before the toxins reach the Heilongjiang River" which flows into Russia, "so we don't think we were late in providing information," he said.

But, an official in Khabarovsk told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency that not enough was known about the accident on the Songhua River — known in Russian as the Sungari.

"Unfortunately, the Chinese side has so far not released full information about the chemicals in the Sungari and their amount," Ivan Sych, head of the Khabarovsk regional department for civil defense and emergency situations, was quoted as saying...

...With its huge population, China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person. Hundreds of cities regularly suffer shortages of water for drinking or industry. Protests have erupted in rural areas throughout China over complaints that pollution is ruining water supplies and damaging crops.
The Financial Times account is grim:
Thousands of residents of Harbin last night jammed its railway station while others booked all available flights as a deadly 80km toxic slick made its way down the Songhua river, threatening to poison the north-eastern Chinese city's water supplies.

The slick of benzene and other toxins was leaked into the river, the city's main source of water, after a series of explosions 10 days ago at a chemicals factory 200km upriver.

A mood of distrust and paranoia was spreading through the industrial city of 9m people, sharpened by the local government's decision to turn off water supplies for four days for fear of an environmental catastrophe.

Trains leaving the city are fully booked until the weekend. All 42 flights from the city's airport were also full yesterday.
The Guardian adds:
While the true extent of the risk to human health remains unclear, the public's sense of unease has been heightened by mixed signals coming from the authorities, who have taken more than a week to raise the alarm...

...The state environmental protection agency said it had started monitoring water safety levels within three hours of the explosion at the plant, yet its report - that 108 times the safe level of benzene seeped into the river - only became public knowledge yesterday...

...in China, questions about the environmental disaster are spreading beyond Harbin. According to the Xinhua news agency, the provincial government is so concerned that it has warned city residents to stay away from the river to avoid possible exposure to airborne toxins.

Upstream, there have been reports that many fish have died and, contrary to earlier denials, it appears that at least two cities, Songhua and Jilin, have shut down water supplies because of health fears.
I'm running out the door and have no real time to comment here. But for me, this has echoes of another disaster from a few decades ago. That too took place in a state that zealously tried to control the flow of information, and the fall-out from the government's handling of it helped trigger major changes in that government.

Remember Chernobyl?

I've said before that perhaps a grassroots environmental movement has the potential to be a dem0cr@tizing force in China. Pollution affects everyone, rich and poor, and in addition there are many in the government who recognize the severity of China's problem and are pushing for concrete actions to address it (check out this interview with Minister Pan Yue). A balance with nature is an essential aspect of traditional Chinese culture as well - something that even Mao and the rush to modernization has not completely destroyed.

China's officials claim they will share information on a timely basis. I imagine Harbin's residents will be very interested to see if they do - particuarly their plans to ensure the future safety of the water supply.

UPDATE And the criticism is rolling in:
Environmentalists criticized the government for failing to take action and inform the public sooner.

"Careful environmental evaluation should have been made to avoid building dangerous factories near residential areas and water sources in the first place," said Xue Ye, general secretary of the Chinese group Friends of Nature.

"The local government should have predicted the possible pollution, but they didn't. It makes us wonder whether the plan was made for real use or just for showing off."...

...Reporters from China's usually docile state press peppered Zhang with questions, asking repeatedly why the government waited so long to disclose the scale of the threat faced by Harbin and other communities.

Zhang replied, "We did report it right away. There are different levels of reporting."

A reporter from China Central Television, noting that China has suffered a string of fatal industrial accidents recently, asked whether the government would be setting up a new emergency-response mechanism.

Zhang said the government already had such a mechanism and that it functioned as planned.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

Okay, so Firedoglake and Dependable Renegade already have this up. But I'm feeling the holiday spirit...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Fall of Japan?

In general I've avoided the topic of anti-Japanese sentiments in China. It's such a hot-button issue that it's difficult to have any real debate that doesn't deteriorate into a lot of shouting and slogans. But these two articles, dealing with Japan's increasing isolation from the rest of Asia, are worrying on many levels.

First up is an article from the UK Guardian that explores the connection between China's rise and increasing Japanese nationalism:
When Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese prime minister, secured his dramatic and overwhelming victory in September's general election, its significance was generally interpreted as a victory for his programme of privatisation and deregulation. This, however, is secondary. Far more important to Japan's future is Koizumi's implicit and incipient nationalism. This was demonstrated again on October 17 with his latest visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where class A war criminals are honoured, despite the opposition of China and South Korea and the wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China earlier this year.

Little is made too explicit in Japanese society, but the new cabinet, which Koizumi announced last week, spoke volumes about both his intentions and likely future trends in Japan. The two top positions, chief cabinet secretary and foreign minister, were given to Shinzo Abe, the man most likely to succeed Koizumi when his term finishes next September, and Taro Aso respectively. Both are rightwing nationalists and both, like Koizumi, are regular visitors to Yasukuni. This is the first time that the three key positions in the cabinet have been occupied by such figures. The previous cabinet secretary, who had opposed Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni, was dropped from the cabinet and the former foreign minister, who did not visit Yasukuni, lost his position.

One might think that this is to read too much into such visits to the shrine. On the contrary, they are symbolic acts, an expression of how Japan's past and future should be seen, and as such a deliberate, if coded, signal to the Japanese. Nor are these visits naive or innocent in the message they send to China and South Korea. Koizumi may express the view that they do not give offence to these countries but he knows that they do. And this, indeed, is their very intention. The more these countries protest, the more likely it is that Koizumi will continue to visit the shrine. He is laying down a marker - for the Japanese and to the Chinese and Koreans. Japan's future is already beginning to take shape.

The causes of growing Japanese nationalism may be diverse, but they are increasingly driven by one overwhelming factor: a fear of the rise of China. That is the only way the behaviour of Koizumi and the other leading lights in the Liberal Democratic party can be understood. It could be different. China, widely credited with having pulled Japan out of its long-running recession, represents an enormous economic opportunity for Japan, and is already Japan's largest trading partner. But far more powerful forces than mere economics are at work. Ever since the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan has turned its back on Asia in general and China in particular: its pattern of aggression from 1895 onwards and the colonies that resulted were among the consequences.

To engage with China requires Japan to come to terms with its past, and Koizumi's visits to the shrine represent a symbolic refusal to do so. Japan is stuck in its past, and its past now threatens to define its future and that of east Asia. Even during the postwar period, when Japan dominated east Asia economically and China was weak and self-absorbed, it never had an influence commensurate with its economic strength. The reason was simple: its failure to atone for its past and embrace a new kind of relationship with its wronged and distrustful neighbours. If Japan could not do it then, it is even less likely to do it in the face of a resurgent China that is rapidly displacing it as the economic and political fulcrum of east Asia.
Even more alarming in this context is the increasingly close alliance that Japan is forming with the United States:
Earlier this year Japan affirmed, for the first time, its willingness to support the US in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. It has also agreed to work with the US to develop and finance a missile-defence system whose intention is clearly the containment of China. It is not difficult to see the early signs of a new cold war in east Asia, with Japan and the US on one side and China on the other.
I think this fear is somewhat overstated. The United States simply has too much of an economic stake in China, and vice-versa. Regardless of neo-con posturing on both sides, China and the US are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship that if broken, will damage both parties (granted, I may be giving too much credit to the power of rational thinking here). And it's not clear to me what the greatest danger of a nationalistic Japan might be to its Asian neighbors (ideas, anyone? I don't see Japan invading Manchuria again any time soon). I wonder if the greatest danger of this sort of isolation is to Japan itself, both economically and spiritually. What this New York Times article says about certain strains in Japanese culture is both alarming and deeply sad:
A young Japanese woman in the comic book "Hating the Korean Wave" exclaims, "It's not an exaggeration to say that Japan built the South Korea of today!" In another passage the book states that "there is nothing at all in Korean culture to be proud of."

In another comic book, "Introduction to China," which portrays the Chinese as a depraved people obsessed with cannibalism, a woman of Japanese origin says: "Take the China of today, its principles, thought, literature, art, science, institutions. There's nothing attractive."

The two comic books, portraying Chinese and Koreans as base peoples and advocating confrontation with them, have become runaway best sellers in Japan in the last four months.

In their graphic and unflattering drawings of Japan's fellow Asians and in the unapologetic, often offensive contents of their speech bubbles, the books reveal some of the sentiments underlying Japan's worsening relations with the rest of Asia.

They also point to Japan's longstanding unease with the rest of Asia and its own sense of identity, which is akin to Britain's apartness from the Continent. Much of Japan's history in the last century and a half has been guided by the goal of becoming more like the West and less like Asia. Today, China and South Korea's rise to challenge Japan's position as Asia's economic, diplomatic and cultural leader is inspiring renewed xenophobia against them here.
There are so many offensive stereotypes and outright falsehoods in these books that I'll stick to the Chinese volume:
The book describes China as the "world's prostitution superpower" and says, without offering evidence, that prostitution accounts for 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product. It describes China as a source of disease and depicts Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi saying, "I hear that most of the epidemics that broke out in Japan on a large scale are from China."

The book waves away Japan's worst wartime atrocities in China. It dismisses the Rape of Nanjing, in which historians say 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese were killed by Japanese soldiers in 1937-38, as a fabrication of the Chinese government devised to spread anti-Japanese sentiment.

The book also says the Japanese Imperial Army's Unit 731 - which researched biological warfare and conducted vivisections, amputations and other experiments on thousands of Chinese and other prisoners - was actually formed to defend Japanese soldiers against the Chinese.
So does all this justify the recent, and sometimes violent, anti-Japanese demonstrations in China? A cautionary note: one of the book's authors, Ko Bunyu, a Taiwan-born writer who has lived in Japan for forty years, credits the demonstrations with boosting his sales to past the one million mark:
"I have to thank China, really," Mr. Ko said. "But I'm disappointed that the sales of my books could have been more than one or two million if they had continued the demonstrations."
Thanks to David in the UK for the Guardian article!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hu Hearts Hu

Fascinating analysis by the New York Times Joseph Kahn (via the International Herald Tribune) about the pending rehabilitation of CCP reformer (and Tiananmen, "well, it's not really about him, but his death is a good excuse" icon) Hu Yaobang - specifically, what this wrangling over Hu Yaobang's post-mortem reputation signals about the factionalization of China's leadership. And it's not necessarily what you might think:
The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, early this year decided to mark the 90th anniversary of Hu Yaobang's birth. Party observers said President Hu aimed to soften his hard-line image and strengthen the Communist Youth League, his political base within the Communist Party. The youth league was considered the support network of the Hu Yaobang, who lost his position as Communist Party general secretary after a power struggle in 1987. The two Hus are not related.

While restoring the stature of Hu Yaobang is unlikely to lead to broad political openings - the party leadership has steadily tightened its grip over civil society and the media, for example - it does give a glimpse of the complex politicking that takes places among the ruling elite.

It also shows the enduring sensitivity about the people and events connected with the 1989 protests. Political observers say the June 4 killings will haunt the party until it acknowledges having bloodily suppressed the mainly peaceful pro-democracy protests and until it pays respect to the hundreds of people killed, injured or purged as a result of the unrest.

President Hu persisted with marking the anniversary of his Hu Yaobang even though four of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top ruling body, expressed concern that the move could threaten stability, people told about the debate said.

The four, one of whom was Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, were said to have different reasons for opposing the commemoration. But all argued that the move is potentially risky given the circumstances surrounding the 1989 demonstrations.

Honoring Hu Yaobang could give people the idea that the demonstrations, which the party has condemned as a massive antigovernment plot, are open for discussion, these people said.

Opposition to the commemoration was first reported earlier this month by Open, a Hong Kong-based political magazine, and was confirmed by people close to the late leader's family.

President Hu is said to have overruled the objections and ordered the commemoration to proceed, arguing that while students may have invoked Hu Yaobang's name when their protest began, but the former leader had no responsibility for the demonstrations.
With so much ideological freight attached, it's no wonder that arrangements for the rehabilitation ceremony are somewhat complicated:
People close to Hu Yaobang's family said at least three members of the Politburo standing committee will attend the Beijing event...Wen will make an appearance despite having expressed concern that restoring Hu Yaobang's stature could lead to calls to rehabilitate Zhao Ziyang, who succeeded Hu Yaobang as party chief. Zhao, who died last year, was harshly condemned for siding with protesters against the party during the 1989 unrest. He spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest.
What's especially intriguing about all these machinations (to those of us who follow such things, anyway), is how they turn on their head and invert the typical paradigms by which we evaluate China's leaders and political direction. I mean, if Hu Yaobang equals symbol of reform and liberalization, then supporting his rehabilitation must be a sign of greater openness and reform, right?

Not necessarily so:
Since taking over the party leadership in 2002, President Hu has rejected ideas for political liberalization and pursued a sustained crackdown on the press, nongovernment organizations, the legal profession and religious groups he views as threatening the party's hold on power.

Plans to honor Hu Yaobang prompted some Chinese journalists and party officials to speculate that President Hu might begin pursuing a more moderate governing style now that he has largely consolidated his power.

But many observers said they believe that the president is instead working to shore up the influence of Communist Youth League veterans much as his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, often protected and promoted people associated with the Shanghai party apparatus, his longtime base.
As entertaining as it is to speculate about what this signals regarding China's leadership and its future direction, I will once again fall back on that old Zhou Enlai quote, when asked for his opinion of the French Revolution: "It's too soon to say."

Monday, November 14, 2005

Heroes And Villains II

Dai Qing Speaks! From the excellent Three Gorges Probe:
In early 1989, acclaimed Chinese journalist Dai Qing published Yangtze! Yangtze!, a groundbreaking collection of interviews, essays and statements by Chinese scientists, journalists and intellectuals opposed to the Three Gorges dam. This pioneering critique was later banned in China for allegedly "abetting the turmoil" in Tiananmen Square. Dai Qing was arrested in July 1989 and spent 10 months in solitary confinement in Qincheng political prison on the outskirts of Beijing.

For the past 16 years, Dai Qing has not been allowed to publish her work or to speak publicly in China - until a recent talk at the Sanwei bookstore-teahouse in central Beijing. The following is a transcript of her presentation, along with excerpts from the question and answer session.
And you'll just have to click on the link for the rest...

Heroes And Villains

One of the reasons that I haven't blogged much lately is that I've been putting my energy into a novel (it's this weird, compulsive habit I have, writing books), one that's partly set in modern - or more accurately, post-modern China, so it's sort of sucking up my interest in that subject, plus the major subplot deals with a whole cluster of issues and events in contemporary US politics that, well, really piss me off. The kinds of things I'd rant about here, like, oh, the Senate's stealth attack on habeas corpus, one of the bedrock principles of American jurisprudence. Except, I guess, not anymore, because, you know, 9/11 changed everything.

Yeah, right.

Here is an example of the sorts of abuses that we can expect to see many more of if habeas corpus is drastically limited...oh, except that we won't actually see them any more...which maybe is the point. If a "detainee" is innocent in a black site prison, does it really matter? Does he even exist?
As the Senate prepared to vote Thursday to abolish the writ of habeas corpus, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jon Kyl were railing about lawyers like me. Filing lawsuits on behalf of the terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Terrorists! Kyl must have said the word 30 times.

As I listened, I wished the senators could meet my client Adel.

Adel is innocent. I don't mean he claims to be. I mean the military says so. It held a secret tribunal and ruled that he is not al Qaeda, not Taliban, not a terrorist. The whole thing was a mistake: The Pentagon paid $5,000 to a bounty hunter, and it got taken.

The military people reached this conclusion, and they wrote it down on a memo, and then they classified the memo and Adel went from the hearing room back to his prison cell. He is a prisoner today, eight months later. And these facts would still be a secret but for one thing: habeas corpus.

Only habeas corpus got Adel a chance to tell a federal judge what had happened. Only habeas corpus revealed that it wasn't just Adel who was innocent -- it was Abu Bakker and Ahmet and Ayoub and Zakerjain and Sadiq -- all Guantanamo "terrorists" whom the military has found innocent.

Habeas corpus is older than even our Constitution. It is the right to compel the executive to justify itself when it imprisons people. But the Senate voted to abolish it for Adel, in favor of the same "combatant status review tribunal" that has already exonerated him. That secret tribunal didn't have much impact on his life, but Graham says it is good enough.

Adel lives in a small fenced compound 8,000 miles from his home and family. The Defense Department says it is trying to arrange for a country to take him -- some country other than his native communist China, where Muslims like Adel are routinely tortured. It has been saying this for more than two years. But the rest of the world is not rushing to aid the Bush administration, and meanwhile Adel is about to pass his fourth anniversary in a U.S. prison.

He has no visitors save his lawyers. He has no news in his native language, Uighur. He cannot speak to his wife, his children, his parents. When I first met him on July 15, in a grim place they call Camp Echo, his leg was chained to the floor. I brought photographs of his children to another visit, but I had to take them away again. They were "contraband," and he was forbidden to receive them from me.

In a wiser past, we tried Nazi war criminals in the sunlight. Summing up for the prosecution at Nuremberg, Robert Jackson said that "the future will never have to ask, with misgiving: 'What could the Nazis have said in their favor?' History will know that whatever could be said, they were allowed to say. . . . The extraordinary fairness of these hearings is an attribute of our strength."

The world has never doubted the judgment at Nuremberg. But no one will trust the work of these secret tribunals.

Mistakes are made: There will always be Adels. That's where courts come in. They are slow, but they are not beholden to the defense secretary, and in the end they get it right. They know the good guys from the bad guys. Take away the courts and everyone's a bad guy.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Could it be...SATAN?!"

"Could it be...SATAN?!"
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

Personal issues have kept me from blogging much, but I had to share this:

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson warned residents of a rural Pennsylvania town Thursday that disaster may strike there because they "voted God out of your city" by ousting school board members who favored teaching intelligent design.

All eight Dover, Pa., school board members up for re-election were defeated Tuesday after trying to introduce "intelligent design" — the belief that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power — as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city," Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club."...

...Later Thursday, Robertson issued a statement saying he was simply trying to point out that "our spiritual actions have consequences."

"God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever," Robertson said. "If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them."

Robertson made headlines this summer when he called on his daily show for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In October 2003, he suggested that the State Department be blown up with a nuclear device. He has also said that feminism encourages women to "kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."
While fundamentalist Christianity encourages its followers to become violent, delusional lunatics, apparently...

Will someone please explain to me why this clown is considered a legitimate religious figure while one of the largest Episcopal churches in Southern California is in danger of losing its tax-exempt status because of a sermon in which the rector suggested that an unprovoked war is perhaps not what Jesus would consider a truly Christian activity?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Way Too Interesting...

Apparently "may you live in interesting times" is not actually a Chinese curse. According to this source it comes from a 1950 science fiction story. That's fine, because at times I feel like I'm living in an increasingly science fictional world, one in which there are way too many "Blade Runner" references. As an example, take this news report from China:
China's water crisis -- from severe shortages to heavy pollution -- is the worst in the world and requires urgent action, a top government official says.

China was "facing a water crisis more severe and urgent than any other country in the world," Vice Minister of Construction Qiu Baoxing told a conference in Beijing on developing China's urban water supply...

..."We've got to solve the problem before it is too late," warned Qiu, according to the China Daily.

China's water supply is too small for its huge population of 1.3 billion people.

Its per capita water availability is about a quarter of the world average and it is expected to get worse, partly due to falling groundwater tables, the report said.

In addition, among China's seven major rivers, five are seriously polluted.

Waste was also a major problem, as more than 20 percent of the water supply in China's cities are leaked out from the water pipe networks, Qian Yi, a professor of environmental engineering from Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was quoted as saying.

"Shortsightedness in economic development accompanied with environmental destruction is still widespread in China," Qian said.
Well, if I'm living in a science fiction story, there are other genres competing for our national narrative. "Erotic" fiction, for one. From Lynne Cheney's Sapphic Western "Sisters" (go here for a tasty sample) to Scooter Libby's "The Apprentice," which features incest, necrophilia and bestiality, the literary stylings of the Right raise some interesting questions about their attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Like, why don't their heads start exploding already? I mean, this is the Administration that let a gay male hooker masquerade as a reporter and attend White House press briefings while using the shibboleth of gay marriage to whip its fundamentalist base into a frenzy. I can't decide if it's the ability to live with massive cognitive dissonance or merely hypocrisy on a grand and blatant scale.

Digby has a post up on the systemic use of sodomy in the "abuse" of detainees in American custody. Though I somehow doubt that anal penetration made the list of "coercive interrogation techniques" sought by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and other members of the Administration, the strain of sexual perversity that runs through accounts of prisoner abuse stands out, and it's far too widespread to be passed off as an aberration, the work of a few, low-ranking "bad apples."

I don't know if this is about unresolved sexual conflicts, cold-hearted cruelty or, as Digby speculates, the unleashing of some universal, dark force from the human Id in the service of neocon imperial dreams - some combination thereof, most probably. But I also think it's about a confusion of narrative and narrative's relation to reality.

Life, in other words, really isn't bad genre fiction, as much as the Administration's pulp novelists would like it to be...

Saturday, October 29, 2005

"Saving Face"

No, I'm not referring to the Bush Administration's fall-back strategy for coping with the indictment of Scooter Libby and all the suddenly pointing fingers at the lies and deceptions underlying the hollow rationale for the invasion of Iraq. Lots of other blogs out there doing a brilliant job of that (and might I recommend Booman Tribune and firedoglake as places to go for your latest installments of "Scooter Goes to Jail"? Part Two: "Turdblossom's Fitzmas Present").

I'm referring to last year's indy film by first-time director Alice Wu. Now, I work in the film industry and am well-aware of the dynamics that control what films get made and why - one of the reasons that I'd rather read and write novels, to be honest. But occasionally, exceptions come along, and in the case of this one, I can only shake my head in admiration and wonderment.

"Saving Face" is, first, a film about Chinese Americans. With no white people. Well, that's a big no-no. Second, it's a film about Chinese American lesbians, which, even given the popularity of girl on girl sex in certain lad-ish circles is still a bit of a commercial stretch. Third, half the film is in Mandarin! Lovely, proper Mandarin, in the case of Joan Chen, always a boon to us aspiring Chinese students. But you gotta figure that market is also somewhat limited. And did I mention the part where this was the director's first script and first film? That Wu's previous job was as a software geek at Microsoft? That she quit her job and gave herself five years to get her film made? And along the way, encountered attitudes like these?
''They had me meet with a lot of people in Hollywood, mostly Asian-American studio executives, which I hadn't honestly known existed,'' Ms. Wu said. She also hadn't anticipated just how often she would be asked to consider changes that struck at the very heart of the script everyone seemed to like so much: Couldn't Ms. Wu make her characters white, so maybe the young doctor could be played by, say, Reese Witherspoon, and Ellen Burstyn could be cast as her mother? How about making the love affair heterosexual? Did she have to direct as well as write it? It was advice Ms. Wu declined to take.

(from an unlinkable May 29, 2005 NYT article)
The only part of this I have any sympathy for is the caution about giving a complete novice director the helm. God knows there have been far too many inexperienced directors who've cost studios tons of money because they don't have a clue what they're doing. That applies to some pretty well-known directors as well (*cough* let's just say he's not "money" *cough*).

Anyway, "Saving Face" is a charming dramatic comedy that's been compared to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Bend It Like Beckham." I haven't seen the latter film but can say that it's a much better movie than the first, even with what I feel is one dramatic misstep (which since I don't want to drop a spoiler, I'll decline to go into here). The film is about a young doctor in NYC who does not know how tell her very traditional family that she's gay (and in love with a ballerina, no less). Add to that her widowed mother's mysterious pregnancy (she declines to identify the father). Kicked out of her Flushing-based parents' house, Mom moves in with daughter, redecorates the apartment in proper Chinese fashion and holes up watching bad Chinese soap operas (are there any other kind?). Will mother and daughter remain enslaved to tradition and misery? Or will they risk opening themselves up to real love?

Now available on DVD. I urge you all to rent and watch, if for no other reason than to support a tenacious filmmaker who stayed true to her vision and somehow got it done, and in fine style. But I think you'll enjoy the film too.