Thursday, July 28, 2005

"Loving Others' Rejects"

Just go read this beautiful story in yesterday's LA Times. Here's the beginning:
ANDING, China — Chen Shangyi makes a living as a scavenger. He prides himself on having a good nose for unusual finds. So when he saw a crowd clustered around a white bundle at the local train station one day while he was hunting for empty soda cans and soy sauce bottles, he couldn't resist taking a peek.

It was a baby, wrapped in a thin sheet.

"Everybody was just looking. Nobody would do anything," recalled Chen, who was 65, already retirement age, on that bitterly cold, snowy day 17 years ago.

"When I took her home, she was frozen stiff. My wife and I wrapped her in a burlap bag…. We started a fire. We fed her soup and put some old clothes on her. A while later, she started to wiggle." Chen named her Ling Ling.

Today, the sturdy 82-year-old with deep lines on his sun-baked face still makes a living as a scavenger in this remote Chinese town of 460,000 people on the edge of the Gobi Desert. And he is still bringing home children — 42 in all, at last count.
The reporter, Ching-Ching Ni, wrote one of my favorite stories ever, about the Tibetan Wild Yak Brigade. She has a gift for making what is extraordinary in "ordinary" peoples' lives come alive.

If you can't access this story behind the Great Firewall, let me know, and I'll be happy to email it to you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Little Chinese Seamstress and the Big, Bad Government

the New York Times features an article on Da Sijie, the Chinese filmmaker turned novelist turned filmmaker once more. Da Sijie's first novel was the best-selling "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress." He wrote the novel in French; it was a surpise hit, translated into 25 languages.

But although Da Sijie is not a political exile (he still carries a Chinese passport and returns home to China as he wishes), he still has not gained acceptance in his native country. "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" is a semi-autobiographical tale, set during the Cultural Revolution, when like so many other young people, Da Sijie was sent to a remote village in the countryside for "political re-education":
The story takes off when the boys meet "the little seamstress" (played by Xun Zhou in the movie), who helps her grandfather, a local tailor. Both Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen) fall for her. She loves the attention, but is even more thrilled when the boys find some Chinese translations of Western classics and read the likes of Balzac, Flaubert and Dumas to her. In her mind, she has found the key to freedom.

It was precisely here that Mr. Dai ran up against problems. Chinese authorities banned the book, and then, having allowed him to make the film in China, they also banned the movie. "It wasn't that I touched the Cultural Revolution," Mr. Dai said over lunch in this town west of Paris near studios where he is editing his new movie. "They did not accept that Western literature could change a Chinese girl. I explained that classical literature is a universal heritage, but to no avail."
Not one of Da Sijie's films or literary works is legitimately available in China today (though I'm sure the pirate DVDs will be easy enough to purchase).
"With some money over the last three years, I had a dream that I would be able to write and live in China," he said, "but it hasn't worked out. The censors won't accept my books, films or projects. My dream of writing in my own language has not been fulfilled. It is very sad."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Big Blow-Hards

So maybe there's more to the Chinese government's recent environmental policies than nice-sounding rhetoric. From Howard French of the NY Times, via his blog, A Glimpse of the World , comes this report on China's pursuit of wind power:
By 2020, starting from a minuscule base that it has established only recently, China expects to supply 10 percent of its needs from so-called renewable energy sources, including wind, solar energy, small hydroelectric dams and biomass like plant fibers and animal wastes.

So far, wind power is making the most impressive strides, so much so that even if Mr. Li’s boast of soon having the largest wind farm in Asia comes true, he will have plenty of competition within China alone.

Already, large wind farms are sprouting up in much more heavily populated provinces, like Guangdong, Fujian and Hebei, and with Chinese and foreign turbine manufacturers competing furiously for this fast-expanding market, the cost per kilowatt is becoming increasingly competitive with China’s abundant coal. Many coastal provinces, meanwhile, are developing plans to build wind farms just offshore, where winds are strong and land use is not an issue. Projects like these are expected to deploy huge new turbines with 87-yard-long blades, each capable of generating 1.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power hundreds of homes, if not more.

“We have huge goals for wind power development,” Wang Zhongying, director of China’s Center for Renewable Energy Development. “By 2010, we plan to reach 4,000 megawatts, and by 2020 we expect to reach 20,000 megawatts, or 20 gigawatts.” If anything, Mr. Wang said, these targets are too conservative, and may be easily surpassed.
Ironically, it was a visit to a wind farm in the United States eighteen years ago that inspired the Chinese effort. I say, "ironically" because certainly the U.S. has beat a hasty retreat away from the development of renewable energy sources under the Bush Administration. China, motivated by pollution that is choking its cities and killing its people (one of the two leading causes of death in China today is lung cancer) has every reason to pursue its ambitious goal of 10% renewable energy sources by 2020. And the United States? Apparently the greed of our ruling politicians, who are in bed so deep with the petrochemical industry that they might as well replace the Statue of Liberty with a giant oil derrick, overrides any obligation to plan for the future, care for the environment, set a global example of technological achievement, or give a rat's ass about the lives of their own children and grandchildren.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Now I'M depressed!

One of the words we learned in my Chinese class fairly early on was "yali," meaning pressure or stress. "Xiandai Zhongguo de shihui you hen duo yali," my teacher would say, "modern Chinese society has a lot of stress."

Well, this apparently was not some empty vocabulary exercise. Reuters reports today that the number one cause of death among people aged 20 to 35 in China is suicide:
An estimated quarter of a million people a year -- or 685 a day -- take their lives, state media said Monday.

Each year an additional 2.5 million to 3.5 million Chinese unsuccessfully attempt suicide, which stood as the fifth major cause of death among the country's 1.3 billion people, the China Daily said.

Disproportionate rates of suicide and depression among young people appear to be a direct result of increasing stress in China's rapidly changing society.
And if that weren't depressing enough, the major causes of death in China for the population as a whole are lung cancer and traffic accidents.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Hollow Man

As soon as I heard mention of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's new biography of Mao Zedong, I ordered it from Amazon UK - the book is not yet published in the US. Jung Chang is the author of "Wild Swans," the popular and critically acclaimed story of three Chinese women through times of war and revolution - her grandmother, mother and Jung Chang herself. "Wild Swans" was one of the first books I'd read when my weird, post-China obsession with trying to make sense of it all finally kicked in (years after the experience), and I'd quite enjoyed it. It's the kind of book you can recommend to those with absolutely no background in China that gives readers a vivid taste of China's recent, bitter history.

So anyway, I ordered the Mao biography, it arrived promptly, a door-stopper over 700 pages, I flipped through the index, skimmed a few sections and put it on my shelf next to my Chairman Mao piggy-bank. And there it still sits.

I could tell from my brief perusal and from all the reviews that were starting to trickle in that this was going to be one depressing and extremely negative view of Mao's regime and the havoc committed in his name. I've read a lot of books like that about China, books about the Cultural Revolution in particular, staying up till late, finally closing the book in a sort of exhausted horror at the sheer, staggering cruelty of it all. I haven't quite been able to psych myself up for the Mao book yet.

Meanwhile, the book has generated a considerable amount of publicity and controversy for its uncompromisingly negative view of Mao. Forget the typical portrait of Mao as rough peasant genius/deeply flawed dictator - this Mao doesn't even get props for military brilliance during the Long March or, perish the thought, for his generally welll-regarded poetry. This Mao is no more than a psychopathic mass murderer whose only motivation for anything was to force others to submit to his will.

Now, John Gittes, writing in the UK Guardian, offers his opinion of the Chang/Halliday biography, one that strikes me as balanced and insightful. Here are a few key passages:
The book is based on impressive research and a formidable array of sources, but its strongly argued conclusions should provoke a lively debate. First, can the Chinese revolution really be explained, as the authors imply, as if the Chinese people were terrorised by Mao into overthrowing the Nationalist government - did they not already have good reason? As Jonathan Fenby's recent study puts it, corruption under Chiang Kai-shek was "a way of life", his carpetbaggers plundered the areas liberated from Japan, and the rural masses were "alienated by oppression". To a significant extent, the civil war of the late 1940s was a class struggle in which, as the US embassy reported at the time, the communists' mass support derived from "the agrarian and industrial proletariat".

Second, to what extent does "lust for power" adequately explain Mao's long career with the Communist party? Even if he was attracted by its revolutionary violence, would it not have been more rational to hitch himself to the rising star of Chiang Kai-shek (who was not averse to shedding blood himself)? Third, although Mao's grasp of Marxist theory in his early years was shaky, were his extensive theoretical writings over five decades really nothing more than camouflage for his ambition?

The real tragedy for China, I would argue instead, is that far from being uninterested in ideology, Mao in his later years became obsessed with it.
Gittes goes on to discuss the role that Mao's utopian idealism played in launching the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and then continues to the Cultural Revolution:
Lust for power also seems an incomplete explanation for Mao's launching of the Cultural Revolution. With China's secret police under the sinister Kang Sheng at his disposal, could he not have simply had his critics cast into labour camps or shot? Instead, and fatally for China, Mao went back to the theoretical drawing board. If the masses were less enthusiastic for socialism than he had thought, the problem must lie in the ideological "superstructure": China needed a Cultural Revolution.
And he points out the role that Mao's own failed utopian dreams had in generating China's democracy movement, noting that:
In the end, Mao himself saved the party from destruction during the Cultural Revolution - having converted it into his docile tool. Significantly, the origins of the post-Mao democracy movement right up until 1989 lie among former Red Guards who were alienated by this refusal to translate egalitarian rhetoric into reality.
I've always held a pretty negative view of Mao, personally. Living in China directly after the Cultural Revolution tends to encourage one towards that opinion. I've read a fair amount about him, a number of his writings, and I tend to think that he was a narcissist of sorts, the kind of person who charms and manipulates and lacks basic empathy, who must constantly prove that he is superior, the best, to guard against a deeply buried insecurity at the core of his personality, some essential and ultimately defining emptiness. I would argue that his ideological "superstructures" were an attempt to buttress his need for power and dominance, which is not to say that he didn't believe in his idealistic castles in the sky, only that this idealism was not what essentially motivated him.

But hey, maybe that's just me.

In spite of this negative appraisal, I would not deny that Mao was a genius of sorts. He led China through a revolution, and he emerged victorious. He helped to create a new China out of the ruins of China's recent past. He was a genius at manipulating the tools of power to achieve his ends. And that's no small talent.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

China's Rise

Interesting editorial, originally published on the IHT, posted on Howard French's site, that offers a clearer perspective than most about the realities of China's rise. These two paragraphs in particular leapt out:
China is actually still poor and weak. About two-thirds of the Chinese population is systematically excluded from the glittering, vibrant urban centers and have the low living standard typical of a developing nation. While China’s most developed regions, Shanghai and Beijing, were ranked by the United Nations in 2001 as equivalent to Greece and Singapore, the more populous provinces, like Gansu and Guizhou, were ranked with Haiti and Sudan.

China is essentially still a giant labor-intensive processing factory. Among the great variety of industrial goods China now produces and exports, few are invented or designed by Chinese. As a result, the Chinese end up earning low wages at great costs to their environment, while foreign patent holders, investors and retailers capture the lion’s share of the profit. No wonder foreign capitalists are among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of China’s rise.
The author, Fei-ling Wang, a professor of international affairs, offers a variety of reasons why China's rise to superpower status is not preordained, and why such a rise may not proceed smoothly for China or for the rest of the world. He characterizes the current regime as "paranoid," pointing out that "many of China’s business leaders hold or seek foreign passports or residency. Capital flight from China has been surpassing foreign direct investment since the late 1990’s. Beijing’s top diplomatic objective has been to gain external acceptance that will prop up the regime, not to expand Chinese national interests or exercise power abroad."
This profound divorce of the regime’s political interest from the nation’s interest, of course, could easily change: Beijing could quickly become a typical rising challenger or even an imperialist power if it feels secure and powerful enough; the regime could also be aggressive and belligerent if it feels desperately weak and in danger of collapse...

...Still, China should and can be powerful and rich. More important, the Chinese people deserve to be free: free from poverty and backwardness, free from the hurtful feelings of past humiliations, free from deeply trenched ethnocentrism and chauvinism, and free from political tyranny. Such a rise of China would enrich the world and truly glorify Chinese history.
Professor Wang cautions against assuming that China's rise necessarily threatens the United States, warning that such a belief could easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy. "It is morally dubious to suppress the Chinese, a fifth of the human race, just because the government there is now undemocratic."

What is needed to manage China's rise is global cooperation, Wang believes, because the consequences of a failed China are too dire to be confined to within China's borders.

Whether or not we have the wisdom to engage in such an approach, when so many here in the US are looking for the next big enemy to drive our military/industrial economy, is still an open question.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Fire This Time...

In the past I've expounded in my half-educated, half-ignorant way on my belief that the connection of man to nature in traditional Chinese culture, the sense that man is not separate from nature but is inextricably bound to it, might be the foundation for a broad-based Chinese environmental movement, one that is sorely needed to repair the environmental devastation wrought by years of socialist "planning" (sorry, guys, but Communist countries in general have lousy track records in this area) and now unregulated robber-baron capitalism. But it turns out there are far more direct motivations. Like having your neighbors sickened and your farmlands poisoned by polluting factories. The experience of Xinchang, a village about 180 miles south of Shanghai, is sadly typical, a part of a rising trend of social unrest in an increasingly restive population that is no longer willing to meekly endure the outrages committed by unresponsive at best and flagrantly corrupt at worst local authorities:
In Xinchang, as with many of the recent protests, the initial spark involved claims of serious environmental degradation. An explosion at the Jingxin Pharmaceutical Company this month in a vessel containing deadly chemicals reportedly killed one worker, and previous leakages contaminated the water supply for miles downstream, said villagers and one chemical plant worker who was injured in the accident.

Villagers say they appointed a small group of representatives to present demands for compensation, including free health examinations and medical care for people who live near the plants, which produces a strain of antibiotics called quinolones.

When they sent a group on July 4 to demand an audience with factory officials, they say, security guards beat the representatives.

The next day, the villagers returned in larger numbers and managed to grab a security officer, whom they acknowledge beating. In the meantime, as word spread of the beating of the village representatives and of the worker's death in the explosion, villagers raised the stakes, demanding the outright closing of the factory, which they had complained about for years.

"Our fields won't produce grain anymore," said a 46-year-old woman who lives near the plant. "We don't dare to eat food grown from anywhere near here."

Her husband, a former machine operator, said he had to quit working recently because of persistent weakness and nausea. When local officials posted a notice saying they would reopen the plant a few days after the fatal explosion there, he had been one of the first demonstrators to arrive on the scene, charging the gates and bursting into the factory with a small crowd of fellow protesters.

"They are making poisonous chemicals for foreigners that the foreigners don't dare produce in their own countries," the man said. Explaining why he had been willing to rush into the plant, despite signs warning of toxic chemicals all about, he said, "It is better to die now, forcing them out, than to die of a slow suicide."
The Xinchang protesters were inspired and emboldened by the relative success of the protests and riots in neighboring Dongyang, where residents successfully closed down a polluting pesticide plant:
Despite tight controls on news coverage of the incident, the riot in Dongyang, where the chemical factory remains closed months later, has firmly entered Chinese folklore as proof that determined citizens acting en masse can force the authorities to reverse course and address their needs.

"As for the Dongyang riot, everyone knows about it," a man in his 20's exulted. "Six policemen were killed, and the chief had the tendons in his arms and legs severed. Perhaps they went too far, but we must be treated as human beings."
As Mao once said, a single spark can light a prairie fire...

Where To Be Sick In China

The era of for-profit health care has arrived in the People's Republic, according to this article in the excellent Asia Times:
Notorious for lagging behind international standards, elite healthcare has gone high-end on the mainland, most visibly in the form of private clinics in luxury hotels. The St Regis is the latest to offer both butler, and clinical, services. In June, United Family Hospitals and Clinics expanded its Chinese facilities - already marked by deluxe decor - into the Hotel St Regis, Beijing. "Do you know that hotel?" asked United Family Hospitals' public relations manager Lily Sun, seated near a clinic bed draped in a golden sheet, an ornate flower-filled vase nearby. "It's a very good one, [isn't it]?"

Not far away from St Regis, the Swissotel Beijing has its own 700-square-meter healthcare center, known as the Hong Kong International Medical Clinic, Beijing. Along with minibar peanuts and spirits, payments for health services can be charged to Swissotel room accounts. "We use alcohol swabs just like outside of China," said the clinic's marketing manager Jennifer Jiao, demonstrating this emerging industry's eagerness not only to impress international clients with ambience, but to reassure them that the essence of quality care has arrived too.
Though China may not be ready to join countries favored by Americans for low-cost but high-quality medical (and plastic surgery) procedures, that day may be coming. Some of these new for-profit institutions offer bargains by American standards, along with direct billing to American insurance companies:
The cost of an Intech refractive eye procedure for the VIP crowd still isn't much more than one for locals by Western standards. It's $900 for a standard LASEK procedure that corrects both eyes (the most popular option with Chinese patients), and $1,100 for a VIP LASEK. The VIP procedure includes surgery by the most experienced doctor on staff and an upgrade to custom LASEK, which takes into account an individual eye's "fingerprint" and can yield better visual results. In the US, surgeons usually charge between $1,500 and $2,500 per eye for LASEK, according to a 2004 survey by the American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery.
But just as healthcare in the United States varies greatly according to the patient's insurance coverage, most ordinary Chinese are a long ways away from experiencing luxury healthcare:
for the average Chinese citizen, a visit to the doctor still is anything but a sumptuous experience. The lucky 15% of the Chinese population that has medical insurance, which is funded by the government, can only use it at public hospitals, Wood said. A 1999 study by the World Health Organization ranked China only 132 out of 191 countries for overall healthcare achievement. Chinese hospital space per bed averages 93 square meters, just half that of the 186 square-meter international standard, according to ChinaCare, which also noted that Chinese hospitals generally aren't clean and are rundown.

Friday, July 15, 2005

"Being the eximious soul of The Great Wall"

Oookay. Let me start this post by reiterating that I love China. I really do. And my Chinese is pretty crappy. So I know that when I attempt to write something in Chinese, it's generally laughable. However...

I was doing a little research tonight and came across this official website for the Badaling Great, my thinking here is that this is one of the biggest, most popular tourist attractions in China...and there are an awful lot of native English speakers living in one would think that it wouldn't be hard to have a little copy editing done...and yet...
◇Current Place:Index page→History and Expectation

 The Great Wall is not only the magnum opus of human being but also the soul of China!
 And the Badaling Great Wall is the eximious representation of The Great Wall.
 On the peak of the Badaling, The Great Wall is towering. It goes up to the South peak and north peak from the Guan city, convolves on the ridge of Jundu mountain and Qian mountain,You can not see its beginning and end,It disappears beyond.
 So many people climbed it,surved the Great Wall,felt inspirited,song the praises of it and gasped in admiration⋯⋯
 When did it be built in the groups of mountains?What imprints did the remote years left behind?How many hardships and dangers did it got through? It also has many move one to praises and tears,lamentable and laughable storys of the historical people⋯⋯
 The Great Wall which be created by the human being will be your nice mind forever!
All of this raises a question...

What the heck does "eximious" mean?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Jerry and the Effects of Premature Expatriatism

In 1979, the Youyi Binguan, the Friendship Hotel in Haidian district, was one of the few places in Beijing where foreigners were allowed to live. Nearly all of Beijing’s “Foreign experts” lived there. Coming from San Diego, I was not completely mono-cultural, but still, I met people from parts of the world I’d never met before: Cuba, Albania, Ghana.

But one of the more interesting characters I encountered came from closer to home. Jerry was originally from Berkeley. From a distance, he looked like someone you’d find in a Marin Jacuzzi with a glass of chilled white wine (this was, after all, the late 70s). But if he were still in Marin, he’d probably have been in better shape. Jerry was in his mid thirties, and he looked like a boy who had aged without necessarily having grown up, round face collapsing into creases and lines, skin graying around the eyes and temples, blond hair fading into the same gray. Jerry and his wife and baby son left the United States in 1968, disgusted and frightened by what they saw as the fascist trend in the country during Vietnam. Since then, the family had been back for a few months at a time, but mostly they’d lived abroad. Jerry and his wife had taught English in Denmark, in Greece, Lebanon, Iran, other places I can’t remember.

What did stick in my mind was that Jerry seemed to have spectacularly bad timing. They always seemed to land in a country just in time for it to have a revolution or some sort of violent conflict (Denmark excepted). I think Jerry told me he’d been through five or six revolutions. But Jerry said a lot of strange things. He would casually mention little incidents like: the time he and his son were kidnapped by guerillas in Lebanon and held at machine-gun-point, but it was okay, because they were released twenty-four hours later.

Stuff like this might explain why his son was so weird. Chris was a pudgy, round-cheeked kid who looked so much like Jerry and so little like his mother that we were sure he was Jerry’s clone (the mother, who came to China after Jerry and their son we had figured for a Lindsey Wagner, hippy Earth mother type. Instead she looked disturbingly like Suzanne Pleshette). The kid had trouble making friends, and he was a compulsive liar. Once he was late for dinner, and Jerry started to talk to him, very calmly, like a good Marin dad: “You know, Chris, we’ve talked about this before, you have to take responsibility for yourself -” Chris started to argue. Then Jerry got mad and broke into Farsi and settled the matter.

Once I asked Jerry about train routes through Asia and the Mid-East back to Europe, wanting to know if it was possible for me to do that.

“Oh, sure,” he said. “You can take a train through the Khyber Pass. If you don’t mind the snipers. A friend of mine was killed that way,” he added vaguely.

Jerry often told us how much he loved his time in Iran. “The Iranians are warm and wonderful people,” he would say. “My students were just fantastic. Two of my favorites were taken up into the hills and shot last week.”

During our time in Beijing, the hostage crisis and Iran were favorite topics of conversation among the Foreign Experts in the dining hall. One time Emma, my friend Paul’s mother, got into a terrible argument with another American about Iran and the Shah. Later, as we walked to catch a bus at Building Number One, Emma asked Jerry what he thought.

“The Shah…” he said at length. “No one really understands about the Shah.” He smiled, staring straight ahead. “The thing about the Shah…” He trailed off. Shook his head. Ice crunched under our boots.

“The thing about Jerry,” Emma said after that, “is that you always think he’s going to say something profound, and then he never does.”

Paul and I were nonetheless fascinated by Jerry. We could send each other into paroxysms of giggles just by saying, “the Shah…” To us, he was the perfect example of a Californian abroad, one of us in a way, even if he was lots older and kind of strange. Maybe we were waiting for him to say something profound.

One time, the three of us, Paul, Jerry and I, were walking back to our building after dinner. Paul and I were talking about what it would be like, back in the United States. We passed the mortarless brick will that had only recently appeared and was already collapsing. No one knew why it was there as there didn’t seem to be anything behind it. Maybe it was just a new place to pile bricks. Paul and I talked about how much we were looking forward to going back to school; having had this great experience at our young ages, we would be able to go in there and know what we wanted and be self-motivated and accomplish all sorts of worthwhile and wonderful things.

“No, you won’t,” Jerry said suddenly. “You’re doing all this too young. You’ll go back to school, and all the kids your age will seem so young, and you won’t be able to relate to them, and you’ll sit in your classes, and you won’t respect your professors because most of them have spent all their time in academia and they won’t understand either. You’ll get frustrated and restless, and you won’t finish. You’ll just be a couple of young burnouts.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

baaad blogger!

New post tomorrow! Tired and stressed. Please bear with me...

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Hurley's Arrival in Yan'an

To me, the Yan'an period is surely one of the most interesting in recent Chinese history. Far more complex than the golden age of revolutionary idealism that is often portrayed, Yan'an was where Mao tested out techniques that would serve him well as Chairman of the Peoples Republic - the Yan'an Rectification campaign was a small scale Cultural Revolution, with its attendant purges, terrors and insistence on absolute loyalty to Mao's line.

Still, there are always turning points, places where things might have gone differently. I've always felt that the United States' utter rejection and demonizing of "Red" China, the hysterical "Red Scare" in the era of McCarthy, contributed to the worst aspects of Mao's regime, reinforcing xenophobia and paranoia and isolating those elements in the leadership that might have encouraged a more rational sort of government.

Certainly there were some compelling reasons to engage with the Chinese Communist movement, before 1949. After all, the Nationalists had proven their incompetence time and time again, and if the CCP was ruthless and brutal, so were the Nationalists. Add the corruption endemic to the Nationalist government, and many Americans in China during the "Anti-Japanese War" became convinced that the US was backing the wrong horse. The Communists had popular support; they seemed better organized and free of the blatant corruption that had sent untold dollars of American aid into the pockets of Guomindang officials, rather than to equipping the frontline soldiers of the ragged Nationalist Army.

In 1944, the US Army sent an observer group to Yenan to evaluate the Communist rebel government's war-making capability against Japan. The commander, Colonel David Barrett, also would take part in the negotiations between Mao and Chiang Kaishek, trying to persuade the two contending factions that a political settlement would be best for China. The negotiations, of course, were not successful, and Barrett's career became one of the many casualties of McCarthyist accusations over who "lost" China.

It's entirely possible that things could not have happened any differently, that the historical forces were simply too strong to allow for a more positive outcome.

On the other hand, at times there are tipping points, where a little push one way or the other has an entirely out of proportion effect on subsequent events.

Maybe the following isn't one of them. Or maybe...

(Again, a disclaimer: I wrote this many years ago, and it is rather rough)


So, you can think of history as a dialectical progression of thesis, antithesis, synthesis: a grand, implacable process along the lines of some majestic, natural phenomena – mighty rivers sweeping towards the sea, that kind of thing. You can personalize the conflict, as we Americans tend to do: reduce it to a clash of Titans, a battle between Great Individuals – Mao struggles with Chiang Kaishek, the Chairman versus the Generalissimo, winner to be determined in the final round.

Neither of these approaches accounts for the influence, usually malign, of not-so-Great individuals. People who, in an unfortunate confluence of personality and circumstance, have far more effect on the Mighty River of History than they should, in a more elegant, logical, serious kind of reality. These people are examples that History has a twisted sense of humor.

Call them individuals as chaos attractors. The particular human butterfly flapping its wings that causes some horrific catastrophe, the proverbial shit-storm, as opposed most other butterflies, who sit on their individual leaves and flap equally hard but only cause local disturbances.

One early November afternoon, the Wounded Duck’s replacement, another U.S. Army air force C-47, made an unannounced landing at Yan'an’s airfield. “The arrival of the plane from Chongqing was always a big event in Yan'an,” recalls Colonel Barrett, “and on the afternoon of the 7th of November, Zhou Enlai and I were among a large crowd of Chinese and Americans there to greet it.”

Also on hand were John Davies and Teddy White, who had been in Yan'an a little over two weeks, still riding high, undoubtedly, on the exhilarating Yan'an buzz of revolutionary purity and chats with living legends: Teddy White, his wildest journalistic fantasies fulfilled, having, in his words, “a reporter’s dream, to insert himself unobserved into the presence of great men as they talk history,” (and probably already imagining the next chapter, getting to write about it); John Davies, fresh from the wreckage of Stillwell’s recall, hoping that an honest, on-the-spot evaluation of the Communist command might somehow influence the decision-makers in Washington towards a more rational China policy. He was making the professional’s leap of faith, that rational policy based on accurate information would somehow override political imperatives.

The plane landed without incident, this time avoiding any hidden graves. Out onto the gangplank stepped a six-foot, three-inch vision in the uniform of an American major general, impeccably tailored, every crease knife-sharp, silver hair and mustache and rows of medals glinting in the afternoon sun.

“Visibly startled by this picture of soldierly bearing and sartorial splendor,” says Barrett, “was Zhou Enlai, who at once asked who the distinguished visitor was.”

The picture-perfect soldier was Major General Patrick Hurley, Roosevelt’s special envoy to the Chongqing government, soon to be United States Ambassador to China.

Leaving Barrett to deal with this unexpected visitation, Zhou made haste to fetch the Chairman.

Hurley, a Republican from Oklahoma, had been Hoover’s Secretary of War and was appointed by Roosevelt to a succession of diplomatic posts, perhaps primarily as an example of the non-partisan nature of America’s war effort. Hurley was not exactly a China hand. He pronounced Mao Zedong “Moose dung,” and once called Chiang Kaishek “General Shek.”

But one thing could be said for Hurley. He knew this was History with a big “H” being made here, and he was dressed for the occasion, suffused to the point of bursting with his own sense of destiny. “Today I am going into territory held by Communist troops,” he had cabled Roosevelt, voluntarily placing himself in the hands of Red Bandits to accomplish his mandate: make peace between China’s warring factions, who would then unite the country and defeat the Japanese, finally. After all, as he hastened to inform Barrett, practically upon arrival, Hurley had handled negotiations between Sinclair Oil and the Mexican government when the Mexicans seized the company’s holdings there, and he’d gotten a million dollars from Sinclair for his efforts (the dollar amount presumably evidence of the quality of his diplomacy). This China tangle was a mess, but the situation wasn’t completely unfamiliar; it reminded Hurley somewhat of politics in his native Oklahoma, the Nationalists being the Democrats and the Communists being the Republicans, and if the Republicans and Democrats could work together to win the war, goddammit, Chiang Kaishek and the Reds could too.

A snapshot: the members of the Dixie Mission dressed in Yan'an homespun, Chinese-style Zhongshan suits, presented to the delegation as evidence of the CCP’s successful production drive, and maybe to make the Americans slightly less conspicuous, so close to the Japanese lines – these were Barrett’s opinions. And maybe like so many foreigners in China, Barrett and the delegation wanted to dress the part, to try and blend in, even just a little.

For his date with destiny, Barrett wore a Chinese Army blue padded overcoat. This, in Teddy White’s view, was an instant strike against him: as far as Hurley was concerned, Barrett was out of uniform.

Barrett also possessed a sly sense of humor – Strike Two. Looking Hurley up and down, taking in his chest-full of decorations, Barrett remarked, “General, it looks as if you have a medal there for every campaign except Shay’s Rebellion.”

Hurley, whom Roosevelt once called, “one of my many make-believe generals,” was not amused.

Luckily Zhou Enlai was a master of emergency protocol, and the Red Army could mobilize with uncanny speed. In the space of five minutes, he returned with Mao in the converted ambulance that was the Chairman’s personal command vehicle, and a battalion of soldiers, who quickly assembled on the Gobi-dusted airstrip to give Roosevelt’s personal emissary a proper welcome.

Here it was: the first meeting between the Chairman of the CCP and a genuine Ambassador of the United States government. Hurley acknowledged Mao’s greetings, reviewed the honor guard, returned the commanding officer’s salute.

Then, in Barrett’s words, Hurley “drew himself up to his full impressive height, swelled up like a poisoned pup,” and let out a bellowed “Yahoo!” that echoed through the canyon – Hurley’s version of a Choctaw war-whoop.

It was probably one of the very few diplomatic encounters that left Zhou Enlai speechless.

His Nationalist allies in Chongqing nicknamed Hurley “the Second Big Wind.” Hurley loved to talk, could speechify for hours, in fact, sprinkling his monologues with sweeping invocations of the Magna Carta and the Gettysburg Address and numerous folksy Oklahoma aphorisms. Things like: “back in Oklahoma, small town had a barbershop attached to a saloon. Customer’s getting himself a shave, when a fight breaks out at the bar. Bullets are flying, the customer gets a little anxious. But the barber says, ‘lean back, brother – no one’s shooting at you.” Or, “That will knock the persimmons off the tree!” Or, “Why do the leaves turn red in the fall? Because they were so green in the spring.”

Hurley not only liked to talk, he didn’t much like listening, particularly to the China experts serving under him. They probably didn’t seem quite like proper Americans to Hurley, men like Barrett and Davies speaking all that Chinese, Service born and raised here; they lacked Hurley’s clear perspective, and if that perspective was labeled “hysterical, messianic globaloney” by certain State Department officials, everyone knew that the State Department was riddled with Communists and Zionists anyway.

The problem, as Barrett put it, was that Hurley’s “discourse…was by no means connected by any readily discernable pattern of thought.”

For example: Barrett tries to interpret as Hurley, White, Davies and the Chinese High Command cram into Mao’s personal ambulance and bounce down the rutted trail to Dixie HQ. The truck startles a farmer with a balky mule. “Hit him again!” Hurley leans out the window and shouts over the unmuffled engine, “Hit him on the other side, Charley!” (“These and other spontaneous remarks required quick thinking and free translation on my part,” Barrett deadpanned) Hurley knows about mules, he informs the Chairman, as he was a cowboy in his Oklahoma youth. Ah, responds Mao, I was a shepherd when I was a boy. Mao proceeds to a discussion of the local topography, pointing out the dry bed of the Yan River. In an Oklahoma summer, Hurley replies, you can tell when a school of fish is swimming upriver by the cloud of dust they raise. Barrett translates, in his Beijing-inflected Mandarin. Everyone laughs.

Just a couple of Great Men of the People, sitting around talking…

That evening, the Reds held a banquet to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. “We were all invited,” White wrote, some thirty years later. “Of that banquet, I remember little, except that when Hurley was called on to speak, he rose, paused, and then yelled again, at the top of his lungs, ‘Yahoo!”

Friday, July 08, 2005

Not good...

From Radio Free Asia:
A Hong Kong activist who has organized several mass marches for more democracy since the 1997 handover to China, says hackers from within mainland China have tampered with his e-mail account, raising fears that Beijing's Internet police are extending their reach to the former British colony.

Chong Yiu-kwong, a key figure in the Civil Human Rights Front, said problems had begun with his private University of Hong Kong e-mail account in around April last year, when Beijing made a controversial ruling against full and direct elections for the territory in 2007 and 2008.

"I didn’t know that my computer had been monitored ever since, until I found that all my e-mails from the account registered to the University of Hong Kong disappeared all of a sudden," Chong told RFA's Cantonese service.

"I approached the computer center of Hong Kong University. They told me that my account had been monitored by three different IP addresses from China and that information from the account had been downloaded every few minutes," he said.
Read on for more information about how US companies like Cisco are aiding and abetting China's Great Firewall...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Traveller's Tale

Interesting story in Travellers' Tales, the Far Eastern Economic Review's blog. It's short, and I'm too lazy to write anything tonight, so I'll repost in its entirety:
Dining last night with a group of China watchers, we had the good fortune to be seated next to Willy Wo-Lap Lam, China editor of the South China Morning Post during the paper's glory days. The conversation quickly turned to China's slide backward into a harsh authoritarianism not seen since the screw-tightening following 1989. As Willy noted, people in Beijing are now pining after the days of Jiang Zemin, something nobody thought possible. But the banning of the June issue of the REVIEW because of a review of Jung Chang's Mao biography does fit into a pattern. Willy reminded us of Hu Jintao's extravagant and unqualified praise of Mao on the 110th anniversary of his birth in December 2003. And another telling titbit, on his first visit to Moscow as party secretary, Hu chose to visit a museum dedicated to the author of "How Steel Is Forged," a piece of Soviet-era Stakhanovite propaganda. There is a natural assumption that the younger generation of leaders must be more reformist than their predecessors. But remember that at least Jiang Zemin and his generation were exposed to the imported ideas and intellectual ferment and of the revolutionary period. Hu Jintao and his contemporaries only knew the ideology that was spoon-fed to them, and rose not by making revolution but by being obedient. Hu's fascination with the glories of Soviet industry and power should remind us that the closest world leader to Hu in terms of temperament, as Willy Lam says, is Vladimir Putin.

Monday, July 04, 2005

China's Economic Slow-down?

Is it the natural maturation of an industrial region, or signs of trouble ahead for China's economic miracle? The Los Angeles Times reports today on the slow-down of growth in Dongguan, where thousands of foreign businessmen, mostly Taiwanese, had helped to create a Pearl River manufacturing export powerhouse:
This year Dongguan's minimum wage jumped more than 27%. Even with the increase, employers are struggling with worker shortages. Government inspectors are making the rounds at factories, enforcing work-hour rules and pension contributions that officials paid little attention to in the past. Electricity is in short supply, as is fuel.
These conditions, along with rising tensions with the West and Japan, have led many Taiwanese businessmen to invest instead in places like Vietnam.Moreover:
After four years of booming growth, foreign direct investments into China have flattened this year. That signals the waning of massive capital inflows, particularly in the electronics sector, that followed China's ascension to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Yuan Gangmin, a senior economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, says an investment slowdown was bound to hit places such as Dongguan even harder. Government policies overly emphasized the development of export industries in coastal regions — and now that's coming home to roost.

"Such kinds of shortsighted policy discrimination led to the high cost of immobile resources like energy, land and environment," Yuan said.
Labor shortage s have been the biggest headache for the Taiwanese factory owners, who have been forced to raise wages and improve working conditions in order to retain the workers they need to pump out their products. Which of course, is one of the upsides of Dongguan's maturation as a manufacturing center. Economist Yuan also hopes that the overdevelopment of the coast and the Pearl River Delta will now lead to increased development in China's wester regions, which have greater resources but lag far behind China's more developed east.

Meanwhile, Dongguan struggles to adapt. And again, there may be a silver lining here:
"Government officials have made it clear that Dongguan should no longer sacrifice environment to achieve speedy development," said Chen Xihui, director of Dongguan's Taiwan Affairs Bureau. "Instead, we should work on scientific and sustainable development."

Chen cited the Shanhu technology industrial zone as an example of this new attitude. The 28-square-mile park stands out among a sprawl of factories and dusty roads, with its lake and flower gardens. Universities and service firms already have moved in there. Traditional manufacturers are conspicuously absent.

Said Chen, "Companies that cannot meet our environmental standard will not be able to enter the zone."
Given China's staggering environmental problems, I can only cheer this shift in thinking.


It is the logic of global "turbo-capitalism," this seemingly unstoppable race to find the cheapest labor, a competition which at times threatens to drag down working conditions for nearly everyone, including most of us here in the "developed" West. The answer to this dilemma, supposedly, is that more developed nations and regions will specialize in high tech, high wage, creative sorts of industries - knowledge work. But I've often wondered how it is possible for this paradigm to actually work - when information operators and computer programmers and MRI technicians and paralegals and customer services centers of all sorts are no longer tied to the country for which the work is being done...well, we can't all be "knowledge workers," can we? With American manufacturing increasingly hollowed out, what's left? A nation of millionaires and service workers? Another Brazil?

And now even China, our supposed big, scary competition, is facing some of these same contraditions.

I wonder how all of us will manage.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Friday, July 01, 2005

Torture Is Un-American

Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)is stepping up its ongoing campaign to end the abuses at Guantanamo and other US detention facilities around the world. In support, the Booman Tribune is enlisting bloggers to help get the story out. You can read about their campaign here, along with what actions you can take.

None other than the first President Bush's personal physician weighs in with a WaPo editorial today about why he believes torture is immoral, unjust and also unproductive. Here's a part of what he had to say:
The military ethics that I know absolutely prohibit anything resembling torture. There are several good reasons for this. Prisoners should be treated as we would expect our prisoners to be treated. Discipline and order in the military ranks depend to a large extent on compliance with the prohibition of torture -- indeed, weak or damaged psyches inclined toward torture or abuse have generally been weeded out of the military, or at the very least given less responsibility. In addition, military leaders have long been aware that torture inflicts lasting damage on both the victim and the torturer. The systematic infliction of torture engenders deep hatred and hostility that transcends generations. And it perverts the role of medical personnel from healers to instruments of abuse.

Today, however, it seems as though our government and the military have slipped into Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment -- frequently based on military and government documents -- defy the claim that this abusive behavior is limited to a few noncommissioned officers at Abu Ghraib or isolated incidents at Guantanamo Bay. When it comes to torture, the military's traditional leadership and discipline have been severely compromised up and down the chain of command. Why? I fear it is because the military has bowed to errant civilian leadership...

...America cannot continue down this road. Torture demonstrates weakness, not strength. It does not show understanding, power or magnanimity. It is not leadership. It is a reaction of government officials overwhelmed by fear who succumb to conduct unworthy of them and of the citizens of the United States.

(Thanks to Richard from Peking Duck for the link)

If any bloggers out there are interested in participating in this campaign, Booman Tribune has the goods.

Happy 4th of July - let's remember what it really stands for.