Thursday, February 23, 2006

Green Power?

China's State Environmental Protection Agency, SEPA, announced a series of new guidelines Tuesday that aim to strengthen enforcement of environmental regulations, specifically, to crack down on the local corruption that has so frequently led to flaunting of China's own regulations. The LA Times reports:
The new rules say that officials who fail to shut down projects that cause widespread pollution, reduce or cancel fees imposed on those who illegally discharge industrial waste, or cover up environmental accidents will be disciplined. The exact nature of the punishment was unclear. The government said it would range from disciplinary warnings to dismissal.

Environmentalists said the announcement was a good sign that Beijing recognizes the urgency of adopting a more sustainable development policy.

"The Chinese government knows if we continue at this pace of development, the harm to the environment can only be greater," said Kevin May, toxics campaign manager with Greenpeace China based in the southern city of Guangzhou. "There have always been laws, but very little enforcement. Now we have new laws. How will they be different? That remains to be seen."

To show that this time it means business, Beijing also last week announced Cabinet-level directives to clean up the country's damaged environment in the next 15 years. At the top of the agenda is improvement of the nation's water, air and soil quality. By the government's own admission, most of China's rivers are polluted and more than a third of the country is ravaged by acid rain...

... "China went from the relentless pursuit of class struggle to GDP [gross domestic product] growth; now it's environmental protection and the so-called green GDP," said Zhou Xiao- zheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "Officials who want to get promoted will follow whatever the new slogan is. Why not? They don't want to breathe bad air or drink dirty water either."
Of course, this isn't the first time that Beijing has issued nice-sounding rhetoric with no teeth behind it. But beyond the health issues and the threat to economic development caused by China's environmental devastation, it may the the threat to social security that lends this push towards greater enforcement its urgency:
"The issue of pollution has become a 'blasting fuse' of social instability," Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, told the New China News Agency last week, referring to the rising number of public protests over the country's environmental problems.
Another major component of these regulations is that, for the first time, they provide a mechanism for public input into the decision-making process. The always invaluable Three Gorges Probe reports:
The State Environmental Protection Administration's highly anticipated new measures, which take effect on March 18, are explicitly aimed at ushering in an era of openness in a traditionally secretive sphere.

"This is the first official document on public involvement in the environmental sector, which will make government decisions in the sector more transparent and democratic," Xinhua quoted SEPA deputy director Pan Yue as saying.

The official news agency reported that construction managers and environmental protection departments "will be obliged to consult public opinion" on a project's potential environmental impacts. It quotes the guidelines as saying that this involvement of the public must be conducted in "an open, equal, extensive and convenient way."

The concept of public participation in project decision-making has been on the books in China since the Environmental Impact Assessment Law came into force on Sept. 1, 2003.

But how the process was supposed to work in practice remained unclear, and people whose lives were turned upside down for major projects continued to have no input into the schemes or access to information about them.

"The lack of transparency in decision-making has resulted in disputes on environmental impact and even mass unrest after the completion of many construction projects," Mr. Pan told Xinhua.

Five methods are to be used to facilitate public participation in the EIA process: opinion surveys, expert panels, forums or informal discussions, feasibility studies and hearings.

"And after a hearing has been held, the construction unit or organizing agency should append explanations that detail the reasons for accepting or rejecting the comments made by the public," Mr. Pan told People's Daily.

Activists in China's burgeoning environmental sector, who have become increasingly vocal in advocating for the rights of communities affected by potentially harmful projects, welcomed SEPA's guidelines.

Wang Yongchen, a journalist and founder of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, said the new measures give her hope because, for the first time in China, they legitimize the public's right to participate in environmental protection.

"The institutionalization of public participation in the EIA process is a sign of progress and a reflection of social change," she told Shanghai's Morning Post (Xinwen chenbao).
(For an amazing interview with Pan Yue from last year, go here.)

It's a fascinating and frustrating paradox that at the same time the central government cracks down hard on media and public discourse, it is encouraging, in however limited a manner, public participation in the environmental review process of projects that could have a profound effect on their communities and lives.

I've said it before: the environmental movement has the potential to be a democratizing force in China. It has that potential because it does not present a direct political challenge to a one-Party state. But any movement that allows people to organize, to articulate their desires and present their grievances, that offers the opportunity to participate in civic life, that kind of movement changes peoples' perceptions of what their role in society ought to be.

(For a totally different "democratic" experiment in China, check out Philip Pan's excellent piece on the creation and development of the Chinese language Wikipedia. It will really brighten your day!)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Net Nanny's Slip is Showing

I hesitate to resort to a blogging cliche, but Philip Pan's latest piece in the Washington Post, on how the internet has fundamentally changed political discourse in today's China, really is a must-read:
The top editors of the China Youth Daily were meeting in a conference room last August when their cell phones started buzzing quietly with text messages. One after another, they discreetly read the notes. Then they traded nervous glances.

Colleagues were informing them that a senior editor in the room, Li Datong, had done something astonishing. Just before the meeting, Li had posted a blistering letter on the newspaper's computer system attacking the Communist Party's propaganda czars and a plan by the editor in chief to dock reporters' pay if their stories upset party officials.

No one told the editor in chief. For 90 minutes, he ran the meeting, oblivious to the political storm that was brewing. Then Li announced what he had done.

The chief editor stammered and rushed back to his office, witnesses recalled. But by then, Li's memo had leaked and was spreading across the Internet in countless e-mails and instant messages. Copies were posted on China's most popular Web forums, and within hours people across the country were sending Li messages of support.

The government's Internet censors scrambled, ordering one Web site after another to delete the letter. But two days later, in an embarrassing retreat, the party bowed to public outrage and scrapped the editor in chief's plan to muzzle his reporters.

The episode illustrated the profound impact of the Internet on political discourse in China, and the challenge that the Web poses to the Communist Party's ability to control news and shape public opinion, key elements to its hold on power. The incident also set the stage for last month's decision to suspend publication of Freezing Point, the pioneering weekly supplement that Li edited for the state-run China Youth Daily.
If you follow China news, you're probably already familiar with the bare bones of this controversy. But what I found particularly illuminating in Pan's piece were the explanations of how China's net censorship system functions, and how, with ever-expanding web outlets for discussion, it's almost impossible for the Cyber-Police to keep up, even with the help of cute cartoon cops:
Every Friday morning, executives from a dozen of China's most popular Internet news sites are summoned downtown by the Beijing Municipal Information Office, an agency that reports to the party's propaganda department.

The man who usually runs the meetings, Chen Hua, director of the Internet Propaganda Management Department, declined to be interviewed. But participants say he or one of his colleagues tells the executives what news they should keep off their sites and what items they should highlight in the week ahead...

...The meetings are part of a censorship system that includes a blacklist of foreign sites blocked in China and filters that can stop e-mail and make Web pages inaccessible if they contain certain keywords. Several agencies, most notably the police and propaganda authorities, assign personnel to monitor the Web.

The system is far from airtight. Software can help evade filters and provide access to blacklisted sites, and Internet companies often test the censors' limits in order to attract readers and boost profits. If an item isn't stopped by the filters and hasn't been covered in the Friday meetings, the government can be caught off guard.

That is what happened with Li Datong's letter. Minutes after he posted it, people in the newsroom began copying it and sending it to friends via e-mail and the instant messaging programs used by more than 81 million Chinese.

"We had to move quickly, before they started blocking it," recalled one senior editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer and advocate of journalists' rights, said he received a copy at 10:20 a.m., 11 minutes after Li posted the original. He forwarded it to 300 people by e-mail and sent it to others using Microsoft's MSN Messenger program. Then he began posting it on some of the bulletin board sites that have proliferated in China.

At 11:36 a.m., Pu put the memo on a popular forum called Yannan. Then he noticed that someone had posted a copy on another part of the site.

About the same time, the editors' meeting at the China Youth Daily ended and Li Erliang rushed back to his office. Colleagues said he contacted superiors in the propaganda department and the Communist Youth League after reading the memo.

Neither the government's censors nor the editors at the major Web sites had begun deleting the letter, yet. Some editors said they waited because it didn't challenge the party's authority or discuss subjects that were clearly off-limits, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. At the same time, the official censors either failed to spot the memo or hesitated to act because they were worried that some senior officials might support Li Datong's views, editors said.

As they waited, the letter continued to spread.

At 12:17 p.m., it appeared on an overseas news site run by the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, and minutes later on others managed by exiled dissidents. These sites are blocked in China, but many people access them using software that slips past the government's firewall.

By 1:30 p.m., a prominent blogger, Li Xinde, had downloaded the memo. He said he sent it using China's top instant messaging service, QQ, to more than 20 chat groups, each with 30 to 40 members. By 2 p.m., the memo had been posted on popular university Web sites.

The document was spreading so fast that many people received multiple copies. A writer in Anhui province said that when he went online to check his e-mail at 2:30 p.m., four friends immediately offered to send him the memo on MSN Messenger. But two copies were already in his inbox, including one that had been sent to 1,000 people.

It was midafternoon before someone in the party bureaucracy decided Li Datong's letter should be removed from Chinese cyberspace and government officials began calling executives at the major Web sites.

Some said they were contacted by the Beijing Municipal Information Office, others by its national-level counterpart, the State Council Information Office. None reported receiving a formal notice or any legal justification for the decision. As usual, they were just told to delete the offending material...

...Even as Li's memo began disappearing from some Web sites, it went up on others the authorities had not contacted. Shortly before 10 p.m., it was posted on the popular Tianya forum. At 11 p.m., it became a featured item on Bokee, China's top blog and portal site.

Almost everywhere the letter appeared, users added hundreds of comments backing the reporters of the China Youth Daily. Inside the newsroom, spirits were buoyed. Some journalists posted notes on the internal computer system supporting Li Datong.

The next morning, officials continued calling Web sites, but readers started posting the memo on sites that had already removed it. Some Web site managers said they tried to drag their feet or leave copies on less prominent pages. One said the memo was viewed 30,000 times before he took it down.

But other Web sites added Li Datong's name to keyword filters used to block sensitive material from being posted.
Looks like the censors may need to to hire more cartoon police...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My Kind of Town...

Lately I've been seriously thinking about living in China. Maybe not right away, but in a couple of years. There are a lot of places in China that for me would be hard to live in. I like Beijing a lot. I have friends there. But the weather is tough for a Southern California native; Beijing is also big, noisy, chaotic and polluted. I have kind of enough of big city where I am, thanks.

So I've been giving some thought to where in China I might like to live. One place on my list is the capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu.

I recently went back to Chengdu for the first time in more than 20 years. My memories of the place were pretty hazy, but I remembered that I'd liked it. Chengdu was low-key and warm compared to the north; I remembered the brilliant green of the rice and trees. I remember no sooner had Paul and I showed up in one of the temple parks than a middle-aged man in a sweater vest rode up on his bicycle, a professor who wanted to practice his English who spent the rest of the day with us, showing us the sights. I remember he took us to this incredible restaurant, a traditional wood construction that sat on a hillside. We had one of the best meals of our entire stay in China, at a time when very few restaurants had picked themselves up after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

Chengdu of course was nearly unrecognizable more than 20 years later, but something about the vibe struck me as the same. It's a relaxed city, built around a river, where the favorite activity of the locals seems to be hanging out at one of the many teahouses. And, after hanging out at the teahouse for a while, going on to the next teahouse, and hanging out there. Chengdu is cleaner than most Chinese cities (a Chinese government website used to describe it as, "the cleanest medium-sized city in China"). People actually obey traffic laws, more or less, in Chengdu. Chengdu is an easy drive from a number of wonderful scenic spots, including Qing Cheng Shan, one of the Five sacred mountains of China and a birthplace of Daoism. Plus, Chengdu has pandas! Lots of 'em. Big pandas, panda cubs, packs of pandas, just outside of town in a state of the art facility, the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve and Research Center. Here's a link to their Panda Cam. I'm sorry, I love pandas. I just do.

In fact, just about the biggest disadvantage to Chengdu for me is the dialect - if you speak standard Mandarin, Sichuanise is pretty much incomprehensible. That and the distance from Beijing and international flights.

But after reading this article in the LA Times, well, I'm thinking those might be minor obstacles after all. The piece confirms what I suspected from my brief visit - Chengdu is China's party town. A place to kick back, eat good food, hang out with your friends and drink beer:
With about 3,000 pubs and karaoke bars and roughly 4,000 teahouses that are often packed with people playing or betting on mah-jongg and cards, this southwestern city in Sichuan province knows how to live it up. Chengdu, the provincial capital, has more bars than Shanghai, though its population of 10.5 million is half that of the eastern metropolis.

Unlike people in other cities, where the frantic pace of China's booming growth is evident, "in Chengdu, their attitude is to get to the teahouses as soon as possible," says Bill Gormley, an American who moved to this city in 1995 as the operations manager for engine company Pratt & Whitney. The 62-year-old retired two years ago but never left.

"Life is good here," Gormley says, swirling a glass of Johnnie Walker at Shamrock Pub, a popular expatriate hangout near Chengdu's consulate row.

Beijing is trying to spur economic development in the western region. Its "Go West" campaign is in its sixth year, and companies such as Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc. have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Chengdu, lured by cheap labor, free land and tax breaks.

But Chengdu moves to its own beat.

For foreign companies accustomed to operating 24/7, Chengdu's laid-back culture presents challenges. Many people here are used to working 9 to 5, often with long lunches. Many avoid working overtime or on weekends, extra pay or not.

Bryan Stadelmann, who came to Chengdu a year ago as Crown Logistics' account manager, remembers the shock on a young employee's face when Stadelmann said she might have to work a Saturday morning to finish a project.

"What? Oh my God!" Stadelmann, a 27-year-old from Rhode Island, recalled the employee exclaiming.

Stadelmann's response: "Welcome to the real world."

But for most residents here, that is not their world. On sunny days, people will skip work to sunbathe or play mah-jongg or cards outside or in teahouses. On weekends, Chengdu families flock to villages and mountain resorts an hour or two away, scouring places to kick back and satisfy their desire for exotic tastes.

These days Miao Duo and her husband have been driving to a nearby town known for rabbit brains, prepared in typical fiery Sichuan style. "Wherever there's good new food, we'll visit there," she says.

Miao, 26, works for a private tax-services firm downtown. The Sichuan College graduate starts at 9 and uses her two-hour lunch break at 11:30 to surf the Internet, play mah-jongg online or shop. Miao usually clocks out at 4 or 4:30 p.m. She never takes work home. Nor does she check e-mail after work.

"It's not really important," Miao says about money. She earns about $250 a month, enough to help pay the bills, save a little and enjoy life. "If you want a higher salary, you have to sacrifice a lot. You have to work overtime, weekends and holidays," she says.

A survey of residents in 10 large Chinese cities found that Chengdu ranked last in income — about $190 a month — almost half of Shanghai's figure. But Chengdu rated higher than Shanghai and every other city except Hangzhou in "happiness."

The most important factor in people's overall happiness wasn't moneymaking opportunities, says Christopher Hsee, a professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. In fact, that played no role. It was their feeling about the pace of the city. "Chengdu people are very content and the pace is pretty slow," Hsee says.
You know, I'm from San Diego. San Diego, unlike Los Angeles, actually is a laid-back place. We tend to spend a lot of time outside, at the beach, in the park. The weather is great, and even the biochemists at Salk take surfing breaks. We eat a lot of spicy food. Plus, San Diego was the first place outside of China to successfully bred pandas - three cubs have been born at the San Diego Zoo (you can watch San Diego Zoo's Panda Cam here). So even though Chengdu lacks a beach, a lot of similarities there...

I plan on taking a trip to China in the latter part of May. I probably won't get to Chengdu this time around, but I think I will investigate other potential places to live. Hangzhou, Chengdu's eastern rival for leisure capital is definitely on my list...