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Ai Weiwei & China’s Continued Crackdown on Dissent

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Ai Weiwei's self-portrait of himself and the "Grass Mud Horse" doll, another popular symbol of dissent in China.

Ai Weiwei's self-portrait of himself and the "Grass Mud Horse" doll, another popular symbol of dissent in China.

Controverisal Chinese artist and popular blogger Ai Weiwei is recovering from cranial surgery in a Munich hospital bed today.

Ai made modest media rounds in the run-up to the Olympics.  The son of famous poet Ai Qing and an internationally reknowned architect, he had been part of the team to design and build the Bird’s Nest.  He later went on to boycott the opening ceremony, calling for change in China.  In an editorail for The Guardian he wrote,

We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.

He became an increasingly prominent critic of the government after the Sichuan earthquake.  He took it upon himself to go to Sichuan and find the names of children who had died because of porrly built school buildings, his number turning out to be far greater than that the government reported.

He posted almost 5,000 names on his personal blog (later deleted by authorities), and was determined to bring justice to the area.  He traveled to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, to testify at the trial of writer and activist Tan Zuoren who was being charged with subversion for speaking critically of the government to foreign journalists.

According to various reports, police came to Ai’s hotel room around 3am.  They detained him for 11 hours in order to ensure he would not make the trial.  It is also believed they beat him, and that beating may have lead to cranial bleeding, the cause of surgery.

Ai’s story is yet another example of the bravery of Chinese dissidents and the struggle they go through for reform.

In my last post, I wrote of progress and the need to look at the positives in China without always referencing the negative.  That does not mean ignore these brutal realities. The struggle for freedom of speech and justice deserves our attention.  To recognize signs of progress does as well.  Encouraging benevolent, peaceful solutions leads to less repressive violence.


Media Bias: Bogus Balance & American Insecurity

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Thomas Friedman’s article on one-party autocracy versus one-party democracy caused quite a stir online.  I linked to the story in my last post, noting that I, too, believe China’s–err– unique form of government offers great possibilities.

I say this knowing full well the shortcomings of the system.  But as I have discussed at length with many friends across the globe, why is it that American Brand Democracy is the only viable option for governance?  If anything, our US government has shown tremendous flaws over the last eight months.  How can a president elected with a clear majority lead a Congress in which his party controls a clear majority– all elected by the voice of the people– and still not pass crucial, popularly-supported legislation in a timely manner?

There needs to be alternatives, more than just deciding between a congress or parliament.  Countries’ unique social/economic/political/historical variables necessitate complex systems of integration into government.  American Brand Democracy exports to South America and Africa have mostly lead to countries mired in poverty, with political elites fattening pockets off of exported natural resources.  Is that what were talking about here?

So why is it impossible to write about China’s system making progress without mentioning it’s faults if those faults are not applicable to the story?  Must they always be?  Do we mention the historical failings of American regime building efforts in every piece of news on Afghanistan and Iraq?  Would that not be tedious and redundant?

The Friedman article brought to light an interesting argument in a tongue-in-cheek way:  Why does China seem so much more capable of major reform than the US?  That’s a question that needs an answer.

Here’s another:  Why are Americans so reluctant to offer any iota of praise for China?  Is the fear that palpable?  Is our identity as Americans jeopardized by the fact that our paralysis is allowing others to stand?

Follow this link to read a very insightful analysis of this banal media bias.

Front Burner Topics: Racism in China, etc.

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I grew up in New Hampshire.  The state’s population is 95.5% white.  That’s a lot.  More than a lot.  It’s why I once had a friend (who I actually do not consider racist) unintentionally mutter a quick “wow,” when he saw a black guy walking down Main Street in my hometown.  Yeah, it’s like that.

It’s also strikingly similar to China’s ethnic mix: 91.5% Han Chinese.  Whether people approve or not, living in such a huge majority bends the yardstick for socially acceptable behavior.  China (and Taiwan) are grossly racist.

"Oreintal Angel" Luo Jing is definitely Blasian!

"Oreintal Angel" Lou Jing is definitely Blasian!

Part of it is cultural.  There is, especially for young woman, a desire to have deathly pale skin.  This is meant to prove your wealth, perhaps tacked to old notions of parlor living and powdered English wigs.  For as much as the Chinese hate “Western interference” they love to chase its ideals.  Pale is pure, and dark means dirty.  It means field workers, farmers.  And to the elite– then and now– the backbone of society, the working class, those that feed China, is a cast(e) of untrustworthy thieves.

For as odd to the eye as a white person is in remote parts of China, it fails to surpass the contrast in appearance of a dark skinned black person.  And Chinese equate fear with this.  It’s the age old DIFFERENT=DANGEROUS equation.

It’s no surprise that Lou Jing– a gorgeous Blasian young woman who worked her way onto a popular TV show– was targeted by the narrow-minded netizenry of China’s uber-lame mainstream Web forums.  If you want to know how far China  has to go before becoming a “harmonious society,” read this disturbing translation from chinaSMACK.

Chinglish makes everything a bit more interesting!

Chinglish makes everything a bit more interesting!

Here are a couple other quick links:

  1. China, ever-so romantic, has dropped a ban on it’s national ping-pong champ.  At age 25, he is now allowed to have a girlfriend.
  2. “Long time no see,” for those who don’t know, is a literal translation of a common Mandarin saying.  Direct translations can turn out to be quite humorous, and eventually acceptable.  But in Shanghai, the city gov is working to eliminate any instance of jumbled English phrasing before the open of the World Expo (a.k.a. World’s Fair) next year.  Here’s an article on “chinglish,” the hybrid of our two tongues. The Flickr chinglish group it mentions can be found here.  Some shots are downright hysterical.
  3. And here’s a bizarre article about a troublesome bridge in China and a savory solution to suicide threats.

China Needs “Environmental Infrastructure”

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Small (relatively) cities in China need to know more about the effects of pollution on their health.

Small (relatively) cities in China need to know more about the effects of pollution on their health.

Greenlaw’s Alex Wang just posted a short piece reiterating calls for more open channels of information on toxic emissions here in China.  There have been recent reports of serious lead poisoning in Shaanxi province, leading to bouts of “unrest.”  I don’t like that term.  Unrest.  But I do like what Wang had to say,

“In this economic downturn, China has been investing heavily in infrastructure – rail, highways and the like – to make China more economically competitive going forward.  Think of open environmental information as necessary environmental protection infrastructure, without which the entire environmental protection system breaks down.  Let’s hope for the same sort of aggressive push for information infrastructure in the coming months and years.”

Open information is essential.  But it’s not enough.  There need to be members of each society who can help explain consequences in a way local people can relate.  The China Daily article mentions a mother telling her daughter she can not possibly have lead poisoning because she is 18.  They were only offering the free testing for children up to 14.

It reminds me of a story.  A few years back, traveling through the countryside of Cambodia, I was appalled to see people living in their own refuse.  Front yards were cluttered with bags and bottles, rotting food and torn cloth.  Passing some homes, you could smell the heaps of trash from 100 yards away.

I asked my Cambodian friend,  “Why do people pile trash in their own front yard?  Aren’t they repulsed?”

“No, they don’t even think about it,” he replied.  “Remember, only recently did these people begin gettting access to plastics.  Before that, almost all of their trash would biodegrade and sometimes even be useful as compost.  They do not know that this plastic will be here forever.  No one has taught them.”

Dongshan Dao: A Test in Tourism Development

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China never lacks for a crowd.

China never lacks for a crowd, even in little ol' Dongshan.

I first visited Dongshan a few months back.  This time was different.  My girlfriend and I were going together.  It was to be our cheap little get away.  I’ve been on the road most of the summer, so we needed some time just the two of us– or, more accurately, just the two of us in a new crowd of strangers.

We were beaching it.  Relaxing in our hotel room, on the balcony, overlooking a nice stretch of cove.  We wanted to rent a bike, pedal along the coastline.  If we had time, maybe we’d pay a local fisherman to ferry us out to a nearby island.  It was a plan, bulletproof; great idea.  Done.

By the end of the first afternoon in Dongshan, I was in the dumps.  Literally and figuratively.  I couldn’t remember why I had wanted to come back.  A partial list of Day 1’s lowlights:

1.  Hotel owner bumped the price of a room up.

2.  Someone took a poop on the stairs leading to a stretch of beach, haphazardly covering it up with not enough tissue.  This still boggles my mind, because the culprit must have squatted in plain sight in front of dozens and dozens of other people who would soon need to walk back up those same stairs.

3.  A funeral.  I’ve been to Dongshan twice and seen three funerals.  Yikes.  Friends and family all dress in white and carry the coffin or ashes, pictures, and flowers to a final resting place.  On the walk, one guy finished his bottle of water and threw it on the ground.  Two steps further and he passed a trash can.  It made me not feel bad for him, and that’s messed up.funeral pic

4.  The charred corpse of a dead dog– on the beach.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A barbeque gone horribly wrong?  At least tell me who the jerk is that decided the beach was a fitting spot to toss the remains to decompose?  (NOTE: This is the second dead dog I have seen lying out in the public in two trips to Dongshan.  That may be a Guinness Book record.  Two-for-two!)

5.  Seriously, does there even need to be a #5?  A charred dog?!  On the beach!  Come on!

There’s a lot of talk about developing Dongshan into one of China’s A-list tourist destinations.  There’s a billboard when you come into town proclaiming, “Welcome to Dongshan, an international tourism destination.”

Some spots are well worth the trip.

Some spots are well worth the trip.

But the only person in town that seems to buy that line is the local party chief.  I was on the balcony when I overheard my girlfriend giggling about something on television inside.  She told me she just saw a commercial where this guy comes on and says something to the extent of, “Beautiful Dongshan, one of China’s premiere getaways.  Where the streets and the beaches are clean…”

The owner of my hotel told me over tea that Dongshan had long suffered from corrupt politicians who pocketed development money and ran.  In their wake, along the huge stretches of coastline, lie massive hotel compounds.  Some are complete.  Some only partially.  Almost all are abandoned.  Courtyards and gardens are now just dumping grounds for waste atop the rubble left during the hasty retreat from construction.  Weeds are cracking the paved entrances.  Windows are smashed in.  The gates are rusted over.

Dongshan is rusted over.

With the right leadership and bright ideas, Dongshan could be resurrected.  It would take a decade, at least.  But this is the problem in China.  When a site is designated a potential tourist market, the government leaps to action.  All the wrong action.  They build massive six-lane highways into small towns.  They dole out beneficial loans and land prices to developers.  But never do they gentrify old neighborhoods, help give citizens clean drinking water, build new schools, or launch new public service campaigns.

Neighborhoods are a mix of decay and potential.

Neighborhoods are a mix of decay and potential.

Whoever came up with the recipe for success in tourism has it like this:  One major highway (but no new bus station) + a massive, brand new police station built outside of town + a giant skyscraper government building in Soviet-era style + reliance on a bunch of outsiders to fund everything else = CHA-CHING!

It’s disturbing.  The people in Dongshan are woefully uneducated. I asked my girlfriend, what do these people think when they dump their trash on a beach or walk past a putrid pile of rubbish on the street?  Nothing, she said.  They don’t even know to think about it.  It doesn’t even register.

The entire community still relies on fishing for sustenance.  At night, you can see the blips of lights aboard fishing vessels on the horizon.  Fifty years ago, they needn’t venture out that far.  The catches they do bring back they dry everywhere.  E-ver-y-where.  Some homes in the old district have no rooves, but rather a grid of planks to dry squid and small fish.  The smell is ubiquitous in most sections of town.


And then the trash.  You lose count of how many people, local people, you see littering on the street each day.  Rusting, 50-gallon blue barrels are placed randomly on streets.  More wrappers and fish bones and soda bottles and toilet paper seem to never make it than those that do.  The stench will make your eyes water.  Five yards away, a pair of 10-year-old boys are squatting on the curb, smoking cigarettes.

To top it all off, people just aren’t that friendly.  The owner of the hotel we stayed in, this was the third time we have rented out one of his rooms (first time coming together), and he jacked the price up and refused to negotiate.  I paid more in the beautiful armpit of Dongshan, 100rmb/night, then I paid almost anywhere else I stayed throughout the much more beuatiful tourist spots of Yunnan, Sichuan, Zhejiang, and Beijing this summer.

Those plans to rent bikes or a scooter?  No.  That was the answer we got from everyone.  E-ver-y-one.  No one rents bikes in Dongshan, they told us.  Well how many bikes do you own?, we asked.  Two.  What about using one of those?  No.  Are you going anywhere today?  No.

Don't get me wrong, some parts of the trip were fantastic.

Don't get me wrong, some parts of the trip were fantastic.

We eventually found one young woman working at a small restaurant who was willing to let us use her old bike, for a 300rmb deposit and 25rmb for the afternoon.  But at least she let us use it!

At one point, I thought, wow, maybe I should come here and open a bike rental shop.  Maybe I could even invest in a small little dingy to take people around to the islands.  It would be cool, living on the beach, running a rental shop.  Give it a few years, wait for the tourism to pick up.  Then, I realized what the hell I was talking about?  Dongshan!  Come on, who was I kidding?  It felt like we were the only two tourists in town.  No one is coming.  Not now, and not anytime soon.

Is the sun setting on Dongshan's chances for development?

Is the sun setting on Dongshan's chances for development?

With the way the local people desecrate their own beautiful beaches, fail to make any effort in being friendly towards visitors, and show no hope of changing the habits in their children, Dongshan will remain buried under the rubble of a once promising tourism town.  Wasted.  Rotting.  Rusting.

When in Dongshan, Don’t Miss This!

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Dongshan Dao (东山岛) is about a three-hour bus ride from Xiamen.  A few months back, a friend had mentioned he heard it was a decent place to visit on a day trip.  People said it was “like Xiamen 30 years ago.”  And, what can I say, I am a sucker for time travel.

Squid drying along the seashore.

Squid drying along the seashore.

Dongshan is primarily famed for its beaches and fresh seafood.  But there’s one quick thing I have to mention: the supposed can’t-miss attraction, Fengdongshi (风动石)– in my brutal translation, Stone Moving in the Wind.

This chunk of earth came with some hype!  People in town were telling me all sorts of tall tales.

Millions upon millions of years, that’s how long they say this rock has been wobbling atop its eroded seaside podium.

A local guy I met eating at a restaurant told me the stone balances on less than 10 square centimeters of surface contact.

Another shopkeeper told me a dozen American soldiers had come during WWII and tried to push it off (actually very believable), but failed.

What they like to call "The Most Miraculous Stone on the Earth."
What they like to call “The Most Miraculous Stone on the Earth.”

Look upon this stone, ye mighty, and quiver.

On my first trip to Dongshan, after trying for about an hour to sneak into the garden grounds through the labrynth of surrounding alleyways, I resigned myself to paying the 35 rmb to see this cultural behemoth.

Let.  Down.

10 centimeters???  More like a solid, solid 5 square meters.  That sucker was firmly in place.

And, yes, like every other sucker, of course I tried to push it off.  Come on, imagine the glory if I pulled off a sword-in-the-stone task like that!

I am not sure I buy the line about the most impressive rock in the world, but I was slightly fascinated.  I enjoyed sitting back and watching all the little children come up and try to push it off.  It reminded me of the task they have in front of them: pushing China into the future.

Pick a door, any door.
Pick a door, any door.
Where is that pesky Minotaur?
Where is that pesky Minotaur?

Rule of Thumb:  When in China, if locals tell you something or some place is phenomenal, prepare yourself for an 80% chance of let down.  If they tell you that very few people go someplace and that it may be dangerous, you’re looking at a 80% chance of satisfaction.


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After over a year mired in the inadequacies of my own intent, I have surged forth and rekindled the flame that once burned for this dear blogging hobby.

Thank you, genius internet proxy hacker men and women– children, perhaps.  For all I know.

As of now, I feel confident this remedy will hold.

To start, I’d like to point those who have returned or stumbled here in the direction of Nicholas Kristof and (his wife) Sheryl Wu Dunn’s gripping piece on women’s issues and solutions to global poverty.

There is a great deal to be said for the way China has empowered its women (as Kristof notes).  While this society is still rife with sexist traditions, for a developing nation, I remain impressed.

I’ve had an entire summer of leisure, in which most of it has been spent exploring the inner expanses of China.  I will share more of this experience, here, shortly.

Written by Miles

August 26, 2009 at 3:09 pm