China with Polish Characteristics

January 29, 2008

Power of the people… one story at a time?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 2:27 pm

Misery is common when ordinary people in China clash with the government system, and the tragedy of Wei Wenhua this month does not seem to be an exception:

Wei, 41, general manager of a Tianmen construction firm, was beaten to death on Monday afternoon when he was trying to use his cell phone to record a clash between more than 50 workers from the Tianmen Administration Bureau and villagers. (Xinhua)

For a quick summary of the incident, read this BBC account. Although abuse and corruption are not uncommon in this country, Wei’s senseless death, seemingly on a whim of the municipal security, hit the nerve among others and, once it got on the internet, began snowballing out of control – in their growing outrage, the Chinese people online began questioning the legitimacy of their government, forcing the Party to swift action. Soon the official in charge of chengguan, the municipal inspection force which carried out the beating, was fired, and about 100 other people placed under investigation. Almost just as many chengguan leaders from across the country wrote an open letter condemning the accident. It was incredible to watch how public awareness of Wei’s death forced a response from the government. Thanks to the internet and rise of citizen journalism, this case instantly became a poster child for official injustice. As noted in this Time magazine blog entry:

The Chinese web is a strange place, at once hugely constrained and chaotically free. But if there’s one area where the web’s ubiquity and utility meshes with China’s most pressing social issues, it is that of citizen reporting and the headache it gives local officials who had previously been free to rule the fiefdoms without the danger of interference from Beijing.  

That being said, how much difference will internet ultimately make? Although Wei’s case plainly shows the potential of internet to impact society, it also stands alone in the kind of response it managed to generate. Perhaps this can change in the future, but today most online activity in China is too scattered and wobbly to emerge as a coherent force with any real effect – it is more like a slow, painful process unable to gain proper momentum. And unfortunately even when an incident does inspire attention beyond its locality, the Chinese security apparatus proves ghastly skilled at containing the situation and rising smoke screens. Consider the case most often linked with Wei’s sensation and death – the 2003 beating of Sun Zhigang, which ultimately led to closure of migrant worker detention centers. A young college graduate, Sun has arrived to Guangzhou looking for work in fashion design. One day, after failing to present patrol officer with his ID card and temporary living permit, Sun was taken to the local police station and later, as his friends learned, transferred to migrant detention center. Few days later he was dead. Apparently the beatings started when Sun tried to ‘talk back’ during interrogation, defending his rights – the autopsy revealed that his death was result of shock, numerous burns and heavy internal hemorrhaging. The only reason this accident got nationwide attention and ended up making a difference was the courage of reporters from Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, currently one of the sharpest, most professional papers in mainland China. The editor at that time, Cheng Yizhong, ran a carefully investigated story, stirring a storm across the country and prompting strong appeals from the public and the legal scholars for migrant law reform – the result was closure of infamous detention centers. One year later however, the officials who ‘lost face’ due to Sun’s story took their revenge:

In late 2003, local authorities in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, China’s richest province, began investigating the finances of the newspaper. Journalists’ salaries in China are notoriously low, and like many media organizations in China today, the paper had a practice of rewarding good journalists with generous bonuses. In December 2003, general manager Yu Huafeng was arrested on suspicion of corruption for transferring 580,000 renminbi (US $70,000) from the advertising department to members of the editorial committee.

On March 19, 2004, Yu was convicted of corruption and embezzling public funds and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Li Minying, an official with the Southern Daily Group, the paper’s parent company, was sentenced to 11 years for allegedly accepting a bribe from Yu. The same day, Cheng was arrested while on a trip to Sichuan Province. Police searched his house and confiscated a number of political books and magazines. Vice Editor Deng Haiyan was also arrested.

This mortified the media community in China and prompted many to speak up for the imprisoned journalists (go to china digital times for the full account), eventually resulting in earlier release for Cheng Yizhong and one of his friends. Cheng however, was expelled from the Party and relegated to a simple office job without permission to return to journalism. “In China, supervision by the media can only proceed within the existing system,” he once said bitterly. “Freedom means knowing how big your cage is.”

Sadly, this case illustrates how the intellectual dialogue and growth among people in China remain crippled by control of the government and its elites, trampling anyone who happens to tug on their status quo. China Development Brief, another fine publication which for ten years provided balanced, informative reporting for those seeking to understand the country and its changes, recently became another victim of this phenomenon – Nick Young, the founder and editor, was ousted from China for refusing to turn CDB into subordinate of the government (read the story) and the publication was subsequently shut down. In similar fashion, especially with the approach of Olympics, blogs are deleted, activists are jailed and even ordinary people harassed for talking to foreign reporters – and the internet as voice of the people and force of their opposition stands little chance of thriving. At best, it remains a medium of private dialogue, a broken archipelago of stories with occasional outpouring into the public.

January 15, 2008

Farewell to good entertainment?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 1:35 pm

This is not breaking news, but the rumor has it that starting with January 31 of this year, most of the independent video-sharing services (like youtube for example) will be banned from the Chinese cyberspace. This seems to be the latest result of increased “media freedom” which the government introduced in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. As the 2007 Foreign Correspondents Club in China report states:

When Beijing was bidding for the Olympics in 2001, Wang Wei, Secretary General of the BeijingOrganizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), promised to giveinternational media “complete freedom to report when they come to China.” Up to now, the surveyshowed, more than 67 percent of foreign correspondents felt Beijing has yet to live up to that pledge.During the Olympics, China expects to host at least 20,000 accredited and 10,000 non-accreditedforeign reporters — more than twice the number of athletes.

Reportedly, there were over 180 cases of interference with the journalists’ work since the introduction of more open reporting environment for the Olympics last January, and clearly, the ‘people’s journalism’ can have just as dismal consequences for the Party as any official newspaper. If not more so…

It’s true, that with the advent of cell-phone movie making, the online video posts became a potentially explosive source of information – more striking than photographs, often more direct than the ambiguous news reports. I guess it was a matter of time before something like that was introduced – blogs and websites are being deleted, rights activists and peasant petitioners jailed – so why not to kill the video? Starting with February, only the mainland based and operated video-sharing providers will be left in existence, under strict supervision of the state. What is most fascinating about all this (after a while, one simply becomes resigned to the censorship and state control) is how the entire scheme of media and control information develops. What are they going to do next?? Think, there are still seven months left till the Olympics! There is a whole range of things and people they could suspend, jail, or banish – a truly meaningful and fulfilling effort for the authorities. Ultimately we will end up with an Olympic environment of peerless sterility and backstage drama. Yet, while terrible human rights violations are happening here on a regular basis, part of me is basically fascinated with what the Party will manage to pull off. And what will happen after the Games.


Given the approaching demise of youtube in China, I would like to pay it a brief tribute. While this video from Singapore’s Media Development Authority has been around for a while, I consider it a timeless classic and apt expression of the city-state’s “vibe.” Although I have not visited Singapore (and sincerely hope I won’t ever have to), for a long time it struck me as one of the most clean, orderly and boring places on Earth. Put humanity in a straitjacket, dump it on a desert-island and tell it to have fun – as King Arthur (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, naturally) would have remarked: “Let’s not go to Singapore, tis a silly place.” With the video below, I rest my case.


January 12, 2008

Happy New Year with Air China

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:17 am

Well, I am way, waaay late with this post, and if it’s still possible to make any New Year resolutions, in all my guilt I’d like to make two: I will write more (particularly on this cursed blog) and I will get out to the mountains more often – I miss hiking badly, especially after spending the Christmas in the Alps. After enjoying some splendid Italian weather and fantastic snow (and cheese, and coffee), I found myself celebrating the coming of 2008 in a slightly less magnificent although interesting way – on the board of Air China flight returning to Beijing from Munich. Well… one can’t expect a wild fiesta on a routine Boeing flight, but it appeared NOTHING was actually going to happen, not even an Olympic theme song or a mascot/stewardess extravaganza. After my desperate questioning of the staff, the flight attendants got out several bottles of red wine and poured it generously wishing everybody a happy new… Nice enough (sigh). I began to wonder what this kind of a scene might have looked like, say 20 years ago 🙂 Air China, currently the second largest on the mainland was founded in 1988 when the state giant CAAC broke up into several divisions (China Eastern, China Southern etc) to better adapt to the capitalist market – suppose the quality of service did go a long way since then, including safety. Back in the 80s Air China didn’t fly the celebrated Boeing 737s, but used instead more “down to earth” socialist-trademark, Ilyushin-XX series, manufactured by the Russians. The infamous brand was launched in the 1930s, after Sergey Vladimirovich Ilyushin’s design company began turning out such prodigy’s as Il-18 to supply the national air fleet. As a former satellite country, we used to have a saying back in Poland: “Chcesz byc pylem? Lataj Ilem! (If you want to bite the dust, fly the Il planes!),” well grounded in the tradition of fatal crashes all-across the Soviet sphere of influence. Air China, but especially its parent company CAAC, were no different, happily crashing alongside the state Aeroflot airlines (many cases covered up). Times change, and today, the fine ritual of “extreme flying” is upheld only by the Taiwan based China Airlines, whose planes still tend to break-up or hold “open door” parties in mid-flight. Only in 2007 did they have four serious technical mishaps. Many of the mainland competitors, while safe, still have a long way to go. With videos such as “Why do I hate China Eastern” appearing on youtube, the Middle Kingdom’s no. 3 airline is struggling to make ends meet (read about its Singapore woes). The most positive flying experience I had in China was with Hainan airlines, which after a recent merger became the fourth largest operator on the mainland – they really provide top notch service. Although given a free choice, I will probably still choose Lufthansa for long-haul flights – very few can match the quality they have to offer.

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