China with Polish Characteristics

August 15, 2008

Plenty of seats but no tickets

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:47 pm

From the very beginning getting Olympic tickets wasn’t easy, even for those living right here in Beijing. The procedures kept changing and the demand was so high that one always felt bit overwhelmed by the system. When the last sales opened in May, people stood in lines similar to those from the Spring Festival (when 90% of Chinese travel for family reunions) and the tickets were soon declared completely sold out. It’s surprising then that many of the stadiums are now half-empty. Some of the best seats remain untaken during the competitions, while outside crowds of people stand in lines, desperately hoping to buy something from the underground traders.

On Thursday, by a chance I managed to get a ticket for a good volleyball game (Poland-Serbia). Fans from both teams were stuck outside, unable to go in and cheer on their teams. Some of those determined to see the game finally paid well over 1000 yuan (original price: 80RMB) for a last-minute pass from the traders. Inside there were plenty of stis, which many foreigners found frustrating. “It’s ridiculous that after travelling all the way here we can’t even watch our teams, but they have to bring school trips inside just to fill some places,” told me one of the fans. “Really Beijing is a wonderful experience, but ticketing has become a nightmare.”

Why are there so few tickets around? The rumor going around has it that majority of good spots were handed out to state corporations and Party cadres. As it turned out many of them are too busy working or simply could not be bothered to come and watch anything. Officially, they are also not allowed to trade the tickets away. So the nonsense continues, with very few tickets and plenty of wasted opportunities for the spectators who’d actually care.

It’s not that I don’t think local people shouldn’t have the first grabs at their Olympics. But I feel it was overdone to the point where we’re engaging in a “guerrilla warfare,” sneaking around and trading in the streets just to participate in an international event. Nothing I haven’t experienced before, or that people couldn’t deal with, but was this really necessary?

August 13, 2008

Xinjiang + terrorists?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:55 pm

There has been a spree of attacks against Chinese police and security forces in Xinjiang this month, and increasingly there are claims of organized terrorism in the region. Below are couple sources, which might help you to keep up with events in the province – obviously just a tip of an iceberg, but it’s a start:

Check out the New Dominion (, which among other things aggregates most of the news reports on the events in the region.

Also take a look at the Opposite End of China (, a local blog written by an expat.

August 11, 2008

Quality investigative journalism

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:02 pm

In an exclusive dispatch from Beijing, the Onion reports on People’s industrious coverage of the Olympics – very entertaining.

What’s less amusing is that many of the news services currently in the capital wouldn’t hesitate to promote such a story, regardless of the extent to which it’s true or relevant.

August 10, 2008

Cheer cautiously

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 10:01 am

Apparently the government has asked Chinese spectators to restrain themselves from excessive cheering at the sports events, fearing it would totally overwhelm the foreigners. In the interests of fair competition shouting jia you, the popular cheer translating directly as “add oil,” is now strictly discouraged. However as you will see in the video below, the regulations could not contain the bursting energy of Chinese people 🙂 I hope this will become a pattern. The final moments leading up to the opening ceremony were filmed at Tiananmen and in Ditan Park.


PS. Couple of direct takes from the transmission of the opening ceremony had to be taken out of this video (copyright issues, apparently). You can still download the uncut version at the bittorrent – no crime intended.

August 9, 2008

Olympic peace shattered

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 6:04 pm

It is tragic, but the euphoria from the successful opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics did not last long. Even as the athletes marched around the National Stadium, two of the participating countries engaged in open military hostility, with Russian bombers and tanks attacking targets in Georgia. The situation in that region was tense ever since the government coup in Georgia (Velvet revolution, 2003), but now it could deteriorate into the next Chechnya. So much for the Olympic peace…

But the other tragedy happened right here in Beijing. The news just broke of a deadly attack in which a Chinese man stabbed two relatives of the U.S. volleyball team coach while they were visiting the Drum Tower (Gulou) in the historic center of Beijing. The man has than leapt from the building to his death. It is not clear why he attacked the victims (one of them died) but it sends shockwaves across the world – the Olympics tainted with murder hours after the opening.

August 7, 2008

The Olympic (in)security

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:58 pm

The Olympic countdown is proving to be quite exciting. In less than 24 hours all eyes will be on the National Stadium in Beijing, the so called Bird’s Nest, where the opening ceremony will highlight the result of seven long years of Olympic preparations. The stadium has become a new symbol of modern China and its international ambition, and arguably one of the most heavily guarded places in the country. It’s interesting than, that things have slipped out of control at the Nest this week, not once but twice. The government really lost face when Korean TV journalists attending dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony blatantly broadcast over one minute of footage to their national channel – Beijing’s secret show was out on air for everyone to see.

But at least the journalists were a part of invited audience. Early morning on Tuesday, however, four members of Students for Free Tibet, managed to climb the electric poles in front of the Bird’s Nest and unfurl their banners proclaiming: One World, One Dream, Free Tibet.

How was this possible? Perhaps one could forgive an incident at the Worker’s Stadium near Sanlitun party district, or at one of university gymnasiums, but the National Stadium?

 “It’s ridiculous,” said my Chinese teacher, a native Beijinger. “They put all this pressure on our daily life, enforce strict limits, yet can’t even control what happens at a top sports venue?”

I can see why people get angry. The security has become really tight, with additional cops on the streets, roadblocks around the city and cumbersome checks in the subways. Yet instead of a sense of security, one only finds it more unsettling and anxious. People in the uniforms, just as all the others, are really worried about anything going wrong. None of them could bear to see China’s great event making an embarrassing blunder – so while the atmosphere is increasingly festive, some are visibly on the edge, keeping their fingers crossed. Let’s hope that everything really works out. And that it doesn’t rain on Friday.

August 3, 2008

The new face of Beijing

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:16 am

It’s only five days until the Olympics and the whole city is taking on a flush of excitement. Out on the streets all the shops and houses have fixed Chinese flags over their door and many streets are decorated with lampions and street artwork. The air in the city cleared up a lot and Beijing suddenly lost its grey and depressing exterior – I never suspected it was the pollution that made it feel so heavy and unpleasant. Right now, the city looks cheerful and full of lingering charm. Like never before, all the little alleys, courtyards and public squares seem to have come to life, breathing and opening up like fresh flowers. It’s a really beautiful city, but we hardly ever had a chance to see it like that. For years, almost everything was lost under grey smog and construction projects. How I wish, the factories and trucks would stay shut even after the Olympics…
The look, the atmosphere, but especially the events are bound to make this month a charmed, unique experience. I plan to blog on a regular basis now and provide an interesting glimpse into the daily life around the Olympics – do keep up with the site.
A quick technical note: quite often the videos I post here seem to be unavailable for viewing, possibly due to internet censorship in China. If you’ll find that regular proxy’s (, tor, anchor free, etc.) don’t help, go straight to where you can see all of my work. The channel ID is: polskipekin.

May 3, 2008

100 day countdown till Olympics

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 7:19 am

The hundred day mark passed this Wednesday, so I’m couple  days late with this (due to editing) but the video turned out all right. For the past week I went around the city, asking all kinds of people about what they thought about the event and how would it affect China and their lives. Were they excited? Proud? Did they care at all? Watch it to find out.

April 28, 2008

Watch out for the May 4 Movement

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:15 pm

Ever since the Carrefour protests began on April 19, many people were calling for a complete boycott of French/Western goods on May 1, the traditional socialist Labor Holiday (we still celebrate it in Poland), as an expression of unity against foreign pressure and ridicule. Nobody knows for sure what will happen this Thursday, but the holiday continues until Sunday, May 4, which in my opinion could set off even larger response from the Chinese worldwide. And the reason is history.

On May 4, 1919 some 3000 students from different Beijing universities demonstrated on Tiananmen Square against China’s failure during the Versailles negotiations – in the aftermath of World War I it was decided that the former spheres of German influence in China, namely huge Shandong province, will remain under Japanese control rather than be given back to China. This infuriated many Chinese intellectuals and students, sparking anti-imperialist protests and strong critique of the government. Despite the crackdown, the protest soon spread to Shanghai and forced the resignation of three top diplomats responsible for the Versailles negotiations. It was also the height of the so-called New Culture movement (it started four years earlier in Beijing) emphasizing emancipation, science and new ideas, which now grew radical and gathered momentum. The Chinese Communist Party formed over the next months and held its first meeting in 1921.

The current tension between the Chinese and the international community could be a start of a dialogue – a much needed dialogue ahead of the Olympics when the same issues we face now will become truly explosive and hard to deal with. And given the importance which May 4 Movement played in Chinese history it is rather an auspicious date for something major to happen. While legions of armchair nationalists are grinding their teeth in anticipation, quite a few of people warn against making things radical. In this letter featured on Danwei, Chinese novelist Han Han talks about dangers of excessive patriotism:

In an era of peace, radical patriotism is no different from a fan’s adoration of his idol. But because people don’t choose the object of their patriotic love, it’s bound to be ever crazier. Previously, I thought inciting the masses was just government rhetoric, a pretext, but now I realize that people can be stirred up rashly. Of course, it’s not easy to incite people, but when they are determined to be cannon fodder, it’s easy for them to blow up. Don’t equate the current situation with the May Fourth movement [when patriotic students protested the Versailles treaty in 1919]. The two situations are totally different. Right now what we need is stability. Don’t cause disturbances or stir up trouble, it’s pointless.

And it seems there are sincere efforts at making oneself not simply heard, but also understood. Asia Sentinel features a translation of a very interesting letter published in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis (see my post on Wei Wenhua), discussing the way Chinese in London behaved during April 19 protests:


The most impressive aspect of the 4.19 protest movement is the fact that the overseas Chinese students are exploring and learning to use methods that are acceptable by western standards to express their anger and make their voices heard. In the example of the London protest, students uniformly wore white surgical masks and conducted their protest in silence. They purposely chose the white color as the base color, avoided using too many red flags and chose to sing “My China Heart” as their theme song. From these choices, one can see the organizers’ meticulous thoughts. On the one hand, western society has always been sensitive towards the red color and has a habit of associating it with authoritarian governments like Nazi Germany. So using red would not only fail to earn support but would arouse resentment. On the other hand, silent protest in place of loud slogan chanting would give a better impression on westerners, showing them that Chinese people are capable of exercising reason and control over their emotions and not just a bunch of “brainwashed” nationalists.


Why should a great nation such as China stoop to trying to understand the West? Why doesn’t the West try to understand China? To the former question, I can only say: “If you don’t take the first step, you will never be able to cover a thousand-mile journey.” To the latter, my answer lies in the book which I have been reading and which I would highly recommend: “What Does China Think?” by Mark Leonard. I would also like to share this saying by a Taiwanese friend of mine: “A great nation never regards itself as great.” If people are given ample room to utilize their various lively formats and abundant resources to start an honest, independent and rational dialogue and to learn and exchange ideas with the West, then I think this would be the best outcome that can be expected from the Olympics.”


It’s always good to remember how vast and complicated of a place China is, and to avoid simplifying this country and its people into a single, uniform giant as the media at times tend to do (unfortunately, the commercialism of news reporting always puts it on a brink of the superficial). Whatever will happen during the May Holiday, there is bound to be a range of voices and reactions. Some will be like those Simon Elegant talks about in his Time Magazine article:


The ferocity with which the protesters turn on anybody who disagrees with them reminds some older Chinese of the dark days of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which convulsed China from 1966 to ’76. Today’s protesters have one thing in common with Mao’s revolutionaries: years of indoctrination in a highly nationalistic–some would say xenophobic–credo that imagines a hostile and perfidious world determined to undermine China. “Maybe kids today know more about computers, about the Internet,” says Dai Qing, an environmental activist who was imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, “but when it comes to history, the education they get is the same.”


But there are also going to be many others, taking sides, thinking differently and worth listening to. It is not hard to find those working beyond the mainstream picture – just make sure you listen carefully and read between the news lines.

April 20, 2008

Olympic potential: the good, the bad and the increasingly ugly?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:24 pm

It’s Saturday night and together with a friend from Spain we’re sitting in a shabby, little restaurant tucked-away at the end of an alley in Haidian district. A chubby cook, now off work, sits by a table behind, having a beer with two shopkeepers and a local hairdresser. There are no decorations, but plenty of color to this 20 square meter room, especially above us – the whole ceiling is pasted with revolutionary posters, featuring socialist slogans and Chairman Mao in action, looking down onto our tables like a Sun King. We’re on the second bottle of “Red Star” erguotou (people’s booze) with the owner and his friend when the question of Carrefour boycott comes up.

“Perhaps it’s not a great idea but we’ll stay away from all those places – Carrefour, KFC, McDonalds,” the owner counts off different popular venues. “It might hurt the economy but we’ve got to make a statement, we need to show the people abroad their rude behavior will not be tolerated or accepted.”

This weekend was a witness to a number of protests against the severe disturbances of Olympic torch relay in Paris by pro-Tibetan activists. They went more-less like this:


Hundreds of protesters carrying Chinese flags and pictures of the late Communist Party chairman, Mao Zedong, gathered outside a Carrefour store in Wuhan in central Hubei province Saturday. (read the whole AP story for the background)


The French company is also suffering from the rumors that its top shareholders allegedly gave funding to the Dalai Lama and Chinese anger, fanned by the local and foreign media, is snowballing. China Digital Times has a good summary of the situation.

One could say people here are angry at being misunderstood over Tibet as they see it and the issues relating to their own country. It was always clear that Olympics are a consequence-charged event but the Tibetan demonstrations last month became a catalyst for their complexity – in the fallout of Lhasa violence we suddenly plunged into everything the Games touch upon: status, identity, politics, business, cultural communication. With the potential for so much change there is a lot of pressure and now as it turned ugly and started to boil over, it really seems many of opportunities from the Olympics could go to waste. China and the West have a chance to form strong ties, based on respect and understanding, but everyone’s so busy pointing fingers and shouting conceited accusations that hardly any thinking or progress gets done. There is a lot of cocky anxiety and ignorance on both sides and nobody interested in tackling that problem, since it’s easier to wave flags and gloat in self-righteous attitude. Will the actual Olympics be like that?

In the West many seem eager to play the “Told you so China” game, as if to assert themselves over the international “upstart,” waiting and passing ironic comments with that know-it-all air of superiority.

China on the other hand does not fare much better. Rather than standing its own ground and trying to discuss Tibet and nature of the protests it has embarked on a kind of a witch hunt, with “traitors of the motherland” and “foreign agents” blasted over the media and the internet. The top example which comes to mind is Jin Jing, the wheelchair-bound Olympic torch bearer who braved the hostile crowds in Paris. After she expressed some doubts over whether Carrefour protests were reasonable she was vilified as “an uncultured, brainless cunt” a “traitor” who “first lost her leg and now lost her mind.” The government seems quite content with such national unity and the state media effectively steered the whole situation towards Them vs. Us issue, double-crossing any progress on our differences in favor of crisis nationalism. How slick…

The question is will those things get better or go downhill from now on? The next six months and Beijing 2008 Games could have a profound effect on all of us, but too much herd mentality and heavy handed action could mean they will simply be superficial, even destructive. Is it naïve to hope for more than that?

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