China with Polish Characteristics

April 19, 2008

Beijing Olympics: First event at the Bird’s Nest

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 7:49 am

This is a video on the first sports event – a 20 km race walking competition – held on Beijing’s national stadium, aka Bird’s Nest due to its innovative structure. The competition was held this Friday, April 18 and drew quite a sizeable audience. Everyone was curious about the Olympic organizer’s “darling” and the stadium is quite impressive. See for yourself:

April 18, 2008

Beijing’s parks

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 2:31 am

Public parks in China can be fascinating for an outsider – despite the increasing pace of life they remain focal points of local community life and many of its traditions. This can be especially true in Beijing, where the feel of the “old city” is overwhelmed by construction, commercialism and floods of outsiders. Early morning is best to catch many of the retired people on their exercise/social life routine and the video below is one such moment captured somewhere in the city center… I couldn’t help myself and made some of it intentionally silly – no offense to the feelings of the Chinese people intended, ha ha.

Enjoy!

April 12, 2008

Tea shop video

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 7:07 am

Finally got myself a small camera and got a chance now to run around the city recording some of my favorite places on tape. I’ll try to post something every week, including interviews and short pieces on politics and BJ’s culture. The first one, which you can watch below is a mini-feature on a tea shop near where I live – I’ve spent many evenings there, chatting with the owners and local people and enjoying enough Fujian tea to stay awake untill 3am in the morning (you out there who think coffee has a strong kick… try sampling tieguanyin and pu’er in one sitting).

Enjoy! Let me know if you liked it and what kinds of videos would you be interested in seeing.

April 6, 2008

Alive and kicking!

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 10:01 am

Ok, all right, this blog went dead for the last two months but I’m not going to let that happen again. I just made it back from Hong Kong this week and even though the trip was very short (visa!), I feel like I’m rediscovering Beijing anew, somehow falling in love with it by stages. When I stepped off the train at the West Station it was a clear, bright day. You could say the air smelled of spring, only it was slightly dry and dusty, like the aftertaste of pu’er tea, and came at you in gusts of wind, tugging defiantly. The sky above was silent, flat and pale blue, spilling endlessly across the horizon. If not for the roads and concrete buildings, the impression of Beijing would be like that of the grassland and it’s great, open spaces. This was the North country, solemn and willful; and the people I saw on the streets with their plain demeanor and dry laughter reflected this landscape. It never stops to amaze me how different the north and south of China are from each other. Because several days earlier, when I made it to Guangzhou I felt I was stepping into a different world, or at least, a different country.

This was a city shaped by its subtropical climate, and the streets and people, although quite busy, felt light and warm and happy. There were palms and lush greenery all around and the air felt like balsam, oozing gently into your mood. The language sounded softer and more melodic, changing the style of conversations, drawing them out although not as much as in Hong Kong. And nearly everyone I saw seemed to be Buddhist – on their light clothing a number of people wore green jade pedants, usually associated with the faith. It was all quite dreamy and dazzling and reminded me of Sichuan (even more laidback) and I didn’t want to go back.

One day later, the visa officials in Wanchai (Hong Kong) gave me hell, once again confirming that Polish spirit and paperwork do not go well together. But aside of bureaucracy I had great time tramping around Kowloon (massage, sir?) which feels incredibly Indian with its tiny, crowded shops and rundown architecture. It’s as if the late Empire never quite left and people are shuffling around in a wonderful, expired time capsule. Hong Kong. The ferry, the bookshops, the seafood, the incredible mix of cultures. One of my favorite places in China. But it’s good to be back home, in the North and be able to appreciate it with a fresh perspective.

February 8, 2008

The new lunar cycle is on…

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 2:58 pm

In Beijing, the fireworks are raging; almost every other thought you have is punctuated by small explosion or rattle. Yesterday, February 7 marked the beginning of New Year according to the lunar calendar traditionally used in China – the year of Rat, significant because it opens a new 12-year lunar cycle into which the Chinese zodiac signs are arranged and because the new cycle often seemed to coincide with important historical events in China: establishment of the Chinese Republic (1912) for example, or Nixon’s landmark visit to Beijing (1972) which began the process of China’s opening. The 2008 year of the Rat is to be marked by the Beijing Olympics, an event widely perceived to be China’s symbolic rise from its turbulent history and a manifesto of its economic power, after which it will join the international fraternity of world powers as one of the “more equals.” But what will be the real impact of the Olympics and how is China likely to progress in this lunar cycle and the next ones?

While foreign media coverage often lapses into its own cycle of mystery, ridicule and danger, a lot of debate on this country and its transformation seems to boil down to economics and government change. As an enormous marketing and PR event, the Olympics are bound to open new floodgates of economic transactions, but my personal fear is that there will be little new understanding of China and its people. Tourists, politicians and businessmen will come, take pictures of pandas and warriors and return home with no profound change in their image of the country. But if the old stereotypes and assumptions stay put, can we really talk about opening up? If the Olympics won’t make understanding of China any easier is there really a prospect of any transformation? In a recently published book, “The China Fantasy,” James Mann, a veteran American journalist points out that everything in Beijing Olympics is set to uphold business-as-usual situation:

 In the Olympics programs broadcast in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, chances are that image after image, set piece after set piece, profile after profile, will convey the theme that China is moving in the right direction. The TV coverage will likely suggest that all problems are manageable, that any step backward will be followed by two steps forward – and that eventually trade and prosperity will bring freedom and democracy to China. 

There are two main theories about China in the West, one claiming that the country is on a verge of environmental and social disaster with economy as stable as barrel of gunpowder and the other, incredibly optimistic, maintaining that things are just fine and change for the better is happening as we speak. As Mann argues in his book, the second theory is often aimed at calming people’s conscience about a much more complex situation:

 On the surface it looks as if middle-class Americans are identifying with middle-class Chinese, dreaming that the Chinese, too, will one day insist on a choice of political candidates the way they are now able to select from a range of lattes and mochas at Starbucks. Look beneath the surface, however, and you will find a more troubling reality: The business communities of China and the United States do not harbor these dreams of democracy. Both profit from a Chinese system that permits no political opposition, and – for now, at least – both are content with it. 

Does China have to be a democracy in order to effectively safeguard the interests of its people? Could the country survive in its present shape and strength if everyone had a say in politics? Is it fine to support the regime which brutally suppresses any opposition and remains above the law? According to Mann, the intellectuals, traders and politicians supporting Optimist theory, do their best to brush away such inconvenient questions, blinding the public opinion to safeguard their own interests – highly lucrative business connections and rewards coming along with them. Due to this lobby, the Party was never included in President Bush’s Axis of Evil and President Clinton reversed his plan to link China’s trade advantages to its human rights progress. Before, it was maintained that trade will transform China the way it did Taiwan and South Korea (much smaller, less populated countries), but after Tiananmen, it is only said that China’s democracy will come by itself, sometime, as long as PRC continues to be integrated into the international world order. But as Mann points out:

 If the world ends up thirty years from now with a Chinese regime that is still a deeply repressive one-party state but is nevertheless a member of the international community in good standing, will that have been a success for the U.S. policy of integration? If so, that same China will serve as a model for dictators, juntas, and other undemocratic governments throughout the world – and, in all likelihood, a leading supporter of these regimes. China is already serving that function with respect to a number of dictatorships, from Burma to Zimbabwe. Thus, when America’s leading officials and CEOs speak so breezily of integrating China into the international community, listeners should ask questions such as: If China remains unchanged, what sort of international community will that be? Will it favor the right to dissent? Will it protect freedom of expression? Or will it simply protect free trade and the right to invest? 

It is true that U.S. and the West in general were always too preoccupied with themselves to honestly give a damn about what happens to people in Asia or elsewhere – and that I believe is unlikely to change. People living under repressive governments of one kind or another (look at Poland, for example) usually overcame them if they happened to be in a right place at a right time in the global power play, and here luck seems to be as much of a factor as anything else. While I’m certainly an optimist about China, I also try my best to understand what’s really taking place here, and to have no illusions. “The China Fantasy” is not first to point out business interests overwhelming humanitarian concerns, but it’s an excellent and detailed summary of the problem. Given the approaching Olympics it’s a good starting point in thinking more about China and trying to explore it beyond the year of the Rat and the Olympic souvenir stands. I hope many people will make that effort. Without it, can we call the whole affair significant?

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.

December 13, 2007

The goldrush

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:54 pm

Ok, I am going home for two weeks to spend Christmas with my family, which is a perfect excuse not to post anything for a while. But before my laziness takes on its full effect, I would like to bring a certain trend in China to your attention – nothing pleasant. Every week, while doing research at work, I read about at least a couple of mine accidents, and recently it seems to have been really bad – at least 105 people died in an explosion at the Xinyao mine in Shanxi. The disturbing part, as you can read in the story, is that this accident is merely a tip of an iceberg. There were several other mishaps this very week, and according to the government figures, some 5000 people are dying in the Chinese mines each year (the independent labor groups say many accidents are covered up and that it’s more like 20,000 people). But the really sad and infuriating thing about deaths like those in Xinyao, is that they could have been easily avoided – the owners disregarded basic safety procedures in order to milk the most cash possible from their business (read this). No investment was made into proper ventilation or adequate equipment, while guanxi and ordinary corruption helped everybody to dismiss safety inspections and ignore the facts. What I don’t understand is how can so many people be driven to completely disregard the lives of others – is it the history that hardened the Chinese businessmen so much, or is it really just simple greed? Although my country is in an entirely different situation, it also underwent a transition from socialism to market economy and I’m very clear about the kind of jungle which early capitalism makes of the society. Capitalism can be savage, and it often still is at home – but nothing like this. In Silesia, Poland’s major mining and industrial region where I grew up, coal-mines are a way of life for many of the people. Accidents do happen, but they are not frequent, and each one is regarded as a disaster. People are collectively mourned, the causes of their deaths investigated, and each such tragedy clearly remembered. But here, in China, the weekly mine accidents quickly fade into the news headlines and the miners simply keep dying. Why does it continue? Much more could and needs to be done to improve the safety and legal control in the industry. And more effort can and has to be put into convincing people about the need for social duty and the need of even basic responsibility for others. The government, however, focused entirely on itself, has not set a good example for its people. To get rich is glorious, that’s true. But to treat each other as human – priceless.

December 9, 2007

Mandarin, mon amour?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 4:42 pm

I can still remember when some four years ago in college, I walked into our dorm room and found my dear roommate sitting by the window, uttering strange high-pitched noises which made him sound like an complete idiot. The frustrated determination in his face made it even funnier. My poor friend had just developed a massive crush for an exchange student from Dalian and decided he had to teach himself Chinese. But back then in Indiana – the great cornfield of America – it was an uphill battle. The only prominent foreign language in the area was Spanish. There were no classes offered, no textbooks and absolutely no one to give you direction at the start – the closest teacher my friend managed to locate, a Chinese expat, was at a community college over an hour away. His Chinese endeavor soon died a natural death. Sometimes it still blows my mind that only a few years later, Chinese language programs have mushroomed not just all over the US (check out this for a sample and this if you want more goodies) but across the world. It became the zesty thing to study, and the demand is visible in the Motherland as well. As “Teaching Chinese to Foreigners” climbed steadily to become one of the popular majors in Beijing’s universities, the local entrepreneurs started tripping over each other to open up private language schools for foreigners. There are at least couple dozen of these in the capital, many specializing in one-on-one classes, and the price for their services has been climbing steadily – as much as 100 RMB/hour in some, which was unheard of when I first came out here (who goes to these places??). State-backed enterprises took off as well, with China Radio International starting an on-air Confucius Institute, promoting Chinese learning in all 38 languages included in their programming. Crazy! Watching all this, and the rising cohorts of enthusiastic mandarin learners, I almost get the warm fuzzy feeling inside. It’s only that in 2/3 of the cases there seems to be little effect to it, despite the entire hype and the stardust. While many expats in Beijing have certainly fallen for the worldwide China-fashion, most I have met really don’t put any sincere effort into their studies. After a year or two, most have barely mastered a caveman-conversational level of the language, the kind which comes in handy only after a fourth or fifth beer. While studying Chinese is certainly not fun and games (that what God made the Romance languages for), and while certainly it shouldn’t be expected, one can’t help but scratch his head when watching the whole thing – can this language really be as universal as English one day? Maybe. But how? And when? It’s not gonna happen thanks to the loudspeakers.

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