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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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If you’re looking for examples of modern China, consider my friend Aviva.

She’s the one in the yellow sweater, and she is dancing on the bar in a place called Zapata’s, in Shanghai.

She’s 30 years old, which means she was born about the same time China decided to transform itself from a Mao Zedong-led Communist state into what it is today, an exploding market economy that is both faster-growing and less regulated than just about any other in the world.

The government that has decided not to regulate its exploding market economy still calls itself the Communist Party of China, but at this point it might as well be called the Party That Will Do Whatever Will Keep It In Power. And that, of course, means keeping up the kind of economic growth that makes a story like Aviva’s possible.

Aviva grew up in Inner Mongolia. These days, she’s a stock broker in Shanghai.

Only in America, right? I mean, only in Communist China.

Aviva has been in Shanghai for seven years now, and she spent two years in Guangzhou before that. Which means that at 21, an ambitious girl from Inner Mongolia finished school and moved to the big city to become, of all things, a stock broker.

Her heroes were the guys on Wall Street, half a world away in a country many Chinese idolize and are doing their very best to emulate. She still compares herself to them, sounding very much like an American business major with hopes of becoming the next Gordon Gekko.

“It’s not like the guys in Wall Street,” she says of her Shanghai finance job. “Those guys are really cool.”

Her English is nearly perfect, but she still studies as often as she can to improve it. Many of her clients are foreigners, and like just about every young professional you will meet in China, she wants to do business overseas.

The number of small private businesses that are springing up in still-technically-Communist China is pretty amazing, and almost all of them seem to be doing business overseas. It’s hardly a secret that Americans are buying up zillions of Chinese products, but Americans might be surprised by some of the Chinese entrepreneurs who are doing the selling.

A few weeks ago, I met a Chinese couple in a restaurant. They were both in their early 30s, and they were helping out a friend of mine who had just opened a new restaurant. It is not uncommon for friends or family to help out at a friend’s restaurant when they are short on staff, and I had always wondered how people were able to take the time off work in a city where a two-day weekend is a luxury.

In the case of this particular couple, it was because they own their own business. They sell fishing supplies online, and most of their customers are Americans. None of this was particularly noteworthy until I asked my new friend how many people worked for his company.

“Me and her,” he said, pointing to his wife.

The entire business consists of one man, his wife, and a website.

So how is business going for the couple from Yangzhou and their fishing website? The global financial crisis hasn’t helped things, of course, but they didn’t seem too worried about it, either. When I explained that many people in America are losing their jobs, he joked that they will have more time for fishing.

And as all of those newly unemployed Americans scan the internet for bargains, they may well end up buying their Christmas presents from a single couple running a tiny, online export business from somewhere in Communist China.

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1. He’s black.

2. His half-brother lives in Shenzhen. (This was major news in the national press here)

3. He just won the presidential election in America.

4. He beat Hillary Clinton.

Almost no one at the school has heard of John McCain, but there are quite a few students here who are still bummed out about Hillary losing in the primaries.

5. This means Bush isn’t the president of America anymore.

Most people are too polite to say it directly, but the students I’ve talked to seem pretty excited about this.

The students here seem pretty pleased that Obama was elected. One student, who knew I had planned to vote for Obama, came up to me the day after the election with a big smile and yelled, “Obama won the game!”

But there was some confusion about the historical significance of the Obama victory. There is general agreement among the students that Obama is black, and that it’s pretty rare for a black man to be elected president of the United States. But they aren’t quite sure if this is the first time it has happened.

One student asked me if Obama was, in fact, the first black man to be elected president in America. I told him he was, but the student wasn’t quite convinced.

“What about Lincoln?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Lincoln was white.”

“Oh.”

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So, was it worth it?

With the Olympics now in our rear-view mirror, it’s time to answer the $40 billion question.

Was it worth it?

China spent $43 billion on these Games, more than doubling the previous record of $15 billion for the 2004 Games in Athens. The government shut down hundreds of factories across northern China and pulled half of the cars off the streets of Beijing in a desperate effort to clear the skies. It ordered more than a million people from their homes to make way for the stadiums and Olympic Green area, shuttered hotels and restaurants that didn’t meet the standards it hoped to portray to its foreign guests, and rounded up an untold number of dissidents to make sure everyone was on message for the Games.

And that doesn’t include the money that was spent on training the athletes to make sure the PRC topped the medal count, or training the citizens of Beijing to make sure no one was rude, spit on the streets, or jumped in line during the Games.

It may be a bit of a stretch to say the entire Chinese economy was affected by the government’s many Olympics-related regulations. But between factory closings, new environmental regulations, and stricter visa policies aimed at preventing unwanted people from entering the country during the Games, a pretty wide range of Chinese businesses had a rough couple of months. Everything from the Beijing sports bar that added a 15% Olympics fee to each customers’ bill along with a note about how the new Olympics rules had raised the cost of shipping and transporting food and drinks to the restaurant, to a shoe company in Shenzhen (about as far as one can get from Beijing and still be in China) who saw prices rise for rubber, plastic, and leather due to Olympics-related factory closings.

And since nothing that could tarnish the Games could be left to chance, the government had to deal with the weather, too.

Fortunately, China had already established a Weather Modification Department with an annual budget of $60-90 million. The WMD has a full-time staff of 1,500 and a part-time brigade of 37,000 ready to deploy the department’s 7,113 anti-aircraft guns and 4,991 rocket launchers.

Their job was to figure out how to control the weather, so the government could do things like make it rain in specific areas when there was a drought (apparently, this is done by firing packets of silver iodide into the clouds using anti-aircraft guns and/or rocket launchers). But for the past seven years, their most important job was to make sure the skies were clear for the Opening Ceremony.

The Games had a pretty significant social impact, as well.

Thanks to months of Olympics-themed lessons (some of them administered by yours truly), Chinese school-children are now conversant in Olympic tradition and history, from the colors of the Olympic rings to the height, weight, and birthdays of past Chinese Olympians.

In a country where it is common to find infants urinating in the streets, even in major cities, ordinary people will tell you they are excited about the environmental benefits of the Olympics-inspired ban on free plastic shopping bags.

And the Games may have even inspired a few thousand more people to work on their English, from the elderly volunteers who started studying English when Beijing won the bid in 2001 so they could help give directions or answer questions for foreigners seven years later, to the manager at a McDonald’s in Hangzhou who playfully scolded a cashier in late July, “You must practice English, Olympic Games are coming!”

So, was it all worth it?

Don Lee of the Los Angeles Times thinks so. He explains that while lesser economies have struggled after shelling out more than they could afford to put on a dazzling Olympic show, the Chinese economy is likely to improve after the Olympics.

The oft-quoted cost of the Games should have little effect on the world’s most populous nation, says Lee, and the lifting of a litany of Olympics-inspired regulations should allow China’s economy to get back to normal, with normal being an absurdly impressive rate of growth.

Apparently, $43 billion is not a whole lot of money for one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world.

According to one economist in Shanghai, the record-setting Olympic price tag may have accounted for as little as 0.5 percent of China’s total national investment in the last five years.

There is universal agreement that the Games were a logistical and technological success.

There was a bit of scolding from the press for internet censorship, and the treatment of reporters, and the failure to allow any protesting. And there was even an uproar over the fact that the adorable little girl in the Opening Ceremony was (gasp!) lip-syncing. But on the whole, the reviews were off the charts.

Here’s the AP, The Washington Post, and a great run-down from The Post’s Beijing blog.

And here’s fellow Bethesda, Maryland resident Tom Friedman of the New York Times, on what the success of the Games tells us about China.

I know almost nothing about economics, but I had always assumed that the only thing that could prevent the Olympics from being a major success for China were very large protests handled very badly by the government.

This was everyone’s biggest concern heading into the Games. There was little doubt China would put on a spectacular display for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, or that things would be run with anything less than military precision at all of the events in between. All of the venues would be stunning and the city would be shiny and clean (because anything that wasn’t would be removed by the government prior to the start of the Games).

The tremendous logistical and technological showcase would show the world that China had arrived. That the last great Communist regime had gotten pretty good at Capitalism. And that it has all of the infrastructure and resources you might need to do business.

When the world saw all of this, all of those businessmen who hadn’t already decided to consider doing business with China, might decide to consider doing business with China. And the world’s fourth-largest economy would continue to grow at Usain Bolt speed until it inevitably becomes the world’s largest.

The only thing that could prevent the Beijing Games from being an iconic moment in China’s rise to economic superpower status was a big, ugly scene that would make the world think all of the things it thought after Tiananmen Square. The kind of scene that would make all of those businessmen wonder whether they should consider doing business with China after all.

So the big question heading into these Olympics was how China would handle the protests. The “Free-Tibet!” people, the Uighur people, the people whose homes were knocked down so all the stadiums could be built, the people who want to be able to read Wikipedia and blog, the people who think better building practices and less corruption could have saved their children’s lives, all those American and British and French people who turned the torch relay into such a catastrophe. What if they all got together to form some kind of super-protest that couldn’t help but be broadcast by the international press to all corners of the television-watching globe?

But a funny thing happened. Nobody really protested anything. Not even in the three “protest parks” the government set up for the purpose.

The reason there were no major protests, even in the specially arranged “protest parks,” is that the government required written applications from all groups intending to protest, and then refused to accept any of the applications that were submitted.

But none of that really matters. Even the story of the two elderly women who attempted five times to apply to protest, were denied each time, and then were almost sent to labor camps for reeducation, doesn’t really matter.

All that matters, really, is that these Olympics were going to be a great moment in Chinese history, one that would continue and perhaps even speed China’s evolution into a global superpower, unless the government did something really horrible to a large group of people within sight of a television camera.

And that didn’t happen.

And I’m glad.

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The Chinese government is doing what it can to clean things up before the Olympics.

That doesn’t mean anyone is cracking down on spitting, or small children urinating in public, on the streets of Yangzhou (though they are going after spitting and line-jumping in Beijing). And it doesn’t mean the canals near our school are any less green and filmy lately.

But the government is definitely trying. One very good law went into effect this month and one very silly law will go into effect next month, in an 11th hour push to clean the streets and lift the Beijing smog in time for the Games.

Here in Yangzhou, a nationwide restriction on plastic bags has been in place since June 1. In an effort to cut down on the tremendous amount of pollution caused by plastic bags, stores are no longer permitted to give customers a free plastic bag to carry their purchases home. You can still get a plastic bag at the register, but you now have to pay for it.

Though I am generally opposed to anything that forces me to say more words in Chinese before I can leave a store with whatever I was trying to purchase, the new plastic bag rule is really a pretty good idea. In a country with more than a billion people, particularly one that has decided to make rampant private consumerism one of the new, cherished values of the Communist Party, there are quite a few plastic bags floating around. And since plastic, miracle product that it is, could probably survive a nuclear attack, it’s probably a good idea to try to limit the number of plastic bags that become Chinese garbage each day.

The new plastic bag law will have little effect among rich, fancy foreigners like myself. I’ve been to the supermarket twice now since the restriction went into effect and both times happily paid the 1 yuan or so fee to purchase plastic bags for my groceries.

But it could be taken far more seriously by the Chinese. To give you an idea of what 1 yuan or so means to someone who was raised on the yuan, I was scolded by my friend Shen Miao Miao (who I’d met about 20 minutes prior in the supermarket that afternoon) when I emptied one of my two grocery bags into my backpack and decided to throw away the plastic grocery bag I had just purchased.

Thinking I must not be aware that plastic grocery bags now cost 1 yuan or so, she explained (through a mix of sign language and carefully chosen words from her Chinese-English dictionary) that plastic bags are no longer free and that I shouldn’t throw out the bag I had just purchased because it is far too valuable to be treated as garbage. Not wanting to take the time to explain that I was, in fact, aware of the new law and worried that I might come off as obnoxiously extravagant for throwing away something I had purchased no more than 30 seconds ago, I put the 1-yuan-or-so bag in my backpack and threw it out when I got home.

All of this is my long-winded way of explaining that though the Chinese may not be rich enough yet to care much about the environment, they are still poor enough to treat a 1-yuan-or-so plastic bag as something more valuable than garbage. Which means the government’s free-plastic-bag ban really could impact the number of plastic bags ordinary citizens are willing to throw away each day, which just might be very good news for the environment.

The government’s ban on driving in Beijing
, however, is as silly as it sounds. Starting July 20, the citizens of Beijing will only be permitted to drive their cars on certain days of the week, based on their license-plate number. (Even-numbered plates and odd-numbered plates will split the days of the week, with each banned from the streets on alternate days)

This extraordinary inconvenience is intended to improve Beijing’s legendary smog, which is reportedly so bad that the reigning world record holder in the marathon has equated running the race in Beijing to an act of suicide.

It is true that desperate times call for desperate measures. But however desperate the smog situation may be, it is foolish to believe the air quality of one of the world’s largest cities can be meaningfully improved by banning half of the city’s cars from the streets each day for two months.

And to give you a better idea of just how large the inconvenience will be for the people of Beijing, I’d like you to imagine what the people of Los Angeles would do if the US federal government tried to ban half of the city’s cars from the streets for two months to improve the city’s air quality?

How about two hours?

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I am always curious about what people here think of America.

I’ve had this image in my mind of a group of Chinese college students sitting around a table after a few drinks and talking about what the Americans might be up to. Having recently graduated from a university in America, I know American college students have been known to talk about China after a few drinks. And I know those conversations (at least the ones I took part in) generally involve some very paranoid speculation about how soon China will take over economic control of the universe, how terrible this might be for us, and whether or not all of this will somehow lead to World War Three.

So, naturally, I wanted to know if these same conversations are going on over here about us. After all, we have spent the last few years fighting simultaneous wars in multiple foreign countries. And we’ve somehow managed to do it without a draft and (even more incredibly) while actually cutting taxes.

One can only imagine how dangerous we must seem to the rest of the world, especially if they care to speculate about what we might be capable of if we instituted a draft and took the (extraordinary?) step of actually cutting domestic spending and raising taxes to support the war effort.

If China – which presumably scares us because we think they might want to spread their Communist ideology and which has paradoxically begun to terrify us by making large sums of money through capitalism – makes us this uncomfortable, the Chinese should be asking themselves whether the Americans plan to attack on Tuesday.

As it turns out, my local friend Luis tells me, America’s habit of invading foreign countries is a topic of conversation among at least one group of Chinese college students. But unlike their American counterparts, they don’t seem all that concerned about it.

“We like to talk about current events, you know?” Luis tells me. “So we say, ‘who will America attack next?’ But it’s just a joke.”

Luis, who is 21 and goes to a technical college near Yangzhou Tech, is a big fan of America. Everybody in Yangzhou seems to be.

They love our movies, they are huge fans of our basketball league (Luis’ best friend chose “Steve Nash” as his English nickname), and just about everybody I’ve talked to seems to think America is one of the best places in the world to live. I’ve even had a number of people ask me about our election and tell me they hope Obama will win (I haven’t met any McCain fans yet, or even anyone who has heard of McCain, but I did have a student tell me she had been supporting Hillary in the primary).

Luis and his friends have a number of amusing misconceptions about us, of course. He was surprised to hear I don’t own a gun (“But most people in America have one, right?”) and he appears to think the average American soldier looks a lot like Rambo (the Rambo movies are really big here, apparently).

Most of what the people here believe about Americans comes from the movies or the news, so their view of us is a bit distorted. But it seems a lot closer than our view of the Chinese.

If Luis had been in Madison this time last year to hear some of the things I used to say about China when we’d all had enough drinks to think we knew something about politics, he’d have had a hell of a laugh.

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Leave it to me to find the press freedom angle in the genuine tragedy that is unfolding in Sichuan Province.

More than 50,000 people may have died since the magnitude 7.9 earthquake there, and the stories and images that continue to emerge are overwhelming. The story of a collapsed school and the teachers who told their students to stay in the building, thinking it was the safest place they could be, is the one that will stay with me, along with the image of a woman carrying her child down a road with an extraordinary cloud of dust behind her. (there are some incredible photos from the AP, here)

But it is a different set of photographs and an interview with an unnamed official from the “press and publication department” of the city of Chongqing that has me turning once again to a subject I’m sure the Chinese government wishes we would all stop writing about.

But as someone with a framed copy of a Danish editorial cartoon that once caused violent protests in numerous countries and a few dozen angry letters addressed to a student newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, I find myself drawn to these stories.

The cartoon is a reprint of a depiction of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb under his turban. It was originally printed in a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten, along with 11 other cartoons of Muhammad. When the cartoons were subsequently reprinted in other newspapers, a large number of Muslims across the globe chose to voice their displeasure by taking to the streets and burning some buildings to the ground. (There’s a great recap of all of this, here)

This, of course, forced just about every newspaper editor in the world to decide whether he, too, should reprint the offending images alongside his paper’s coverage of what had suddenly become a major international news story.

The reason the cartoon now sits in a frame in my bedroom in Bethesda, Maryland is because I was the managing editor of one of the papers that decided to print it. Dozens of angry letters and one campus forum later, The Badger Herald stands by the decision. And the cartoon, which sits above an editorial explaining our decision, will now hang on one of the walls of my apartment in whatever city I might decide to live in when I get back to the States and start writing for newspapers again.

Which brings me to the reason I’m now writing about “rectification” and “propaganda discipline” when I really should be writing about the tragic events in Sichuan Province and the heroic response of the Chinese government.

When a hurricane left a major American city flooded, our government’s response was to send a few helicopters in to drop packages of food into the water, and to argue with the state’s governor about whether her request for federal aid had been properly submitted. But when an earthquake hit Sichuan Province, the Chinese government dispatched more than 100,000 soldiers and rescue workers to the area, according to the state-run Xinhua news service, and is ready to spend $160 million on relief efforts.

So why am I writing about press freedom at a time when the Chinese government is truly worthy of praise?

Because a magazine editor at New Travel Weekly made the bizarre decision to run a racy earthquake-themed photo spread and the Chinese government decided to shut the publication down.

And because the reporting of all this introduced me to two very interesting phrases, both of which were used by the Chongqing “press and publication department” to explain why the magazine had to be shut down.

Here’s the department’s explanation in a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

The department said the magazine “seriously violated propaganda discipline and went against social morals” and the report constituted an “extremely evil social influence.”

“If the outcome of the rectification is satisfactory, it is possible to reopen the magazine,” an employee of the press and publication department with the family name Cai said.

“After all, only part of the staff made the decision to print that shoot. It wouldn’t be fair to just close it for good.”

The first phrase is “rectification,” which appears to translate roughly to clean house and find new editors who will print things the government approves of, at which point the offending publication can resume printing until further rectification becomes necessary.

This would explain why the editors of New Travel Weekly have been promptly fired and the unnamed official from the press and publication department believes the magazine may be able to resume publication following its “rectification.”

The second phrase is the one that really jumps out to us Westerners, especially those of us who majored in journalism. When we see the word “propaganda,” we tend to think of things like Nazi Germany and the old Soviet Union and all of the villainous regimes that people insist on comparing to the current Chinese government.

That’s why it’s so jarring when the press and publication department of Chongqing uses a phrase like “propaganda discipline” to explain why it shut down a magazine over a racy photo spread.

I don’t know if that is an official term or an unfortunate translation, and I won’t speculate here. What I do know is the Chinese government really needs to consider rectifying its stance on press freedom. That is, clean house and find new officials who will recognize that it is better to let citizens read about their government than it is to continue the sort of repressive practices you’d prefer they didn’t read about.

In a very real way, the Chinese government has made life exponentially better for a very large number of its citizens over the last three decades. And over the past two weeks, the government has shown its extraordinary capability to come to the aid of its people in times of great need.

But as long as the government continues to shut down magazines, imprison bloggers, and employ scores of internet monitors to block and unblock websites, we will all keep writing about things like “rectification” and “propaganda discipline” when we should be giving China the praise it deserves.

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I got a few colorful excuses in Thailand from students who missed my class.

The school-sponsored “Buddhism camp,” which included an overnight stay at a temple, was probably my favorite. It was definitely not the only time I heard that up to half of my class was “at the temple” for the day, or preparing a dance or song for one of Chaiyaphum’s many festivals (we were averaging at least two festivals a month while I was there).

But none of the excuses from the girls at Satrichaiyaphum High matched the one I received this afternoon. It’s a text message from one of the teachers in the English conversation course I’m doing for some of my colleagues here at Yangzhou Tech.

sorry mike, i will absent our class today because of learning the knowledge of the Communist Party of China, i am so sorry.

Oddly enough, we talked politics a bit in class today. My colleagues seemed interested in the American presidential election, though I had to explain the primary system to them and help them out a bit with the pronunciation of “Obama.”

They even laughed when I mentioned George W.’s approval rating. I guess some things are universal.

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