Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Economist on Liu Xiaobo and Akmal Shaikh

Drugs are a big deal in China, with all forms of it -- cigarettes notwithstanding -- considered equally deplorable. It's not just in China, of course, where trafficking is punishable by death; at the border of several southeast Asian countries, you will see signs that say, without equivocation, that carrying drugs across the border could result in the severest of penalties.

But China's experience with drugs, specifically opium, has been particularly stark, leaving psychic scars that won't soon disappear. And so it may not come as the biggest surprise that Akmal Shaikh, a British national found guilty of smuggling heroin, was executed on December 29 despite protests -- some justified and some laughable -- from the British and human rights groups.

Writes the Economist:

Although it ended in the first known execution of a European in China since the 1950s, Mr Shaikh’s case was otherwise not unusual. According to available (and incomplete) statistics, China executed 1,700 convicts in 2008, or nearly five each day.

And in the case of Liu Xiaobo, the Charter 08 organizer who James Fallows wrote about here, the Economist says:

Neither was the harsh treatment meted out to Mr Liu unusual by Chinese standards. Criticism of the government, though always risky, is sometimes tolerated. Attempts to organise criticism, however, as Mr Liu had by helping draft a petition calling for political freedoms, are routinely met with a firm thumping. Jailed twice before for his political activities Mr Liu knew this as well as anyone. He had said he was ready to face prison again.

Of course, these events, once again, set up the classic China vs. The West battle of ideology, with all the predictable rancor and online accusations of this person or that commentator belonging to the Ministry of Truth. It's sad and trite, making you want to tell everyone to just get over themselves.

In any case, there are two sides to each argument, and the Economist has provided measured reportage on them.

On the other hand, British newspapers like the Telegraph aren't so responsible:

One of the more touching messages I receive in the run-up to the outrageous execution of Akmal Shaikh in China this morning is from a London-based “working girl”, who tells me she is boycotting all Chinese clients for a year in protest.

Please, spare me any sanctimonious injunctions about her chosen way of life. She’s doing what she can. And how many business people have decided today to withdraw their services from the Chinese? I think, in this context at least, she is acting with great dignity and self-respect.

That's from Anglican priest George Pitcher. Hilarious. It wouldn't quite make Huffington Post's Dumbest Quotes of The 2000s, but it's ridiculous nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alex Hu, the king of fools

This PBS video, about the world's largest shopping mall -- South China Mall -- in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, is the sort of film that makes you drop everything and stare in absolute disbelief. Alex Hu, the developer, is said to have wanted to be "the king of Dongguan." He ended up creating a monument to concrete, desolation, despair. Greed, stupidity, etc.

Richard of Peking Duck calls the video "unforgettable" (earlier this year he also wrote about China's "luxury mall calamity"), and that it is. Maybe this video will get people to visit Dongguan, a city without an airport, and then swing by South China Mall, which is out in the middle of nowhere, next to a smelly canal.

Then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

China Daily said what?

From its end-of-year-lists extravaganza, this is taken from today's top-10 list:

That final line says: The lesson: People have the right of free speech, and it includes cyberspace!

Flagrant irony or subtle subversiveness? You decide.

Twitter around the firewall

That's the title of CC Huang of Chinamatic's December 2 post, which introduces readers to, which allows people to tweet around the Great Firewall.

Now the question: for the VPN- and proxy-less, how do we blog around the GFW? And YouTube around the GFW? And Facebook...?

Break down the walls.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two really good posts from James Fallows

I'm still in Kansas and making the most of this holiday season, but I recently came across two James Fallows posts that I can't help passing along. (I've also just started Postcards from Tomorrow Square -- checked out from the local library -- and have decided to buy this book. Among China watchers and all-around journalists, few, in my opinion, are better than Fallows.)

Post 1: Copenhagen follow-up

Reaction to the Guardian story yesterday, alleging that Chinese negotiators "intentionally" embarrassed Barack Obama and sabotaged the Copenhagen talks, turns out to be a Rorschach test for views on a variety of issues. Views of China (inherently untrustworthy); views of the US and the West (inherently biased against rising China); views of Obama (ludicrously out of his depth in dealing with the Chinese); views of man-made climate change and big international conclaves like this (big frauds in both cases).

Post 2: Liu Xiaobao

...The charges apparently arise mainly from his role last year in promoting "Charter 08," a manifesto for civil society in China. There is nothing about his life, work, or efforts that a truly confident government should fear. That the Chinese government cannot tolerate his views speaks volumes.

There is much to admire in modern China, and even more to sympathize with in the aspirations and efforts of its people. But this is a reminder of what is wrong with the way it is run, and is a moment that friends of China and of Chinese people should note, regret, and deplore.

Friday, December 18, 2009


From a commenter on this Beijinger blog post:

Some 2007 Japanese gov't statistics

japanese men marrying chinese women: 11,926
japanese women marrying chinese men:

Pornography is the scourge of Chinese children

What it does is, it sets up unrealistic, false expectations for young lovers who -- honestly -- should never, ever expect to orgasm, or on the other hand convinces them that giving facials is the only way to put the cherry on top, so to speak, while distorting concepts of intimacy, courtship and marriage, to say nothing of misshaping the dicks of young men who ejaculate all the time in Internet bars.*

Yeah. Probably awesome the Internet is censored.

From NYT (my emphasis):

China's government censors have taken fresh aim at the Internet, rolling out new measures that limit ordinary citizens’ ability to set up personal Web sites and to view hundreds of other Web sites offering films, video games and other forms of entertainment.

The authorities say that the stricter controls are intended to protect children from pornography, to limit the piracy of films, music, and television shows, and to make it hard to perpetuate Internet scams. But the measures also appear designed to enhance the government’s already strict control of any organized political opposition.

You'll remember "the children" often cited as justification for Green Dam, that other much-maligned Internet "filtering" program.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: I would punch one of those government censors if I ever met them. I swear to God, square in the nose.

And now, the obligatory quote from Helen Lovejoy:

*The answer to your question: Lijiang.

(What, you weren't going to ask where I've seen that?)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The States

First morning in Kansas...

First thoughts of the States: holy crap my senses are overwhelmed. Commercials, lights, Costco, bacon bacon bacon... currently watching Sportscenter on ESPN, Kobe, Chris Henry... watched bit congressmen talk on Olbermann's show about healthcare, switched to South Park reruns... commercials, commercials, commercials...

While shopping at the aforementioned Costco I was also struck by the prices... how low they were. Beijing's inflation really hits home when you're able to buy 12 mini-pizzas for 10 usd here, or about 6 kuai per mini-pizza. Polish hot dog+soft drink also only a buck fifty, or about 10 kuai. You can't get a 10-kuai hot dog in Beijing, that's all I'll say. Perhaps next time I'll gush a bit less about my 10-kuai gaifan.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Halloween fun

On Halloween I mentioned that a couple friends and I were going as the characters from the incredibly awesome and hilarious flash video Get On My Horse. By way of reminder, here's me in character:

Well, videos of that night have surfaced. The first is us -- myself, Kevin, Therese and Alicia (who is the body half of the horse) -- at a restaurant on Guijie, performing in front of friends, and the second is at Nanluoguxiang. We were going to do this in the subway, but rain dampened our spirits, and then ruined the night. Sad.

Full lyrics:
Look at my horse, my horse is amazing
Give it a lick, Mmm it tastes just like raisins
Stroke on it’s mane it turns into a plane
And then it turns back again when you tug on it’s winky
Eww that’s dirty!
Do you think so? Well I better not show you where the lemonade is made
Sweet Lemonade, Mmm Sweet lemonade
Sweet lemonade, yeah sweet lemonade
(Synth Solo)
Get on my horse, I’ll take you round the Universe and all the other places too
I think you’ll find that the Universe pretty much covers everything
Shut up woman, get on my horse

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Carmina Burana at the Egg

This one was fun to write. Excerpt from the Beijinger's blog:

The signature movement, without question, is the opening, O Fortuna. If the name means nothing to you, the tune surely does. Give it a listen and see what image it conjures. Personally, I think about the promo for Wrestlemania XIV’s match pitting the Undertaker, with his black full-length trench coat, black Stetson hat and general bad-assitude, against his brother Kane.

If your point of reference is different, that’s understandable. Since first being performed by the Frankfurt Opera in 1937, this two-and-a-half-minute piece has enjoyed remarkable crossover appeal, appearing in everything from video games and movie previews to advertisements and So You Think You Can Dance; it has been spoofed, synthesized and remixed by hip-hop producers, deejays, comedians, classical musicians, et al. It is quite possibly the most recognizable classical piece of the 20th century.

Yet after all that, the best version is still probably the original, which is capable of exposing the hopeless imitators. In Hate Me Now, rapper Nas, with O Fortuna as his beat line, bewails of the mercurialness of fate: “It’s a thin line between paper and hate, friends and snakes, nine millis and thirty-eights, Hell or the pearly gates.” Not to say I don’t appreciate Nas’ obvious skills as a wordsmith, but rhyming seems like a ditty compared to the rage and choler of the speaker in the original:

Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Climate change and COP15

Photo by Daphne Richet-Cooper

Not sure I can say I had the "pleasure" of attending a climate-change press conference today -- the thing was a bit too Chinese (you'll know what I'm talking about if you've ever attended a press conference here) -- but the event held by 51Sim was meaningful and timely. I ended up reporting on it for the Beijinger's blog. Excerpt below (and more on this topic in the coming week).

In less than two hours – 1 p.m. Copenhagen time, 8 p.m. local – a special opening ceremony will officially launch the most important environmental conference since the 1997 convention that established the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012. Over the next week and a half, COP15, short for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, will bring together officials from 193 countries, including at least 65 heads of state, in talks to reach an agreement to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost everyone agrees that our current carbon dioxide output is unsustainable, but how much we should reduce emissions is a divisive issue. The COP15 discussions will likely be contentious and embroiled with politics. And constructive? That’s to be determined.

All eyes will be on the U.S. and China, the world’s largest carbon emitters, neither of which signed the Kyoto Protocol. It was only on November 25 that President Obama committed to COP15 (he’s recently changed his travel plans to have a bigger presence during the conference), with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao following suit a day later. Both countries have made and will reiterate their carbon-cutting commitments, but the success or failure of COP15 largely rests on the extent to which these two countries follow through.

UPDATE: If you haven't seen The Green Leap Forward yet, please consider this your introduction: here is the beginning of its coverage of COP15.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Picture of the Day: The Egg at night

It looks even more stunning from the inside, though I'm afraid I couldn't take any pictures because security made me check in my camera.

Look for a review of Carmina Burana to be posted here soon. (Update: here.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happiness requires a garden

From China Daily:

Chengdu is the "happiest" city in China in a survey of the top ten cities in the country, the reported Wednesday.

The capital of Sichuan province topped the list for its fine scenery, cheap goods and easy lifestyle. Tourist city Hangzhou came second, with seaside city Qingdao ranking third. Most top ranking cities are garden cities where people enjoy the good environment and less pressure.

Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the four biggest cities in China, didn’t make the list due to bad air quality, high housing prices, heavy urban traffic, along with high work and living pressure, the report said.

Having been to Chengdu, Hangzhou and Qingdao, I have to say this doesn't surprise me in the least. I could spend hours in Chengdu's teahouses -- many of them named Thousand Fortune Teahouse for some reason, by the way -- while Hangzhou's West Lake lives up to its reputation and Qingdao's roadside beer could take away my worries any day.

I must say, however, I would still take Beijing over all of them. We live in a world-class city with everything at our fingertips. Imperial gardens are a subway ride away, neighborhood shops are everywhere, malls and amusement parks (if you're into that sort of thing) easy to find, and the biking culture still exists, unlike in cities like Shanghai. Of course, the pollution problem needs a bit of work, but after trips I'm always happy to be returning to here, and I think that's a good sign.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Art review: Wang Yin's quiet mischievousness

First appeared in abridged form in City Weekend.

Wang Yin came of age as an artist amid Chinese avant-garde’s flourishing but resisted joining his contemporaries in lavish experimentation, preferring instead to retreat into the most orthodox and politically safe of mediums, oil on canvas, with the stated objective of marking the evolution of modern Chinese oil painting. In “Homer,” for instance, one sees a bust of Homer, a Western candelabra and a mango – a symbol of Sino-Soviet friendship (Soviet influence is manifest in nascent modern Chinese art) – in an attempt to say something along the lines of, This is what mid-20th century Chinese art apprentices did… how dull.

Sound too meta? Wang’s academic adviser, Wang Min’an, calls art’s “basic joy” “the pleasure experienced by art in the game of self-reference,” but the problem with that, of course, is there is often no joy for the viewer who finds himself handcuffed by an artistic puzzle; sometimes the effort just isn’t worth it. Wang’s paintings, however, with their muted colors, their conciseness and dashes of surrealism, look and feel different – they demand a second chance. And what you find has the ability to surprise on both the visceral and cerebral levels: nude models whose legs are freakishly elongated, or dainty riverbanks that are actually maps of East Asia on which is prostrated a “comfort woman” from World War II…

In the 30 pieces on display at 798’s Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Wang’s mischievousness repeatedly shows itself in discreet and remarkable ways. He is capable of – indeed, prefers – subtlety and irony, as in the 36 portraits of Russians executed under during Stalin’s regime at the back of the exhibit. Accumulating on the bottom of these picture frames is peeled-off flakes of paint, representing time’s erasure of memory. If this tribute seems out of place, it would be wise to remember that parts of the Soviet Union’s political history finds parallel in that of the People’s Republic of China. Of course, it would have been impossible to memorialize those Chinese who were martyred in the name of progress.

Wang’s works achieve depth by referencing both the classic and the modern – “Flower” depicts peonies, the Qing Dynasty’s national flower, and the toddler in “Lu Xun Park” is the son of contemporary poet Wang Jiaxin. And in one of his several untitled pieces, a nude woman in a studio casually glances at the bottom right corner of a portrait that is obviously of Mao Zedong.

Even using oil on canvas, the medium of the “Yan’an model” used to apotheosize New China in the 1950s and 60s, Wang is never far removed from his context, which is decidedly un-jingoistic. His generation sees art as liberating, cogitative, subversive and even iconoclastic, which is why in “Spring Grass Grows beside the Pond II,” Wang depicts the artist Xu Beihong, famous for his ink paintings of horses, painting a nude Russian model in a dale so Arcadian you half-expect the Lady of Shalott to float down the stream; at the foreground stands a smiling, fully dressed Chinese woman of an ethnic minority. We’ll let you unravel the meanings of this one. As with all Wang’s works, the answer is contained within – just look deeper.

Another VPN: Freedur

Last month I sang the praises of Witopia, which, for 60 usd a month, allows me to blog to you fair readers on Camino while simultaneously Twittering like a chickadee on Firefox with Sean Kington singing "Shawty fire burnin' on the dance floor" on YouTube and two Manila albums uploading to Facebook on Safari.

Now you can do all that but without Witopia. Freedur! Looks as effective as Witopia, and costs the same. I've yet to find someone who actually uses Freedur, but apparently if you type the code "chinahush" into the registration form, you get a 10 percent discount. Speaking of... China Hush is pretty awesome.

Great Firewall, fall!

In a related story, I would like to quote Kai Pan of the excellent site CN Reviews, who quotes a suggestion from Joshua Kurlantzick of The Boston Globe:

The US could focus on areas where Beijing, though increasingly sure of itself, remains weak – such as providing technology for Chinese bloggers to get around Internet filters, or highlighting the vast problems of rural Chinese society (both Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have extensive Chinese broadcasts which penetrate rural China).