Friday, December 7, 2007

Spoiled by the Ambassador

Mo bholg hasn't been so distended since arriving in China and I owe it all to the Irish exchequer.
Last night, Lady Liz and I attended the Irish Ambassador's Christmas party where we ate, drank and were merry. Turkey, ham, salmon, lamb, stuffing and all sorts of weird but wonderful salad stuff were on offer. I accepted gladly.
I was surprised, nay disappointed, not to find a large keg of Guinness and a pyramid tower of Ferrero Rocher but I restrained my complaints.
They really spoiled us by unveiling a trad band who whipped up a seisiun, complete with a bit of dancing and a dose of sean nos.
At one point some young one in an emerald guna wheeled out a harp and attempted to induce tears from the homesick crowd.
Not sure I've been here long enough to complain about missing the island. And anyway, you only get that sort of diddly-aye in Temple Bar.
The expat scene is a bit of a clique and we are relative newbies. It's a bit like arriving to a Spanish resort on a Tuesday when everybody else has been settled since Saturday. The all seem to know everyone and everything, even though they're only off the plane.
Tonight, we're heading into town to meet His Ambassadorness once more. This time, the man himself is formally opening Beijing's newest Irish bar - Paddy O'Shea's.
We took the time to sample this bar a few weeks ago with Martin, ChengCheng and Walker, and can confirm that it has a snug, plays Thin Lizzy albums and boasts a bevy of Chinese waitresses - it's like a lot of Dublin pubs.
Tough life being a diplomat. I can't complain though given my willingness to join the Foreign Affairs bandwagon two nights running.
It struck me last night that it must cost a fortune to have so many embassies entertaining eejits like us across the globe. There's never any mention of it in the budget. 'And to think the poor kids in Adamstown have no chalk,' I thought to myself as the roast lamb melted in my mouth last night.
But as Martin pointed out, investment in international diplomacy is decent value. 'Sure we haven't had a war in years...'
I'll drink to that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Poor rich foreigners

China Daily tells an amusing story in its December 3rd issue. Apparently expats in Beijing and Shanghai are feeling the pinch as food prices soar.
As mentioned previously, the cost of basics like bread and haircuts are shooting up as inflation hit 6.5% last month.
According to the article (see below) this is hitting expats hardest and some are struggling to maintain their 'lifestyle'. Boo frickin' hoo.
Executives whose fat salary and benefits packages are paid in dollars are worst off. Should somebody organise a whip around for the poor bastards?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Price of progress

The price of food in Beijing is soaring as the Chinese - and a few hungry expats - demand more and more breads and dairy products, not to mention luxury products.
Inflation in October was 6.5%, which is significantly ahead of wage increases.
You can see it in the local supermarket. A loaf of bread which cost 3 kuai (30 Euro cent) last August, went up to 4 kuai in October.
Then the size of the loaf got smaller! That made it about 25% smaller but 33% more expensive.
This month, it went up again to 5 kuai. It doesn't leave me on the proverbial breadline but you can imagine the impact on ordinary Chinese people.
As if that wasn't bad enough, I notice my morning yogurt was runnier than usual today. Are they now watering down the yogurt?!
For those beyond the borders of the world's most populous nation, the surging demand in China has knock-on effects for the rest of the world. The more bread they consume, the higher prices you'll see on supermarket shelves from Dublin to Durban.
So dramatic is the increase in prices in Beijing that it's hard to imagine it won't spark unrest sooner or later.
In August, the Government did a deal with meat producers after pork prices rose 43%. A similar intervention may be in the offing if Beijing's bureaucrats want to preserve the harmony they speak of so fondly.
When bread and meat (and yogurt!) become too expensive for ordinary people it usually spells social problems.
Then again, you can always let them eat cake.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Yahoo settles in China dissident case

Yahoo has settled in a long-running case brought by the wife of Chinese dissident, Wang Xiaoning.
Wang wound up in a Chinese prison for circulating pro-democracy blogs after Yahoo handed over personal information to the Beijing authorities.
Chinese journalist Shi Tao met the same fate after he alerted human rights groups to government attempts to censor news reports.
He let it be known that the powers that be put pressure on editors and journalists to suppress reports of the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square 'incident'.
Yahoo handed Shi's details over to the government on request. Both men are currently in Chinese prisons serving 10 year sentences.
Not surprisingly, this case has received zero coverage in the press here in China. There are a few references in the blogosphere but the vast majority of Chinese people have no idea that this is making headlines across the world.
Quite rightly, much of the attention in the West is focussed on the fact that Yahoo aided and abetted a violation of free speech.
It's none too surprising that China takes a hard line when it comes to suppressing democracy and dissent.
The shocking thing is that a company from the 'free world' will bend over in the name of profit.
Maybe we shouldn't be so shocked. Capitalist companies are amoral.
It's a mistake to think that companies from the US or Europe have western values. They have whatever values the local market wants them to have.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The heat is on

After weeks of freezing my bits off, the heat has finally been turned on in my Beijing apartment block.
The heat is centrally controlled and we're at the mercy of a bureaucrats whim when it comes to deciding the date for flicking the heat switch.
November 15th was rumoured to be the big day but the radiator's started emitting a gentle warmth this afternoon.
The trouble is that the government like to regulate home heating to save money and, they say, the environment.
This means the 'target' temperature is 16 degrees. Not a very toasty target. Could they not aim for 30 degrees?
That way, even if they fall short by a few degrees we can still enjoy Mediterranean winter in the Chinese capital.
Luckily I've taken the precaution of buying myself some Chinese long johns. It's like a giant baby grow but damn it's cold.
I'm off to slip into the long johns and sit on the radiator while drinking green tea.
Wake me up in spring.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Blogspot vanishes again

Yet again, all blogspot pages are inaccessible from Beijing for no apparent reason. As usual, I can post whatever I want but only those in the free world can read it.
Censorship is, by a country mile, my least favorite thing about living in China.
I'm not sure whether next year's Olympic games will make things better or worse.
During big events, like last month's Communist Party Congress, the censorship is usually cranked up. But when the world's media descends on China's capital next summer, censorship will be a big part of the story if the authorities don't loosen up.
Although the decent people of China may never know it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

...aaaand we're back!

This blog is fast becoming a tracker for the arbitrary web censorship that applies in the PRC.
The latest is that I can now see Blogspot sites again.
As mentioned in previous posts, all Blogger websites had been off limits until the middle of October. There was a brief reprieve and then the blogs vanished again.
Well, now I can post and view the site but there's no way of knowing how long it will last.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Hello YouTube my old friend...

Well, YouTube is now accessible again in Beijing. I've no idea how long it will last but it's good to have an alternative to Chinese state TV.
Alas I still can't view my own blog because the restrictions on Blogspot apparently remain in place.
As usual, there's no announcement or explanation as to why websites are blocked and unblocked. We're all at the mercy of a censor's whim.
But today, the censor doesn't seem like such a bad guy after all.
Now if he could just unblock Blogspot and stop messing with Wikipedia that'd be super.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Poxy proxies

I've been trying to find a way around viewing my own blog from China and keep hearing that I should 'just use a proxy server' to make it look like I'm accessing the net from outside the country.
However, every proxy site I find doesn't seem to work for Blogspot. I even came across an article suggesting Google/Blogspot are in cahoots with the censors and have been blocking attempts to access their sites via proxies.
I'm a bit out of my depth here so all suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What an exciting place China is.
Yesterday I was still celebrating the return of blogspot which had been unblocked by the authorities.
However, today things are returning to normal. I can upload new posts (I think) but I can't read my own blog.
In fact, I can't read any blogspot page at the moment. It might change later in the week but there's absolutely no way to tell!
I spoke to a Chinese student today about YouTube being blocked since last week. They seemed surprised that I was concerned by this. It's all routine to locals.
"Oh it's just because of the Communist Party conference. Don't worry - it'll probably be back to normal soon."
Silly me. Sigh.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Google Video and YouTube suppressed

Looks like Google Video is just as inaccessible as YouTube.
Any attempt to watch videos through Google in China brings up the following message:

"Thanks for your interest in Google Video.
Currently, the playback feature of Google Video isn't available in your country.We hope to make this feature available more widely in the future, and we really appreciate your patience."

So that's Google, YouTube, the BBC and Wikipedia all on the blacklist.
How are we supposed to while away the hours of our working day without such distractions?

Meet The Press

Chinese State television - the hilariously named 'CCTV' - has been broadcasting highlights packages of the Communist Party Congress which took place last week in Beijing's Tiananmen Square (left).
This morning's news featured a bizarre 'Meet the Press' session where the nine big wigs from the government's all powerful Central Standing Committee lined up in front of photographers and reporters.
President Hu Jintao made a lengthy speech setting out the challenges ahead. It was thin on detail but that has become common at political conferences these days.
The funny thing was that when he reached the end of the script he thanked the journalists and exited to the stage left.
There were no questions, but reporters politely applauded the speech and headed off to file their copy.
The President had just been handed a new five year term and didn't even have to face the scrutiny of a genuine press conference.
This is the new superpower...

China censors Press Freedom Index

Last Tuesday, Reporters Without Borders published its annual World Press Freedom Index, placing China seventh from bottom.
I picked up that little nugget of info on another website but can't give you the full list of censorious nations because the Reporters Without Borders site is blocked! I'm betting North Korea was propping up the table though.
So I Googled 'World Press Freedom Index' to see if somebody else had published the report second hand - and I got the all too familiar 'Connection to server was reset'. That's what happens when a site or page has been blacklisted by the government.
I wonder how far from the bottom of the list you have to go before you find a country that actually allows publication of the World Press Freedom Index. I suppose it's not something you'd want publicized. Still, it seems a bit pointless. The only countries that are aware of it are those who live under regimes permissive enough to allow the media report on it.
The other theme I picked up from secondary reporting of the Reporters Without Borders document is that bloggers are facing increasingly strict and sophisticated censorship.
I'm just begging for this blog to be purged. To be honest, it'd be a bit disappointing if they ignored it.
Did I mention that I think the Dalai Lama is a gentlemen and that the Taiwanese should be allowed join the UN?
Just sayin'...

Censorship plot thickens

Theories on why China decided to block YouTube focused on last week's Communist Party Congress in Beijing and the fact that YouTube launched a Taiwanese version of its site on Thursday.
Now though, there are suggestions that the government was 'shielding' the public from images of George Bush feting the Dalai Lama in Washington. Have you seen the Dalai Lama? He's the most inoffensive old geezer you could imagine. All he does is smile and talk about peace. Subversive bastard.
And it appears YouTube was not the only victim. Users of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft search engines all founds themselves directed to the Chinese site Baidu.
The theory goes that popular sites were disrupted to force the public to consume news from official State media rather than see what the world was saying about the Dalai Lama and/or the Party Congress and/or YouTube's implicit acknowledgment of Taiwan as a separate entity to mainland China.
Add to this the fact the BBC News and Wikipedia remain off limits and it's not exactly a picture of a 21st century superpower.
Of course the authorities never comment - or even admit - to censoring the media, and researching censorship is a tricky business. The Party don't see the irony in blocking websites that refer to its habit of censoring anything it views as sensitive.
On the upside, Blogspot has been inexplicably unlocked so bloggers can get the word out of China - even if it's not as easy for information to get in.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bye bye YouTube?

In a bizarre twist, China appears to have unblocked Blogger but has axed YouTube. It's next to impossible to get information on why that is because, naturally, they've also blocked all news stories about it. You can see the headlines on Google News but the links take you to a dead end.
I know YouTube launched a Taiwanese version of its site last week so that could well have something to do with it. The Chinese Communist Party Congress also took place last week and they tend to be extra sensitive when there's anything political happening.
Hopefully it's just temporary. Google, which owns YouTube, is supposed to be on good terms with the government but it may have dirtied its bib by behaving as though Taiwan was independent of China.
Bring back the Tube!

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Great Firewall of China

Greetings from Beijing.

I'd hoped to be an avid blogger here in China once I got settled, but alas it hasn't panned out that way. My main excuse, apart from being distracted by all the weird and wonderful things Beijing has to offer, is censorship.

Seasoned Sinophiles will already be familiar with the Great Firewall of China, but for the uninitiated (which included me until a couple of months ago), the internet is heavily monitored by the authorities here.

The Great Firewall prevents bloggers from posting freely and also limits what can be downloaded from the net. Wikipedia is completely blocked where I am, although I believe you can get limited access depending on your service provider. Don't attempt to visit the pages on Tibet though. BBC News, the home of biased and reckless western propaganda, is completely out. And just about all blogs are inaccessible. Even certain YouTube videos - on Tiananmen Square for example - 'cannot be found' if you click on them from China.

In ex-pat bars everybody is talking about proxy servers and other ways of getting around online censorship. You can try to find a proxy site online which would trick the government into thinking that you're accessing the web from Japan or the US, but it's not always that easy to do an internet search for that kind of thing.

Google did a deal with the authorities here which means they tailor search results and play ball with the censors, in return for access to China's swelling ranks of internet junkies.
Just for the laugh, I've Googled 'Great Firewall of China' and each of the first 10 results were blocked!

So, I can't read my own blog from here and an American colleague who managed to get some of her stuff online says it's not uncommon for posts to go live only to disappear later. I've also read of blogs going down for a few days and returning minus one or two 'offensive' articles. Obviously the definition of what is unacceptable varies wildly.

I'm attempting to post this as an experiment. The irony of having a piece on web censorship blocked or taken down will be lost on the army of censors diligently searching for keywords in a government department somewhere in Beijing. Just for them, I'd like to bring up the following: Mao, Bush, One-Child policy, Olympics, human rights, Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong and, er, the death of communism.

If anybody (other than the censors) actually read this, please let me know. I have no way of checking.

By for now,

ps I didn't coin the term 'Great Firewall of China' - I just wish I did

Friday, June 15, 2007

Chinese whispers

Yep, it's true. I'm heading East in a month or so, Beijing to be precise.

Myself and Liz are packing up our tent and swanning of for the sake of adventure. Chances are I'll keep writing - once I get my journalism accreditation sorted out with the authorities - but I'm not sure whether I'll be able to access the Blogger account.

Anyway, I'll post up contact details for anybody who might want to contact me in Beijing. In particular, anybody who wants to put freelance work my way is encouraged to get in touch! Email me at with anything relatively urgent. Don't post anything important on the blog please because I don't check it often enough at the best of times.

My mobile is +353 86 856 8710. Hopefully I'll still have that in China, but will post up a new local phone number if/when I get one.

Mary Harney's slight return

Well, that's it. The 2007 Irish General Election is well and truly history. The votes have been cast and counted, a Programme for Government has been hammered out, and...things are a lot like they were before polling day. Sigh.

Most of the same Fianna Failers have collected their seals of office from the President and eased their back sides into ministerial Mercs. The only real difference is we now have two Green ministers - although they are more likely to opt for bicycle saddles than the leather upholstery of a State car.

But my obsession is health. I'll have to admit that I was 99.9% certain that there would be a change of Health Minister, but Mary Harney defied the odds and returns to the toughest portfolio in cabinet.

Maybe I spend too long thinking about the health services, but when the cartoonist at Irish Medical News asked whether he should put money on Harney keeping her job, I sagely advised him not to. He sagely ignored me and slapped E20 on her at 10/1. If he'd been a little quicker, he could have got her at 14/1 - but I'm hardly in a position to criticise.

Apparently the Greens wanted Harney shifted to a cushy number in Foreign Affairs but she was having none of it.

This is a genuinely brave move. She could easily have feigned reluctance and shuffled off on five years of foreign junkets. There's no bad news in Foreign Affairs - unless we get invaded and that hasn't happened in ages.

However, her bravery in asking for the Health Ministry three years ago bought her a lot of public sympathy. She probably looked at how Micheal Martin was doing the job and reckoned she could easily show him up. But things aren't much better now than in 2004.

How much more leeway is this latest act of self-sacrifice going to buy her? Before the election, it seemed like everybody thought health was the big issue. The hospitals were in a mess, the service was being privatised and health staff were on the streets. But somehow, nobody thought it was Mary's fault.

Obviously the problems weren't all down to her - and she's making an honest effort to shake things up - but there's a bizarre double-think at play here that allows the public to be furious about how the health services are being run, while still backing Harney to the hilt.

Still, maybe continuity is better than handing over to somebody who will spend two years undoing Harney's policies before trying to put their own stamp on it - only for the baton to be passed again and the process repeating itself.

And, as the Minister herself has pointed out (while holding back a smirk), the opposition's main health spokesperson and a bunch of independent hospital candidates were all given the boot by the electorate. Harney has a mandate.

Even her controversial (and in my view, poorly thought out) plan to build shiny new private hospitals next door to run-down old public hospitals has been given the thumbs up by voters.

So it's full steam ahead for better or worse. But the new Government does have a green hue. There will be two senior Green Party ministers around the cabinet table for Harney to contend with. Speaking in the Dail after she had been re-appointed Health Minister by the Taoiseach, Harney went on a fairly amusing riff about entering a new political ecology; a new biosphere and embracing all forms of human life - in reference to her new Green pals.

She won't have it all her own way at cabinet this time around, but it might take more than two Green TDs to stop her building private hospitals. Things will be the same, but different.

What will be interesting to watch is whether there is any limit to the public sympathy for Harney the Health Heroine. Every time things go badly she seems to benefit from it.

But enough cynicism. Maybe Mary Harney now has the mandate, the time and the mentality to achieve lasting reform. After all, she has nothing to lose.

Harney has indicated that she won't seek re-election, so popularity does matter much. The Taoiseach has backed her by re-appointing her. The Tanaiste and Finance Minister is a former Health Minister so he understands her pain (it was Cowen who dubbed health 'Angola' because of political landmines have a habit of blowing up in Ministers' faces).

So, Minister, go for broke. Even if the system is even worse in five years, the public will forgive you.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Opening salvo

Right. Here goes.
I'm new to the Blogosphere so don't judge me for a while - I'm still learning the lingo.
I should probably dedicate the first post to Liz...but instead this one is in appreciation of Al. The blog was his idea. He was also smart enough to suggest it on a Friday when I'm not interested in doing real work.
I'll leave it there while I think of what I want this blog to be about.
Until then...