Thursday, May 29, 2008

Temperature rising in new cold war

This is all a bit 1980s, is it not?
A Chinese woman has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to being a spy.
Yu Sin Kang admits slipping classified U.S. military information to the Chinese, detailing arms sales from American to Taiwan.
The 33-year-old could find herself in jail for 10 years if convicted in August.
This is the fourth in a series of cases involving the leaking of sensitive information on weapons moving from the U.S. to Taiwan.
Any sign of growing military strength in Taiwan - or support for same from the U.S. - would be of significant concern to China which claims Taiwan as its territory. Taiwan, of course, considers itself to be independent.
CNN is using words like 'conspiracy', 'aggressive' and 'espionage' to describe the pattern of security breaches.
This is the worst case of communist spying since the Soviet Union, they say.
Of course, there's no mention of any of this in the Chinese media. And if there were, it would probably just be to claim CNN is an anti-China propaganda machine.
Last year there were several high profile instances of cyber-espionage involving Chinese hackers who were accused of remotely burrowing their way into government computer systems in the U.S., Britain and Germany. [I suppose they couldn't crack the Irish system.]
So the new Cold War is well and truly underway...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sharon's Stone's Bad Instincts

I bet Sharon Stone's paymasters are just delighted with her.
The 50-year Basic Instinct star has, with one outrageous comment, had her films blacklisted by Chinese cinemas.
Stone's suggestion that the 80,000 people killed by this month's earthquake in Sichuan (and the four million plus who are now homeless) somehow deserved it hasn't gone down terribly well here in China.
Referring to the alleged mistreatment of Tibetans by the Chinese government during riots in March, Stone said: "I'm not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don't think anyone should be unkind to anyone else...And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and then I thought, is that karma? When you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?"
Karma: Multi-storey schools collapsing on the heads of tens of thousands of children because their unelected government were apparently heavy-handed in suppressing dissidents. Charming.
Talking about human rights or media freedom in China is one thing, but describing an earthquake as 'karma' is a bit much.
Imagine suggesting the innocent people in the twin towers somehow deserved 9/11 because their government had armed Bin Laden. You'd be a pariah in the U.S.
Stone has four films in the pipeline between now and 2010 but the owners of movie theatres in China's biggest cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou - won't be showing them.
If you were a movie studio who had just paid Sharon Stone $15-$20 million dollars per movie, approximately how pissed off would you be by her carelessness/insensitivity/stupidity?
Ah the Chinese probably would have just downloaded the films illegally anyway...

Edit: Stone has humbly apologized via PR officers in Dior's Shanghai office. She will no longer appear in Dior's Chinese advertising campaigns (which is probably their decision rather than hers).
She also added: "I am willing to take part in the relief work of China's earthquake, and wholly devote myself to helping affected Chinese people". Get her down there to do some heavy lifting!
Jet Li says he won't make another film this year because he will spend the year rebuilding schools in Sichuan. Will Sharon Stone's definition of wholly devoting herself to relief work be along the same lines?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Earthquake changes China storyline

For the millions left homeless and the tens of thousands who perished, last week's earthquake in Sichuan changed everything.
But so too has it altered the international media narrative on China.
This year, the story of 2008 in China began with a snowstorm which paralyzed the country's infrastructure and exposed the fragility of China's developing economy.
The country ground to a halt, millions of Euro were lost as production ceased, and food inflation spiked due to falling crop yields. It was a mess.
Then we had the Tibet riots, followed by the Olympic Torch Relay fiasco. Bad news seemed to be following China around the globe.
The earthquake, of course, is by far the worst news China has had to face so far. But it has shifted attitudes to China in the world media.
Take CNN for example. It drew the ire of Chinese people by its tough coverage of the Tibet issue and the torch riots. CNN has been almost completely 'positive' in reporting the earthquake, and other media are following suit.
The pictures of suffering people are enough to draw sympathy but the media are queuing up to lavish praise on China for its professional handling of the crisis and, perhaps most importantly, the openness with which it has relayed information on events in Sichuan.
The Chinese government has been helped in this regard by the stark contrast that can be drawn between their transparency and the stance of the Burmese government who have blocked international aid followed a devastating cyclone earlier this month.
So what does this mean for the Olympics?
Well, the storyline had been that China had a poor human rights record, loved censorship and suppressed its people.
Now there is universal sympathy for the plight of the Chinese people and a growing realisation that the government is not quite 'the same goons and thugs as 50 years ago' (to borrow from CNN's Jack Cafferty).
There were many who would have been hoping for chaos at the Olympics; hoping that things won't go as swimmingly as the Communist Party wanted.
Perhaps the more common wish now is that the Olympics will offer a bright spot for the Chinese who have faced a year of heartache and suffering.
It all depends on how the government handles the next chapter - the leg of the torch relay which passes through Tibet.

Monday, May 19, 2008

And, the latest craze to sweep China

'50 Yuan - I gave 50 Yuan yesterday!'
'Oh right. Eh...well done.'
'And I might give more. I might give more tomorrow. I'll just put in the box when I have time!' said my excited coworker, hiding behind her hand in a vain attempt to hide her giggle. 'Have you donated yet?'

I have, as it happens. I threw a few quid into a box manned by enthusiastic students who shouting 'Bless China!' with an odd air of delight. In return for my good will, I was given a t-shirt and told I could sign my name and the amount I donated.

Is this what charity was meant to be about?

Donation boxes have popped up across Beijing since last week's devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province. And people have responded.
In fact, they really get a kick out of pushing Mao-covered pieces of paper into but red boxes.
The thrill of signing your name and thus getting recognition for your charity - a return on your investment - has people lining up to hand over their spare cash.
Charity is a big deal this week, but that may be partly because it's a relatively new phenomenon.
In the radio station where I'm currently moonlighting, we run hourly stories about people who have raised funds or handed over their life savings to help rebuild schools.
The last time an earthquake of this magnitude hit, it was 1976. This was in the years before 'opening up'; when China was still genuinely communist and nobody had a pair of red cents to rub together. Donating 'spare change' to others was not an option.
Now that middle-class Beijingers are feeling flush, they are indulging in spa treatments, posh restaurants, fancy cars and, now, philanthropy.
I plan to donate 100 Yuan this week but I think I'll do it in several trips so I get the most mileage out of it. And maybe another few t-shirts.

[p.s. The pic is of Chinese soldiers serving in the Congo. That's why they are stuffing the donation box with dollars rather than Yuan. Or perhaps it's because dollars aren't worth much these days anyway...]

Friday, May 16, 2008

CNN's sneaky apology buried by earthquake

Oh that was sly.
CNN has finally apologized to China over remarks by Jack Cafferty which sparked protests in China and the U.S.
But they pulled a fast one by making a sudden u-turn on their initial refusal to offer an outright apology. The network has chosen to say sorry amid the chaos of China's earthquake relief effort.
In a move reminiscent of the British government spin doctor who declared September 11 'a good day to bury bad news', CNN President Jim Walton wrote to the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. this week saying the network actually has great respect for China after all. And they 'apologize to the people of China' yadda yadda.
All that stuff their outspoken anchor Jack Caffery said about Beijing's government being 'goons and thugs' was just a big misunderstanding.
CNN had previously stood firm in the face of China's overreaction to Cafferty's off-the-cuff slur - despite its executives being summoned to the Foreign Ministry to explain why it was being mean to little old China.
The news channel earlier expressed 'regret' but that was dismissed as half-arsed by the Chinese who wanted to see groveling and/or Cafferty's head on a big stick in Tiananmen Square.
Cafferty's remarks were pretty stupid and ill-informed. His assertion that China is run by 'the same thugs' as 50 years ago says more about his ignorance of modern China than anything else. His regular rants-of-the-day often provoke debate or a roll of the eyes - but viewers usually get mildly provoked/entertained/angered and then they move on.
Not this time. The Chinese people took it personally and granted Cafferty the publicity he craves. There was a song ('Don't be too CNN') a website ('') and many front page headlines demanding an apology.
I didn't agree with Cafferty but respected CNN's stance that this was not a slight against 1.3 billion people and, anyway, it's a question of free speech. Tough.
Even if they really felt the need to apologize, they could have done it immediately rather than allow the fiasco to drag on.
But instead, they took the low road and said sorry when nobody was listening - because tens of thousands of people were buried under the rubble of their own homes.
The apology barely made it into China Daily, there's no mention on CNN itself, and a couple of Indian websites picked it up, as did a Singapore paper. The New York Times is the only heavyweight western media outlet to even notice the apology and they gave it one paragraph.
And, of course, a few bloggers will give it a mention...

Full apology available here:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China grappling with quake, virus and Olympic preparations

There's no good time to face a colossal earthquake but the timing of this week's disaster in the Sichuan province could hardly be worse.

China now finds itself facing three major challenges over the coming months: They must grapple with the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, continue the battle against the EV71 virus ('hand, foot and mouth disease'), while racing against the clock to complete preparations for the Olympic Games.

As the quake death toll nears 20,000 and threatens to continue soaring, rescue work continues to be undone by harsh weather which is causing mudslides and hampering the delivery of aid.
The face a monumental task.
Consider the devastation caused in New York in 2001 when the Twin Towers fell killing 3,000 people. Now think of several inaccessible cities where, in some cases, 80% of buildings are said to have been razed to the ground.
The death toll is likely to be ten times greater than 911 by the weekend and the carnage that must be picked through and then eventually cleaned up covers eight, huge Chinese provinces. It's a nightmare.

Meanwhile, there are other battles to fight.
Up until Tuesday, China was gripped by a national campaign against hand, foot and mouth disease which has spread across the country.
The virus has already killed over 40 children and, today, the first death in Beijing was recorded. A total of 27,500 children are currently infected but it could get a lot worse.
The peak season for the virus is expected to be June when warmer weather facilitates the spread of the disease.
Naturally, the deadly outbreak has taken a backseat while the central government attempts to lead rescue work in Sichuan.

One of the problems for the Beijing government is its need to control of everything that happens in its vast territory.
They want to appear to be directly handling the outbreak of the virus; they have dispatched the Premier, Wen Jiabao to direct operations at the site of the earthquake; and the Olympic preparations are being handled at the highest level.

For a nation of 1.3 billion people spread across a truly sprawling land mass, it might be time to delegate some tasks to local leaders and people on the ground.
The top-down control freakery which has ruled China for 60 years might not be best suited to fight a battle on three fronts.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Conquering Mount Qomolangma - what's in a name?

How impressed would you be if somebody told you they'd climbed Mount Qomo- langma?
It might not sounds familiar to the Western ear, but Qomolangma is, in fact, the world's highest mountain.
Qomolangma is Mount Everest.
Perhaps you are wiser than I and would not have been perplexed by today's headlines proclaiming the Olympic torch is bound for Mt Qomolangma. But to me, it was all a bit confusing. It didn't get all that much clearer after I looked into it a bit more deeply.
The Tibetan name for Mount Everest is Chomolungma or Qomolangma which means 'Saint Mother'.
English explorers in the 1800s recorded the local name of the massive mountain (which spans the Nepal/Tibet border) as Deodungha, or 'Holy Mountain'. It was in 1865 that the Royal Geographical Society gave it the name Mount Everest.
Then, in the 1960s, the Government of Nepal gave the mountain a brand new official Nepali name: Sagarmatha which means 'Goddess of the Sky'. (Thank you Wikipedia)
The continued name changes are rooted in all sorts of complicated stuff like China's claim over Tibet, Nepal's desire for reunification, Britain's colonial exploits in India, and the variety of local dialects spoken by people in the villages near the foot of the big hill.
The latest twist came in 2002 that the Chinese People's Daily newspaper published an article making a case against the continued use of the English name for the mountain in the Western world, insisting that it should be referred to by its Tibetan name: Qomolangma.
This name, they said, preceded the English name and was marked on a Chinese map more than 280 years ago.
And there was I thinking it had always been called Everest.
So, that's it. We're going back to the oldest recorded names we can think of.
That's why I'm changing the name of my book to: Peking for Beginners: a Hibernian in the Middle Kingdom.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Rebranding protest marches as 'group walks'

When is a protest march not a protest march? When it's in China, of course.
It appears 200 people joined a march to protest against the construction of two industrial plans in Chengdu this week.
Locals fear the proposed new ethylene plant and oil refinery will bring further environmental pollution, adding toxins to the air and water of Chengdu - home of the giant panda.
Or at lest that's how it might have been written up in a Western newspaper.
Here, the state media say local residents held a 'group walk' on Sunday afternoon to 'express concerns over the environmental impact' the two plants may have on their city.
It was, say the papers, 'a two-hour leisurely walk from Nine-Hole Bridge to Wangjiang Pavilion in the eastern part of the city'.
China Daily quotes a local driver as saying that the walkers did not carry posters, nor did they shout slogans. So it definitely wasn't a protest, right?
Officials at the information office of the Chengdu municipal government declined to comment on the walk, and officials at the city police department said they had not heard of it.
So there are protests taking place in China over issues that affect people's lives - it's just that they can't call them protests.
It might seem like weak coverage by the national press, but at least they covered it. That, odd though it may seem, is a sign of progress.

Monday, May 5, 2008

New virus a big test for China

The new virus spreading around China's Anhui province is a huge challenge to the Beijing government on two fronts.
First, it's a test of its ability to handle a serious threat to public health.
Second, the way it is handled will tell a lot about progress and openness in China.
The virus has already killed 24 young children and infected around 5,000 more. Enterovirus 71, which is often referred to as hand, foot and mouth disease is expected to peak in the summer as weather hots up.
The government has closed nurseries in Fuyang and is spraying disinfectant around houses in rural areas.
With experience from SARS and bird flu, as well as the additional determination to be seen to act decisively ahead of the Beijing Olympics, it's reasonable to expect the practical side of containing the virus to be handed well.
But the memory of attempted cover-ups and denials when SARS hit are still fresh.
The Chinese authorities say the WHO was informed of the problem with E71 within 24 hours of diagnosis.
Continued transparency and open communication with local people at risk of infection will reveal how far China has come since 2003.

Friday, May 2, 2008

An early contender for headline of the month

Every day brings a fresh batch of jarring headlines from the Chinese press and today was no different.
A story from the state-run Xinhua news agency, carried by China Daily is headlined:

"Rioters in Lhasa unrest receive fair trial"

Why is that so remarkable? Isn't that what's supposed to happen? With Xinhua, there's always a sense that they are trying to get their retaliation in first; that they are desperate to deny something before anyone has thought to level an accusation.

On this occasion, I presume they foresee complaints about the trial, not to mention the severity of the sentences handed down for taking part in the riots in which 18 civilians were reportedly killed. There is no mention from Xinhua of how many monks died during the unrest.

While nobody was charged with murder, 30 people were convicted of arson, robbery, creating a disturbance and "assembling to assault state organs" (just consider the breadth of that phrase for half a second). Three were sentenced to life.

Just in case you were wondering whether anyone was tortured or had confessions beaten out of them, you can stop thinking that right now.

We know everything was done by the book because a court-appointed lawyer casually ignored confidentiality norms by telling reporters:
"The defendant Yexe told me that the police did not extort or torture him for a confession. His jail term was shorter than I expected."
His client got 12 years for disturbing the peace.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Anti-France protests erupt across China

Seven people have been arrested in China following protests at French super- market chain Carrefour.
Demonstrators targeted Carrefour outlets in Beijing, Changsha Fuzhou, Chongqing and Shenyang but no violence was reported.
The Associated Press says one man ran around with a sign that read "Protest Carrefour, Protest CNN" as about 200 bystanders cheered.
Browse posting from April if this all seems utterly bizarre. In summary, CNN and France are being targeted for alleged anti-Chinese bias following the unrest in Tibet.
The funny thing is that I was roaming through a packed Carrefour in Beijing's Zhongguancun area on Saturday afternoon. It was packed.
I was passing through with some Chinese friends on the way to a shopping mall and we were all surprised by the frenzy of customers snapping up bargains.
The shop had launched a major sale in an effort to attract customers in the face of ongoing negative publicity. They also issued staff with a new uniform which reads 'Beijing 2008'.
Whatever about the patriotic pandering, the fact is that Chinese people are a pragmatic bunch and nationalism takes a back seat when there's cooking oil on sale at half price.