Thursday, July 17, 2008

Protests bubbling over in Chinese countryside

As China gears up for the greatest show on earth in Beijing next month, tensions are boiling over in rural areas and 'small' cities.
Far from the Chinese capital, scores of major protests have erupted over local political and social issues and the government is now openly expressing its concern through official media.

Chinese newspapers are reporting that local officials will be held responsible for failure to deal with public grievances in their counties.
The latest in the series of incidents was recorded in the affluent coastal province of Zhejiang. Hundreds of migrant workers attacked and injured three policemen after an argument over registration of a migrant as a temporary resident turned violent.

Separately, in Guizhou, 30,000 people took to the streets to protest at what they claimed was a cover-up by officials after the death of a 17 year-old-girl. Her family believe she had been raped by the son of a Communist Party official but the pathology report recorded no evidence of sexual assault.
The truth is impossible to guess at but a senior official dispatched by the central government to investigate pointed the finger at local government for failing to address a series of other grievances. It was suggested that the family's outrage gathered such momentum because the public was already angry over mining disputes and cases of communities being forced to move from their town to make way for new developments.

A Professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, quoted in China Daily, said: "Infringement of legal rights of the public is still common ... at the grassroots level. That's why the county Party chiefs are the protagonists of this campaign."
Illegal land seizures, non-payment of salary and village officials' corruption are all cited in Chinese media as having contributed to pockets of protesters taking to the streets.
Even this admission is a sign of some progress from central government.
Of course, as Huang Qingping, a resident of Huaining county in Anhui province, is quoted as saying, the move should not be "another temporary image-projecting act".

A friend of a friend (I realize that's a rather loose secondary source!) employed by the U.S. State Department says around 10,000 'incidents' of public unrest were recorded across China last year.
The definition of 'incident' is likely to be rather broad but it surely indicates that President Hu Jintao's harmonious society is facing serious challenges as China attempts to balance rapid economic progress with growing pressure to respect human rights.

It should be stressed that these do not seem to be pro-democracy protests - at least not in any philosophical sense. People are not demanding regime change or free elections. They just want local officials to stop shitting on them.

A lid will surely be kept on such problems throughout the Olympics but there is clear evidence that Beijing will need to get a grip on problems which have erupted across its territories while central government was focussed on macrcoeconomics and China's image abroad.
If they can't continue rapid progress without trampling on their people, the harmonious society will begin to look a little precarious.

[The pic is of the Goddess of Democracy, a statue made by students during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Those demonstrations were fueled not just by a demand from some for democracy, but also by rising inflation and frustration at the pace of social and economic reforms.]

€50,000 for terror whistle-blowers

Here's a handy way to make 50k - devise a plot to attack the Olympics, pay €1,000 to the family of a poverty-stricken farmer in China's Muslim province of Xinjiang to take the fall, and pocket the juicy reward on offer from the Beijing government.
Anyone providing Chinese police with evidence of a major security threat to the Beijing Olympics could stand to receive up to 500,000 (€46,179.35 to be exact).
A 'threat' can be anything from a bomb, kidnapping or murder of foreigners, or 'sabotage by illegal organization such as the Falun Gong'.
The news came as police in Xingjiang claimed they had cracked five terrorism groups this year to date and ocked up 82 'suspected terrorists'.
The offer is for a limited time only so get your terror threats in by October 31.
Naturally, my plan above has its flaws - particularly the fact that it's morally abhorrent - but what will be the impact of the freakonomic incentive promised by the government?
At the very least, it will stoke up fear among the public. It may also encourage a barrage of paranoia-fueled false alarms.
I had lunch with a bunch of students this week who said they were keen to get out of Beijing and were no longer comfortable with taking the subway for fear of terrorist attacks.
Falun Gong was mentioned as a particular threat and 'could bomb or set people on fire'. I was trying to stress that that bunch of loons have no record of suicide bombings or setting others alight (as was being alleged) but there seemed little point. (FG have set themselves on fire in protest at alleged mistreatment.)
I hope I'm right in predicting that there will be no terrorist attacks in Beijing this August.
The benefits in stoking this up are:
- When nothing happens (touch wood) the government can claim great success in keeping everyone safe. Pats on back all round.
- If there are protests by pro-Tibet supporters, campaigners for rights for Muslim people in Xingjiang, or bloody foreigners harping on about China's support for Sudan's leadership, police can lock 'em up and call them a threat to Olympic security.
€50k well spent.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Beijing unleashes entire album of Olympic songs

China has released not one, not two, but 30 official Olympic songs!
Apparently unwilling to opt for a single anthem, organisers have chosen a double-album worth of tunes for Olympic enthusiasts to enjoy - and the rest of us to endure.
Choosing a song is serious business. The selection process started five years ago and judges had to wade through 'tens of thousands' of entries, according to Chinese media.
I had thought 'We Are Ready' was the official Beijing Olympic theme tune but that was just a warmer-upper.
Among the other favourites are "Light the Passion, Share the Dream", "I Am a Superstar", "Forever Friends", "Beijing Welcomes You", "China See", and "China Story" and many, many more.
Anyone who wants me to pick up a copy of the album should send me $1,000 dollars and their entire record collection now...

Mao, megaphones and the mausoleum

We took a trip to 'Chairman' Mao Zedong's mausoleum today in Beijing.
The deceased founder of the People's Republic of China lies in a glass box in a grandiose building in the centre of Tiananmen Square.
Literally thousands of Chinese citizens - and a handful of bemused foreigners - join long, winding queues to see Mao's body every morning (they for the day at noon).
The fact that it's free means every Chinese who visits the capital takes in the mausoleum. Many buy fake flowers from vendors inside the compound to lay near the Chairman's body.
Security is tight (you can't bring in bags or cameras) but the line moves along remarkably swiftly thanks to the seemingly endless number of officials and policemen with megaphones and an inflated sense of self-importance.
Some are uniformed, some are not. All use their megaphones even when standing two feet away from the person they are addressing.
In our case, of course, it didn't matter how loud they barked orders, we still hadn't a clue what was being said - so we just followed the crowd.
In the awe-hushed room where Mao's body lies, the queue moves faster than ever. For some reason they're not keen to allow you dawdle through or to get in any way close to the somewhat misty glass case housing the great man's body.
To my eye it was a waxwork so shoddy that Madame Toussaud's would reject it as below par and unrealistic. But nobody else seemed to care a damn...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is China ready to say Ciao to Mao?

China has issued a new 10 Yuan note to commemorate this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.
This may prove to be a masterstroke by progressive elements within the Communist Party of China who would like to begin to move 'Chairman' Mao Zedong off stage.
Despite ascending to Dictator Heaven over 30 years ago, Mao's legacy and his position as the Father of Modern China has seemed unshakable.
However, forward-thinking Chinese are acutely aware that outside China Mao is viewed as a villain rather than a hero.
Dismantling a personality cult is a tricky business though so it may be a while before Mao's portrait is removed from its perch overlooking Tiananmen Square.
Perhaps the launch of a new note is the first step to toning down the euphoric worship of Mao and revising the conventional wisdom on his impact on the People's Republic of China.
His image can be found on every other Yuan note. Issuing a new note with, say, Deng Xiaoping on the front would incite outrage among traditionalists in China. But nobody can argue with a new note marking what Beijing hopes will be the People's Republic's finest hour.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Beijing steps up security on subway system

Having rolled out its shiny new automatic ticket- checking system last month, the Beijing subway underwent a face-lift.
Signs were replaced, staff got new uniformed and chair lifts were installed to help improve accessibility to underground stations.
Next on the list: tighter security.
Since last week, passengers have been met by uniformed young guards with hand-held metal detectors and several central stations now have x-ray machines for scanning luggage.
Anyone dashing for the subway must now factor in airport-like levels of security as travellers are asked to open - and sometimes empty - the contents of their bags.
The new measures have been met with mixed reactions with some welcoming the heightened pre-Olympic security.
Others, including some local newspapers, have expressed concern that the checks slow down the transport system and that dissidents bent on making a scene at the Beijing Olympic Games will just find another way to attack the system.
The authorities say the new system is to combat terrorism and the government has already claimed that a plan by Muslim extremists from the Xinjiang Province has been thwarted.
However, given China's tendency to create jobs out of nothing for its bulging, young workforce, my guess is that this is just another way for the government to keep unemployment down and to look like they are in total control.

Welcome to paradise - beware 'lots of thieves'

We arrived in Hainan full of holiday spirit and ready to explore the area.
It was after dark but we ventured outside the confines of our hotel resort in the direction of the beach, only to be met by aggressive 'drivers' keen to ferry us God-knows-where in exchange for 1 Yuan (about 10c).
A woman driving a motorbike-with-sidecar contraption screeched to a halt in front of us shouting 'yi kuai, yi kuai' (1 Yuan). As she pulled in, her two accomplices jumped out of the sidecar, ostensibly to make room for us but serving to make us a little uneasy.
Failing to shake them off our tail, and reluctant to venture into the dark isolation of the secluded seafront, we retreated to the safety of our hotel.
Back in the room, after dining in the hotel restaurant, we notice a sign on the door which reads:
"The Public Safety Bureau [police] has warned that there are lots of of bag-snatch, robbery, muggings in Sanya Bay. Please be careful."
'Lots of' them? I love when the police think warning people about these things is helpful. Could they not just police a bit better?
As it turned out, we had no further trouble but we didn't venture very far beyond the resort and never ate outside the hotel (primarily due to the lack of dining options).
The island is very much under construction and will probably be entirely different in five years' time.
However, Hainan is an island of 6 million people experiencing a rapid property boom - apparently that doesn't always go well in the long term...(ask Ireland)
'Sleigh bells ring, are ye listenin'
In the lane, snow is glistenin'
A beautiful sight,
We're happy tonight.
Walkin' in a winter wonderland.'

It was 30 degrees Celsius in Hainan - known as 'China's Hawaii', so it was a little odd to be subjected to a tape of All Time Christmas Hits playing on loop in our hotel.
The resort - which was generally empty of shops, restaurants, life - has a handful of top-notch hotels catering to international travelers.
We checked into the Holiday Inn at Sanya Bay which is spotless and situated just one minute from a quiet, clean beach.
It felt like a summer holiday, until the Christmas songs started.
The very many staff at the hotel are falling over themselves to figure out what 'foreign' guests might like, but they don't always get it quite right.
On this occasion, they presumably reckoned that foreigners like Christmas, therefore they'll appreciate a bit of Santa Claus is Coming to Town - even in July!

Fish food

It has been quite a year.
Over the weekend we were pondering whether we'd changed much in the year since we came to China but it's always tricky to notice gradual changes.
Then yesterday we found ourselves picking up the tread while sitting in a pool of fish which were nibbling dead skin from our bodies.
This time last year, I for one would probably not have voluntarily offered myself up as food for a hundred little fishies.
But in Hainan this weekend, that's exactly what we did. It's supposed to be a specialist spa treatment but could just be a hilariously cheap way of feeding fish by serving up mumbo jumbo to foreign guests.
Hainan is famed for these 'doctor fish' so we had to give it a try.
While I was game enough to have the 'treatment', I can't say I enjoyed it at all.
It's like having pins and needles on your whole body, but when you look down and see fish nibbling your entire body it's a little worse.
We'd paid for half an hour but I only lasted 10 minutes.

The Ultimate Warriors

"The warriors were found in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. Nobody knew they were there and we now know the first Emperor of China had 8,000 terracotta soldiers buried with him so that he would have an army in the after life..."
The tour guide rattled off her spiel like a school kid reciting poetry which has been so well learned that their off-by-heart delivery betrays their lack of interest and understanding of what is being said.
Like an irritating child, I quizzed the guide with persist 'Why' questions:
"If nobody knew they ever existed, how can we be so sure about who built them and why?"
"We know from research."
"But how? Were there documents or diaries found with them?"
"Researchers tell us. Okay, let's move on..."
"Instead of being an army for the afterlife could they have been used to trick an enemy into thinking the Emperor had more troops than he really had?"
I initially had no doubt as to the authenticity of the warriors, but somehow the official guide managed to sow seeds of suspicion in my mind.
Regardless of who made them or why, the Terracotta Warriors are stunning. The most remarkable thing is that they are all different: different heights, weights, clothes, rank - each solider is a one off.
Also noteworthy is that the Emperor didn't just want an army in the afterlife, he also had scores of acrobats and musicians made from clay.
Odd that he didn't have a few fair maidens constructed to amuse the troops...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Facebook the latest victim of Chinese censor

When this blog began last year it kicked off with a string of stories on censorship.
I was, back then, shocked to find so many websites blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Naive, I know.
Equally naive was my expectation that net censors would take a more liberal attitude as the Olympics approached, probably followed by a return to form once the global media moves on at the end of August.
Alas, the censors are still meddling with my quality off life.
Last week they blacklisted the Huffingtonpost. Today, I find Facebook is the latest victim of the faceless censors.
As usual, there's no explanation from the government as to why this has happened or how long it will last.
This is a particularly unusual case given that Chinese Preimer Wen Jiabao last month launched his own Facebook page which now has tens of thousands of 'supporters'.
Maybe he'll order its unblocking when he gets pissed about not being able to read his 'Funwall'.