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China’s current great leader

7 Apr

Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has this indepth story of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, detailing his humble past, his rise, and his reign as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, though not necessarily in a good way. It’s an interesting piece which paints him as a formidable leader with a humble past during which his father experienced political persecution and Xi was sent to a rural village as a teen. Xi has not been shy in exercising his power, carrying out a protracted anti-corruption crackdown whilst also increasing censorship and arrests of activists, among other things.

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Peter Hessler’s trip with his censor

5 Apr

The great Peter Hessler, author of three fine nonfiction books about China and a New Yorker writer, returned to China to do a book tour. Accompanying him was his Chinese censor from the company that publishes the Chinese versions of his books. Hessler wrote about this experience for the New Yorker in an attempt to show that things are a little more open than before despite censorship. The actual cuts to his work are not that substantial. His censor seems to be a reasonable guy who discusses with Hessler the things that may be out of bounds – for instance, Hessler’s second book Oracle Bones was not published on the mainland because part of it is about Xinjiang, a big no-no for the authorities; the censor says he is not interested in publishing it. Hessler senses growing confidence among Chinese in reading about the world, such as a book by a Japanese journalist comparing the Palace Museums in Taipei, Taiwan and Beijing that was “well-received.” Hessler believes that censorship is a necessary pain to bear in order to have his books available to people in China, as long as the cuts do not take out the core of the book and weaken its content substantially, which contrasts with his fellow New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, who Hessler specifically brings up, who refused to allow his book Age of Ambition to be published in the mainland since it would have had to undergo some censorship.

China’s murky state

30 Jan

The weather has been mostly good in Beijing, but there’s something else afoul in the country recently.

The government’s ideological-fueled crackdown on liberties continues to grow, so much so that it might be hard to keep track of them. Internet censorship took a big step recently when the authorities blocked Gmail in late December and then last week blocked mainstream VPNs (Virtual Private Networks, which allow users to access the Internet through private links) on Apple iPhones and iPads.

Then this morning, I woke up to read that the education minister came out and told Chinese universities to stop using textbooks that “promote Western values” or criticize socialism. University academics have also been told to stop criticizing the government, while a province even mulled plans to install CCTV in university classrooms to monitor professors over the past year. Journalists and artists have also been urged (warned) to adhere to Marxist values while accepting tighter control and scrutiny. Churches and human rights lawyers have faced crackdowns of their own as well.

I’ve said before I don’t see things going too well for the country, especially as its economy continues slowing and its government goes on cracking down on everything left, right and center, and spouting Marxist rhetoric. What I’m unsure about is whether the leadership is doing these things because it feels invincible or is desperate.This article sums up why China might be feeling a bit vulnerable, which is indeed facing a host of challenges.

Yet another hospital attack took place, resulting in a doctor dying along with his assailant after both fell down an elevator shaft in a Hebei hospital earlier this week. There is absolutely no excuse for attacking a doctor and killing him. The hospital’s doctors and nurses then went on a march through the streets the next day to mourn their colleague and highlight the lack of security. This has been a recurring problem that has happened across the nation even in Beijing.

In what was a bit of a shocker, a government regulator came out last week and blasted e-commerce giant Alibaba, which launched the world’s largest-ever IPO last September, over the prevalence of counterfeit items on its market websites. Alibaba, owned by China’s second-richest man Jack Ma, hit back at the regulator, the SAIC, with some unusually strong words of its own. This is very interesting since it pits a very wealthy and well-known entrepreneur against a strong organization of the central government. As this article points out, similar clashes have happened in the past and the government has usually come out on top.
The tiff seems to have settled a bit but this raises the question about whether the government will start cracking down on its own large companies, as it has already done on major foreign companies such as drug giants, auto companies and Microsoft and Qualcomm. The regulator has picked a very late time to release its critical report, which it had completed by last July but claimed it had held off from releasing public due to not wanting to affect Alibaba’s IPO. Alibaba’s share prices have dropped significantly this past week after the report. Alibaba’s Taobao site, which lets vendors sell directly to individual consumers, does have a lot of fakes so there is some merit to the SAIC’s report but this is the first time it has openly criticized Alibaba, which many consider a massive and rising star in China’s private sector.

Crackdown on rights lawyers

18 Jan

Here’s a link to another bleak article about the mainland’s legal system, this one focusing on human rights lawyers, of whom 7 are languishing in jails. The situation is certainly not good especially with a rough 2014 and a president who feels powerful enough to crack down on everything and everyone. While in general, the harsh treatment of lawyers is not surprising in China given its stance towards human rights, the disturbing situation is that this is a major part of how the party maintains such control over Chinese society. Maintaining a self-serving legal system, enforcing the law arbitrarily and jailing any form of dissent whether it be lawyers, journalists or activists, the party guarantees that no form of organized opposition can develop. Indeed, one of the jailed lawyers Xu Zhiyong was jailed in January for criticizing the government and advocating for political reform as a founder of group New Citizens Movement. This piece has more about Xu.

Some choice quotes from the article:

China’s leaders are far from governing the country under a system based on the rule of law. Instead, they are paying lip service to the idea in order to give legitimacy to the Communist Party’s rule while building a legal system that serves their political interests.

“China’s embattled rights lawyers, however, have refused to be coerced into submission. On the contrary, they are increasingly challenging authorities for failing to practice the respect for the law that they preach. More young lawyers are joining the movement.”

Harrowing tale of a jailed reporter assistant

16 Jan

The new year’s first post on this blog is about the imprisonment of a Chinese assistant to a German reporter in Beijing. The reporter wrote a detailed, disturbing account of the events that led up to her assistant Miao’s detention, which shows how arbitrary and unpredictable the mainland’s legal system are. The reporter held off on writing the story for 12 weeks because she thought this would help Miao’s situation such as get her a release. It didn’t as she continues to be held without being given regular access to visitors or a lawyer.
Miao was imprisoned in October after trying to attend an event in Beijing held in support of the Occupy movement in Hong Kong. The reporter and Miao’s family tried to find her but after finding her prison, were refused access to her from the authorities. The authorities then called the reporter in several times to interrogate her about Miao, using intimidation and deception to get her to confess to being a spy. The authorities keep at it, calling her up frequently to come in to talk, shouting, issuing threats, and attempting to get her to sign “agreements” written only in Chinese. Eventually the reporter leaves China deeply worried, while Miao languishes in jail.
This is a striking reminder that press freedom and true rule of law are both weak in China. Miao was actually one of over 100 Chinese rounded up for expressing support for the Occupy movement.

Some very telling quotes from the article:

“”When lawmakers make laws, they do it for their own interests and not because they are concerned about those of the public.”
“Do the security authorities have to announce that they are invoking an exception or get it authorized?”
“No,” Zhou [Miao’s lawyer] responds. In principle, he continues, the security apparatus can find an exception clause for every law.

“The more I think about it, the clearer it is: No one can tell if reporting on it will do any good. This is a state ruled by arbitrariness. The agonizing uncertainty I’m feeling is intentional.”

Now I’m starting to experience firsthand something that I’ve read a lot about: their skill at twisting the meaning of things. They might have enough material on me. They’ve been eavesdropping on me for four year – on my phone, in my apartment.

Organ harvesting of prisoners set to end

5 Dec

China said this week it will end the practice of organ harvesting from executed prisoners by January 1 next year, which is a huge step because there has been a lot of troubling allegations and research about this practice, such as this disturbing report on organ harvesting put out by VICE this week as well.
Basically, very few people in China donate organs (as in other countries) so virtually all organs for transplant have been taken from tens of thousands, maybe more, executed prisoners. The organ transplant trade is so rampant that foreigners even go to China to get organs, basically medical organ tourism.
What’s especially disturbing is the sinister possibility that many of these prisoners may have been alive when their organs were taken, since fresh organs taken from a live person are more efficient than those taken from a dead person, and killed afterwards. Chinese authorities deny this – China also denied harvesting organs from dead prisoners up to a few years ago – but a human rights lawyer, a former Canadian MP and a journalist strongly believe that China has and is continuing to do this.
There are some measures taken by countries such as Israel banning its nationals from traveling to China to receive organs while the EU has advised its citizens not to do the same.
If China does end the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners next year as it stated, that will be good, but there remains some strong skepticism and it will be necessary to see how this issue plays out and how responsible China will be.

How were China’s provinces named?

18 Nov

China has 27 provinces and autonomous regions, and this great feature explains every single one of their names from Anhui to Zhejiang. It goes beyond superficial translations of their names into the history and significance. Many of them are named after geographical purposes, such as Hubei (literal translation: North of the lake), which is north of Lake Dongting, or Shandong (East of the mountains), eastwards of the Taihang mountains. A surprising number of them are named for their rivers, such as Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River), which indeed is named for the river of the same name that flows between Russia and China. Meanwhile Sichuan (Four Circuits) was named due to its being divided into four states that formed river circuits during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

“Finding light in China’s darkness”

24 Oct

A poignant commentary by Chinese writer Yan Lianke about “finding light in China’s darkness.”

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement overview

17 Oct

For the past month, Hong Kong has experienced an incredible street movement that sprung up to demand open candidacy for the 2017 chief executive election. It started with a week-long student boycott and protest, then continued into a public occupation that took place in several key sites including outside the main government offices. It captured the world’s attention and admiration and China’s disdain and heavyhanded censorship, but more importantly it seems to have forced Hong Kongers to think deeply about their society and its problems. The movement seems to have decreased in the past few days with HK’s chief stating his administration will meet with the protesters, though the latest controversy involved police brutality earlier this week. The protesters, many of whom are university students, may not be victorious in getting what they wanted in the short term, but they have proved an inspiration to many and shown that a new generation of HKers do care a lot about society rather than shopping.

Here are a few key links to help you understand the protests and some interesting aspects.

The BBC covered the protests quite well, providing a lot of indepth reporting and analysis.  Actually they covered it so well that they were blocked in China just this week, while Instagram was blocked from the very beginning of the protests. On the mainland, the HK protests were first ignored, then censored, and finally covered but in a very slanted way. In addition, mainlanders who expressed support for the protests were also arrested and detained.

Political reform and full democracy are widely known to be the main stated goal of the protesters, but the problems with Hong Kong lie beyond politics and this article provides a very good take on the property curse that afflicts HK. Home prices have skyrocketed, while good jobs are inadequate and the economy has not diversified enough, meaning that many young HKers see a dismal future, one that is reinforced by the current political system where business and property tycoons have enormous influence.

The protests became famous worldwide, helped by the use of a popular symbol – the humble umbrella. As a result, the protests have been termed the Umbrella Movement or Revolution (the latter I don’t quite agree with).

While the main sites were led by students outside the HK government offices in Admiralty, protesters in Mongkok, a working class district in Kowloon, created their own feisty protest zone, one which involved a more diverse mix of people than the Admiralty site.

A lot of Western media, politicians and observers showed support for HK protesters, but so did Taiwan where members of the public and even the president himself spoke out about democracy. This cross-strait support is not surprising in a general context, as ties have grown between young activists who detest and fear China’s government and its increasing influence. For many Taiwanese who cherish their democracy and abhor the mainland’s system, it was natural to support and be sympathetic towards HKers striving for democracy as well in the face of mainland opposition.

The search for ‘Oscar’ continues

12 Sep

One of China’s ways of winning international cultural respect is by having one of its movies win an Oscar but judging from this article it won’t happen anytime soon. It’s not that there are no good movies, but sometimes the good ones are not even allowed to be shown publicly in theaters. Then, official censorship means the movies that do get shown are tamed down and stripped of anything that suggests dissent or disharmony in the nation and with the government. In case you’re wondering, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won it in 2000 but for Taiwan, where director Ang Lee is from. Needless to say, Lee’s other Oscar wins have also caused some embarrassment and mixed feelings in China.