Fighting Fire With Fire?

Last we knew, when the Chinese government wanted to demolish houses, it had ways of getting the residents to submit. It’s hard to combat that, but if recent events are any indication, some citizens have adopted a new resistance technique: fire.


First there’s the case of Pan Yong, a woman in Shanghai who, to protest the demolition of her house and the inadequate compensation she was being given for it by the government, tossed molotov cocktails at the demolition vehicles from her roof. For those of you who play fewer video games than I do, a molotov cocktail is a glass bottle filled with flammable liquid that is ignited via a makeshift fuse (usually a rag) and is used as a sort of improvised incendiary grenade. It’s not clear what’s going to happen to Mrs. Pan, but we can’t imagine it will be good. Then again, the case has already attracted nationwide attention and a large amount of sympathy, stemming especially from a post Han Han made about it (English translation here via CDT).


Then there’s the case of a Chengdu woman who, in order to protest the demolition of her house, lit herself on fire. This story, too, has become big on the Chinese internet, and translated comments on it can be found at ChinaSMACK, but they didn’t translate much of the actual story. We thought we’d offer a bit more background for the curious (translated from the Mop article):

“You guys stay back, we can sit down and discuss this; otherwise, I’m going to light myself on fire!” In the cold clear of an early winter morning, a middle aged woman in a nightgown stood atop a three-story building with the Chinese flag waving quietly in the background. She was seen to lift a drum of oil and cover herself with it, at the same time she was continuously talking through a megaphone.

[…]

Sister Tang, calm down a bit! Don’t try to oppose the government! There’s still time to come down!” People downstairs were yelling [things like this] up to the woman.

Ten or so minutes later, some other people climbed to the roof, probably to try to stop the woman, and in an instant, the scene turned grisly. The woman became a red fireball, jumping and struggling on the rooftop…

Truly a sad tale. One of the article subtitles later in the Mop piece (it’s quite long) got us thinking: “Violent enforcement of the law or violent resistance of the law?” We can’t help feeling as though perhaps one has bred the other here. One would have to be living under a rock not to have heard of instances where violence is used to “enforce the law” (i.e., get people out of their homes so they can be demolished). Violently resisting the law is less common, but if these two rooftop ladies are any indication, it might be getting more popular.

We can’t help wondering if this isn’t a case of “you reap what you sow.”

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2 Week Hiatus

ChinaGeeks will be more or less dormant for the next two weeks as I will be leading a group of students from my school on an exchange program to Wuxi. I’m not bringing a laptop, as I don’t anticipate having any time to be on the internet anyway.

Feel free to use this thread as an open forum for discussion on anything. Your thoughts on Obama’s town meeting in Shanghai would be a good start.

See you in a couple weeks. Have a good Thanksgiving, those of you who celebrate it.

“Obama and Chinese Netizens”

The following is a translation of this post from Chang Ping’s blog.

Translation

A few days ago I received an invitation from the US Embassy saying that an advance briefing for would be held simultaneously via video in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, mainly discussing Sino-US relations and President Obama’s visit to China. Because I was busy, I didn’t attend, but I read the Twitter updates of attendees. From these updates, it seems “tearing down walls” on the internet was a focal point of discussion. To use the language of the government, it’s a problem of freedom of information and freedom of speech. Many of the attendees hope that this visit of Obama’s can help push forward the opening up of the internet in China.

There were also those in attendance who feel that the “problem of tearing down walls [on the internet, i.e., internet censorship] really doesn’t represent the mainstream [opinion], most Chinese people don’t worry about freedom of speech, they only worry about freedom of business and the freedom to travel to America” [to do business]. The embassy replied: listen to the voices of those outside the mainstream media, that is exactly the purpose of the advance briefing. This response, while wonderful, also quietly changes the conception of “mainstream”. The former was talking about the majority of the Chinese people, the latter was talking about the media that’s controlled by the Chinese government.

Actually, regardless of whether it’s “mainstream”, regardless of the specifics, it’s impossible to avoid talking about the problem of freedom of speech on the internet. This small-scale meeting was broadcast live by the American side, and the Chinese officials had no choice but to temporarily allow access to twitter, so this [meeting] itself was a nominal challenge to the usual way of doing things. Moreover, [look at] who was invited: “famous bloggers”. Immediately following that, the American embassy in Guangzhou announced the details of Obama’s town hall meeting with young people in Shanghai; this was seen as one of the results of the advance briefing with bloggers. There’s even information that during Obama’s meeting he’ll have a secret meeting with a [famous] internet personage. At the same time, netizens discovered that some once-banned foreign websites like Picasa and Blogspot have recently been unblocked.

The importance Obama places on the internet is undeniable, as he himself was a beneficiary of the internet during the 2008 presidential election. Moreover, freedom of speech has always been a principle American presidents must stress. But whether or not he can really help Chinese netizens to break down the “Great Firewall of China” is still in doubt. I feel some Chinese netizens have set their hopes too high, and fear that they may end up disappointed. First of all, the internet isn’t the purpose of Obama’s current trip. From the topics already announced, climate change, economic equilibrium, hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the revaluation of the RMB, etc., will be the focal points of his discussions with Chinese leaders. Secondly, while being interviewed by a Reuters reporter a few days ago, Obama suggested that China and America are cooperative partners and also competing opponents in a friendly way. Because of this, he can’t really take an unyielding position on freedom of speech or human rights.

However, I don’t deny the effectiveness of international pressure, nor do I look down on netizens (even if they aren’t the mainstream) for expressing their passions so strongly on this issue. At the same time, the underlying structure of Chinese society is slowly changing. These factors could come together at any time to greatly expand the scope and power of [free] discourse. After attending the China Blogger’s Conference last week, this feeling is even stronger.

Lianzhou [site of the blogger conference] is in the northwestern part of Guangdong province, with underground rivers, gorges and other excellent natural sights. It also has the literary tradition left by men like Han Yu and Liu Yuxi, but still, such a group of people [as were at the blogger conference] is rarely seen. The internet lovers, scholars, and reporters came from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, as well as the USA, France, England, etc. The local tourism and government boards were notified that this group of people has great publishing power on the internet, and their coming was not only the arrival of tourists but also a good advertising opportunity. Because of this, local officials welcomed the meeting, and they were assisted by China Telecom. The meeting was set up by the entrance to a cave/underground river; sponsoring companies provided a support car and set up internet in the area, and the meeting’s coverage of twitter, blogs, etc., was broadcast live.

What was interesting was that, from another angle, the meeting was still as “sensitive” as ever. The night we got there, the hotels were strictly required to provide information on their guests; the local PSB chief came and took a list of everyone staying in the hotel, then sat in the lobby guarding until deep into the night. On the second day of the conference, people were saying over forty police officers came, someone was videotaping it. The meeting not only had invited some “sensitive” [i.e. controversial] netizens to participate, but also spent a lot of time discussing how to use internet technology to pursue freedom of speech.

But this really wasn’t a political meeting; the attendees also discussed how to best use technology for commerce, for the public good, and for spreading science. To put it precisely, everyone is using the internet to search for better ways of living.

Actually, the meeting itself is a way of living. It is loose and spontaneous, but the attendees paid their expenses themselves, and the workers were all volunteers. It made me think of a music festival, most people come here to feel happy and to seek like-minded folks.

Because of all this, I saw a new power developing upwards from the bottom layer of society. Those who hold this power both hope that politicians will reform and open up the internet and use the internet to build their own lives. Political slogans are gray, but the tree of life is green.

Told You So

Anyone else see this article in the New York Times and think of this post of ours from last spring?

Yeah, we didn’t think so. Well, in it, I was arguing that China’s hardcore quarantining response wasn’t the gigantic disaster everyone in the West was making it out to be, and even had the gall to suggest that it might be the right thing to do:

As I see it, the government has several options, which I’ve listed below along with best and worst-case scenarios.

  1. Ignore the students, let them enter China unhindered.
    • Best case: Nothing happens.
    • Worst case: They infect Chinese people and the disease begins to spread through the Mainland.
  2. Test the students as they arrive, then let them into China.
    • Best case: Nothing happens.
    • Worst case: One or more students was a carrier too early to show symptoms or return a positive test; they infect Chinese people and the disease begins to spread through the Mainland.
  3. Quarantine the students for a week in a nice hotel.
    • Best case: Nothing happens.
    • Worst case: The government takes some flak from the international press and some Canadian students learn that TV in China is generally awful.

Given these options, the right choice seems fairly obvious. Furthermore, it’s not that far from the choices many Western countries made during the SARS outbreak.

Many people, including Richard over at the Peking Duck, did not agree. Turns out, though, the experts (both Chinese and foreign) seem to think China did a pretty good job, and that those controversial methods were effective. From the New York Times:

To protests from around the world, China isolated entire planeloads of people entering the country if anyone on the plane exhibited flulike symptoms. Local authorities canceled school classes at the slightest hint of the disease and ordered students and teachers to stay home. China was virtually alone in taking such harsh measures, which continued throughout most of the summer.

Now, Chinese and foreign health officials say that some of those contested measures — more easily adopted by an authoritarian state — may have helped slow the spread of the disease in the world’s most populous country. China has not had to cope with a crush of cases, and it began administering a vaccine for swine flu in early September, the first country to do so.

Foreign officials also say that China demonstrated an unusual openness to sharing information about H1N1 with its citizens and other governments, in contrast to its secretive approach to the near pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a few years ago.

Oh snap!

Only kidding. Obviously, the “experts” don’t verify everything I wrote, and it’s pretty irrelevant now anyway. The actual purpose of this post is to direct your attention to the top right of your screen (you may need to scroll up) where we’ve added links to recent and interesting stories on other China blogs to our “Read This” section.

Obviously, if you’re reading this via RSS, you can’t see that, which brings me to the next point: anyone know a good WordPress widget that would display links in the same place easily and have it’s own separate RSS feed?

Interview with Ole Schell

A while back we ran a review of the film Win in China, a documentary about Chinese entrepreneurship directed by Ole Schell, son of famed China scholar Orville Schell. We were offered a chance to interview Ole, and jumped at the chance.

ChinaGeeks: Which came first, the idea of making a documentary about “Win in China” the TV show or the idea of making a documentary about China’s economic growth? Can you talk a little bit about how the film came together in terms of where the concept came from?

I have a Chinese stepmother and my father is a journalist who specializes in China. I grew up with Chinese culture always in my life. My dad would often bring me back cool trinkets like cricket cages from Beijing or swords from Tibet so I was always aware of China as a sort of mystical place.

Many years later the production team putting together the show, Win In China, (including cctv2 and sponsors such as yahoo china and China Unicom) were interested in getting a westerner’s perspective on the show through a documentary.

I was approached by Wang Li Fen, a well known Chinese TV personality and the host and executive producer of Win In China, to make a film about its creation. I agreed with the caveat that we could historically contextualize what Win meant in relation to the progress of China. She agreed and we ended up having a whole chapter on Chinese youth culture-including Chinese rappers, punk rockers, Ferrari salesmen and artists-to give people a sense of what the environment is really like over there and how in could produce a show like Win.

ChinaGeeks: Who is the film meant for? You’ve got both an “education edition” and a “home” edition DVD but your website gives the impression it’s mostly an educational endeavor. Why is that?

The film’s target audience consists of American business leaders, business schools, entrepreneurs and economists. The goal of the film is to educate Americans on the incredible growth in China and what this means for the U.S. as a player in the global economy.

The educational version of the DVD comes with extra features such as extended interviews with legendary Chinese internet Tycoon, Jack Ma, who served as a Judge on Win, and NASDAQ CEO Robert Greifeld, as well as a professor of entrepreneurship at Tsinghua University, Professor Chen.

ChinaGeeks: In the film, you’ve got James Fallows and Orville Schell, among other China experts. Were there reasons you chose them specifically? Were they familiar with the TV show already or was that something you had to show them?

Jim Fallows was living in China for two years to write for the Atlantic monthly. While he was there became a fan of the show. He was at the finale and even wrote about it for the Atlantic. So he was really well versed in the ins and outs of the show despite speaking imperfect Chinese. Since he was there to observe and comment on China as it modernizes he was the perfect interviewee. Jim is a great guy and certainly astute when it comes to issues of China and Asia at large.

Orville Schell is my father and had little choice but to be interviewed by me. That being said he certainly knows a lot about modern China and was certainly aware of the show. He filled in some of the historical areas in the film such as Deng Xiao Ping going to Shenzhen, then a special economic zone, to show that economic reform would continue after the events in June of 1989.

The question we wanted to ask was: how could a country that was ostensibly communist and might have locked someone up went into private enterprise only a few years earlier create a show that so blatantly embodied capitalism.

ChinaGeeks: You’ve got some behind-the-scenes stuff from the TV show as well; what was working with the show’s creators like?

I went to China about twelve times over the course of a little over a year. Working with the host Wang Lifen was great. She and the rest of the team were very busy and hands off giving me complete freedom. I also took trips to the head quarters of Alibaba and Yahoo China in Hangzhou to interview Jack Ma in his office. He has an incredible story and is treated like a rock star by the youth of China

ChinaGeeks: Your film, even in terms of the marketing and packaging, is obviously playing against the “China is communist” stereotype. Have you found that a lot of people watching the film are surprised that a competition like this could happen in China? Obviously, the film takes the viewer through a bit of the background on exactly how that came to be possible, but are you finding people surprised or are they mostly already aware that entrepreneurship and capitalism are alive and well in China?

In my experience it’s mostly seasoned China watchers who are aware of the true extent of reforms effects on not only business but on youth culture as well. We screened to some people from Soros whose job it was to follow trends in China and even they were surprised by a lot of the underground happenings over there…

In many ways the art, music and nightlife scenes are way more exciting than in the States.

It’s a quickly expanding and developing culture and economy with so many opportunities and makes a place like New York, where spend a lot of my time, feel much more stagnant.

I chose to show the rappers, punk rockers, Ferraris and nightlife stuff to shed light on that newly developing paradigm.

ChinaGeeks: How is the film being received? Presumably, you’ve read some reviews, but are you also hearing from regular people and perhaps schools? What do they think of it?

People almost universally say they had no idea of the extent of the pace over there. They expect something much dryer-something more business related. That was a challenge I took head on and tried to incorporate as much of the outrageous landscape of Beijing Shanghai, and some of the smoky second tier cities like Weifang and Hefei that we visited to get to know several of the contestants. My favorite contestant was an aspiring lingerie baron nicknamed “The Wolf” for his predatory business style.

The historical section was a way to get the viewer up to speed on the Recent Chinese history that led to the show. Some of that communist imagery from the beginning of the film is a great juxtaposition to the hyper capitalist game show and really get to the heart of the film and modern China.

ChinaGeeks: What’s next for you? Another China-related project or is it on to something different?

I have another film about the world of high-fashion modeling coming out in different countries at different times.

ChinaGeeks: How was the film funded? From your website, you’re clearly affiliated with the documentary 2 Million Minutes, but did funding come from proceeds from that or somewhere else?

The production was a co-production between the Win In China show on CCTV2 and its sponsors like China Yahoo and China Unicom in China and then Robert Compton’s film company True South Studios on Memphis. Bob is a businessman with investments in China and a keen interest in its current entrepreneurial revolution so he was a perfect partner on this project.

ChinaGeeks: Thus far, China seems to be weathering the economic crisis fairly well. Do you see that continuing or not, and why?

That’s funny I recently wrote a piece for the Cnn business site on just this. It can now be found on the Anderson Cooper Ac360 website. Have a look.

ChinaGeeks: What, if any, effect do you expect government and international regulations to have on Chinese businesses going forward? Obviously recently there have been some trade disputes between China and the US, etc., and as I understand it at this point China’s trade with the world at large is mostly through exporting things manufactured in China, but do you expect other sectors (especially technology) to start becoming a bigger percentage of the Chinese market (and the international market)?

Of course China’s trade with the world is based primarily on supplying foreign demand for goods. That being said there is a whole consumer class which is rapidly growing in China as more and more peasants and workers strive to join the middle class. The government has undertaken massive efforts such as Win In China and small business incubators on Universities such as Tsinghua to create jobs for this emerging demographic. Also Jack Ma, a Judge on Win, has a new venture to reverse the flow of goods by setting up a b2b that hooks up American suppliers with buyers of goods in China. This is a further sign that China is maturing as an economy. China also has such a massive population and burgeoning middle class that they are becoming more self sustaining as an economy and beginning to purchase their own goods.

ChinaGeeks: More information on Win in China?

Win In China is now touring the country going to universities, business leadership groups and think tanks.

In the last couple of months we screened at the Asia Society in New York City, the Council on Foreign Relations in Dc, University of Chicago and to business-leaders in Indianapolis to name a few.

December 2nd at 7pm, we will be having a screening co-sponsored by the National Committee on US Chinese relations, the Washington DC Asia Society and featuring a conversation with Orville Schell and Journalist James Fallows. It will be at the Sidwell Friends School where the president’s kids are enrolled.

We also have screening with Center for Entrepreneur Studies at the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University in early February.

Here are some links that might be helpful for you:

A radio piece I produced on the Lingerie Baron from the film for the world program on the BBC and PRI.

A segment of my remarks before screening at the Council on foreign Relations with John Pomfret two weeks ago.

Our website

Many thanks to Ole Schell for the interview.

“Are You a Party Member?” — The Latest Internet Meme?

If this article is to be believed, “are you a Party member?” is in danger of becoming the latest internet meme. Our loose, partial translation is below.

Translation

On November 6th, Xinhua reported: is the common-sounding phrases “are you a Party member?” becoming the next popular internet phrase? The past two days, the phrase has been heating up among netizens and city people. Why is this?

Incident: a reporter is questioned “are you a Party member?”

This incident must be explained through news reports.

It’s said on November 4th a Zhengzhou reporter was investigating a story (“‘Dog adoption workers’* are told to only care about money”) and in the article the reporter was questions where 12,000,000 RMB [about 1.7 million USD] in adoption fees went. He interviewed the responsible person in Zhengzhou, Wang Ping, who, wanting to be sure the correct numbers were published, told him to directly ask the Bureau of Finance.

The reporter got in touch with [the relevant] department head at the Bureau of Finance, Wang Guanqi. “Are you a Party member?” Wang Guanqi asked the reporter. “If you want to ask about this expenditure, you need the approval of our Party committee and the department news spokesperson. The office allowing you to interview me directly is a violation of regulations!”

As soon as this story was reported to the public, the question “Are you a Party member?” has unexpectedly shown up over and over again on the internet. Using Google search for this sentence, the article and comments on it come up, [but also] 90 other instances of the sentence in blog posts and comments. This “shocking language” has thoroughly “bowled over” the public.

Our Thoughts

There’s more to the article, but it’s not all that interesting. It seems like as good a new meme as any. For the record, there already over two million results for the sentence on Google, and nearly 5,000 on Baidu (anyone else find that discrepancy a bit weird?). What do you think? 10 points to the first commenter to use it well.

Bricks That Fall Apart in Your Hands

Wang Keqin’s blog has a very long accounting (based on this original story) of how the rebuilding is going in earthquake-affected areas like Mianyang. Unfortunately, it seems some of the new building materials are just as shoddy, or even worse, then the ones destroyed in the 5/12 earthquake. His post is too long to translate in its entirety, but a picture says a thousand words in this case:

When a person’s house falls down because of shoddy materials, it is devastating in many ways. Not only has their home gone which causes financial problems, but all those sentimental items are lost too. Things like photos, special gifts and valuables such as computers are also gone. People do miss technology just as much as sentimental items; the freedom of surfing the web, reading poker news or just checking emails is gone.

As soon as you poke it it breaks to pieces
"As soon as you poke it it breaks to pieces"
“With this kind of brick, even a common person can do magic
“With this kind of brick, even a common person can 'do magic'"
The problem is the little white things; too much calcium oxidizes before the heating process, leading to this brick powder
"The problem is the little white things; too much calcium oxidizes before the heating process, leading to this 'brick powder'"

“The company making these powder bricks easily passed official inspection
“The company making these 'powder bricks' easily passed official inspection"

Selected comments from Wang’s blog

Nice watch, also, the quality of these bricks is really terrible

People, eh….how stupid. It makes me think of a sentence, “today’s new bottles hide yesterday’s spoiled brew, so who is a dissenter in this new age?” The earthquake shocked the world but couldn’t shock the hearts of those only out for themselves. Dog officials, dog officials!

Just let nature take its course, don’t hold onto any hope; things are just that corrupt…

Real estate with Chinese characteristics…beans and dirt engineering, beans and dirt bricks, beans and dirt cement, beans and dirt…

[Seems like] it’s time to conduct a complete inspection of the quality of rebuilding in the Sichuan disaster area

We thoroughly agree with that last comment.