Gao Zhisheng is Missing (Again)

The New York Times is reporting that Gao Zhisheng has disappeared. Again.

He first disappeared while in police custody. According to police at the time, he “lost his way and went missing.” Many (including us) speculated that he was dead, suspicious which were not assuaged by later assurances from the police that Gao was “where he should be.”

But then in late March, he suddenly resurfaced. He told family and reporters alike that he had actually been free for six months, and even gave several interviews, but family and friends who spoke with him on the phone all said he seemed like he was lying, and his story did seem a bit odd. Why would he wait six months after being freed from police custody to contact his family? The strangeness of the whole situation led many (again, including us) to suspect that he had never actually been freed and that the whole thing was a dog-and-pony show for the Western press. This recent news of his disappearance — again — lends a lot of credence to that theory:

Associates said Mr. Gao failed to return to a Beijing apartment on April 20 after spending more than a week in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in western China, where he had been visiting his father-in-law. Mr. Gao telephoned his father-in-law as his plane left Urumqi, saying he would call upon his arrival in Beijing, they said.

That appeared to be his last contact with the outside world. Li Heping, another Beijing human rights lawyer and a close friend, said he had visited Mr. Gao’s apartment repeatedly, but had not found him. “No one had been there for a while,” said Mr. Li, who last went to the apartment on Thursday. “I have no idea who to call, or who has taken him.”

Others said they were sure that the government had again removed him from public view and that the authorities’ earlier decision to allow him to resurface briefly had been a ploy to try to demonstrate to the outside world that he had not been mistreated.

The whole case is deeply odd, given that Chinese authorities don’t generally bother with the dog-and-pony routine. There is Western pressure surrounding Gao’s case, but there are other imprisoned dissidents who the government seems to have no qualms about openly admitting they’re holding. Gao’s allegations that he was tortured during a previous detention may be the differentiating factor, but regardless, it’s hard to believe that anyone in the government could have thought this “release” was going to convince anyone, especially if Gao was just going to “be disappeared” again after it.

So, once again, we have to ask: what the hell is going on here?

New on ChinaGeeks

Over on ChinaGeeks Chinese, 三水 has translated the New York Times story into Chinese: 中国人权律师高智晟再一次人间蒸发.

State Media Blames Housing Crisis on Corrupt Government

The following post is a translation of this article by Xie Yuhang in the China Youth Daily, which was forwarded to us by Bill Bishop of Sinocism, Digicha, and Twitter fame. In his words:

It is remarkably candid, and accurate, and got distributed on the big news sites. This does not look like something that slipped through, but rather all part of the campaign around trying to finally take real steps to rationalize the housing market, and help the masses. But we’ll see…

He has also written a much more in-depth analysis of the article, which is here.


Note: I have no background in economics and don’t completely understand all of this stuff, so Bill Bishop and Kaiser Kuo both helped in this translation. Any mistakes are mine, though, not theirs.

Although the welfare housing system has been ordered stopped, the covert housing welfare that exists for government employees ((i.e., the government provides housing or housing stipends to employees)) has not stopped, and has become its own system. Some central government offices in Beijing not only have ample financial resources for housing welfare, but their prices are not even twenty percent of the market prices. And not only can local officials get a share of ownership in existing houses/property, but they even build new houses in the name of renovation and housing reform. Moreover, in the construction funding process the construction area [can] go way over the allowable quota and even illegally violate construction regulations, stringing together a line of villas. (China Securities Report, 4/28)

Housing is meant to be a one of the basic necessities of life, but at present it has become a very common problem. If the people want to realize their dream of having housing, they must count on the government to move. If government employees could feel the pain caused by these housing problems, that would give them the impetus to do something. But housing welfare for government employees is widespread, and it allows them to distance themselves from the housing market. Whether housing prices are high or low has little effect on their housing, so we must take useful steps to get them to do something. We can’t rely on their senses of responsibility or their consciences.

If the law has banned it, but civic organs are doing it openly, then that is public corruption! This kind of corruption not only destroys the government’s incentive to regulate the housing market, it gives government employees a vested interest in the continued rising of housing prices. Because government employees can get houses easily, the value and profit potential of their property increases as the amount of property they have goes up.

The existence of corruption impedes national efforts to safeguard the housing [market] ((The Chinese term 保障房, which I have translated variously here, refers to a set of government regulations designed to control the construction of housing, as well as sale and rental prices, etc.)). Commercial prices are so high they’re untouchable, so a lot of people have placed their hopes in [the government] safeguarding the housing [market]. And while it’s popular right now to talk about protecting the housing market, this hasn’t really helped the common people much either, and the reason is again corruption. As commercial prices rise, the profit potential for those in power through rent-seeking rises. There has been a mass of construction in the past few years, which should bring housing prices down, but for the corrupt officials who’ve been bought by businessmen and control interests in the housing market, what reason is there to bother with “safeguarding housing” ((See above.)). Money is owed on “safeguarded housing” all over, and in addition to the connections with the GDP and land finance, corrupt officials are also partly to blame.

“Safeguarded houses” are going up and down, but they aren’t being built for the common people who can’t afford a place to live, and many of them are being used to feather the nests of the corrupt power-holders. Recently, the media has been reporting on the Xinzhou situation in which its first housing price control program was cut apart and the housing sold for profit. The government there used the only pricing control program for the benefit of local cadres, so there was a lot of impetus for officials to build, and the officials were actively mobilizing people and capital. Most of the officials cutting apart this cake already had houses, and since fixed-price houses could be resold for massive profits, the cadres made a lot of money. “Safeguarded housing” isn’t a special case, low-income housing and fixed-price housing have also been taken over by government officials, so it’s clear to see who “safeguarded housing” is really “safeguarding”.

>What’s even more infuriating is that the nation’s safeguarded housing policy has been used by some conscienceless government departments to impede the interests of the poor. For example, a certain city bought unsold housing as “safeguarded housing”. They sent huge sums on housing priced at 35,000 RMB/square meter, and most of the housing is between 150 and 220 square meters. If the interest of the poor were really being taken into account, then the government’s limited funds should have been used to construct as many inexpensive houses as possible, so that poor people could afford them. This would be in the interest of a large number of people; how many people become consumers as a result of the sale of extremely high-priced commercial property? This is quite obviously using poor people’s money to help commercial developers […] It keeps prices high, prevents more people from being able to afford “safeguarded housing”, and influences the commercial housing market.

Because of corruption, government property market control policies have been built on stilts, they cannot be long-lasting. Every time a new policy is announced, a new way to counter it is also discovered. Because these countermeasures always prevail, [we know] there is corruption. Hoarding [property] is a frequently-used trick by developers, but if they weren’t being instigated by government departments, how could they be so brazenly unscrupulous? “The highest fine for commercial property hoarding is 10,000 RMB” is the masterpiece of some local government department. Recently the central government touted the so-called “most severe” new housing oversight, but the policy hadn’t been out for long when the media began reporting that some banks were offering “unsecured mortgage loans” “fifty-day exemptions on the [required] waiting period” and other methods of consumer credit that become housing loans. Regulatory policy will also be subject to interference by corrupt officials, from those who speak out in favor of high housing prices to those who will stop at nothing to prevent the lowering of housing prices, so one can clearly see the kind of impact corruption has on regulatory policy. The existence of corruption has led to public funds being illegally used for buildings, boosting the housing bubble; the Shanghai pension scandal is just one illustration.

New on ChinaGeeks

My post commemorating translator D.C. Lau yesterday totally stepped on Chris Hearne’s excellent translation of another Zhang Wen article: “China is Sick.” Check it out!

In Memory of D. C. Lau

I learned only just now of the passing of D. C. Lau on Monday. If you weren’t a China Studies major, you may not recognize the name, but his passing is of great significance to me, despite the fact that I never met him. Dr. Lau, through his translation work, affected me more deeply than most people I have met.

I know little about his long and storied career as an academic and professor. I cannot speak to his amicable personality, or share anecdotes about his warmth as a person. In fact, until today, I’m not sure I had ever even seen a picture of him. But it’s a testament to Dr. Lau’s skill that I know so little about him, for his relationship with me was entirely selfless. So great was his skill in translation that he was able to take the words and the worlds of men like Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi and present them to me so naturally and fluidly that I never even noticed his presence.

It was in the fall of my freshman year in college that I found myself, by random chance, enrolled in a course on Chinese philosophy. Consequently, there was a pile of what seemed to be esoteric wisdom spilling from my backpack on the first day of class. The classics were all there. Slingerland’s translation of The Analects of Confucius, Graham’s translation of Zhuangzi, Cleary’s translation of The Art of War, and two more modest looking Penguin Classics: Laozi and Mencius, both translated by D. C. Lau.

Laozi’s Daodejing was the first to appeal to me, although I fell in love with all of them eventually. I believe the Daodejing was also one of our first assignments, a comparatively light reading that some had probably forgotten by the next day. But if I were asked to trace my interest in China to a single moment in time, I think it would be that fall evening when, leaning against a tree in the courtyard in the vain hope that someone — perhaps an attractive girl — might be impressed I was reading, I stumbled across this passage:

The way is empty, yet use will not drain it.
Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.

Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare;
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there.
I know not whose son it is.
It images the forefather of God.

I had absolutely no idea what it meant, of course, but the middle stanza in particular touched me on some subconscious level the moment I read it, and has stayed with me since. It intrigued me enough to keep me in the class, and take me through countless more on the minutiae of classical Daoism and meditative practice, and from them on to modern language and literature. Those words — Lau’s words, really — have remained with me like a subtle mantra, below the surface but ever-vibrating nonetheless, the ripples they create touching everything I think and do. I have to admit when I looked up the passage just now, I could feel tears welling up. It was never something I had expressed, but I think I had hoped that someday I would get a chance to meet him, and tell him how much his translation of that book had meant to me, and still means to me.

Were it not for D. C. Lau’s translations, would I still be interested in China? Studying Chinese? Would I have met many of my current friends? My fiancee? It’s impossible to say, but I can say with certainty that the world Lau revealed to me was otherwise entirely inaccessible. I can’t read classical Chinese even now, and I certainly couldn’t then. How many other hundreds or thousands of students like me are there? I feel certain there are many people who were profoundly touched by something Lau wrote, and that a good percentage of them don’t even remember his name.

I wasn’t particularly aware of Lau myself until I was asked to acquire a copy of the extremely rare bilingual edition (( This edition was also updated with a full translation of the Daodejing test found at Mawangdui for comparison with the original received text.)) of his Daodejing translation for a class. By that time, I had enough of a grasp of the language that when looking at the texts side-by-side, I could begin to comprehend exactly what it was the translator had accomplished, which naturally led me to wonder who the translator was. And, of course, there it was: D. C. Lau.

I fancy myself a bit of an amateur translator now, and I have seen just enough of the job to appreciate how impossible it is to do what D. C. Lau did so well. It takes not only great selflessness but tremendous skill to translate something as difficult as ancient poetry and leave oneself entirely out of it. Through translation, Dr. Lau opened the door to China for me, and then graciously stepped out of the way, allowing me to pass through it on my own without ever noticing he was there.

If you don’t own them already, Amazon has a nice collection of D.C. Lau’s works, although sadly the bilingual Daodejing seems to be impossible to find these days.

Zhang Wen: “China is Sick”

The following is a translation of this piece by Zhang Wen:


In recent times, catastrophes of both the natural world and the human world have been piling up. For me this is rather perplexing.

Rain water has always been plentiful in Southeast China, so this once in a lifetime drought in and of itself is a little bit unthinkable. In the face of this great drought, what’s even more bizarre is the indifference in the government and in popular opinion. Government emphasis and rescue efforts didn’t start until the middle of this month, and those outside of the southeast have expressed “none of my concern” attitude. My own media outlet didn’t begin full-length pieces on the situation until recently.

Similar to this phenomenon is the indifference to the life of the murdered children in Nanping [a city in northern Fujian province -Ed]. Judging from the current reports, the murderer Zheng Minsheng [who allegedly murdered eight school children] was a failure at life without stable work, and a failure in love as well. He therefore went out to take vengeance on the evils of society. What is impossible to understand, as well as impossible to forgive, is that he chose people weaker still than himself – elementary school victims. These innocent, immature human beings were completed unrelated and harmless to Zheng Minsheng.

There is only one thing to say: China is sick!

The rhythm of life is getting faster, stress and pressure are building up, and the future is unclear. This has caused more or less everyone in society to become infected with a psychological disorder. People are worried about themselves and their own families, all the while gradually losing compassion towards others. When you can’t even take care of yourself, how can you have excess emotional energy to attend to others?

For years, a one-sided emphasis on economic development has led millions on a single-minded quest for wealth and caused the nation the soar, but it has also buried a terrible sickness: the law of the jungle has entered into people’s hearts. The weak are food for the strong, and fairness and justice are in short supply.

Social classes are dividing and dissolving into opposition. People’s relationships are mostly based on acquiring [personal] benefits and people no longer believe in traditions of mutual help and friendship. In fact, laughing at the poor while hating the rich has become the tone of mainstream society.

The economic successes of the last 30 years are hard to deny, but that people’s moral quality has degenerated is equally hard to deny. The ideas of Confucius, Mencius and Zhuangzi have been damaged almost beyond repair. Slogans like “Putting people first” and “a harmonious society” need to become reality, but the coming is slow.

To destroy is easy, to build is difficult. China is currently in a void. Popular expectations are outpacing changes in [society’s] system, and in their confusion people have no faith to comfort them.

Those foreigners that are unfamiliar with China exclaim, “China is rising!” China’s government is immensely smug as well, ambitiously carving up the world and expanding its own influence. Disobedient foreign companies are kicked out of the country before the government can be happy.

But clear-headed Chinese can only sigh helplessly [at the current situation]: what kind of monstrosity is this [China]! That China is “rising” is a fact, but it isn’t healthy, with ailments both numerous and gravely serious. The people’s lives are currently so-so: not happy, to say nothing of dignified. (Wen Jiabao’s words are genuine and heartfelt, but an old ailment is not easy to cure).

China is sick. Where is the deft hand, where is the magic wand that can stir life in dead wood?


Amidst his admittedly cynical take on things, Zhang Wen brings up an interesting but (sometimes) overlooked point. China is developing, but towards what? The idea of a “rising China” is familiar to anyone reading this and it has even entered into popular media discourse in Western countries, but it is interesting to see how often the words “development” or “modern” (发展 and 现代) get thrown around both in the media, academia and in casual conversation without any clear concensus of what that precisely means beyond a rising per capita income. Development apparently just means “this road that we’re on.”

Even 50 years ago, Mao’s wish for China was to “surpass Britain and catch up to America.” In the context of a “rising China”, comparisons and contrasts between China and the United States are common. Calculating if, when and how China’s GDP will overtake that of the United States has almost become a parlor game among economists and commentators. But is the United States “developed” because it has a high GDP, or does it have a high GDP because it is developed? Another view might hold that the United States (and other developed countries) are developed because they have rule of law, transparent government and clean environments. Zhang Wen might argue that the populace needs a certain minimum moral fiber before a country can be considered developed. (Of course, you could also argue that the United States is not developed because it lacks these very things in the desired quantities).

What does it mean for China to “develop”? What could, or should, it mean? Is GDP or PPP the best tool for measuring China’s progress? Are alternative measures of development like the Human Development Index useful for China (or any country for that matter), or are these not “hard” enough? Supposing we had a magic wand to dispense gifts to various places in the world, what combination of traits might we bestow on China before it went from “developing” to “developed”?

The Trouble with Predicting Earthquakes

A week or so ago, a reader sent us a suggested article for translation. It was an interview with Wang Chengmin, the government scientist who predicted the Tangshan earthquake in 1976. He reported his findings to more than sixty people, but was mostly ignored. One of the officials who did listen was Wang Chunqing, and the preparedness in his county resulted in a much higher survival rate than other counties, according to analyses.

Needless to say, after the Wenchuan earthquake, Wang Chengmin surfaced again, and in 2009, he gave an extensive interview, parts of which we’ve translated below:

Wang Chengmin on Predicting Earthquakes

On officials’ responses to warnings about earthquakes:

“After the Tangshan earthquake, the Director of the State Seismological Bureau Liu Yingyong said, “I should be getting ready to go to prison; I owe a blood debt to the people for this [i.e., failing to properly warn the people].” When he thought on it after the earthquake, he hadn’t supported the good things that could have been done before the quake hit, and that made him act like a responsible Party member and say that sentence. Now it’s worse than [the time of the] Tangshan [earthquake]. All this lot of new officials think about is how to deal with those above and below them [in the government]. So I say something true [about the probability of an earthquake], and eighty thousand people die, but even those lives can’t bring us a word of truth [from the government]. It’s very, very serious. Everywhere [the truth about quake warnings] is being suppressed. We tried to speak a bit, publish some essays, or communicate face to face, but everywhere […] we were refused. You can’t communicate, there’s no way to, they completely dodge everything.”

On talking about “the truth” in China:

“If you dare to persist in talking about the truth, you have to do it exactly right. If you go one step over the line from this “truth”, it becomes unbelievable. If you exaggerate the usefulness of forecasting [earthquakes] at all, it makes things difficult, it creates the opposite reaction [from what you want]. So you have to do it just right.”

Wang Chengmin goes on to stress that predicting earthquakes itself is a tricky business, and says that many of the people gloating about their successful prediction of the Wenchuan earthquake are not mentioning the many times before they have predicted earthquakes and nothing happened. And, he concedes, people don’t tend to be interested in the deeper scientific issues, so when someone correctly predicts an earthquake, they become a hero.

He also talks about the rift between the State Seismological Bureau and earthquake forecasters generally, and suggests there needs to be less hotheadedness about who got what right, and more sharing of experience that could help lower the proportion of false predictions. But he says that there were accurate reports that predicted the Wenchuan earthquake before it happened.

On why some earthquakes are accurately predicted and others aren’t, and why even when they are people sometimes don’t listen:

“Every person has different methods in earthquake prediction, so [if you’re an official looking at all of it], at the end of the day there’s a big pile of data on your table. It’s chaotic and contradictory, but a person or a group of people need to make policy decisions [based on it] […] what’s complex is that using the same methods, means, and instruments, two different people can get different results.”

Wang goes into some depth about the debates that occurred within the scientific community before the Wenchuan earthquake, as well as the Tangshan earthquake, and it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in seismology or earthquake prevention.

Zhao Shilong on the S.S.B. and the Qinghai Earthquake

Meanwhile, the Qinghai earthquake has once again brought attention upon the State Seismological Bureau, and journalist Zhao Shilong noted that their spending record had recently been announced publicly:

  • Earthquake forecasting: 2,700,000 RMB
  • Tracking the earthquake situation ((I’m not sure exactly what this refers to…)): 17,000,000 RMB
  • Supervising transmission of quake information: 50,120,000 RMB
  • Rental subsidies: 5,180,000 RMB
  • Housing fund: 71,660,000 RMB
  • House-purchasing subsidies: 86,780,000 RMB
  • Administration: 180,000,000 RMB
  • Internal functions ((Not 100% sure of this translation, 机构运行)): 2,100,000,000 RMB

Zhao writes,

“Just from this data we can analyize and see that all their expenses come from administration; earthquake prediction only accounts for 2,700,000 RMB out of the total 2,400,000,000 RMB budget [i.e., about 0.1% of their budget – ed.].

One could say that predicting earthquakes is the State Seismological Bureau’s most important job, [so their strategy should be] “using the best steel to make the knife’s blade”. But from their financial report, we can see that earthquake prediction has been marginalized and given an unimportant status, so in the end, the best steel wasn’t used on the blade. This is a corrupt and infringing administrative practice. [China’s] not being able to predict earthquakes doesn’t just come from a lack of technical skills, it comes from corrupt administrative practices that actively hinder the work of earthquake forecasting.


For example, a worker named Tu in the Shanxi Seismological Bureau predicted the earthquake in Yushu tens of hours before it occurred. But according to the internal operating procedures of the Seismological Bureau, you cannot use the phone or email to report, you must file it on an internal department card, then take a number and wait to mail it to a specialized department. At its fastest, this procedure can be completed in three days, so obviously if you make a report hours before a quake, bringing it into this kind of inefficient system is useless.

This is called “bureaucracy killing people”. If the conditions are right, the bureaucracy can kill people off like flies.

Not being an expert in science or funding scientific departments, I’ll keep my opinion to myself on this one. How likely is it that China can get to a point where earthquakes are consistently and accurately predicted far enough ahead of time that it has an effect on the death toll?

New on ChinaGeeks

  • There is a new post on ChinaGeeks Chinese, a translation of this post of ours. 在Twitter上疯传的白痴老外视频:种族主义和性别歧视? Check it out!
  • I also have an op-ed running in the Global Times today. The version that appears in print is, well, different from the one I submitted (ah, censorship!), and I’m not sure why each sentence is its own paragraph (readers in China, please tell me that’s just a website thing?) but check it out anyway because it’s my first publication in mainstream media thing like this, suckas!

The Zhuanghe Kneeling Protest Incident

Liu Xiaoyuan’s blog recently described two instances of citizens kneeling before officials, asking for change. The first was “a woman who kneeled before the Municipal Party Committee Secretary of Nanping, Fujian, to communicate a grievance.” The result was that she was “taken into administrative detention.”

Protesters kneeling in Zhuanghe
The second incident, however, involved a lot more people, and had a happier outcome for the protesters:

“Over a thousand citizens of Zhanghe, Liaoning knelt down before the mayor of Zhanghe to request he accept reports about official corruption […] and in the end they kneeled him right out of the picture [i.e., he resigned].”

In fact, it’s a bit more complicated than that. According this Xinhua article, he was forced to resign by the Municipal Party Committee in Dalian after they determined that he had “handled the situation improperly.” The protesters were asking for a number of things; in essence they wanted speedier and more effective investigation from the government into complaints they filed about corrupt local cadres. Exactly how he handled the initial kneeling protest is unclear from reports, but what is clear is that there’s no love lost over this guy’s resignation. “A stupid c**nt mayor,” wrote one netizen commenting on the story. “Not bad!” wrote another.

But despite the happy outcome in Zhuanghe, cynicism remains widespread. Liu Xiaoyuan’s post notes that given the unfavorable outcome of the other recent “kneeling protest”, it’s hard to do much more than sigh. Other netizens agreed. “What is there to be happy about?” wrote one. “He’ll just go somewhere else and become an official who knows if the poor and out-of-work in that place will have to kneel down all over again.” “Don’t be happy,” another netizen wrote, “he’s just gone to be an official somewhere else.”

And, of course, getting rid of the mayor who handled the protest improperly doesn’t actually have any effect on the original grievances. “Did the problem of reporting things to the authorities get resolved?” asked a commenter. No one seemed to have an answer for that.

“Kneeling before officials might sometimes cause them to find their consciences,” wrote Liu Xiaoyuan, “but it does nothing to change the source of the problem. Kneeling down shows our servility, and also the meanness of officials. On this, I’d offer a bit of advice: in the face of power, straighten yourselves up!”

Kneeling in China, as in many cultures, indicates submission and servility, and thus can be a powerful gesture for protesters. For thousands of years, subjects knelt whenever they were in the presence of the emperor, so kneeling before the supposedly-equal cadres is a way of embarrassing them, and of connecting them to the exploitative imperial culture that Chinese students all study in history classes. Perhaps one of the most remembered, most moving moments of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 was the moment when several students knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, their heads bowed and arms outstretched, holding a petition.

New on ChinaGeeks

Monks Expelled From Yushu?

According to the New York Times‘s official sources and a statement from the State Council, Buddhist monks have been asked by the government to end their relief work in Yushu. Maybe. The same article also says that the governor of Yushu doesn’t know anything about it:

“We did not give or receive any orders of such kind,” the governor, Wang Yuhu, was quoted as saying. “Actually, we are very grateful for the role Tibetan monks played in the relief effort.”

Furthermore, the China Daily (official state media) is running a piece on their front page today about how crucial the monks are to the relief process:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Tibetan Buddhist monks in crimson cloaks and jackets have joined the soldiers and rescue workers since the afternoon of April 14.

“A total of 900 monks from our temple alone have joined in the rescue and relief work. The first group arrived at epicenter at 4 pm, a few hours after the earthquake happened,” he said.

“We rescued more than 700 survivors, and helped find more than 1,000 bodies under the ruins.”

So what’s actually going on here? It seems probably the monks really have been asked to leave (I’ll believe an official State Council statement over a local governor any day), but why is still very much up for grabs. The New York Times posits a few theories:

[O]fficials disputed complaints from some monks that they were being expelled for political reasons, saying that better-trained workers were required for tasks like disease prevention and building reconstruction.

In a written response to questions from The Associated Press, the central government’s State Council Information Office expressed gratitude for the monks’ rescue efforts. But “it would bring more difficulties to disaster relief work if lots of unprofessional personnel were at the scene,” the statement added.


For days, the monks conducted their work with little or no interference from officials. But some complained this week that Chinese Army personnel and other government officials had begun to elbow them out of rescue and relief efforts. They said the government wanted to cast the rescue operations not as an indigenous effort, but as a generous gesture from the central government to the region’s ethnic Tibetan population.

Hmm. Well it certainly doesn’t seem like the government is trying to cast the rescue effort as something all their own when they’re running stories with passages like this in official state media:

A Sichuan-based Tibetan temple donated 11.27 million yuan to quake-hit Yushu county on Friday, including 10 million yuan from the temple’s Tibetan living Buddha, Tripa Rinpoch.

“We had planned to use the money to repair our temple, but now, it is our responsibility to donate it,” Tripa Rinpoch told China Daily.

“I see so many Han people and Tibetans carrying out the rescue and relief effort together, and I am deeply touched by them,” he said.

The Sershul Temple, located in Ganzi of neighboring Sichuan province and 110 kilometers far away from Yushu, had also provided relief supplies worth about 1.2 million yuan, including 200 tents, food and water.


Ngawang Kunkyap, a 19-year-old monk of Sershul Temple, didn’t realize his fingers were bleeding after hours of searching for survivors under ruins.

“I used my hands to dig into ruins, and I continued my work even though those underneath clearly had to be dead. Finding their bodies still would be a comfort for their family members,” he said.

Absurdity, Allegory, and China has a collection of some other Western reports that also paint the decision to remove the monks as a political one. And, as much as I love cynicism, doesn’t the government’s argument actually make a good deal of sense here? Monks were undoubtedly instrumental in the first few days, but now that the national and international community has had time to mobilize, it seems quite possible — likely, in fact — that monks are getting in the way of the professionals, if for no other reason than that their traditions are different.

For example, in the early aftermath of the quake, deaths were underreported in the media because the government rescuers didn’t know that the monks had already begun cremating bodies at their temples. That isn’t a huge problem, but extra confusion while trying to coordinate a massive search, rescue, and relief effort is understandably something the government wants to avoid. And anyone who has ever tried or get a large group of unskilled people to do something knows that it’s often easier to work with a much smaller crew of experienced people.

This is not to say the intentions of the monks are not good, or that they have not performed admirably. But they are not trained or, presumably, experienced at all in disaster relief, and many of the other rescue workers in Yushu are highly trained and experienced. Given that the government is running fluff pieces about how great they are as it’s asking them to leave, I think all the skepticism might be a bit premature. But what do you think? This is destined to be one of my more unpopular opinions, so get rippin’ on it in the comments.

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Criticizing Han Han

Han Han, the sarcastic blogger, race-car driver and novelist in China, may be the most popular writer in China. His popularity is even spreading overseas. For example, New York Times featured a profile of him in March this year. This month, Han Han made it into the voting for TIME magazine’s top 100 list. At a time when Han is enjoying unprecedented popularity for a writer of his age, perhaps a few objective words of criticism are in order. Here we translate extracts from two recent pieces in the Chinese press, one from scholar Xu Ben in Nanfeng Daily, and another one from current affairs commentator Li Tie in Time Weekly.

Xu Ben: Han Han lacks depth

Xu points out that Han’s style of writing is very special due to China’s political environment, and Americans probably could never understand it:

Firstly, Americans don’t need to use metaphors and guess works when commenting current affairs, like what Han Han is doing. They can speak out the truth directly. In American eyes, Han is using a very strange, and unnecessary, style of writing. Furthermore, it would be unimaginable in the US that such a style of writing would receive such an overwhelming audience […] Han’s opinions on current affairs can at most be regarded as talk shows, which are not suitable for deeper discussions on public affairs.

Han Han’s voice is a language game which defies common principles. It is quick, surprising, but not necessarily well thought through. This game will only exist in a society of lies. Because it is risk-taking and suppressed, it is exciting. What Han’s audience is looking for is a sense of excitement, or even entertainment, but not necessarily new knowledge or profound ideas. 

Xu then points out that Han likes to use exaggerations and ‘mannerisms’ to cater for his audience. If you need examples, readers of this blog will be familiar with the implicit use of sexism and pornography in his writing.

To round it off:

Han is not speaking knowledge, merely his feelings on certain issues. His authority comes from his observation and experience, not his scholarship. Han’s comments and writing are ‘amateur’ in nature. Unlike formal ‘articles’, he can decide on any topics he likes. What event is important, why it is worth discussing, how to discuss it, discuss to what depths, etc are all decided by him. Readers like him for this reason.

He is a person trying to speak freely in an environment which does not allow free speech. His comments and styles are Chinese, and only Chinese can understand them. Outside China, Han cannot be understood, or would be misunderstood. Han also understands this. That’s why he tells the TIME journalist, ‘Americans will not be interested in Chinese literature, just like I am not interested in American literature.’ Han seems to understand better than most professors that a East-West cultural exchange is possible only when their values converge. For now, only Chinese can understand the intricate thoughts about their own affairs.

Li Tie: Where is China’s Intelligentsia?

Li also subscribes to the view that Han Han lacks depth. But he points out that Han’s popularity may just be the symptom of a more important trend – the decline of the intelligentsia:

In whatever age, there would be some ‘strange talents’. But in general, they would not become the mainstream ‘public intellectuals’ or ‘opinion leaders’. Han Han achieves it. This in no way reflects that Han Han is great, but shows that our society has some problems. In a mountain without tigers, monkeys become kings. Where are the tigers?

According to common sense, the responsibility for enlightening the public should fall on the academia. This is because they have the advantages of building theories and analysing information. But since mid-1990s, we have seen a decline of China’s intellectual class.

Li tells us why:

One major reason is that since the mid-1990s, the obstacles to reform and social progress cease to be ideologies, but vested interests. We all know what the problems are but can hardly do anything about them because it will hurt some interests. Over time, problems and conflicts accumulate. Anyone who can think normally will see the problems; there is no need for academic intellectuals to point them out.

Another reason is the problem with the higher educational system. Poor remunerations and restrictive environments deter talents to conduct academic research. Institutional constraints also deter many post-70s and 80s researchers to become outspoken public intellectuals.

If you need an example of what ‘institutional constraints’ means, see our earlier posts on Zhang Bo Shu (Parts I and II).

Finally, if everyone knows what the problems are, but cannot openly express it, because China ceases to reform, what can you do? Yes, turn to the Big, Stupid Echo Chamber called the Internet, as Li writes:

If you know the problems, but are helpless about them, what will you do? Make a laughter and joke of it – how the weak expresses themselves. People begin to speak improperly, because there is nothing more that can be spoken about. Han Han’s gags and naughtiness hit the sweet spot of our age. And the Internet serves as the ideal place to spread his jokes, making him popular.

The Internet has brought about an explosive growth of information. The age where we beg for information and one office subscribes to one newspaper is gone. Netizens now are spending less and less time on an Internet page. What they want is fast food. And articles need to be short, crispy and fun. This is why microblogging is popular nowadays. And Han Han’s blog articles feel like microblogs.

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What an Idiot Foreigner Shows Us About Xenophobia and Sexism in China

This post has been translated into Chinese for our Chinese site. 请点此看中文译文

WARNING: This post contains explicit language. Put the kids to bed first.

This video was being passed around on Twitter a week or two ago. It’s embedded below, but in case you can’t see it or it loads slowly because you’re outside China, it’s a drunk foreigner, apparently married to a Chinese woman, making an idiot of himself. The video title says he’s “beating” his father in law, but no “beating” really occurs, just a little grabbing and shoving as Captain Drunkface is flailing around on the ground. Here’s the video:

Let me get this out of the way first: the guy is clearly a moron, and deserves most of the abuse netizens can heap upon him. But the reason he deserves a bit of abuse isn’t because he’s foreign, or because he’s married to a Chinese girl, it’s because he is a moron. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not operating from a neutral position here, since I’m a foreigner who is engaged to a Chinese woman.

Another disclaimer: I am aware that this kind of stuff exists in all cultures, and the internet is a prime breeding ground for xenophobic misogynists. This, as ever, is a blog about China. I’m not suggesting Americans, or the Dutch, or anyone else, are any better, just suggesting that the phenomenon might be worth looking at in China.

With that said, let’s take a look at some of the comments netizens have posted on the video. I’ve selectively translated ((i.e., these comments are not representative of the whole community commenting on that video, just a part of it. That said, it did not take me much effort to find any of these quotations.)) those that I think connect to xenophobia and/or sexism and tried to categorize them, though many fall into both categories.

Xenophobic Comments

Most of these comments were chosen because they contain the term 洋鬼子, or “foreign devil”, which is probably the most derogatory Mandarin slur for foreigners.

“Worthless foreign devil.”

“The foreign devil should be detained; however, that police officer speaking some English isn’t bad.”

“Not all about foreign devils is good, many people who worship foreign things are just scared.”

“Foreign devils acting wild in China, it all comes from the Manchu period of backwardness and humiliation.”

“Foreign devils, bah!”

“In my life, I will not marry or even like a foreigner. And when I have kids, I will not allow them to marry foreigners.”

“Women who marry foreign devils are truly worthless. Women who marry this kind of guy are even worse.”

“Truly disgusting. When they’re drunk, the true evil in the hearts of foreigners is perfectly revealed.”

“Foreign garbage.” [A lot of people made this comment]

The fact that this video is even popular in the first place is evidence that foreigners are treated differently by many Chinese. After all, drunken idiots being hauled off by the police is something you can see on any street corner in China (or anywhere else in the world). And the fact that everyone feels the need to say “this foreign guy” instead of just “this guy” shows us that there’s a clear interest in keeping him separate from anything “Chinese.” He is the Other.

Fair enough. I must admit, I myself would be relieved if I had some proof this guy wasn’t American, because it’s embarrassing to be associated with his behavior. Furthermore, the situation is complicated by the fact that many commenters feel the man received special treatment because of his race and say he would have been dealt with more swiftly and violently had he been Chinese. We don’t, of course, know anything about the predilections of the police officer in question, so that assertion is impossible to evaluate conclusively, but it is certainly possible. No one would deny that on the whole, foreigners often receive special treatment from Chinese police.

But regardless, there’s a lot of anger directed at the man’s foreignness, rather than at his behavior or at his having received special treatment. The term 洋鬼子, a harsh enough bit of invective that very few Chinese people would say it to a foreigner’s face, is thrown around in these comment sections as though it were the proper term of “foreigner”. It’s a bit like reading comments on a news story about a black criminal that are full of the word “n****r”.

My concern here is not that the Chinese aren’t properly PC, because who cares. What concerns me is what’s behind the language choice, thousands of commenters taking one bad moment in the life of a single foreigner and using it to spread hundred-year-old stereotypes and apply them to the entirety of the non-Chinese world, i.e. around 5/6 of the planet. In using slurs to refer to the foreigner, many people seem to be implying what that one commenter made explicit: there is something explicitly different and evil about foreigners, and they hide it to trick us.

Old Chinese Drawing of a Foreigner

Comments Concerning Chinese Women with Foreigners

Many of these comments are inherently sexist and xenophobic.

“When you marry a foreigner, even your own father will get hurt.”

“How many Chinese girls are happy with foreigners? Chinese men are better.”

“Why would [she] want to marry a foreigner?”

“I don’t really get why so many women like being fucked by foreign guys.”

“In truth, it’s not [just] being obsessed with foreign things. I just don’t get women these days…”

“Our family has a coarse saying: don’t let foreigners fuck good cunts!”

“I once saw a group of Northeasterners beating up two foreigners, the foreigners were drunk and had been catcalling at a Chinese girl. Then three northeasterners came along and beat those foreigners till they were kneeling. One foreigner might have actually been unconscious, he was lying on the ground…”

“A loss of face? Chinese people have already lost all the face there is to lose. And this old guy? How could he marry his daughter to this foreigner? Is avoiding [another] loss of face enough? Just quickly divorce the guy, don’t lose any more face.”

“Don’t let the next generation of Chinese be mixed-race! This is not only tarnishing Chinese families, but it is a humiliation to the great traditions of the Chinese people!”

“Who raised this girl? All of her “benefits” flowing into the “fields” of a foreigner, it would be better to just have a dog instead of this kind of daughter.”

The issues here are complex. The concept of “face” being as important as it is in China, many of the commenters felt this woman had lost face for China by marrying such an idiot. Many more felt marrying foreigners in general was a loss of face, and wondered why she couldn’t just marry a Chinese guy. Love, or the personalities of the man and the woman, never entered into the equation. I didn’t see a single comment wondering what it was she saw in him in the first place, just a lot calling her “worthless” and comparing her unfavorably to a dog for having married a “garbage foreigner” and being someone who “worships foreign things”.

Of course, when a foreign girl offers Chinese men so much as a hug, Chinese men are clamoring over her. It’s not traitorous for Chinese men to drool over, have sex with, or marry foreign women. In fact, it is glorious, a conquest of sorts. But many of these comments imply Chinese women don’t have the same freedoms, even if the foreigner they’re with isn’t a drunken idiot, the fact that he’s a foreigner at all is enough to make them “worthless” in the eyes of their male countrymen.

Yes, I am aware the internet is an mostly-male, sexist place. I’m also aware that taking a stand against sexism and xenophobia isn’t exactly gutsy or cutting edge. But regardless, these comments are real, and judging by the number of people who’ve written things like them, people who actually believe this stuff aren’t rare at all, so I think they’re worth looking at and talking about, at least for a day.

What are your thoughts? (Hint: this is the part where you say I’m overreacting, trying to “force Western values on China”, or make conjectures about my personal life!)

How to Prevent More School Collapses

This post has been translated into Chinese for our Chinese site. 请点此看中文译文

Just like in Sichuan two years ago, students in Yushu died, crushed by the classrooms and hallways of their schools. Whether the school collapses were the result of shoddy construction or not is still not clear, but that people suspect corruption led to poorly-built schools is not unfair. Thousands of students died in Sichuan because the pockets of local officials were greased, and school buildings and building materials weren’t properly inspected.

This, of course, is illegal. But how can the central government stop it? Especially in regions like Yushu, which is both remote and impoverished, anti-corruption laws are difficult to enforce. And after the Sichuan quake controversy, local officials everywhere are likely to be worried and defensive, afraid they, too, will be accused of endangering children.

The truth everyone knows is that there are thousands, probably millions, of schools and other buildings out there that aren’t up to code or weren’t inspected properly in the first place. The government can’t magically fix them all, but there is something it could try that would both create jobs and ensure that at least some schools are more safely built in the future.

What I would propose is a two-step process. The first step is a general amnesty for all local officials, inspectors, and building companies. They, of course, know where they cut corners. The government should announce nationwide inspections (something for all those unemployed college graduates to do) will occur, and violators will be harshly punished, but that officials or builders who know they cut corners will be exempt so long as they fix the problem themselves in a way that is adequate to the new inspectors’ liking.

The second step would be nationwide inspections of schools. Of course, some of these inspectors will be bribed, and some of them will probably take the bribes, but with a bit of ideological work beforehand, I’m certain the government will end up with at least a handful of straight inspectors. Schools found to be improperly built should be fixed, and the local builders and/or officials punished accordingly.

The eternal question, of course, is where does the money come from for all of this. Certainly, the government isn’t rolling in riches, but I think they could take money off of some of their more useless projects (CCTV International, anyone?) and funnel it into school inspection and rebuilding to better effect. Frankly, for all their talk of soft power, a genuine push to modernize school buildings and cut down on corruption that hurts children would probably gain them as much, if not more, international goodwill than an infinite number of CCTV channels.

What do you think, though? I am exhausted and have been applying for jobs all day, so I’m ready to admit that there may be a gaping hole in this proposal somewhere, or many gaping holes. So how can the government affect real change in eliminating the “tofu-dreg buildings” that many students must attend classes in?

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