Category Archives: In Brief

In Brief: Who’s Really Disappearing Reporters

At this point probably everyone is familiar with the “Bijie Boys” and most of you are probably also aware of how that turned out for the reporter who broke the story. The fact that a reporter would be held for reporting a story no one disputes the veracity of should surprise exactly no one, but there is one aspect of this story I’d like to explore a little bit.

Now, before I start, I want to say that I love Beijing Cream. I find the site both informative and funny and it has been one of my favorite China blogs for a while now. Moreover, I think every writer there is probably at least familiar with the argument I’m about to make, so I’m really just using the Beijing Cream article as an example here. In fact, I suspect Anthony Tao might actually agree with what I’m about to write, but going into all this was rather outside the scope of his article, so he understandably didn’t. Anyway, my point here is that this article shouldn’t be taken as a critique of Tao or Beijing Cream in general.

That said, this section of Tao’s take on the Li Yuanlong’s arrest jumped out at me:

What we shouldn’t assume is that higher levels of government had anything to do with this, considering no one — and I mean no one — would be dumb enough to think punishing a journalist here would be a good idea. If there’s one thing we know about how business is done in these fourth-tier, hinterland-type counties, it’s that the powerful can do whatever the fuck they want, and someone with some power in this case must have decided to act out on his vendetta.

While the latter half of this paragraph is undoubtedly true, I do disagree to a certain extent with the first half. On the face of it, of course, it is quite true: I’d bet an awful lot of money that the decision to detain Li was made and executed by local officials who were not in any contact with higher authorities.

But I wouldn’t say it’s really true that higher authorities had nothing to do with it. The central government’s inability to control, or perhaps lack of interest in controlling, local governments fosters and facilitates an I-am-king-around-here attitude in local officials, and that inevitably leads to stories like this. Central authorities didn’t order the arrest of Li, no, but they have for decades presided over and molded a system that allows local authorities to do things like arrest reporters with minimal consequences, and often no consequences at all.

In fact, the system often offers de-facto rewards to local officials who keep their regions quiet by quieting anyone publicizing negative stories, because the officials that get promoted are often the ones who come from the most “stable,” “harmonious” districts. Officials have long-since learned that the surest route to apparent “harmony” is threatening, arresting, coercing, and censoring the people who would spread negative stories about their districts — reporters, petitioners, protesters, bloggers, etc. This way, higher authorities don’t often have to order the detention of people like Li — they have set the system up in such a way that people like Li can be silenced without anyone in the central government getting their hands dirty.

Moreover, if I — some random dude living halfway across the world — am aware that Li Yuanlong has been detained and “vactioned” at this point, certainly the authorities theoretically responsible for overseeing this sort of thing should be aware of this particular case by now. If they disapproved, undoing it shouldn’t take more than a phone call — the story could have been killed before I even woke up this morning, probably — and yet something tells me that phone call isn’t coming. Even if this case requires a few extra days to work its way through the bureaucracy, I’d be willing to bet it won’t; come Monday, I’d bet Li will still be on vacation. (Though I hope I’m wrong; something tells me this “vacation” isn’t all that pleasant).

(It didn’t take the authorities long to respond to this local problem by sacking the creepy official in question. Somehow, though, I doubt that will happen to the men behind Li’s detention).

I’ve written about the this-is-a-local-issue argument before, because it’s something you hear quite frequently when discussing injustices in China. And while it is, to an extent, true, I think it’s also important to elucidate the higher-level indifference and the systemic structures that makes these kind of local injustices possible year in and year out.

In Brief: Speaking of Arrogance…

I haven’t the time or, at the moment, the patience to go into this in depth, but let’s look for a second at the trailer for the upcoming documentary Death By China and let its ridiculousness wash over you like a wave:

Now, with the huge caveat that I haven’t seen this film so it could just be a case of terrible (or overly sensationalized) marketing, this looks insane. What’s more, it projects that same I’m-the-center-of-the-world-arrogant-pride-thinly-disguised-as-victimhood that I recently took some Chinese media to task for. This is probably not surprising — for all their differences, I think America and China are similar in many ways, one of those being a deep-seated belief that they are better than everyone else. But come on, guys. Everything about this is absurd and hypocritical.

For example, the Gordon Chang money quote here — “China is the only major nation on earth preparing to kill Americans” — is both extreme scaremongering and ludicrous arrogance. Yes, China is boosting its military capabilities across the board. Is there any evidence this is with the goal of killing Americans? No. China’s military will protect its strategic interests, and while that could include killing Americans who are in the way, Chang’s phrasing makes it sound like China is raising an army that’s going to parachute into the US, Red Dawn-style, and shoot your grandmother.

That isn’t going to happen, and it doesn’t even make any goddamn sense. Why would China want to destroy one of its major trade partners? Moreover, why would China want to destroy a country that owes it so much money? It wouldn’t. China doesn’t want to kill Americans, it just wants them to shut up about the South China Sea and stop selling weapons to Taiwan. Since neither of those things are likely to happen, some eventual violence is certainly possible, but let’s not pretend China is planning Pearl Harbor here.

The discussion of jobs in the trailer is even more ludicrous because it leaves out a gigantic, hugely important facet of that issue: the companies shipping these jobs overseas are American. It’s true some Chinese manufacturers are beating with American workers in part because they’re willing to abuse their own workers (although the fact that many of these workers are, by American standards, willing to abuse themselves is also a relevant point). But if China is taking American jobs via workers rights abuses, what does that say about the American companies that are willingly choosing to ship jobs there anyway?

It is not my intent to defend the labor practices of Chinese manufacturers here, but that strikes me as a Chinese problem. American companies shipping jobs overseas to take advantage of abuses is a problem that could be resolved at home by holding companies to a higher (read: any) moral standard. But, of course, it’s easier just to blame all that on the Chinese.

This argument also ignores the fact that as far as cheap labor is concerned, if China isn’t willing to offer it, some other country will be (and is). Abuse of workers is one problem, but another is that Americans are willing to see hundreds of thousands of jobs shipped overseas if it means they can save $20 on an iPhone.

(Note that I’m not even mentioning the absurd, over-the-top animations or the part where Americans, with a straight face, appear to be criticizing someone else about carbon emissions.)

Anyway, I don’t really have the energy to go into this further, and it would be unfair of me to do a proper shredding before I see the actual movie, anyway. But if this trailer is any indication, Death By China looks like it’s going to make the Red Dawn remake look like a tasteful, nuanced look at US-Asia relations.

In Brief: Ai Weiwei Denied His Day in Court, Legal Advisor Disappeared

In news so depressingly predictable that it’s almost not worth writing about, Ai Weiwei’s legal advisor Liu Xiaoyuan is apparently being held by State Security after being summoned for a meeting at 8:30 PM last night. Although Ai Weiwei’s Fake Studio tax appeal case opens in court today, Liu Xiaoyuan has not yet returned, and his phone is turned off. Ai has also been informed by police that he is not allowed in court.

Honestly, I am running out of things to say when this sort of thing happens. It’s a move as obvious as it is depressing, and it’s indication number 9,343,245 that however fast China’s economy is developing, the real rule of law is still a terribly long way off. One wonders how government spokesmen manage to choke out the words, “China is a nation with the rule of law,” even as this sort of “justice” is being served.

I also wonder what, exactly, Beijing is doing here. They clearly have no intention of giving Ai his day in court, and they can’t possibly think that anyone outside China will consider whatever verdict they reach fair when Ai’s principal lawyer was essentially kidnapped the night before his court date. So why not just arrest him and be done with it? Or hand him a summons informing him the court has found him guilty of tax evasion in absentia or something. I understand someone probably feels the government needs to make a show of doing this the right way, but security forces obviously don’t agree.

If you’re going to put on a dog-and-pony show to try to fool people into believing China has the rule of law, it’s best to at least allow the occasional dog or pony into the building, isn’t it?

Coal Mining in China By The Numbers

This morning I came across this story on Twitter about China’s most recent coal mining disaster, with forty miners trapped. Coal mining accidents are common here, so common in fact that this is not even the first major accident of this month. A cave-in in Henan trapped 45 miners underground a few days ago, although luckily thanks to a daring rescue only eight people died.

That and the ensuing discussion led me to this post, which cites that between 2001-2011, 47,676 coal miners died in accidents in China. That number is striking, especially given that few among us is likely to be able to recall many of the specifics or details of any of these mining disasters.

As an experiment in comparisons, I decided to try to create an infographic that compared the death toll from coal mining accidents in China over the last decade to events that, at least for Westerners, probably stick more solidly in our memories.

Now, a few disclaimers:

  • Yes, obviously I am aware that coal mining accidents are not the same as any of the other events I use here, for a plethora of reasons. This is a comparison of relative numbers, period.
  • I’m not an expert in coal mining or disasters, but I understand this is getting better, although obviously not nearly fast enough.
  • Shut up, I’m not a graphic designer, and I did this on a computer without Photoshop!
  • If you’re going to repost this, please at least link to ChinaGeeks!

infographic

Puts things in a slightly different perspective, doesn’t it? Somehow, we glaze over these mine accidents, but something tells me if there had been 1,288 Ted Bendys running around over the past decade, we’d be pretty aware of that.

UPDATE: A way better infographic on coal mining in China.

In Brief: Things Going Crazy in Linyi

First off, apologies for the lack of posts recently. As you might imagine, I’ve been busy with this and the guest posts and other features associated with that.

But, I’ve also been following the Chen Guangcheng case, which I wrote about somewhat recently here. Since then, there have been three major developments in Chen’s case: one positive, one negative, and one weird.

First, the good news: thanks to increasing pressure from netizens and “adventure tourists” (more on that in a moment), Chen’s daughter is now being allowed to attend school, although she will be trailed by guards at all times. That’s understandable, I suppose. If she were to attend school unsupervised, she might cause all sorts of trouble for the establishment. After all, she’s a full six years old now, and kindergartens have always been the fertile bed in which the seeds of revolution are sewn….OK, I’ll stop. At least the poor girl will get an education of some sort. That’s a victory, albeit a small one.

Second, the bad news: as netizens have ramped up the pressure on Chen’s case, local officials in Linyi seem to have doubled down. Chen’s village is full of thugs who beat anyone trying to enter it, and even the local police are smacking people around (and telling them the thugs who beat them and rob them are just in their imagination). More and more people have been attempting to visit Chen in what netizens are cheekily calling “Adventure tourism to Shandong,” but thusfar they’re not getting much more than bruises for their troubles. See this post for photographic evidence that some of these “adventure tourists” have received harsh beatings.

Finally, the weird: Amidst all this madness, the folks at Relativity Media (an American film company) have decided now’s a great time to film a raucous buddy comedy in Linyi. Seriously, you couldn’t make this up. Here’s Tom Lasseter of McClatchy on his blog:

Hollywood Reporter has an item that caught me by … surprise. Apparently, the U.S. film company Relativity Media is shooting part of a movie in Linyi under a partnership called Sky Land.

This is the Linyi in Shandong Province. The same place where blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is being held under extra-judicial house arrest in a local village. He was placed under detention after being released from prison — the consequence of his trying to lead a class action lawsuit against local officials’ campaign of forced sterilization and abortions. Chen and his wife were reportedly badly beaten at the behest of local officials earlier this year.

You can read more about the film here.

In a fit of quasi-journalism, we’ve reached out to Relativity Media and a couple of the film’s stars for comment. I expect we’ll hear back roughly never, but in the event we do, I’ll certainly post whatever we get. In the interim, we have the comments thread.

In Brief: Why People Become Officials

I came across this poll on Sina Weibo today and couldn’t help but be amused by the responses to it. This year’s Civil Service Exam is kicking off, and millions of budding officials the nation over are putting pens to paper — or at least talking about doing it on Weibo. Buy why do they want to take the test and become government officials? Let’s find out!

Disclaimer: Blah blah online poll, low sample size, skewed demographics, got it.

You can check out the poll here, but you’ll need a Weibo account to vote, and you’ll need to vote yourself before you can view the results. Of course it’s highly unscientific, but can anyone say they’re really surprised to see this? It goes a long way towards explaining why Chinese officials are often so terrible at serving the people — apparently only 19% of them were interested in doing that in the first place!

Everybody else is apparently just in it for the perks (or because their moms told them they had to).

(Note for the tonedeaf, because I have a feeling the disclaimer isn’t going to be obvious enough for some of you: this is being posted mostly for the purposes of humor and yes, obviously, a Weibo poll with a few thousand results doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of China about the civil service exam or the service that comes after it.)

Reminder: We’re making a movie about kidnapped kids in China and we kind of need your help. Please check out our official site, or the special section we’ve created on ChinaGeeks. Or just check out the trailer below. You can make a donation via that Paypal button over there on the right hand side of the page, you’ll get cool rewards, and 20% of your donation goes to help the Xinxing center, so you can help them and us at the same time!

For more info on kidnapped children in China you can also check out my article in Foreign Policy on the subject.

In Brief: Wang Shuo on Democracy in China

Wang Shuo is a Chinese author and screenwriter who has achieved remarkable success in China. Some of his works have been banned here, but not for political reasons; rather, because of the “hooligan” writing style he’s made his trademark. Still, Wang isn’t averse to a little political commentary, as evidenced in this quote of his that’s being passed around on Chinese microblog sites and SNS right now (though the quote itself may be old, I’m not sure).

A people without elections, without property ((Technically, all real estate in China is leased from the state for 70 years, not owned outright by the buyer)), and without political rights getting together and having lofty discussions about the downsides of democracy…it’s like seeing a group of court eunuchs saying ‘having a sex life hurts the body, thank god we’re castrated’ or seeing a group of beggars saying ‘money is such a dirty thing, our way of begging for food is much cleaner.’

[h/t to Brendan for this one, link here (and many other places)]