Friday, May 29, 2009

In-depth reporting

I've often felt that the problem with foreign journalists in China is not that they have an agenda (as Chinese right-wing / nationalist, ahem, "left wing" netizens claim), but that they just don't have a lot depth and go for cookie cutter stories. Custer at ChinaGeeks makes this point well in regards to newspapers' constant comparisons of any protest in China to Tiananmen. Part of the issue, I think, is that reporters don't stay in the P.R.C. (or anywhere) long.

I remember meeting a photographer who was taking a language program with me in Beijing in 2006 who had just been transferred there from reporting on Iraq. She was sure she'd be headed elsewhere in a bit over a year. How could she find much to photograph beyond the obvious? I expect she delivered a number of shots of police in front of the Forbidden City trying to cover her lens with their gloves. Or chic young people walking past police. Or old buildings contrasted with a racy ad.

Each reporter / photographer goes for the big arc---"China's no longer like it was under Mao! Believe it or not, it's gone capitalist, but it's still authoritarian! Who would have guessed?"---for a year, then, if they are there longer, they start to get into the details. But before they're too far into the details, they're gone.

Blogger Michael Anti is trying to change this, but for Chinese reporting on the world, not the other way around. His website Zhongheng Zhoukan or "Far and Wide Journal" has reporting from Chinese stationed around the world (countries are organized by their flags on the main page).

Anti told Danwei, "My intention was to organize an independent professional analysis group consisting of journalists, scholars, columnists and students, who will continue to research on a single country, area or topic for years. Every week, we publish online a collection of their political analyses. It's a kind of civil think-tank on international politics. We offer Chinese media readers an alternative option from lazy translation or nationalist propaganda."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fair enough

From the Wall Street Journal:

China said in a document putting forward its demands for December climate talks in Copenhagen that developed nations must cut their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2020 from 1990 levels.

China is also asking rich countries to donate at least 0.5% to 1% of their annual gross domestic product to help poorer countries cope with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it said in the document, which was posted on the Web site of the National Development and Reform Commission, the economic policy-making body that governs China's greenhouse gas emissions policy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Health care II

I just came across Asia Health Care Blog via Dan Harris at China Law Blog. It's a good introduction to the many different ways that China could sort out the issues I mentioned in my last post on the topic. But it lacks the sort of moral urgency I'd like. If someone knows of a good, Chinese Paul Farmer, someone who sees health care as a struggle and denial of medical attention as a systemic cruelty... then let me know.

Monday, May 11, 2009

U.S. imprisonment of journalists

As Iran releases U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi from prison, Glen Greenwald makes some strong points about American imprisonment of journalists:
Saberi's release is good news, as her conviction occurred as part of extremely dubious charges and unreliable judicial procedures in Iran.... But imprisoning journalists -- without charges or trials of any kind -- was and continues to be a staple of America's "war on terror," and that has provoked virtually no objections from America's journalists who, notably, instead seized on Saberi's plight in Iran to demonstrate their claimed commitment to defending persecuted journalists....

Beginning in 2001, the U.S. held Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj for six years in Guantanamo with no trial of any kind, and spent most of that time interrogating him not about Terrorism, but about Al Jazeera. For virtually the entire time, the due-process-less, six-year-long imprisonment of this journalist by the U.S. produced almost no coverage -- let alone any outcry -- from America's establishment media, other than some columns by Nicholas Kristof (though, for years, al-Haj's imprisonment was a major media story in the Muslim world)....

... the U.S. continues to imprison Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, even though an Iraqi court last December -- more than five months ago -- found that there was no evidence to justify his detention and ordered him released. The U.S. -- over the objections of the CPJ, Reporters Without Borders and Reuters -- refused to recognize the validity of that Iraqi court order and announced it would continue to keep him imprisoned....

A Nexis search for "Roxana Saberi" reveals 2,201 mentions in press reports, virtually all of them in the last two months regarding her arrest by Iran. By stark contrast, a search for "Ibrahim Jassam"... produces a grand total of 71 mentions.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Health care

Way back when I studied abroad in Beijing in 2001, I did a little "research project" on health reform in China. My professors put me in touch with some talkative retirees and gave me newspaper articles to read (which was difficult back then, given my limited Chinese level). I came back with a glowing report on the future of the country's health system and was told I was being too optimistic, which I obviously was... I just hadn't been given the right resources.

A couple years later, a friend of mine in the countryside was surprised to be charged somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 RMB for his daughter's broken tooth to be fixed. This was a couple times his monthly earnings. Another person I knew, an urbanite, had to pay extra under the table for his mother to get proper hospital treatment. These people's experiences with price-gouging and corruption, I discovered, were not unique (see this article in China Elections and Governance and this one in The Telegraph). When SARS swept through, the disease showed how dangerous China's system or lack thereof could be: people carrying SARS were shaken down for money and turned away in some instances, at least initially.

Obviously, the Chinese health system, like America's, is in need of a fundamental overhaul. Especially in rural areas. And it seems like it will, at last, get some changes in the near future (see USA Today's recent, surprisingly in-depth article). The details of the current plan pretty much mirror the plan that I read about way back, eight years ago: individuals will pay a certain amount, their employers and local government will kick in some, and the central government will pay the remainder.

This sounds fine on the surface, but the balance is, in fact, skewed: local governments are responsible for 60 percent of the funds. They simply cannot pay this, having already tried out random taxes, land seizures and other methods to raise cash, all with socially destabilizing consequences. Academics like Christine Wong have written about how what was essentially a progressive tax in the Mao era (with localities and enterprises sending all their profits into the center and getting back more or less what they needed to catch up to other areas) evolved into a regressive system, whereby poor areas pay for growth in Beijing and Shanghai, leaving little left over for an ever-increasing number of mandates: to provide education free, to reduce pregnancies, to build hospitals, etc.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that some are calling for more private solutions, a la the American model. I hope no one pays attention to these voices. This would only lead to more corruption and less responsibility. What is needed is a national, socialized system... but I don't envy anyone trying to put it together.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Ah, that's all that was needed

Southern Metropolis Daily reports that the city's cheng guan, low-level public order cops who bust roadside vendors and are roundly hated by the public, have changed... the color of their uniforms.

Internal propaganda

When I was last in Beijing, I noticed the same glowing, digital ads projected inside subway tunnels that appear out of the darkness as you enter and exit some stations in Washington, DC. Michael Zhao has a piece on the phenomenon in Forbes magazine that explains how the human eye "animates" a string images, how a company called Beijing Topflash Media is pushing this stuff, etc. All interesting. But I was most struck at the time by the content of the advertisements.

As further proof that the main target of Beijing's rhetoric on Tibet is not the outside world but the Chinese people, the ads were all for a new production of the People's Daily website devoted exclusively to Tibet, Zhongguo Xizang Wang. They weren't very stylish ads--no animation, at least not any that I remember. But they drove the thing home. Upon returning to the States, I looked for Zhongguo Xizang Wang.

I found it; it is here.

And it is much more sophisticated than any of the clumsy pronouncements China makes to the outside world about the T.A.R. The site has heartwarming stories on Chinese young people volunteering in Tibetan schools, a section on Tibetan culture (dancing, of course), articles on concerns in France that H.H. the Dalai Lama's visit there will strain Sino-French relations, and, last but not least, a book corner that highlights a series of conspiracy / history / drama books that I saw everywhere in Chinese airport bookstores: Xizang Mima ("The Tibet Code").

In comparison, updates on the Chinese Embassy's website in DC come across propagandistic and flat, full of quotes from foreign folks in support of Chinese policy, like the sections in Chinese and Vietnamese museums highlighting gifts from abroad. It is as if the Embassy posts don't receive any real effort, like they were just put there to show someone that they had been put up. Which is the point.

While China would like to change hearts and minds abroad, its purpose in exposing "the Dalai clique" to the world is mostly to seem consistent to home audiences. Boring? Yes, but fiercely the same. Sticking up for the nation in hostile settings. Sticking up by being its same, old, boring self.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


The picture above was taken from Cardozo High School, looking out over Washington, DC, this evening. The view is much cooler than what my camera phone captured.

Up the hill, you can see layer upon layer of the individual, quirky row houses that define the city, while to the east the new convention center, a (largely successful) attempt at economic rejuvenation via corporate blahhh, pops up out of the skyline. To the west, the Washington Monument rises---state power and glory. The dome of congress, to the east again, brings up images of urban decay from a decade ago: power lines, a lone smokestack and broken roofs with the old dome rising behind them, like a "decline of the West" reverse of the old-versus-new snapshots people love to take of Shanghai skyscrapers rising from quaint lanes.

It seems like an enormous challenge to create a community out of all this, one that pulls off an opportunity structure dynamic enough to invite the input (and challenges) of new demographic groups, that generates enough wealth to feel like it has some momentum, and that moves toward the end point of absolute equality without losing vernacular beauty.

A couple articles over the past few weeks highlight the difficulties of keeping all these plates spinning. The NY Times has a depressing piece on the betrayals of India's traditional Communist Party in West Bengal in its pursuit of growth. And an article by The New Yorker compares the competing visions of egalitarianism born out of Smyrna, Tennessee's Nissan plant, on the one hand, with its "team" feel and management eating in the company cafeteria, and the UAW-negotiated labor relations that built Detroit, on the other.

Friday, May 01, 2009

May Day

May Day is upon us and, with the global economic crisis reminding everyone who didn't know it already that Wall Street excess isn't a soft, win-win engine of growth, the streets have been especially lively this year. See BBC's video of protests in Turkey, the Philippines, Germany and Russia here.

Few remember that the holiday was originally designated by the Second International as, in part, a day of remembrance for the Hay Market martyrs, anarchists who were tried and hanged largely for their political beliefs after a bomb was thrown at police by an unknown individual during a peaceful protest in Hay Market Square in Chicago in 1886.

The protest in Hay Market Square had been called in response to police shootings during a previous rally outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co's factory. That rally, in turn, grew out of a nationwide mobilization for an eight-hour day. Wikipedia has the full chronology here.

Though it seems a little silly, I am particularly impressed by the mustaches and beards of those radicals of times gone by (see the photo above). Their facial hair speaks---at least I think---to their close association with their time and place, a contrast with some radicals today who make a point of distinguishing themselves from their milieu. Orwell had some choice words over half a century ago on this subject:

The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years' time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white- collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting....

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured 'Socialists', as who should say,'Red Indians'. He was probably right--the I.L.P. were holding their
summer school at Letchworth.

I'm not on board with all of Orwell's stereotypes ("Quakers" and "feminists" and "Red Indians" don't seem particularly wacky to me). And making fun of counterculture has gone a bit too far nowadays, with jokes about the 60s and 70s covering over the serious questions raised by communes, anti-war and anti-nuclear advocacy, drug experimentation, etc. But Orwell, a socialist himself, had a point.