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Why is PR So Bad in China?

July 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Amongst the myriad thousand questions that the Wenzhou train accident last weekend has raised, one that lingers around the most is “why is PR so bad in China?”.  I had previously written about the epic gaffes that CCTV had played on the public, ranging from using footage from Top Gun in a report about a new fighter jet, to Hu Jin Tao visiting the home of a Chinese woman who claims to pay only 77rmb per month in rent.

From start to finish, the efforts of the spokespersons of the various government agencies that are involved in the train crash have been particularly underwhelming:

Wang Yong Ping’s (the spokesman for the Ministry of Railways whos was spotted recently taking the plane instead of the train)statement explaining (or not, as the case may be) why train carriages were buried at the scene of the accident almost instantly became an internet meme when he said

“…During the emergency rescue operations, the area was very complex, and there was a marsh below, so it was very difficult to do our best job. We also had to deal with all the other train cars, so (the earth-moving equipment operator) buried the front car below, covering it with earth, and it was mainly just a case of dealing with the emergency. This was the explanation he offered. Whether you believe it or not, I certainly do.”

Which wasn’t particularly reassuring, especially since, they’ve dug them back up again.

When Premier Wen eventually turned up to do the consolation thing that he’s so good at, he told reporters “I am ill, having spent 11 days in bed, but I managed to come today only after my doctor reluctantly allowed me to check out of hospital. This is why I didn’t come here sooner,”.  Not so ill, it would seem, to have met several different leaders of state in the last 11 days, however.  Not only did he lie, accordingly to The Shanghaiist, he lied to the same state controlled media that had in fact been openly reporting on the fact that he wasn’t ill and had attended several meetings:

On July 18, Wen received Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
On July 19, Wen presided over a State Council meeting on climate change and sustainable development.
On July 20, Wen presided over a State Council working session.
On July 21, Wen met up with Cameroonian President Paul Biya.
On July 24, Wen received a delegation from the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade.
On July 27, Wen presided over another State Council working session.

The government appeared to want to use the crash as another attempt to stir up all the emotions that a growing dictatorship needs from it’s populous – instructing the media to specifically focus on stories that were “more touching” whilst telling them not to even think about investigating the causes of the crash themselves, along with terse, clear instructions not to reflect or comment.  The rules were happily ignorned when the journalists found out that no-one was really answering any questions at the press conferences.

The Chinese press has drawn parallels with another train crash that happened last year in Guangdong:

“Train K859 derailed on May 23 last year (the death toll given was 19), and a rescue worker tells our reporters: ‘The accident happened at 2am, and trains were running by 6pm [the same day], so last time the rescue work was even shorter. They used diggers to make a pit, then dragged the train cars into the pit. After that they used tractor shovels to crush them down. Some body parts that hadn’t been taken out were mixed in and buried together [with the wreckage]. A couple of weeks later, after the incident had settled down, everything was dug out again, everything cleaned away and carted off.”

When the company that supplied the railway signals held a “press conference” that was either grossly misreported on or so fantastically awful and mismanaged that it beggars belief and went through all the colours of the rainbow, starting as a calamity, through to a major crisis, and finally deciding on taking flight as a fully-fledged catastrophe (again from The Shanghaiist):

Q: What railway signals equipment has your company been supplying for the D trains?
A: You can check it out from our website yourself.

Q: What is your company’s relationship with the Ministry of Railways?
A: It’s not convenient to talk about that.

Q: What is the government board that is directly in charge of your company?
A: If you’ve made it to this press conference, you should know the answer.

Q: So why are you conducting today’s press conference?
A: Uh. I don’t know. The weather’s been really hot, and you guys have been having a hard time running around outside. (The phone rings.) Uh. Can I take this call?

Media: Can you please show us some respect around here? This is a press conference!
A: Uh. Please let me take this call really quickly.

Finally, when the names of the people who would be providing the “swift, open and transparent” investigation of the Ministry of Railways ordered by Wen Jia Bao, it appeared that almost all of them officials on the investigating committee are currently employed by the, er, Ministry of Railways.  According to the China Media Project’s Newswire, noted scholar He Weifang wrote that “Officials from the railway ministry stand out [on the list]. They should decline [participation]. No one can be a judge of events that directly concern their own interests — this is the most basic demand of procedural justice.”  I don’t think that anyone is holding their breath over that one.

For the most part, the Chinese government seem to have understood that they have lost this propaganda battle for now.  They may have taken the view that it’s probably best for the outrage to burn itself out in the press and in the Chinese cyberscape.  When the CCP decides that enough is enough, they’ll start clamping down on coverage sending the message that it’s no longer acceptable to discuss the failings of the Party.

Change Ain’t Good

March 3, 2011 3 comments
High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played by John Hu...

Image via Wikipedia

“And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.”

V, V for Vendetta

“What we need right now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every televisionI want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!”

Chancellor Adam Sutler, V for Vendetta

As a fresh faced youngster in 2006, I wanted to save China.  I wanted to shine a light on the corruption, the censorship, the human rights abuses and I wanted to open the eyes of the Chinese people, and really let them see what China was, and let them understand what the western world thought of China.

Of course, it was an utterly pointless exercise.  I got my first Chinese girlfriend, a 19 year old economics student (ok, I’ll admit that I was 27 at the time), and I really thought that I’d be able to bring her around to the western way of thinking, hoping that this article that I wrote about movie censorship, or that column I wrote about plagiarism, or the things that showing her pictures of Tankman and the 1989 protests would make her see sense.  I even dragged her around the old Qianmen area that was scheduled for demolition to make her see what her government was doing to these irreplaceably historic buildings.  I got shooed off the makeshift living areas for the homeless behind the infamous “mini great wall” behind the Qianmen bus station for taking unwanted picture of the squalor.  For all my procrastinations, for all my heartfelt appeals, for all my solemn, headshaking, I didn’t make a dent.

Her father was a government lawyer, and was having none of it.  After a couple of months, I had gotten around to the idea that her life revolved around getting a manicure in Wang Fu Jing, going to KTV, and going dancing till three in the morning and coming home stinking of cigarettes and baijiu.  Occasionally seeing me, and quite possibly buying more shoes.  Things didn’t work out between us.

I like to live in a sea of information.  I’ve got Facebook open, Tweetdeck tuned to some of the top China commentators and bloggers, the TV on mute tuned to BBC News 24, and BBC World service playing via the Internet – I do all this whilst chatting on MSN, sending and receiving text messages and answering Skype calls and downloading podcasts to my iPod for later listening.  It all adds up to the fact that I know more about what’s going on in China than most Chinese people, and I barely speak the language.  All of my information about what’s going on in China comes from English news sources.  This is a source of friction between me and the Chinese people that I talk to, basically because the news isn’t always good news and Chinese people don’t believe that western news sources can be trusted.  This is a rather inconvenient situation for foreigners, because nearly all Chinese people don’t actually know that it’s illegal for Chinese journalists to work for foreign publications.  So how the hell else are we supposed to get the skinny on what’s happening in China?  What is interesting though, is that the things that I’m interesting and repost on Weibo or Kaixin, aren’t the same things that my Chinese friends are interested in.

Starved, in the first few months of my return to China from Japan, of Facebook, I signed up with Kaixin which slaked my thirst for constant new news.  Last week I disabled my account, mostly because what my Chinese friends on Kaixin were blogging about was pretty much diametrically opposite to what I was blogging and reposting about.  That and I was getting pretty pissed off with everything I was reposting as “newsworthy” was pretty much instantly deleted by the censors

And this is where we come to part one of my theory of why everyone in this part of the world defends their culture so much.  It’s a cliché, and it’s not going to be popular, but in a nutshell: everyone looks the same in this part of the world and the historical and cultural background is the only thing that can help people differentiate Korean from Chinese from Japanese.  Part two of my theory attempts to answer a question that was posted last weekend about why the Chinese government is so good at “playing the crowd” at home, but not particularly good doing it on an international scale.  Every citizen has a certain preference as to how they perceive their country.  The Chinese government has the advantage because for a long time, it’s told people how to perceive their country.

Let’s take a look at the Japanese for a moment.

The Japanese prefer to think of their country as small.  You’ll say you want travel somewhere, and they will almost faint away in shock at the very thought of the great distance you want to travel.  You’ll meet someone in Osaka, enthuse about the country to a certain extent, and hear about how small the country is.  Then you’ll mention that you want to travel somewhere like Himeji (a mere two hours away from Osaka Station on the limited stop service).  Hands will fly up in horror, girls will faint away in a swoon, sirens, klaxons and alarms will sound and Japanese special forces will abseil down from the ceiling and crash through the windows as the Japanese people you are talking to try to contemplate the great distances involved in the epic journey that you are planning and very likely may not survive.  Japan is small, but everything is Very Far Away. And Japanese like to think of it like that.  And it’s the same with China, Chinese people have certain preferences that they adhere to when they think of their country.

Chinese people prefer the idea that China has been ruled in a ceaseless, uninterrupted chain of dynasties and emperors.  The actual details of wars, in-fighting, assassination attempts, treachery and other insidious parts of Chinese history are not important.  What is important is that the rule of China as one country has been how it has been, and it is the way that things will be to come.  This is why slogans like “a thousand years of the CCP” and suchlike were so popular.  It made Chinese people feel secure that someone was actually going to be watching over them, that something would be there.  In China, there’s no corruption.  Corruption is just a means to the end of being comfortable about knowing the outcome – the accumulation of money is incidental.

Chinese people prefer to know what’s going to happen – my love life is littered with Chinese girlfriends who thought obsessively about the future – they wanted to know if I had a life plan, if they should have a life plan, if they should have a monthly or 6 monthly plans.  My most recent ex was given the advice that if she didn’t get a promotion in the next six months, she should quit the company.  That was last June, and as far as I know, she’s still at the same place.  One of my go-getter Chinese friends sits down and writes a yearly schedule for herself every January 1st.  Last year, one of my students wouldn’t even move to Xian because (amongst a myriad thousand reasons), she was afraid of what might happen.

Fear of failure is rampant in China, and it all comes from the Chinese education system.  Students are repeatedly told that they know nothing, that they are empty vessels and they need to be filled with instructions on how to carry out the simplest of tasks (one of my students in the English school I was working in last year asked me to do a class on how to tie a tie) without instruction, without clear leadership, without the feel that they are being told something that they didn’t already know, Chinese people are lost.  Into this steps the CCP, which rather than being run as a voice of the people, sees itself (and calls itself) the ruling party of the country and indeed, of Chinese society.  Chinese laws don’t so much protect individuals, but they protect social and economic stability, a legal situation, and a national mindset that goes in completely the opposite direction to the western ideals of protecting individuals first.

The Chinese Communist Party is very proud of the fact that they have “opened up China”, with their policy of reforms and, er, opening up.  In actual fact, no one actually did anything, rather, the Party stopped interfering with people’s lives, and let them get on with whatever they wanted to get on with.  The problem with opening up has been that the focus in China has shifted from the collective “China” to the individual “Chinese”, and the laws in China, as already pointed out do not take into account protection for the individual.  There are no independent courts, no due process, and very channels for legal protection for the average Joe Chun.  The people are left with one alternative: The authoritarian protection of the ruling CCP.

Fantastic Prizes to be Won!!

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Taiwanese animators at the Apple Daily and NMA weighed in with their satirical short film “China Creates Peace Price to Rival Nobel” and “Li Xiao Bo: A Story of Hope and Struggle” both of which skewer the political miswranglings of China’s finest diplomatic minds.

Not wanting to be outdone, the Chinese responded to pressure from, er, the Norwegians, by awarding a it’s own citizens with prizes for outstanding achievement in the fields of harmony and peace.  The World Harmony Award, created by the World Harmony Foundation was awarded to none other than Chi Haotian, a Chinese general who had orchestrated the troops at Tian’anmen Square in 1989, encouraged Chinese people to fire on women and children on the battlefield (although what women and children are doing on the battlefield is anyone’s guess), and drew up plans for a Chinese invasion and occupation of the USA:

Our military battle preparation appears to aim at Taiwan, but in fact is aimed at the United States, and the preparation is far beyond the scope of attacking aircraft carriers or satellites. Marxism pointed out that violence is the midwife for the birth of the new society. Therefore war is the midwife for the birth of China’s century.

Er.  Go China?

U.N. Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs lent a certain weight to the award ceremony to the insane old man honorable CCP cadre, by gently handing it to him, rather than smashing him over his wrinkled old noggin with it and doing us all a favour by putting him out of our misery.  Needless to say, the UN’s Human Rights High Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay, declined to attend the award ceremony for Liu Xiaobo in Oslo

Furthering the cause of peace in the troubled province of Taiwan was the aim of the Confucius Peace Prize, which was duly awarded to Lien Chan of the KMT – who promptly denied ever hearing of it, as was told to the Taipei Times:

“We’ve never heard of such an award and of course Mr Lien has no plans to accept it,” said Ting Yuan-chao (丁遠超), director and spokesman of Lien’s office.

The KMT yesterday also denied having any knowledge of the the award, but defended his contributions to cross-strait developments.

“The KMT is not aware of the news and it would be more appropriate to comment on the matter after we make sure there’s such an award and learn the details,” KMT Spokesman Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) said.

Since Chan wasn’t sure if the award even existed, he didn’t attend the award ceremony (described as “chaotic” and “hastily organised” by attendees) so the glass…thing was given to a young Chinese girl with ponytails instead, because, of course, Chinese girls “symbolize peace and future”.

The whole pointless, posturing fiasco is best summed up by the inimitable James Fallows at The Atlantic:

South African officials eventually looked back with regret on the years in which they jailed Mandela; while racial inequalities are still with us in America, even Glenn Beck pays honor to Martin Luther King. Let’s hope Liu and his family live to see the day when official China can look back with regret on its decisions at this time.


Google Whacked

January 13, 2010 2 comments

There’s a myth that China needs saving from evil dictators, or that Chinese people need to be somehow civilized.  That’s simply not true.  The truth is that there’s little in the way of mass oppression as there once was, and most of the so-called political maneuvers are more than likely to be economically motivated than political – so much so that that when the Chinese government blocked the movie portal IMDB in China, I instantly commented that there must be a Chinese–backed version of the site to open in mainland China soon.

I don’t think that western countries have the best way of doing things, (in much the same way that I don’t think the Chinese way is the best way) as anyone who has been through an election year in the UK can testify.  No, it’s just that when I see a good idea rejected for no good reason, I don’t really see any reason to waste time, energy and money on getting the idea accepted.  I don’t think, for example that IMDB should be blocked in mainland China, I don’t think that “because of the Korean War” is a good excuse to give to me when I ask why can’t I exchange Won in Beijing and I don’t think that the answer to winter heating is to sling another block of coal on the Aga.

All of these things and more hurt China and Chinese people, and they hurt China in the worst possible way, they are rules enforced for the good of the minority that will benefit only in the short term.  The foreigners sure as hell aren’t going to hang around if Beijing air starts to melt their fillings, but thanks to the shortsighted government policies, Chinese people have little choice but settle back in with a bottle of Tsigntao to watch The Happy Show while their face melts.  Sure, the laowai are going to uproot their families and they may never eat gong bao chicken ever again, but then again, who wants to drink milk that could land you in the emergency room?

The one reason why I like the Internet is that it’s a major pain in the ass for the Chinese government.  The Internet is a problem, not only because it allows the free flow of ideas, but because it allows people to easily compare their living standards.  At one time in China it was easy to tell people that they were doing good work and that they were beating the evil Americans when it comes to wheat production.  Nowadays, it’s not so easy.  The Internet is open and accessible to everyone.  Peer review has never been so easy – anyone can look at it, and anyone can poke holes in it, sniff it, lick and get up close and personal to it.  The only problem is that the Chinese are not really used to people being able to look at it and poke holes in it.  Only last week a large fraud was discovered by an obscure science journal in papers that were authored by Chinese scientists.  Acta Crystollographica Section E found that all that Chinese researchers had done was to alter certain, existing crystal structures by one or two atoms with the intention of making the structure seem entirely new.  The discovery led to the withdrawal of the papers by the two groups that submitted them in the first place – a total of 70 between them.

The big money in China these days is to be made in the online sector – after all, it’s the largest in the world.  The problem is, there isn’t one large Chinese dotcom that isn’t a copy of an existing western site – Facebook has Kaixin, Flickr has Yupoo, Google has Baidu and Youtube has Youku.  The sad truth is that the Chinese can’t do much on their own.  They can’t even make a good movie with a panda in it.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Chinese cyberspace.  Chinese companies take and existing western idea, add various China-centric bells and whistles to it (for example, Kaixin has a hugely popular car-park based game that would only be successful in China) and then market it with the usual censorship and the all important Chinese character set.  Even the censorship software that was produced at the government’s behest used a blacklist and source code that was pirated from an American company.  It’s a game that been well played in the US movie industry – we suffer endless remakes of Mission:Impossible, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, ad nauseum – good ideas that worked in the past are much safer to invest in.

American companies have taken a lot of heat for even setting foot in China.  Yahoo!, Cisco and Google have all been hauled up in front of the US senate to explain just what the hell they’re up to in China.  Getting into bed with the commies still rattles some cages up on Capitol Hill.  Cisco has been suspiciously quiet about supplying hardware and software that runs the Great Firewall, Yahoo! handed over emails that got a human rights activist thrown in the slammer, and as for Google.  Well.

Google made a convincing argument when they started running Google.cn.  They pointed out that a limited search engine is much better than no search engine at all.  For a long time, they had me convinced.  They spouted at length the need to comply with local laws, as did Yahoo!  But that was before they felt the sharp end of Chinese business practices.  But that’s all changed for the time being.  For the time being, it’s Google vs. China.

It’s not the first time that big business has gone head-to-head with the Chinese government.  Green Dam/Youth Escort (remember that?) was effectively retired after a number of Chinese companies complained that the deadlines imposed by the Chinese government were impossible to abide by, and that the software itself was buggy beyond belief.  It was the first time that business had won out over the mandate of the Chinese government.  Now it looks like Google is trying to do the same thing.

There’s a lot riding on this.  Apart from the thousands of people that are employed at Google China – and it’s a good bet that a number of fine upstanding party members have sons and daughters working there – a growing number of businesses and individuals have become increasingly reliant on Google technology.  The grievances that Google has are pretty serious, it’s been well known that Chinese hackers have not been shy in recent years, to the point that they’re now posing a serious threat to the US.  The problem is that that Google has discovered that at least 20 other countries that have had major security breaches inflicted upon them that originated in the Chinese mainland.  While these companies haven’t yet been named, what should concern the Chinese is if Google has enough clout to convince the others that operating within Chinese law and getting your hand bitten for your trouble simply isn’t worth it.

UPDATES

Since the above was put together while I was waiting to make phone calls to some of the good folk of Beijing, much has beeen written in the last 8 hours, so here is a short collection of links that didn’t exist at the time of writing.

Imagethief
James Fallows (The Atlantic)
Global Voices Online
The Peking Duck
Shanghaiist
China Hearsay

The Little Chinatown That Could

January 9, 2010 1 comment

There are few pleasures in life that come close to having a meal with Chinese people.  The beer, tea, cigarettes and conversation flow freely, and for a couple of hours on a snowy London afternoon, you can sit islanded from the rest of the world.

London’s Chinatown – which will be of particular interest to any fan of Pirates of the Caribbean in that it was originally founded by Chinese employees of the East India Trading Company – is like most other Chinatowns.  It offers a kind of Disneyfied version of China,  but it does offer to a pleasant stopgap to those who are suffering extreme MSG withdrawal.  In Kobe, Chinatown is rather distastefully known as Nakin-machi – literally Nanjing-town – where I was offered Chinese food – fried rice and chicken.  In my home city of Manchester (at one time the largest Chinese community in Europe before), Chinatown shares a street (and restaurants) with Korean and Thai entrepreneurs.  Well, foreigners I guess they all look the same.

Things hadn’t been going too well for China at the turn of the century during the Qing dynasty.  The country had suffered humiliation after humiliation – The Japanese had invaded and the only thing that had quelled the Boxer Rebellion was another war against the Eight Nation Alliance.

The Chinese were used extensively and abusively by both the French and the British.  The then Chinese government had forbidden Chinese nationals from fighting (it later declared war in 1917), so, especially for the French, they were a source of cheap, desperately needed labour.  Field-Marshall Haig requested an initial 21,000 men, but in an agreement engineered by the French war cabinet, 50,000 ended up being shipped to Dagu and Marseille.

The Chinese men, mostly between the age of 19 and 25 were put to work unloading ships and refueling bombers.  After the fighting ended they were used to clear the bodies of dead servicemen from the battlefields.  The young men that had been drafted from Jiangsu, Heibei  and Shandog soon had their ideals of western life shattered under the harsh, unforgiving work conditions they found themselves in.  By the end of 1917, 54,000 Chinese men were employed by the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) in France and Belgium, and by the time of the Armistice that number had ballooned to 96,000.

Eager to bolster their “common man” image during the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese intellectuals looked back on their time in the CLC with a certain pride.  Chen Du Xiu, the first Chairman and General Secretary of the CCP, wrote that “while the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad.”

The town of Montargis has been most kindly described as “an inconsequential backwater”, and it hides the secret of being the ultimate Chinatown.  Few Chinese actually live there, but this unremarkable town, about 100km south of Paris has a unique and revered place in modern Chinese history.  Deng Xiao Ping, then aged 16, worked in the Hutchinson rubber factory there (and was consequently fired for refusing to work) and he later found work in the Renault factory in Paris.  Such was his naivety that he Deng gave his birthday as calculated by the Chinese lunar calendar, rather than the western Gregorian calendar.  According to Wang Yi, the first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Paris, all Chinese know Montargis (or they should know Montargis), and it’s where a lot of the revolutionaries where “inspired” to revolutionize China

It all started with Li Shi Zen who was the son of an empirical councilor.  It was thanks to the connections he made while studying at an agricultural college that students would visit as part of the Work-Studies Movement in 1912.  Amongst these students were to go on to be the stars of the embryonic Chinese Communist Party.  Almost 2000 students made the three month journey by ship to France.  Zhou En Lai wrote a poem about the journey, reflecting his hopes of what the modern west could offer him: “Go abroad through the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Waves are surging forward, carrying you to the coast of France, the homeland of freedom.”

A series of plaques now mark points of historical interest in Montargis – a town of 15,000 inhabitants that now has to cope with a deluge of Chinese tourists every year.  The Chinese trail winds through the streets, over the bridges and along the canals.  A propaganda official from Guangdong says that the town was “our teacher, and a cradle of our revolution.”  It’s a testament to unpredictable nature of the country that I’ve made my second home in that, on a day trip in France, you can end up knee deep in Chinese history.

The Law is an Ass

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

A quick primer on Chinese law:

The Chinese chief justice, Wang Sheng Jun has never been to law school.

Wang Sheng Jun says that Chinese courts should work on the principle of interests of the Communist Party first, the people’s interests second, and the rule of law last.

At the end of November, No 1 Intermediary People’s Court handed down the surprise decision that Microsoft should stop selling copies of its software that contains the illegal material. The argument has developed into an intellectual property (with no intellectual property, they’re fonts) row that has no doubt fired up nationalists across the country, ready to both espouse the glories of China’s modernization and they’re able to cheer on the fact that according to Chinese law, an American company has been told to where to stick it’s nasty pirated goods (outside the subway station on Chongwenmen) by the little court that could. In a report in the Financial Times, Zhongyi, the Beijing software company that developed the fonts for MS, reckons that the big bad evil Microsoft has been using the Chinese character set and the input system as “a pillar for the windfall profits Microsoft is extracting from China.”

Also in November, Huang Qi was sentenced to three years imprisonment after he was found guilty of being in possession of state secrets.  As well as establishing an organization that spoke out against human trafficking, Qi had doggedly pushed and criticized both the national and local governments over the shoddy building practices that helped to kill over five thousand schoolchildren when northern Sichuan was hit by the biggest natural disaster in China for decades. During a 10 minute “hearing”, Qi was charged with illegal possession of state secrets, officially having “certain documents from a certain city” in his keep.   Of course, we never actually find out what the documents are, or which city they came from.Similarly,  Beijing artist, Ai Wei Wei, who helped design the Olympic National Stadium  2008 Olympic Games has been documenting the deaths of the schoolchildren, and publicizing them has been routinely harassed by Beijing police officers, who have repeatedly been trying to invent crimes for him to be guilty of.

Anyone who reads James Fallows excelleny blog at The Atlantic will have followed the stories that have emerged from across China after it was ruled that foreigners over the age of 60 years will not be eligible for a work (Z) permit.  Before we continue I must point out that this age limit on teachers is not uncommon.  Singapore has the same age limit, and lots of other countries have limits around the age of retirement (55, 60, 65, etc).  The problem has been that although the law has been passed, it’s not really been enforced with much consistency across the country.  There was a typical lack of transparency from the authorities, with conspiracy theories and excuse being made in favour of the decision, ranging from the idea that older men are much more of a “sex predator” problem than the younger men to the theory that people over the age of 60 are just health problems on legs that the local doctors and hospitals either don’t or can’t deal with.  One reader emailed in:

“I read your article on the banning of teachers over the age of 60 in China and I just wanted to let you know that this is not true across the country.  For years, we [a volunteer group] have been sending  60-100 teachers a year to teach in a number of universities in China and for the most part, they are retired, over the age of 60 and the schools are now saying that they should be under the age of 80!  Many of the teachers we send are for short-term summer and fall classes, but many stay on for long-term teaching assignments.  I suspect that they are watched closely to see that their characters are acceptable before the offers of longer contracts are made.”

All of which brings us the merry little Christmas present that was the execution of bi-polar wannabe popstar Akmal Shaikh who was arrested in 2007 for possession of 4,030 grams of heroin.  The Chinese spokeswoman (who also mistook Shaikh for a drug dealer) said that this would enough to kill 26,800 people.  The Chinese have done a good job of demonizing him in the Chinese press – assuming that they’re the same officials who called the Dalai Lama a devil with horns – but have talked little about his mental illness.  Shaikh, unfortunately, was not the wicked drug baron that the Chinese had made him out to be. Polish smugglers had convinced him that he would be a pop star in China with the release of his awful, self written single, Come Little Rabbit, which Shaikh hoped would bring about world peace.  Conveniently avoiding the truth once again, the mission statement of the Chinese Propaganda Department seems to be “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as we can convince everyone that the cat doesn’t have a history of mental illness that would, in other countries, be taken into consideration.”  Chris Hogg, the BBC’s Beijing Correspondent followed the trial up to the execution, and commented that “There’s very little discussion of the mental health issue on the websites and discussion boards. In terms of the discussions here in China, it doesn’t seem to be registering.”  In response, the Chinese spokesperson Jiang Yu said quite bluntly, “Nobody has the right to speak ill of China’s judicial sovereignty,”.

Which is of course, where it’s all wrong.  Everyone has the right to speak ill of China’s, and indeed any country’s judicial sovereignty.  Especially if it’s sovereignty built on corruption and nepotism.  What is clear from the attitude that Chinese officials had towards the Briitish lobbyists and petitioners and the way that China was represented at the Copenhagen talks is that China is settling into its role as a major superpower quite nicely – they’re being nasty to everyone on the way up, and one can only assume that they’re going to be nasty to everyone on the way down too.  Everyone has the right to criticize, especially when the Chinese are ignoring their own Criminal Code (in this case, Article 18 of the 1997 Criminal Code which states that the mentally ill should be treated more leniently in criminal cases).

Some say (that is, Chinese netizens) that the British let him die because they didn’t negotiate “in secret” with the Chinese government to obtain his release.  Others say (that is, Chinese netizens) that he was guilty of a crime in Chinese territory and should be punished according to the published law, and others (that is, Chinese netizens), including the judge who was hearing him beg for clemency in the Supreme Courts of China, laughed at him as he made his final, desperate and somewhat rambling statement in Xinjiang pleading for his life.  Beyond anything else, the timing of the execution was almost bang on perfect, and maxmised the coverage of the execution in nearly all the national British and European newspapers.  For future reference, the Chinese should make note that executions over Christmas are usually frowned upon in most western countries.  Unless you’re a turkey, which Wang Sheng Jun almost certainly is.

The reaction of the Chinese to the outrage from the UK has been to bring up the old evergreen sob-story, The Opium Wars.  Recycling events that not many people actually remember anymore, and that fewer survivors have partaken in, is part and parcel of the Chinese way of living. It’s not as overt as “look what good Chairman Mao has done for the country”, but the little reminders are always there to, well, remind Chinese people how bad things were and how good they are now, and how grateful they should be (please don’t riot and cause problems like you did last time).   Right now, it’s easy to make those comparisons between old China and the modern dragon that we all know and love today.  As time goes on, and the living standards of ordinary Chinese continues to improve, the less relevant these comparisons will be.  Soon the irrelevant will become immaterial, but for now double standards work wonders when you’re a one-party dictatorship trying desperately to find something to help you stay in power.   

Welcome To Take Beijing Taxi

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

A little knowledge is very dangerous, and that’s true of the person who knows about as much Mandarin as the average Chinese four year old. People talk to you. In Chinese. Even if you only know how to say the address of your hotel or apartment properly, taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, will talk to you. Some of them talk about the building work in Beijing, others practice their English, but mostly they yammer on to me in Chinese about everything and nothing. All I’m able to do is offer an appreciative “yes” or “ahhhh”, and hope that it looks like I understand and sympathize.

Because of my horrendously low level of Chinese, most interactions with taxi drivers are short and to the point. I know how to direct someone to my apartment (go straight ahead a little…you see the little road on the left? Ok straight ahead, left here and stop), and I’m particularly good at the old mobile-phone-with-handy-Chinese-directions-on-it trick, but that’s about it. I know nothing of their lives, they’re probably largely more interested in my life as most Chinese people are, and I’d like to know about them, but we’re separated by the huge, bulletproof, reinforced concrete barrier of my own ineptitude, my ignorance and disrespect of Chinese culture.

Sometimes I have a great taxi driver, like the guy a few weeks ago. He seemed, as they often do, rather happy to have a foreigner in the back. Once we’d established that my Chinese was pretty much worthless, and that my girlfriend could speak both Mandarin and English, we quickly fell into the routine of my girlfriend explaining something in Chinese, and then the taxi driver checking his pronunciation on me.

According to the Beijing Olympic website, nearly 90,000 drivers are learning English, and will be able to “chat with foreigners about the NBA star Yao Ming, or Beijing snack[s]”. If the drivers struggle, then there’s still no need worry, as taxi companies are installing computerized translators in their cars. The website doesn’t elaborate what’s going to happen if you know nothing of the NBA (like your average British person, who, is, admittedly, more likely to shout directions twice at the poor man, before smashing the car up). Xinhua news releases me always make me nervous, for some reason – especially the use if the word “chat” in the sentence above.

There are two things that foreigners talk a lot about in Beijing. The first thing is mostly about public toilets, ex-pats and tourists alike swap stories about them like war veterans. The second is usually the smell inside a Beijing taxi, largely the smell of a mouth that has been washed with green tea for most of the day, lightly peppered with the smell of aged garlic. The smell problem has caught the attention of the Olympic mandarins and they assure me that only the most fragrant taxis will be available for sports fans this summer – they will conduct extensive smell tests to make sure quality is maintained.

Getting into a taxi, and, a few hours later, when you’ve had a couple of stiff drinks and have worked up the courage to actually take a ride in one to your destination is a watershed for both the tourist and foreign worker. As mentioned, even though the taxis are the lifeblood of the city, not many of the drivers can speak English. They’re being forced to do it for the Olympics, but given their attitude of picking and choosing who to pick up and where to go, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about them all getting their heads down to study after a 12 hour shift ferrying drunken foreigners to and from Sanlitun.

Under normal circumstances – that is, if I didn’t live in Beijing – I would say that the taxi driver has to put up with a lot of grief. Having been booted out of innumerable taxes simply because the driver doesn’t want to go where I want to go – I assume it’s something along the Chinese version of “I’m not going south of the river this time of time of night, you’ll stink up the cab with your kebabs” – I’m going to say that they don’t have that much of a hard life outside of working on national holidays.

Beijing is a crowd surfing city, built on a shifting sand of people. You meet people in Beijing, and then pretty soon, they leave. The Chinese guys usually go back to their families, taking two day train journeys back home. The foreigners soon ache for something different, somewhere where you can breathe air you can’t see, a green field, a flower or two that isn’t choking on car fumes. Maybe the attraction of English-speaking Hong Kong draws them south, or cooler climes of the north take them to some one-horse village in Gansu. China owes it’s economic success to the migrant worker, and it’s the migrant workers that make up the bulk of Beijing’s taxi driver community.

Weather they liked it or not (and it’s more than likely not), Beijing taxi drivers were the front line of the city’s personality drive for the Olympics. The hardened, dour-mouthed resident would argue that trying to give a city like Beijing a personality is akin to bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted, failed to run, been shot and turned into the contents of a glue pot, but still, you have to give points for effort. Taxi driver might need lessons in hygiene, customer service and basic Beijing geography; they were the first and last people that Olympic visitors were likely to see.

One such driver, a former pig-dung shoveler, laborer and electrician (the connection between the three isn’t very clear) isn’t optimistic about his prospects, “My monthly income was about 3,000 yuan (£195) two years ago. Now it is 2,000 yuan (£130).” he told a Guardian reporter, “I expect it will go even lower in the future,” he says. “I don’t get any days off. I want to cry.” So says Xia Shishan, Beijing taxi driver of four and a half years. He has to support a daughter at university, and a sick mother.

Compared to his own youth, when he only had flour, sweet potatoes and tea leaves to eat, things are now undoubtedly much better. Shishan and his family eat meat on a regular basis, compared to the times when meat was confined to special events like Spring Festival, but still there is the worry. His worries are not those politics, or social stability, banned movies or songs, or imprisoned journalists. He is more concerned about supporting his family, while surviving on one of the lowest rungs of Beijing society. Already the Olympics have affected him personally – “Developers are going to knock down my mum’s home. It’s part of the project for South Beijing railway station. They offered compensation, but it is only enough to buy a bathroom. We can appeal for more, but ordinary citizens don’t have much power.”

The Olympics fired the imagination of everyone in the capital. Xia Shishan reckons that “China is an ancient nation with 5,000 years of history. Thanks to the Olympics, we can show how great our country is. We will finish top of the medal table. There is no doubt about it. And when we win, I will be so excited my blood will boil.”

Of course, not all the taxi drivers are this nice. In 2004, Li Pingping was executed for murdering prostitutes in Beijing, he killed three of them from November 2002 to April 2003 – he also managed to stab his ex-employer, his wife and their 12-year-old daughter to death. He killed the hookers because he believed they made money more easily that he did, and his wife was sent to the slammer for fifteen years for helping him.

When you do a little research on the Beijing cabbie, you tend to see why Pingping blew his stack. As well as having to cope with ever-changing rules and traffic regulations, the ever-increasing price of petrol, and the fact that the drivers have to pay their management companies anything from 2000RMB to 6000RMB while they earn a maximum of about 2000RMB – which doesn’t leave a whole lot of cash to live on. Add to that a compulsory English test for the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that there are obligatory price hikes, you get a much clearer picture of what’s going on. It becomes more and more unfathomable as to why I routinely get told that a destination is too far, or is in the wrong direction, or perhaps the drivers have accepted the inevitable, and have just given up on trying to offer some kind of recognizable customer service. When you consider that the Beijing taxi will be the front line of the welcoming committee for the Games, then everything becomes even more unfathomable – the city authorities should be doing things to keep them happy, rather than poking them with a pointy stick. Repeatedly. For no good reason.

Everything came to a head two years ago, when the driver arranged a mass “go slow day” in Beijing, throwing the city into mild chaos. While it fell short of an out-and-out strike, the message was pretty clear – the drivers were not happy. Foreigners and Chinese alike were forced to stand…waiting (people do not like to wait for much here in Beijing) for a driver to take them somewhere and they did take them. Very, very slowly they took them.

Ok, so no one forces them at gunpoint to become taxi drivers, but when these people have very little else in the way of employment options for them, you can hardly blame them, and they do get a bum deal. Most of them sign on for four or five year contracts, and get paid less that Ghandi’s personal assistant.

What is lacking is a clear, thought-out strategy. The Olympic Games are a great source of national pride, and if there are few smiling faces to ferry around the fresh-faced tourists, then it will largely be the fault of a government that, while it wants to be accepted, is more preoccupied in taxing heavily, and dreaming up kooky new laws that serve only to confuse and bamboozle the average Beijinger. Instead of reveling in their red tape paradise, perhaps the powers that be should focus on giving the workers reasons to be cheerful beyond the pipe dream of a harmonious society.