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It’s Been a Funny Old National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

March 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The Internet is almost inaccessible, dissidents, writers, bloggers and activists are “disappeared” – bundled off to black jails to be tortured, and an apparently unending stream of armed troops descend on restive regions of the country.  No, it’s not a dystopian vision of the future, it just means that the NPC/CPPCC is in town.  Referred to as The Two Meetings, this the place were Five Year Plans are approved, the Beijing Police do their best to outwit foreigners and prevent them from getting up to anything subversive, like filming and taking photos.  And of course, there was the Bo Xi Lai Thing.

The drama that has been playing out since February starring Bo Xi Lai and Wng Li Jun was never really going to end happily.  Something of a mix between Nero and Warren G. Harding, Bo managed to economically cripple Chongqing, spending huge amounts of money importing ginkgo trees, and supporting the local satellite TV station.  Subsidizing the TV shows took at least 50% of the budget, and importing the ginkgoes (and watching them promptly die off in the unsuitable soil and climate) cost something in the region of 10% of the annual government budget.  Things came to boil when the head of the local PSB, Wang Li Jun spent the night at the local US Embassy, sparking rumours that he was ready to defect, and had amassed a documents that proved the connection between Bo and his dodgy deals with a local property tycoon Weng Zhenjie.

About a month later, The Two Meetings hit full tilt boogie, but Bo Xi Lai was the only member of the 25-strong ruling Politburo not to attend one of the first high-level sit-downs.  Later, towards the end of the gathering, Wen Jia Bao roundly rejected Bo Maoist efforts to force people to sing “Red Songs”, saying that “Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.  The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”

The day after, news broke that Bo Xi Lai has been removed of his government post.  But it didn’t end there.  The week after his removal from the Politburo, unconfirmed reports now suggest that Bo has been placed under house arrest, and that he attempt to block a criminal investigation centered on his wife.

Little more than a rubber stamp parliament, the 2012 NPC saw several new toothless laws were passed, including one that addressed the problem of illegal detentions by the police.  Reforms to the Criminal Procedure Law were, at least on paper, intended to give citizens more protection and reduce the powers of the police.  That was the theory anyway, closer inspection reveals that while the law requires the police to notify the detainee’s relatives, it doesn’t require them to tell the relatives where the detainee is being held, as well as giving the police powers to deny the suspect access to a lawyer, and if the police deem that informing relatives of the arrest could impede the investigation, then they don’t need to do it.

It was only 50 years ago that the first few National People’s Congress was performed to a select few, and behind closed doors.  In 2012, enterprising young Weibo members are combing through hi-res images taken in the conference hall to find out who’s sleeping, texting and gaming their way through the proceedings. This year’s NPC/CPPCC has been particularly entertaining, if not for the fact the while The Two Meetings were going on, air quality improved as clampdowns on car usage and making sure that while the politicians were in town, the factories toed the pollution line. This year we’ve had Tibetan representatives fleeing in terror at the sight of a foreign correspondent, the ongoing, epic saga charting the eventual downfall of Bo Xi Lai and Wang Li Jun that made Dr. Zhivago pale in comparison.
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Don’t Get Angry, Get Embarrassed.

March 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been to America once, and God love it (which I’m told He does) I do want to live there and would spend many happy days in Maspeth, where I stayed courtesy of my friends Dan and Zoe, and watch the evening sky, at first blood red, then cool through the infrared spectrum to a dark, velvet, Guinness black.  The Manhatten skyline – still something that you can’t quite think “men made that” – of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State and the Brooklyn Bridge would be mere silhouettes that melt into the blackness of the night sky.  All of the Disneyesque poeticism pulls into stark contrast the Stephen King nightmare that is dealing with American airlines and American Homeland Security.

My time in America was a fantastic experience bookended by simply the worst travel experience known to humanity.  An experience that would make cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse feel loved.  Rarely have I been made to feel like a criminal in any airport in the world.  Even at Osaka airport, where I was fingerprinted, photographed, medically examined for fear of carrying H1N1 into the country and subject to intense investigation (I was the only foreigner with the documents that supported a one year work permit in the country), I was made to feel at home, wanted and looked after.  The elderly airport official who said “please” about 30 times in the first 10 minutes was polite, knew his stuff, and stood next to me like the grandfather I barely knew as I jumped through all the necessary hoops to get into the country.  Of course, the whole procedure took longer than any airport that I’ve been to, but it was the politeness, the feeling that someone was taking an interest, and the awareness that both of us where at the mercy of a massive administrative machine that made the whole thing much easier.

And in America, I met Seattle Bill.

Bill was fat.  Bill was big and fat.  In fact, almost everyone in America is big and fat.  I don’t mean that they are all doubly fat, I mean that for their height, they are fat.  Bill towered over me, I was eye to eye with what I imagined would be the arcing red, sweated crease in his skin underneath his last rib bone, where  – if he were shirtless – you would see the clear demarcation line between his ribcage and his unsupported intestinal tract.  He was nineteen feet in height and two  Isuzu People Carriers in width.  BP could’ve drilled for oil in his cleavage.  The unfortunate demography of his lower abdomen had forced him to buckle his trousers around his pubic bone, at roughly the point where pubic hair becomes belly hair.  His stomach muscles had long given up on keeping his gut in check, and I wondered how many steps up a flight of stairs he would need before he fell over backwards clutching his chest.

From his waist upwards, he was a big man.  From below the belthoops of his trousers, he was the stallion of a man that his wife had married thirty years, six million Happy Meals and a four million Cokes  ago.  He also had enough weaponry hanging off his low slung belt that would make Simon Mann think ‘that’s a little too much’.  When asked a perfectly reasonable question by one of the Chinese businessmen behind me – “why are there only two immigration officers?  Why do we have to wait?” – Bill pointed a chubby finger as a thick as a sausage and said through pursed lips with a John Wayne locked jaw “They’ll be ready…when I’m ready”.  He waddled off, the miniature shockwaves of his footsteps sent ripples over his tightly clad buttocks.  He presumably went to get a doughnut.

The flight from Beijing to Seattle dumped me in Seattle at 6:40am.  Thanks to the super high tech Homeland Security I made it through immigration in a mere two hours and fifteen minutes.  I had missed my flight by an hour.  The next flight that I could arrange left Seattle at 5pm, went through a time warp, and dumped me at New York JFK around 11pm.  The flight back from New York to Beijing wasn’t fun either, have been delayed for an entire 27 hours in Seattle airport.  The problem was that in America relies on people that have power but no responsibility.

Chris Rock tells a joke in his stand-up routine that he lives in an area that has house owned by Eddie Murphy, Mary J. Bilge, Jay-Z and a white dentist.  Which is exactly the same as the situation here in China, substituting black folks for Chinese, and er, keeping the white folks.  To be a white man in China, as it is in America, is to have won the lottery of life.

I live in a 68 square meter apartment that I pay 3300rmb per month for (330UKP there abouts).  I come from Manchester, UK, work as an English teacher and earn 14000rmb per month, with about 700rmb tax, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, have no intention of paying off my minor student loan, and live quite happily with few money worries apart from the dent that my annual trip to see the folks is going to put in my bank account.  I speak a little bit of high school Spanish, have intermediate Chinese  and do a little of everything from writing the occasional article in a little known magazine that nobody reads, to teaching people to speak English.  In the last years, I’ve returned home for 3 weeks, taken a 10 day vacation in New York, took a month off to visit friends in Chengdu, whilst traveling to Kunming and Lijiang, return back to my apartment in downtown Beijing, and continued working my rather dull job.  When I got suspicious about a lump growing on my lip last month I immediately went to the Hong Kong International Hospital at the Swissotel in Dongsishitiao and happily paid 680rmb to be told that I have a “lesion on lower lip” and was duly given a course of B multivitamins.

A very close friend of mine studied for her master’s degree in Manchester, speaks fluent English and Chinese, and has a prestigious position in a growing African-Chinese company.   She lives on the outskirts of town, is always looking for a roommate to help with the rent, and hasn’t been out of the country for pleasure since she graduated 8 years ago.  Over weekend she was sick, and is considering going to a doctor if she her condition doesn’t improve.  Needless to say, she’s Chinese and I’m not.

China has been taken over by the morals and values crowd, with the censorship of the Internet and the purge of pornography to create a “healthy online environment”, the failed implementation of the Green Dam software, the scrubbing of critical posts about the government and the house arrests of “subversives”.  Quite frankly, the government of China’s morals and values would have more resonance if the Chinese government actually knew what morals and values were, which I don’t think they do.  I don’t really mean that as an insult, but the belief that every Chinese person is heterosexual, that people don’t like looking at pornography (they do) and that in China don’t really knows what’s going on, or that people in China believe that an apartment in China can be rented for twelve dollars isn’t a moral or a value.  It’s just stupid.  What they’re really talking about are superstitions, traditions, fears and personality cults.  Real morals are honesty, fairness, kindness and tolerance.  The others are just bullshit issues that the Chinese government uses to justify its legitimacy.

Morals and values are choices that we make about how to treat other people.  And they can be measured.  They can be measured in the way we see people treat other people, and of course, the Chinese government, with its institutionalized torture, abuse, harassment of journalists, bloggers, and other free speech advocates, endless transparent propaganda, victimization and other downright out and out lies have shown that their morals do not include treating people like human beings.  We have found out this week, the exact extent to which the Chinese government values the basic rights that, in most modern countries in the first quarter of the 21st Century, we take for granted.  Western journalists have been openly threatened, investigations have been whitewashed, and censorship has tightened, all in the name of the Chinese Communist Party – the last bastion of rhetoric that last saw the light of day behind closed doors in 1950’s USSR.  When did you last hear a sentence that included “the masses”?  1962?  Khrushchev?  Trotsky?  Well, it was actually last week when Wen Jiao Bao made his speech to the NPC.

Chinese people have it easy.  They don’t really have to think that much.  They aren’t really taught to think that much, and anyone who has ridden any subway and has seen Chinese people bemused by the ticket machines, the thought of giving people the vote in China is a terrifying prospect.  When people offer some such pro-democracy comment thinly disguised as “power to the people”, I often find myself asking the question, “what people?  These assholes?”.  Chinese people are often the first to leap to their country’s defense, citing economic progress, healthcare, literacy, the rise in living standards, confused that they shouldn’t be angry at their country, since they have really only done things that their parents could dream about.  Angry is the wrong emotion.  Chinese people shouldn’t be angry about their country or their leadership.  The Chinese, like American people, shouldn’t hate their country – they should be embarrassed by it.

China’s Revolution Needs Supersizing

March 1, 2011 Leave a comment

move along, nothing to protest about here

Chinese citizens were told to shout “We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness, referencing rising food and housing prices, the overqualified and underpaid ant-tribe, and massive government corruption and cronyism that has dogged the Chinese government since its inception.

While the protests in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain were gathering momentum, I found myself hoping that the same wouldn’t happen in China.  If it did, I explain on Facebook, the government crackdown would make Gadhafi’s violent response look like a paintballing outing for extremely nervous insurance salesmen.  The choice of venues (KFC and McDonalds) neatly illustrates the pampered nature of the Angry Young Men of China – we can have a protest, but we really need to go somewhere where we can get some food later on, possibly with a the local neighborhood American diplomat.

Suffice to say that the Chinese didn’t really grasp the nettle and give an all-out protest on the same scale as their Egyptian and Libyan counterparts.   A number of factors conspired against them a) they publicized the whole thing on Twitter which is banned in China, b) the Chinese authorities are stupid, but they’re not too stupid not to use Twitter to keep tabs on troublemakers c) they used Google Maps to pinpoint exactly were the protests were being held.  It was, to borrow one of Hannibal Lecter’s lines, a fledging protestor’s first attempt at a transformation, and not that great a success.  That said, at least the members of one of the world’s largest standing armies had something to other than stand.

The authorities didn’t really do themselves any favors either.  Fearing massive negative publicity, they duly phoned up every reporter in the city and told them not to go anywhere near Wangfujing or Tiananmen Square without special permission – which is a little like telling a two year old not to press, under any circumstances, the big red button with “danger – do not press” written in yellow and red letters above it.  If anyone should be arrested for subverting state power, it’s the Chinese idiots who spread news to the people who didn’t even know there was news in the first place to be spread.  It’s also given officials, as the 9/11 terror attacks in American gave the American officials, more wiggle room to collect in one place all the troublemakers, and any excuse to tighten the rules is a good excuse.

While their tactics have been quite simple, they have been quite effective – no one can argue that spraying water from a street cleaning van is a more acceptable than an M1 tank rumbling down the Wang Fu Jing.  If the dissidents get the idea that the most they have to deal with is getting a little bit wet (which, admittedly for Chinese people is on the same level as contracting leprosy) every weekend, they may get that little bit bolder.  It’s a shame that the Chinese police didn’t deal with the foreign news media.  Nothing makes a western report moist with anticipation more than a protest in China, but nothing eats up column inches like reports of Chinese police beating the living daylights out of foreign reporters and illegally detaining those covering a protest in China.

CCTV’s Greatest Hits

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Rare is the day that CCTV contains actual news about China, the editorial staff at the station routinely concoct fake stories, use fake footage (sometimes culled from Hollywood movies) and use fake people to keep everyone happy and safe in the knowledge that they living in a socialist paradise.  Here’s a run-down of some the worst news gathering not seen since…well…ever, really.

Top Gun

Not happy with the use of actual real news footage, CCTV spliced in a scene of a missile destroying a plane.  The video was posted on the myriad thousand video sharing sites around China, along with various, non-too-complimentary comments.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the video might have actually been part of the promotional materials used by a jet manufacturer.

Taking a leaf from the Chinese Book of Effective PR, a spokesman promptly denied that they used the footage to beef up its advertising.  “It’s impossible and unnecessary for us to do anything like that,” Ding Zhiyong, AVIC’s director of public relations, told China Real Time, “The J-10 is an accomplishment we’re proud of–why would we even need to use ‘Top Gun’ footage?”.  Thankfully, once the tweets had hit the fan in the Chinese blogosphere, no one at CCTV was available for comment because of the Chinese New Year, and the story blew over quite conveniently.

The $12 Apartment


For anyone who has lived in Beijing, the housing market is something that weigh s heavily on the mind.  Contracts are often worth more than the paper they’re hurriedly printed on, landlords greed can often mean that people are thrown out of their houses with a few days to find a new place to live because the landlord is selling the place, and the government is trying to contain a rapidly expanding property bubble.

One of the misguided efforts that the CCP made was to stage an interview with a Beijing resident claiming that the apartment in which she lived had a monthly rent of a mere 77RMB for a princely 45 square meter pad (to compare, this author’s apartment in Chongwenmen is 3300RMB per month for 68 square meters).  Hu Jin Tao replied that the glorious Chinese Communist Party was doing everything it could to help people on low incomes live, well, like they weren’t on a low income, proclaiming “The party and the government pay great attention on improving people’s livelihood. Now we’ve adopted series of measures, and more are expected to come to improve lives of low-income families.”

Internet users were not happy, and soon uncovered a series of photos that showed the esteemed apartment owner, Mrs. Guo and her daughter taking not-so-low-income jollies to places like Shanghai, Dalian and Xiamen.  The broadcast ultimately backfired, deepened the discontent within the Chinese middle classes who have had to cope with increasingly high rents.  The problem got so bad that the government ordered the story and comments to be scrubbed from all discussion forums and social network sites.

Google Porn

The Chinese government is very proud of the fact that it has a clean and harmonious Internet environment.  Yes, in a country of 1.3 billion people, it’s forbidden to look at porn, and of course, the CCP Propaganda Department is anxious not only to establish itself as the thin red line, but also point out that looking at porn on the Internet is worse than eating babies in church, or drowning bag loads of kittens in the Yangtze.  To wit, the CCTV “current affairs show”, Focus Interview, broadcast an interview with a student who was addicted to looking at X-rated imaged on the web.  In a delicious twist, the interviewee pointed out that most of the images were to be found on the Chinese governments favorite search engine, Google.

Chinese netizens – all 300 million of them – were unimpressed and just a little skeptical of the claims.  A little searching around (probably using Google) uncovered the evil plot – Gao Ye, the student being interviewed was actually one of Focus Interviews’s own interns.  The Internet monitors in Beijing promptly added the words “Gao Ye” to their keyword blacklists, which in turn managed to grind the most of the Chinese Internet traffic to a halt since “gao” means “tall” and “ye” means “also”.

BTCC Spring Festival Fire

Ove the Spring Festival in 2009, a fireworks display went out of control and turned the Beijing Television Cultural Center in a massive roman candle that could be seen for miles around.  In the ensuing investigation, it was discovered that officials at CCTV had authorized the display, but hadn’t applied for permits from the local Beijing government, not only that, but they had ignored repeated warnings from the police  that the fireworks would be too powerful and dangerous.  As it turned out the fireworks were too dangerous (who would’ve guessed?) and the resulting inferno raged for 5 hours, killed one firefighter and completely destroyed the $731 million building.

Arrests immediately followed, including the former head of CCTV’s construction bureau, 50-year-old Xu We.  Attempts to clamp down on the news story also followed, resulting in a wave of criticism from Chinese netizens and the international press. In a leaked memo to the New York Times, Beijing authorities had apparently ordered “No photos, no video clips, no in-depth reports…the news should be put on news areas only and the comments posting areas should be closed”.  The reason?  The fire was said to symbolize bad luck for the coming New Year.

James Fallows, of The Atlantic wrote, “that the perils of the fireworks and firecrackers are more than a joke…. that people responsible appear to have been CCTV employees; and that the whole subsequent matter of investigating, publicizing, making sense of, and drawing omens from an unignorable spectacle involving the country’s leading propaganda/communication outlet and the city’s most distinctive new landmark will say a lot about the emotional and political state of China right now.”

Spring Festival Utility Men

And finally, the epic CCTV Spring Festival Gala raised it’s ugly head once again earlier this month, and while it’s becoming less and less popular, and turning into more of three hour infomercial, more fun can be had spotting people in the audience.  While typically, the sponsors of the show will have their CEO’s given the best seats, it’s the “ordinary people” – carefully vetted members of the public and “utility men” that netizens have the most fun with.

Yes, although CCTV has had the bright idea of using actors as fake members of the public, they haven’t really thought the whole thing through, and have used the same actors in the same shows for, er, the past 10 years.  One can only assume that they’ve been hoping that no one will catch on.  The bad news is of course that, well, people caught on.  And so did a lot of western news sources. Chinese netizens helpfully posted screen grabs of the utility men in a series of photos going all the way back to 2001.

Hitting the Ground Running

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment

After a long hiatus, almost going insane teaching English and dealing with some of the most difficult students that I’ve ever had the pleasure of educating, I’m in the first week of my month long leave of absence.

Predictably, owing to the mass migration during Spring Festival, my original plan to go to Tibet and the Xinjiang has had to be re-planned, and I elected to travel south instead to Kunming…of course, I started off in my favourite place in the whole world: Chengdu. And had hotpot. Actually, I had hotpot twice, which for my delicate palate is two times too many, but I just seem to get addicted to the damn stuff – to wit, I was able to enjoy the delights of both wet and dry hotpot – the dry one was ribs, which is Chinese shorthand for “full of bones that’ll break your teeth”. The rest of the night was rather misjudged, and I ended up getting terribly drunk in a bar called Jellyfish, which has nothing but the finest in thumpy-thumpy dance music (the type that sounds like an pneumatic drill being gang raped by a deranged posse of air hammers and is almost always played at a volume that makes the chair next to you bleed) and some of the strongest White Russians that I’ve come across.

Against all the odds – especially the Russian odds – and despite having to pack at 1am in the dark, I made it. Although I’m slightly worried that when I boarded in Beijing, my pack weighed 14kg, and at Chengdu airport my pack checked in at 12kg. I’m a little worried that whatever weighed 2kg must have been important enough for me to pack, and I may have left it for some unsuspected innocent in Chengdu.

One other point of amusement was the trouble that my electric toothbrush caused at Chengdu Airport. Initially confused that the item in question was a mobile phone (something that I’ve thought about at length, and can only assume that the battery was the source of the problem) I was summoned behind the check-in counter, whereupon a number of efforts were made to the poor toothbrush. Hungover, still a little drunk, and not particularly happy at having my underwear put on show for every Chinese person in front of the check-in desk, I took the opportunity to further British-Chinese relations, putting on my best Beijing accent and screaming something along the lines of “This wasn’t a problem in Beijing airport, why is it a problem now?!”. Of course I probably got the tones all in the wrong places and the officials in question probably heard something like “why is my armadillo snorkeling? I eat pasta!”. Either way, I established myself as a strung out foreigner who was prepared to shout gibberish at people like them all day if need be – I was duly and begrudgingly allowed on the plane.

The arrival in Kunming was uneventful and as boring as you can expect. The only point of amusement was the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the hostel who was dressed in a style that I can only describe succinctly as “Mad Max Drag”. That is to say that he was kitted out in huge aviator sunglasses, fingerless leather gloves, leather trousers and a leather jacket nicely set off by a luxuriantly thick fake fur ruff around the collar.

So right now, after catching up on some badly needed sleep, I’m fully ensconced in delightful “Cloudland Hostel” in Kunming…sipping coffee, watching old people play mahjong and wondering what else I can do. An idyllic scene somewhat ruined by the Chinese staff watching The Empire Strikes Back on the only TV in the room.

Chinese Internet to Be Turned Off?

January 2, 2011 Leave a comment
Image representing Skype as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Bao Zhong, top scientist, economist and China’s foremost Internet expert said at the opening ceremony that was held in a MacDonalds on Beijing’s famous Wang Fu Jing shopping street, “There comes a time when you’ve got to start thinking about saying ‘let’s just turn the bastard thing off it’s more trouble than it’s worth’. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Chinese people are any good at doing stuff on the ‘net – just look at Youku, Yupoo, Kaixin and all the other websites that we’ve ripped off from the US. We can’t sustain this level blatant plagiarism for much longer.”

The committee was convened after Skype was deemed illegal in China, forcing users to subscribe to only state owned companies for telecommunication services.

When pressed for comment, a Conservative party spokesman from the British Ministry of Facebook and Twittering said “we’re already making money from paying Chinese workers a pittance an hour to assemble a wide range of goods used by British companies. Why do they need to use Skype anyway? I can’t understand a bloody word anyone says over there, can you?”

A Lawyer Writes…

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The law doesn’t ban our presence at interrogations. But since nobody ever initiated it and asked for it, you just follow what others do, and don’t ask to be present.

– Zhang Yueming, Beijing based criminal lawyer on why lawyers are never present during criminal interrogations that often include torture as a way of securing a confession.

Quote/Unquote is an occasional column dedicated to gems from the Chinese press.