Friday, September 30, 2005

Saving Shangri-La

The invaluable Three Gorges Probe, a news service/website originally reporting on the infamous Three Gorges Dam, has for some time expanded its focus to deal with other hydroelectric projects in China and their environmental and cultural consequences. They continue their excellent coverage with this translation of a CCTV documentary about local people in one of China's most beautiful natural attractions, Tiger Leaping Gorge, whose ancestral lands may be flooded by future dam building projects on the upper Yangtze (Jinsha) River. Here's an excerpt:
1. Who is going to break the villagers' rice bowl?

Legend has it that Shangri-La is heaven on earth, a mythical, exotic, dreamy landscape. In Lost Horizon, American novelist James Hilton depicted Shangri-La as a wonderland in which people live in harmony with nature and each other.

Late last century, people found a real Shangri-La in the Hengduan mountain range, where the Jinsha [upper Yangtze] flows in southwest China. Jinjiang town in Diqing Zang autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, is the real Shangri-La in many people's minds, where a multitude of minority groups, including Yi, Tibetan, Bai, Naxi, Lisu and Miao, have lived together for generations in peace and harmony.

Recently, however, local people have begun to feel uneasy, upset by a piece of news. They have heard that a big dam is to be built on the Jinsha River so that water can be diverted to central Yunnan province and, in particular, to the provincial capital of Kunming. Roughly 100,000 people will have to move if the project goes ahead.

Engineers are conducting surveys of the proposed dam site, and red marks [indicating the future water level of the dam's reservoir] have already been painted on some walls, despite the fact that the central government has not yet approved the project. Although the scheme is still at the feasibility-study stage, everybody here is extremely worried, particularly because they have been given so little information about the project.

Chezhou village, part of Jinjiang town, is one of the places that will be affected if the dam is built. Villagers set off together for the village office, hoping to learn more from village leaders. One of the villagers is 67-year-old Ding Changxiu. Her children are grown now, and have left the village for jobs in the county seat. It would be better for her and her husband to move there to live with their children, but Ding would rather stay put because she loves her native place so much.

Villager: We know nothing about the project. I'm wondering if the village leaders know anything about it. We old peasants deserve to know something about it, don't you think?

Ding Changxiu: I feel as if there's a stone weighing down my heart. I was told we'd have to leave tomorrow! The whole village is on tenterhooks. I just met an elderly woman in the village who swore she'd rather die at home than be driven away.

Village leader: Calm down, folks! It's true that the province has proposed building a dam here to move water to central Yunnan. But whether we'll have to move is not clear, because the project hasn't been formally approved, and the experts haven't even finished the feasibility study yet.

The village leader's comments did nothing to ease the villagers' anxiety. The local people love dropping in on one another to chat about all manner of things, but now there is only one topic of conversation: the dam.

Villager: We ordinary people know nothing about it. And we have absolutely no way of leaving even if we are forced to move.

Villager: There are four people in my family. Now we have grain that's surplus to our own needs that we can sell for cash, and I have chickens and pigs that I could kill right now to offer you. We lead a comfortable life, but the good life will be gone forever if we have to move.

Villager: We old people don't care about ourselves any more; we're too old now. But we do care very much about our children, and the younger generations are in for a very hard time if we're moved far away.

This reluctance to move stems not only from local people's deep attachment to the ancestral land on which they have lived for centuries, but also from their awareness of the special nature of the magnificent place they call home. They live at the famous "first bend of the Yangtze" in the Tiger Leaping Gorge area, and they know the value of this spot.

The section of the Jinsha River in front of their houses, together with two other great rivers Ð the Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) Ð form the Three Parallel Rivers National Park, which UNESCO has designated a world heritage site. Local people are not only tremendously proud of that, but also genuinely seek to safeguard the environment of their native area.

In March of this year, a work team was sent to the village from Xianggelila county to meet with village leaders. The villagers guessed that the work team's arrival had something to do with dam-building, but they had been given no real information, so rumours swirled.

Villager: Somebody told me they'll be paying compensation of 10,000 yuan [US$1,200] per mu [one-fifteenth of a hectare or one-sixth of an acre] of farmland flooded by the dam. The person who told me that said he got the information in a phone call from one of his friends in the county seat. I'm not really sure about it, but in any case I'll never move. You see, we're treated like nothing!

Ding Changxiu: Oh dear! Only 10,000 yuan for a mu of land! We can feed ourselves for 10,000 generations by farming our land. Can 10,000 yuan provide the younger generations with enough to eat and wear?

Villager: It's easier to destroy than to build!

Ding Changxiu: How many days can 10,000 yuan keep us fed? How many years can 10,000 yuan keep us fed?
It's a measure of the complexity of contemporary China and, I suspect, the factionalization of the Central and Provincial governments, that amidst increasing media and internet censorship, a documentary of this sort can be produced and shown on national television. One hopes that this kind of publicity and the increasing grassroots activism of China's environmentalists and the local people who stand to lose the most from these ill thought-out projects will be enough to preserve these national treasures for future generations. Right now, however, the decision could go either way. Past reports from Three Gorges Probe have detailed the pressure on local governments to approve such projects as spurs to development and the role of corruption and kickbacks in the decision-making process. It's still an open question if the government regulations that exist on paper to properly review and prohibit these projects have sufficient teeth to fight this powerful nexis of money and greed.

On the other hand, I've often thought that China's environmental movement contains within it the seeds of greater dem0cracy for China. As unmoored as China has become from much of its traditional culture, the ideas of balance and unity contained in Daoism, that man is a part of nature rather than its detached overlord, still has some potency.

You can find a series of photos of Tiger Leaping Gorge here...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Criminally Stupid

This is a wretchedly awful move on the part of the Chinese government, if they do in fact go ahead with plans to reopen legal trade in tiger parts:
Tiger organs, teeth, bones and penises fetch high prices on the black market, where they are used in traditional Chinese medicines to treat ailments like rheumatism. In other parts of Asia, the bones are considered an aphrodisiac.

China banned domestic trade in all tigers and tiger parts in 1993, but is considering re-opening the business based on farm-bred, captive animals.

But that would send a signal that it is acceptable to buy tiger parts which would threaten wild tiger populations, experts in the wildlife trade said.

"We're afraid that poachers living near the world's last populations of tigers may kill them to supply illegal markets that are likely to develop alongside any new legal ones," Susan Lieberman, head of WWF's Global Species Programme, said in a statement.

"This could be the final act that drives the tiger towards extinction."
I can't think of any positive spin, any possible excuse for this. What in the world is motivating the government? Surely tiger farmers and traders in animal parts aren't that powerful a lobby. I can only take cultural relativism so far. Some things are just wrong.

If anyone has any suggestions on how to take action against this disgusting, irresponsible decision, please let me know...

Friday, September 23, 2005

Spike Kills A Mouse

Spike Kills A Mouse
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

I thought it was time to return to Friday Cat Blogging. Can you tell that it's a catnip mouse?!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Decision at the Top of the World

"Aren't we Chinese great? They said it couldn't be done. And yet, we've not only done it, we've done it ahead of plan. No other country in the world could do this. Chinese people are so clever." We are two hours, several beers and half a roasted duck into a journey on the overnight express from Xining, traveling along the completed half of what will soon be part of the world's highest railroad -- the 1,900-kilometer line from Xining across the Qinghai Plateau to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But my patriotic conversation partner, Wang Qiang, is just warming up on his favorite subject: China's engineering prowess.

"The new track follows the highway built by our soldiers in the 1950s. The terrain is so harsh that three of them died for every kilometer of road. You have to admire their spirit. But now, we've built the railway without the loss of a single life. Isn't China great?"
Jonathan Watts of the UK Guardian files this fascinating report on the building of the Qinghai to Lhasa railway line, an unprecedented feat of engineering that will be completed next month, three years ahead of schedule. The Qinghai/Lhasa railway, Watts writes, is an example of China's "can-do" spirit proving the experts wrong, the great majority of whom thought building tracks through the Kunlun Pass to be impossible. And this is no ordinary train line:
Luxury trains are being built for the new track. They feature pressurized carriages to minimize the risk of altitude sickness and tinted windows to protect from strong ultraviolet rays. Canada's Bombardier has won the $280 million contract to build 361 cars, some of which will have deluxe sleeping compartments with individual showers, glass-walled sides to provide panoramic views, entertainment centers and gourmet dining areas, and toilets with sewage and waste-treatment systems. The cars will be pulled by diesel engines capable of maintaining an average speed of 100 kph, even at above 4,000 meters, when the thinness of the air can cut power by almost half.
This is a long piece that is both a fascinating travelogue of an isolated region and a commentary on China's rise. Watts details the potential positive and negative aspects of the rail line, the fears among some Tibetans that it will increase Han cultural dominance of traditional Tibetan culture, along with the hope of many for much needed economic development. Watts also looks at the environmental impact of the railroad and the consequences of China's "bigger, faster, higher" philosophy of econonmic development:
The Tibetan dilemma is increasingly shared by other countries as the world tries to come to terms with China's rise. Everyone wants Beijing's money and goods; no one wants its ideas.

Economically, China's expansion is a storming success, with 9 percent growth for each of the past 25 years, lifting hundreds of millions of peasants out of poverty, making a fortune for foreign manufacturers that exploit low-cost labor, pushing down supermarket prices across the globe and boosting trade with other developing nations.

Environmentally and spiritually, however, it is a disaster. China's rivers are drying up, its cities are choked with pollution, the rural healthcare system has collapsed and the cities are seeing record levels of suicide and stress. China is showing all the symptoms of modernity -- only on a bigger scale and at a faster rate than the world has ever seen.
But Watts also points out that, like the railroad, cultural transmission goes both ways:
One of the beneficiaries of the boom is Buddhism. This was evident from the mix of materialism, spiritualism and political cheek at the Ta'er Si, one of the great Tibetan monasteries. Set in rolling green hills just south of Xining and famed as the home of living buddhas since the 16th century, it is attracting an ever-growing number of Han tourists. Their chatter and mobile phones disturb monks as they chant tantric scriptures ("During the peak season, there are almost as many tour guides as monks," complained one acolyte), but, as with the railway, the linking of materialism and spiritualism is not a one-way track.

Outside the monastery, the streets are filled with Buddhist wholesale shops (often run by Muslims) that offer bulk sales of robes, incense sticks, prayer wheels and beads. The customers are not tourists but monks, stocking up on paraphernalia to establish more monasteries. "This is a boom time for Buddhism in China," says Glen Mullin, the author of several books on the Dalai Lama. "Many of the monasteries that were shut down and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution are being rebuilt, along with new ones."
There's a great deal more to Watt's piece, including evocative descriptions of life in the Qinghai Plateau, the rapid changes due to development, even the attempts by a member of Tibet's famed "Wild Yak Brigade" to introduce ecotourism into the area (and if you've been following that story, as I have, you'll be happy to learn that the chiru has rebounded somewhat from the widespread predations of armed poaching gangs). His conclusions are intensely sobering. But at the end, he offers a glimmer of hope:
If railway tracks can spread the tools of modern technology and education to Tibet, the lifestyles of some of the poorest people in the world could be dramatically improved. If ideas are allowed to flow freely in both directions along the track, the meeting of Chinese materialism and Tibetan spiritualism could fill a gap at both ends of the line. And if, as some suggest, the tracks are extended farther south to the border with Nepal and then on through the Himalayas to India, it could transform relations between the world's two most populous and fastest-growing economies.

Present trends, however, suggest a much bleaker future. Fifty years ago, when Qinghai Plateau was part of Tibet, it was a scantly populated wilderness. Now, under Beijing's control, it has become a land conquered and settled by Han engineers, miners, soldiers, police and prisoners. There are few grimmer examples of what Chinese-style development can mean for ethnic minorities and the environment.

In the 19th century, Britain and Europe taught the world how to produce. In the 20th, the United States taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain.
If China is the new "can-do" nation, isn't it possible for all of this energy and spirit to be directed towards this end?

Monday, September 19, 2005

No In-Laws, and a Place To Hang Your Hat

Fascinating article at BBC News about a traditional culture in China that is anything but "traditional" in terms of its social structure:
Tourists come to Lugu Lake for the beauty and tranquillity. The still azure waters are surrounded by densely forested mountains, and the homes are made of natural timber with colourful Tibetan-style window shutters and balconies.

But that is not the only reason the tourists come. Visitors also beat a path to the region because of their fascination with the unique social structure of the Mosuo people, which is very different from that of China's other 54 ethnic groups.

"Mosuo women have the responsibility for all family affairs," explained 42-year-old Ruhen Zashi Chili, in the lakeside hamlet of Lou Shui.

"And most importantly, women determine the family line and only women have the right to inherit."

Traditionally, sons live with their mothers, while their fathers have little to do with the child's welfare.

In fact, in the Mosuo language, the word "father" does not even exist, and neither does the concept of in-laws.
It's unclear what factors are responsible for the Mosuo's unusual social arrangements - the article mentions the lure of the Silk Road, which led many Mosuo men far away from home. But what developed among the Mosuo is so different from traditional Han society that I'm reminded how so much of what we sometimes take for granted as being "traditional" or "natural" forms of social structures are just one of the many ways that human beings have devised to live with each other.

For instance, according to this article, marriages in their more traditional forms did not exist among the Mosuo:
Love affairs were encouraged - but only "walking marriages" took place, in which men could visit at night so long as they returned to their mother's home before breakfast.
In a "walking marriage," the man enters the woman's home by the back door of the house, or if necessary, climbs in through the window. The man then hangs his hat outside the window to inform others that he's inside.
Mosuo relationships are uncomplicated. There are no formalities binding a couple together. If complacency sets in, they just stop seeing each other.

In a 'walking marriage', you have to enter the girl's home by the back door or climb up through the window... We then hang our hat outside the window to tell others that there's a man inside.

"The advantage of our walking marriage is that we don't have the in-law problem to deal with. But the Han Chinese have this problem," said 17-year-old Bima Qizou, who described Mosuo relationships as "pure love".

"Our love is direct! If we love each other, we tell each other directly. We don't consider family background, social position and economic standing."
With the influx of tourists, Han Chinese and the inevitable intrusion of the 21st century, it's uncertain how much, if any, of the Mosuo's traditions will survive. For the immediate future, their economic security may depend on their draw as a tourist destination - selling handicrafts and souvenirs and performing traditional songs, ballads once sung by the women to attract a lover. Now, as the article puts it, the future for the Mosuo of Lugu Lake may be "as a reality show about their lost culture."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Be back soon!

I've been enjoying a short blogging hiatus, using the time to work on other writing projects and assemble bathroom furniture. I am also finishing up a short Chinese class tomorrow...well, tonight, technically. I'll be back in a few days with my batteries recharged (I hope), and I will also be resuming guest duties over at Peking Duck. So expect to see a bunch of China-related posts here shortly. And also, maybe some posts about writing, the process, the rewards and frustrations, and this really great writing group I'm involved in now...and I'm hoping to ponder some other philosophical-type questions...what is does one heal...why is there always one step in easy-assembly furniture that isn't easy?

Stuff like that.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Quick Note

Some of you might know that I've been guest-administering the Peking Duck, a high-volume, China and progressive politics blog while the site owner, Richard, was traveling in Asia. It's been fun, a challenge and mostly, a real honor that Richard entrusted me with his blog.

I can't say that my posting here has fallen off in any way because I've cross-posted the stuff I've written here and at the Duck. But the rest of it - posting other guests' posts, patrolling the comments for trolls (the curse of popularity) and defending my own opinions against, how to put it?

Oh, wingnut asshats will suffice.

Anyway, it's kept me pretty busy. For some reason I still have the mental wherewithal to post lovely, brutal comments on the Duck, but not to sit down and compose thoughtful posts on my own, which I dearly would like to do. I think a few days rest and consideration will put me back in that frame of mind. I do appreciate your indulgence in the meantime.

But following up on the Katrina controversy, here's the comment I just posted to the Duck. It was in response to a post claiming that the White House is, and I'm shocked, SHOCKED to hear this, trying to keep the press out of the devastated region:
Okay, let me start this comment by saying that I didn't put up the post, so all you wingnuts who've been slagging me the last two weeks? Ummm...bite me, okay?

Now that I've gotten that out of the way.

First, for all the laziness and collusion and negligence of the American press in recent years - well, I'm not gonna take all that criticism back, but god bless the press. They've recaptured their critical faculties and their outrage, and if it weren't for their coverage, who knows what we would actually be learning about the disaster in the Gulf?

The one here in the States, I mean.

What Josh Marshall (the post Richard linked to) reports here doesn't surprise me in the least, unfortunately. And here are a few more examples.

One of the reasons that the Federal Government was so slow to authorize additional National Guard troops was because they wanted to Federalize the entire disaster control/relief effort, and the Governor refused to cede her authority. The locals had some very real fears that if this had happened, the White House would use the opportunity to cover up and blame the local governments for everything that went wrong. This was reported in that wild, lefty journal the Washington Post.

I'm not saying that local governments are blameless here. A disaster plan in a city of poor people that did not adequately plan for getting said poor people to safely is obviously flawed. This still doesn't in any way explain or excuse the delays, incompetence, disorganization and downright criminal negligance of the Federal response.

And right now, the White House is trying to spread outright lies about who did what when. They are saying that the Governor of Louisiana didn't declare a State of Emergency as of Saturday August 27. This is simply not true.

Here is a good timeline about who did what when.

So am I surprised that they would try to hide the truth of what happened in the Gulf? Not one little bit. If the American people were to realize the depths of venal incompetence of their leadership, their moral and ideological bankruptcy, and what the logical consequences of their "leadership" are, thousands of wasted lives, old people, sick people, poor people,dying while Bush played golf and air guitar, why, who knows what might happen? They might start wondering if the leadership that claims to represent their moral values actually gives a shit whether they live or die, and if they live, what the quality of their lives might be.

I'm not generally a conspiracist (and I'm waiting for the howls of outrage from our wingnut contingent for that statement). But I've been compulsively watching this disaster unfold. And I can tell you - there are thousands of bodies in the rubble, ruins and sewage of the Gulf Coast. 10,000 is pretty plausible. And if we start getting reports that, oh, not so many folks actually died, it wasn't so bad, FEMA didn't turn away help, your government didn't fail you, really, we didn't...

Well, I'm getting out the tinfoil hat.

Actually, let me rephrase that. Those of you who still don't want to believe it? I'm donating my tinfoil hat to you. You're going to need it.

Monday, September 05, 2005


Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

It's Supergirl! Or, more accurately, it's "The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest." Jim Yardley of the NYT asks if this knock-off of American Idol presages greater dem0cr@cy in China's future:
The enormous public fascination with the independently produced show has stimulated a nationwide online discussion on issues ranging from dem0cr@cy to standards of beauty to whether Li is a lesbian. In a country where it is illegal to organize many types of public meetings, fans formed booster clubs and canvassed malls to court prospective voters. There were even accusations of voter fraud, as rabid fans circumvented the rule limiting each person to 15 votes.

"It's like a gigantic game that has swept so many people into a euphoria of voting, which is a testament to a society opening up," a social commentator, Zhu Dake, told state media.

No one is saying that the frenzy surrounding the show represents a threat to the ruling Communist Party or foreshadows the emergence of meaningful elective politics in China. But the degree to which the show resonated with people seems to have unsettled the government's propaganda leaders. There is already speculation it will be canceled next year.
Not only that, the winner, Li Yuchun, stands in marked contrast to the typical "model worker models" usually seen on CCTV:
Tall and gangly, with a thatch of frizzy hair, the adjectives most used to describe her in the media were "boyish" or "androgynous." Some commentators speculated that her fan base consisted of young girls who considered her to be their "boyfriend" because of her appearance.
Some speculate that the show also resonated with viewers because the contestants were recruited from the provinces, as opposed to the big city types more typically found on network TV.

Wow. Candidates representative of the people. Individualism over prefab beauty. Who'd have thought that would catch on?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

"Here Lies Vera"

"Here Lies Vera"
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

A makeshift tomb at a New Orleans street corner conceals a body that had been lying on the sidewalk for days in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Friday, September 02, 2005

New Orleans

New Orleans
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

Another "ordinary" hero...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

City Of New Orleans

The year I turned thirty, one of my best friends and I decided to commemorate the occasion (she had turned thirty six months prior) by reverting to our childhood tomboy selves and buying skateboards. My friend, also named Lisa (she is one of the reasons that I am "Other Lisa") had skated as a kid. I had not. But neither of us had experienced this new generation of skateboards, with their shock-absorbing wheels and maneuverable trucks. We both bought lovely Lance Mountain boards, customized them with stickers and proceeded to spend our lunch hours cruising around grotty Hollywood streets, trying to master jumping off curbs.

The climax of this summer of experimentation came when we booked train tickets on Amtrak that would take us across the country on a three-week vacation. Our ultimate destinations were New York City and Washington DC, with a stop for me in Princeton NJ. Our itinerary was in part dictated by the presence of former relationships in several of these stops, guys who had played far too important a role in our lives (unresolved, ambiguous roles at that). So we called our adventure, "The Old Boyfriends Tour," and set out with our skateboards and dufflebags.

It was an amazing trip in so many ways. But the part I'm remembering now is the 24 hour layover we had in New Orleans. Both of us had come from traumatic encounters with the aforementioned old boyfriends. Licking our psychic, and in my case, literal wounds (I'd had a truly spectacular, nasty crash on my board in Princeton, trying to keep up with the Blast from My Past, who was on Rollerblades), we pulled into New Orleans on an ageing Amtrak and plotted what we'd do for the next day and night.

We had that whole, starving students mentality back then. We weren't going to spend money on anything so bourgeoise as a hotel room, not when we'd be in the place less than a day. Besides, wasn't New Orleans a party town? Why not stay up all night instead, we reasoned?

You know how there's that theory about how teenagers' brains aren't mature in the judgment centers? Maybe we were reliving that part of our pasts as well.

We spent the day wandering around the French Quarter, the river promenade, Jackson Square. We visited Marie Leveux's Voodoo Emporium, the Absinthe Bar, drank Hurricanes from plastic cups, ate beignets and sipped chicory coffee at Cafe Du Monde. The French Quarter had a funky scent, mossy river mixed with stale water and just a hint of sewage. The wrought iron balconies, the flowers, the sense of tradition and secrets and decadence - all the tacky souvenirs on Bourbon Street didn't take away from my impression that here, at last, was a place that lived up to my every romantic expectation of it. I took note of the "For Rent" signs in the Quarter - "check it out, Leese - this place is cheap! I could move here."

I knew the reality of New Orleans wasn't all that romantic, for many of her citizens. I knew that a huge percentage of them were desperately poor, that there were no jobs, that the crime rate was brutally high. But still. I knew also that this was a singular city, a special place. A treasure, really.

Some time after midnight, both of us crashed, big-time. The combination of sleep-deprivation, emotional stress and Hurricanes, I guess. All the chicory coffee at Cafe Du Mond couldn't keep us awake any longer.

We parked ourselves and our skateboards on a bench in front of the Cathedral. It was about 3 AM. Our plan was, one of us would stay awake while the other slept.

Lisa fell asleep immediately. It fell to me to keep the first watch.

I tried. I really did. But my eyes kept closing of their own volition. My head would suddenly loll to one side, and I'd jerk awake. This happened several times.

Then, as my eyes drifted shut once more, I heard a soft voice next to me.

"Don't you worry," he said.

I turned to look. Standing there was a security guard, a young Black man.

"Don't y'all worry," he repeated. "You go ahead and get some sleep. I'll make sure nobody mess with you."

"Thank you," I said. We smiled at each other, and then I closed my eyes. I knew I was safe.