Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Watch This

KO k.o's Rumsfeld and the not-so-nascent fascists of the Bush Administration.

Friday, August 25, 2006

One step sideways, two steps back

Two closely watched human rights cases with different outcomes:
A blind activist who drew international attention by exposing China's harsh family planning policies was sentenced by a court Thursday to four years and three months in prison, the official New China News Agency reported.

Chen Guangcheng was tried last week, without his own attorney present, on charges of damaging property and "organizing a mob to disturb traffic." He was represented at his two-hour trial by a pair of court-appointed lawyers he had never met...

...The harsh treatment of the self-taught lawyer and a recent slew of incidents involving the arrest or intimidation of attorneys fighting against official abuse suggest that the Communist Party is worried about losing control over an increasingly vocal legal community.
This case is particularly outrageous given the nature of incidents for which Chen was charged:
Chen had slipped into the home of another villager and hidden there for about 20 days. Officials allegedly beat the villager after failing to get him to turn Chen in. In reaction, Chen and about five others attempted to walk to a village official's office. They were followed by up to 60 guards who tried to stop them.

"They charged my brother with blocking traffic, but most of the people doing the blocking were their own men," said Chen's brother, who was one of three family members allowed to attend the trial last week.

The brother said that no one was allowed to speak in Chen's behalf at the trial and that the two court-appointed lawyers didn't object to anything the prosecutors said. Chen, he said, repeatedly tried to protest the validity of the trial and threw up several times in court.

"Our lawyers have received death threats, we've been arrested and accused of theft," said Teng Biao, one of Chen's lawyers. "When we tried to visit the village in July, they turned our car over with two attorneys still inside. The entire village remains sealed off. The phone lines are cut off. They don't want us to meet or speak to any of the relatives. This verdict today has no legal basis whatsoever."
Meanwhile, a case involving a jailed New York Times researcher had a slightly better outcome — in that journalist Zhao Yan was acquitted of the more serious of the two charges facing him, leaking state secrets. Zhao was convicted of fraud, a charge which seems dubious at best:
The New China News Agency said the fraud charge stemmed from an incident in 2001, which was before Zhao was hired by the New York Times. He was convicted of taking money on a false promise of interceding to get a man's sentence thrown out, the agency said. Zhao, his lawyers and his family denied the charge.

"We welcome the court's decision on the first charge, that there was not enough evidence proving Zhao leaked state secrets," said Guan Anping, one of the newspaper's lawyers in the case.

"That shows they did rule according to the law and that rule of law is becoming more established. We're glad to see it," the lawyer said. "But we don't agree with the second [fraud] charge. We maintain Zhao is innocent."

Because Zhao has already been detained for almost two years, he is scheduled for release in September 2007. His legal team said it was considering whether to appeal the decision, given that an appeal could take nearly a year.

Zhao's family also expressed displeasure with the case, which had its share of legal irregularities, even by Chinese standards. At one point it appeared the charges had been dropped, only to be revived.

"I'm not satisfied with the verdict," said Zhao Kun, the researcher's older sister. "I think he's completely innocent."
Many foreign governments and press groups had taken up Zhao's cause, and it's possible that such international pressure may have played a role in Zhao's acquittal of the state secrets charge, for which he could have spent a decade or more in prison.

Chen Guangcheng's lawyers, who had hoped for minimum or no jail time, consider his sentence unexpectedly harsh.
Taken together, the verdicts suggest that China can be marginally swayed by foreign appeals when a case has limited domestic impact, said Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. When the state feels its control is challenged, however, Beijing all but ignores foreign opinion, he added.

"In those cases, international pressure means nothing," he said.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Goodbye to the Friendship Store?

When I lived in Beijing the fall and winter of 79-80, China was not exactly the shopping mecca that it is now. In fact, you could buy very little. Many of Beijing's small businesses, its restaurants and shops, had been shuttered during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and the shops that were open didn't have much. Clothing was rationed, and we used coupons to get we needed for the winter. At the time, the Friendship Hotel, where most of Bejing's foreign teachers lived, was way the hell out by the 3rd Ring road, surrounded by communes and fields and very little else. Across the street from the compound was a row of tin-roofed stalls, which sold clothing and a few odd sundries. I got my long underwear there, and some Peoples' Liberation Army-green pants baggy enough to wear over the thickest pair. Other than that, my big find was an old erhu (a Chinese violin) and a used PLA snoopy hat lined with brown wool that I picked up at a second hand store.

Much of the winter, Paul and I spent searching for those long green PLA padded overcoats. They're like giant, wearable comforters, which we really could have used in the bitter, cutting cold. We never did manage to score those, though we did find the short, ribbed padded Tianjin workers' jackets. Other than that, we collected posters, which were one of the few things that you could find just about everywhere. I must have hundreds of them, 4 Modernizations posters mostly. I have one up on my wall that features a chubby, rosey-cheeked baby holding up, I'm not sure what it is, a sort of mobile, with flowers, and a lantern and...well, a small rocket with a nuclear atom blossoming from behind it.

One of the few places where we could shop was the Friendship Store in downtown Beijing. At the time, the Friendship Store struck me as an utterly bizarre institution. It was for foreigners only. You could only use foreign exchange certificates. Chinese people couldn't even enter the building — with the exception of high-ranking cadres, distinguished from the masses by their four pocket (as opposed to two) Mao jackets, their expensive fountain pens and their leather shoes (the masses wore cloth).

This system of segregation did not strike me as terribly revolutionary.

In any case, the Friendship Store was still pretty grim. No smiles at the Friendship Store, that's for sure, except for the time that Paul said that he wanted to buy a hat — "mao4" and it came out "mao2," as in the Chairman. The clerks thought that was hilarious.

You could buy Mao there, however — giant black and white cloth hangings of his official portrait, which we called "Chairman Mao beach blankets." These later would form backdrops to many a college party and gig. I was much more thrilled with the smaller Zhou Enlai versions we found. Hunting for Zhou Enlai souvenirs became somewhat of an obsession while I was in China, and those were among the best available. Zhou may have been the Peoples' Premier, and he was certainly popular among the people I met, but his cult of personality generated only a tiny fraction of the memorabilia that Mao's did.

By the time I left China, the winds of change were a-blowin', even through the Friendship Store. One day, next to the Peoples' Personal Cleaning Products counter, manned by short, middle-aged women with blunt-cut hair and square smocks, there appeared an apparition, wearing in a clinging blue knit dress, glittery belt, a fashionable feathered hair-do and purple eye-shadow. It was...a Chanel saleswoman.

In recent visits to Beijing, I generally stopped in at the Friendship Store. Nowadays, they have a wide selection of merchandise, including what a friend who lives in Beijing swore was a great selection of high-quality, reasonably priced cashmere (I've bought a number of sweaters there). There's a nice little grocery store attached that sells foreign goods, and a Starbucks. The sales clerks are friendly, even helpful, and it's one of the few places you can easily cash traveler's checks. Chinese people can shop there now, of course. Compared to the huge malls and shopping plazas of modern-day Beijing, there's something human-scale, almost small-town about the Friendship Store. It's really kind of sweet.

So I have to admit, I was saddened to read about the Friendship Store's impending closure:
Today, the Friendship Store is an anachronism, popular with some tourists but a reminder of a time before China embraced capitalism. At six stories and 108,000 square feet, its size is considered too small, its bottom line insufficient.

Therefore, like nearly everything else that is old and unfashionable in China, the iconic store will be torn down.

A $500 million "Friendship Mansion," 15 times the size of the original, will take its place by early 2009. A joint venture led by Stanley Ho, the Macau casino tycoon, plans to erect a 29-story apartment complex and two office towers atop an eight-story retail podium. Parts of the project may open in time to greet visitors for the 2008 Olympic Games.

"We are intending to turn it into a modern shopping center. High-end stores such as Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior might be able to use this space," said Anthony Chan, managing director of the Hong Kong-based holding company for Ho's firm and an Australian company. "We don't take over the entire building. They can still have the space to run a Friendship Store."

Whether any of the store's nostalgia will be preserved is up to the Beijing Xidan Friendship Group, the other partner in the deal, a state-owned enterprise that supervises the Friendship Store. For now, it remains unclear exactly what will happen, and authorities are hardly forthcoming with details...

..."I was here when the place first opened in 1973. I sold the same things then," said Li Shulan, 56. "After opening and reform . . . we started to see more competition. I feel sad about the decline, but I can do nothing about it."

Tourists can find cheaper versions of the store's cloisonne jewelry, silk embroidery and Chinese calligraphy elsewhere. Organized tours tend to take their flocks to the nearby Silk Market, a multistory mall of 1,500 stalls that, until last year, was nothing more than an outdoor market of counterfeit goods.

Even Chinese customers have more choices these days. Directly opposite the Friendship Store, a gleaming department store called Scitech sells imported wine, espresso makers and fashionable Puma tennis shoes.

Last year, the Friendship Store made a profit of only $9,000, state media reported in July. The year before, the store reported a loss of $370,000.

Now, it's time for a change, though exactly what kind of change not even some employees of the store know.

"Everybody's talking about it, but we don't know when or if they're really going to tear it down," Li said. "I can't believe they will. Old employees like me, we love this store."

A man from the general manager's office, who would only give his surname as Zhang, said he could not speak to the foreign media, because "this is a sensitive topic." A woman from the store's business department, who would only give her surname as Du, insisted the store had made a profit each year.

But Liu Xiuling, general manager of the Xidan Friendship Group, told Chinese reporters last month that the store did not take full advantage of its prime downtown location.

In a statement, the Party Affairs Office of the Xidan Friendship Group said the "old Friendship Store" will continue to operate somewhere in Beijing's central business district.
I did find that PLA overcoat, by the way. Nowadays it's easy. You just go to the Peoples' Liberation Army Surplus Store - there are several in Beijing. Of course, no one wears them any more, not in Beijing. Only unsophisticated migrant workers would be caught in one of those.

Here in California, the few times I've worn it, when it's been cold enough, everyone tells me how cool it is...

Monday, August 21, 2006

An Ordinary Life

I always look forward to articles from the Los Angeles Times' Ching-Ching Ni. Ni is a miniaturist in a sense — she stays away from "big" topics like China's rise and the transformation of its cities and instead focuses on the stories we seldom read about these days - "ordinary" people often left behind by China's economic miracle, whose lives when examined closely are anything but ordinary.

Her piece today is no exception.

Ni tells the story of He Tianwu, born a peasant in 1962, whose journey to survive and care for his family took him from the fields to odd jobs to one of China's wretched coal mines:
China's coal pits are the deadliest on Earth, claiming thousands of lives a year. The nation's insatiable appetite for energy has created a proliferation of illegal mines, whose authorities pay little heed to worker safety or benefits.

He didn't have time to understand that. What he needed was a paycheck. Little did he know that after living expenses and fees were deducted, he would make only a few dollars a month. The meager salary was rarely paid on time.

After the late shift on a hot July day in 1992, He's foreman asked for a volunteer to work overtime to make up for the production delay caused by a disabled coal cart pulley.

"I needed the extra money, so I said, 'I'll do it,' " He recalled.

Around midnight, He was in the pit loading coal when the steel cable that moved the carts to the surface became stuck again. As He pulled on it, it suddenly jerked into action, yanking his arm so hard that his body flew 10 feet into the air before he was slammed back down. He instantly lost consciousness.

When He awoke two days later, he was in a hospital bed. His left arm was gone, amputated from the shoulder down.

Despite the accident, He begged for his job back. In a country where potential employees are passed over for being too short or too ugly, He knew that he would have trouble finding new work as a disabled man. His boss refused, gave him $500 and told him to go.

On the crowded train home, a thief sliced open He's backpack and walked away with half the bills he had hidden there.

While He was at home recovering, a coal-mining accident claimed the life of his younger brother.

"He was only 23, never even got married," He said.

His two other brothers, both farmers-turned-miners, couldn't afford to give up the deadly trade. Falling rocks broke one brother's shinbone. A floorboard collapse crushed the other's ribs.

"Our family gave so much to China's coal mines, but we never got much in return," He said.

But there was no time to sit still. He began practicing digging dirt with one arm. Neighbors watched him fill part of a local riverbed with sand and plant corn that grew so well it became the envy of the village.

Then a flood ruined his harvest.
There's much more family tragedy here, as well as an amazing denoument — spurned by potential employers in Shanghai, turned down even by an organization aiding the disabled, He transfromed himself into a one-armed porter working on one of China's most treacherous peaks:
It takes about seven minutes to ride the cable car up Huashan; on foot, the trip can take more than 10 hours. Some passages are so steep that climbers must get on all fours and cling to a metal chain that rattles against the side of granite cliffs soaring 7,000 feet into the clouds.

For six years, He has scaled Huashan nearly every day, balancing a straw basket loaded with about 100 pounds of supplies for people at the top.

"On my first day I carried about 50 pounds and made $1.80," He said with a proud smile. "Afterward my back and legs were so sore I could hardly move. But they paid me cash right away. That's better than any job I've ever had."

What little money He made he sent home. During a visit, his younger son, He Xihai, 12 at the time, hiked up the mountain and saw how his father earned a living.

"I was on all fours and I was petrified," said He Xihai, now 17. "I asked my father, 'How do you do it?' and he said, 'One step at a time.'
Needless to say, you should go read the rest.

I've posted some of Ni's other stories here, here, and here.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

I enjoy being a grrl

I'm sitting here on the couch, my cat sprawled out in her upsidedown, paws crossed position next to me. I have Chinese class tomorrow morning — well, later today — for which I am not prepared. I've accomplished very little tonight, beyond arguing with a pompous asshole on another blog. Which of course raises the question, is that actually an accomplishment?

Mmmm, not so much.

Usually, I'm not particularly argumentative on blogs. I'm generally regarded as the peace-maker, the person who avoids inflammatory language and looks for common ground. But when I took over guest-posting duties on a far more popular blog than this one, I found myself frequently attacked, and almost always on a really personal level. The typical wingnut assaults about being a traitor and all that, but even more so, attacks on my credibility, character and intelligence.

Now, this last insult is probably the most frequent, and I must admit, given my personal history, I find it pretty ironic. I was always the smart kid, the one in the advanced classes, the egghead who didn't fit in to the normal girly scheme of things. In my current job, I'm the person people call to find out information. Whatever weird, esoteric stuff they need to know. I don't always know it, but I know how to find it, and that's what counts the most.

So having men in the blogosphere routinely tell me I'm "not particularly intelligent," or a "stupid cow," is, I dunno, almost refreshing on some weird level. Growing up when I did, it was at times kind of tough being the smart girl. It seemed to mean that you weren't a real girl, somehow. You didn't fit the mold of how you were supposed to be a girl, of how you were supposed to be a woman. If you cared more about books and ideas and accomplishments than shoes and make-up and flirting, there was something wrong with you.

I see some women who seem to have this whole thing figured out much better than I ever did. I guess they didn't grow up with that divided message in their heads, praised for being gifted but that expressing intelligence was somehow incompatible with being "feminine."

Now that I'm officially stoopid, perhaps that makes me a real girl, at long last...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Not England, but an incredible simulation!

Okay, I'm pretty tired. It's been kind of a stressful week, and I just got back from a lovely sushi dinner. Sake was consumed.

So while I'd like to offer up some witty commentary here, I think I'm just going to have to let this Guardian article stand on its own:
Look at those white stucco Regency terraces. This must be Pimlico. Look again. Well, perhaps we are in Bristol; that's the spire of St Mary Redcliffe over there, isn't it? On the other hand, all those black-and-white Tudor shops seem to spell Chester. Right?

Wrong. This is not England, nor even a chim-chiminee Hollywood film set. Welcome to Thames Town, a grotesque, and extremely funny parody of an olde English town seen through Chinese eyes, and built by canny British developers.

Thames Town is one of seven satellite towns nearing completion on the fringe of Shanghai built by the municipal government to re-house 500,000 people. Its six siblings have been designed in equally potty national dresses. Take your pick from architectural styles adopted from Italy, Spain, Canada, Sweden, Holland and Germany.

The German new town, by the way, is the work of Albert Speer. But, no, not that one - his son. Instead of mighty domes and stadiums, Speer junior offers the Chinese volk Hansel and Gretel-style gingerbread homes.

But only Thames Town boasts a chippy, a gothic church, village green and mock-Tudor pub selling real ale. Built from scratch in little over three years, the £200m project encompasses five centuries of British architecture. At its centre are half-timbered Tudor-style buildings. By the waterfront, Victorian redbrick warehouses have been pre-emptively "converted" into shops. The residential area includes gabled Edwardian houses bordered by privet hedges, manicured lawns and leafy roads.
A gingerbread German town, in China, built by Albert Speer Jr.? See, this is the problem with modern society. It makes satire obsolete.

One question: just what is Canadian architectural style?

From our good friends at China Digital Times.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Check out Non-Violent Resistance Blog

I've been meaning to recommend the Non-Violent Resistance Blog (Uleewang on my blogroll), by a Chinese journalist writing in English. He did great on-the-ground reporting about the benzene spill in Harbin. Now he's unleashing his righteous anger and disgust at the government's proposal to sell hunting rights to some of China's rarest order to, well, fund protection for endangered species — and making some important points about the role of "the internet masses" on government decision-making:
This is yet another perfect example of an unbelievably stupid government policy getting ripped into pieces by the Internet masses and on popular media, with the mandarins backing down shame-faced in the end. The difference is, this time around the skepticism and criticism is almost unanimous: At this very moment, CCTV is running an interactive news commentary program, "discussing" but mostly condemning it. Indeed, it's almost a textbook case of bureaucratic incompetence with factors offensive to every actively outspoken group on the Internet:

To environmentalists and animal rights sympathizers: putting up some of our rarest animals to be gunned down, for a price? Are you f****** kidding me? And to be done by the Ministry of Forestry, the governent agency supposed to be protecting them? What kind of a world am I living in?

To nationalists: the bidding is open only to foreigners? What the hell? Like my RMB doesn't smell as sweet as your US dollars even though mine is appreciating, under "international pressure"? Like we are going to tolerate foreigners (Americans, NRA members, probably; oh, and don't even get me started on the Japanese!) with their big guns roaming free on OUR land, slaughtering OUR animals?

To the not rich and cynical: so, if you're filthy rich enough, you can kill whatever you want. And the more you pay, the bigger and rarer the prey. So am I gonna become your game one day if you can pay the price?

To the legal-minded and detail-loving: several natioinal laws and regulations, as well as nobody knows how many local ones, eh, will have to either be amended or broken to accomodate your stupid Chinese safari. What about wild life protection laws providing jail terms for killing exactly those kinds of animals? What about gun control laws strictly forbidding firearms crossing the border? The Ministry says old instead of young, male instead of female animals will be picked in the actual hunting. So what do you do if some schmuck "accidentally" shoots a doe instead of a stag? Ship him right off to prison

To me: like I am gonna pass up this opportunity to vent more venom against shit-for-brains government officials?

OK, enough for the fun part. My point is, as lots of foreigners correctly point out, we Chinese don't have any sense of political correctness (the Sam Adams brand, not our domestic Eight-Honors-Eight-Disgraces brew). We don't have the luxury for that, one might argue, when some government officials can't tell the difference between salary and bribery. But the current government has also proven itself increasingly "sensitive" to, or downright scared of, strong opinions of the Internet masses. To a lot of reform-minded liberals, that's not necessarily a good thing -- there are even conspiry theories that concervatives, disguised as outraged ordinary netizens, use the Internet to foil some of their hardest-gained reform policies. But at least at times like this, the massive outcry helps drill some basic sense into some high-ranking heads, or brutally strips away the veneer of lies by special interest-controlled, corrupt government officials. Common sense is all we want, and sometimes we do get it.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Go here for some prime cat-blogging.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Good Call...

The US Army yesterday rejected a proposal for a military themepark on a Virginia army base yesterday. The plans called for:
"...rides that allow visitors to "command the latest M-1 tank" and "feel the rush of a paratrooper freefall."

A Florida developer wanted to erect the theme park at Fort Belvoir, a few miles from the nation's capital, in conjunction with plans for a new National Museum of the United States Army scheduled to be built at the base by 2011.
Though the Army is still willing to consider "some type of "visitor destination concept to go with the museum," officials stated that a themepark "would make a mockery of the Army experience."
"How do you handle war? You don't trivialize it. It's the most serious engagement," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald Hyland, a retired Air Force colonel whose district includes most of Fort Belvoir. "I kind of hold my breath that you could do that and have it appeal from an entertainment perspective and at the same time respect the history of the Army."
Hard to argue with that. Certainly an Army video game studio is much more dignified...

Monday, August 07, 2006

The (un) eternal sea...

I've been meaning to write about this at length, in the context of some longer "ohmigod the world is going to hell, and I'm panicking" type post, but since I haven't gotten around to that yet, I want to call your attention to an excellent series in the Los Angeles Times about the dire condition of the earth's oceans. This is a five-part series, but a few graphs from the first article should give you an idea of just how serious this is — "sobering" doesn't begin to cover it:
MORETON BAY, AUSTRALIA — The fireweed began each spring as tufts of hairy growth and spread across the seafloor fast enough to cover a football field in an hour.

When fishermen touched it, their skin broke out in searing welts. Their lips blistered and peeled. Their eyes burned and swelled shut. Water that splashed from their nets spread the inflammation to their legs and torsos.

"It comes up like little boils," said Randolph Van Dyk, a fisherman whose powerful legs are pocked with scars. "At nighttime, you can feel them burning. I tried everything to get rid of them. Nothing worked."

As the weed blanketed miles of the bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air...

...The venomous weed, known to scientists as Lyngbya majuscula, has appeared in at least a dozen other places around the globe. It is one of many symptoms of a virulent pox on the world's oceans.

In many places — the atolls of the Pacific, the shrimp beds of the Eastern Seaboard, the fiords of Norway — some of the most advanced forms of ocean life are struggling to survive while the most primitive are thriving and spreading. Fish, corals and marine mammals are dying while algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked. Where this pattern is most pronounced, scientists evoke a scenario of evolution running in reverse, returning to the primeval seas of hundreds of millions of years ago.

Jeremy B.C. Jackson, a marine ecologist and paleontologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, says we are witnessing "the rise of slime."

For many years, it was assumed that the oceans were too vast for humanity to damage in any lasting way. "Man marks the Earth with ruin," wrote the 19th century poet Lord Byron. "His control stops with the shore."

Even in modern times, when oil spills, chemical discharges and other industrial accidents heightened awareness of man's capacity to injure sea life, the damage was often regarded as temporary.

But over time, the accumulation of environmental pressures has altered the basic chemistry of the seas.

The causes are varied, but collectively they have made the ocean more hospitable to primitive organisms by putting too much food into the water.

Industrial society is overdosing the oceans with basic nutrients — the nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous compounds that curl out of smokestacks and tailpipes, wash into the sea from fertilized lawns and cropland, seep out of septic tanks and gush from sewer pipes.

Modern industry and agriculture produce more fixed nitrogen — fertilizer, essentially — than all natural processes on land. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, enter the ocean every day.

These pollutants feed excessive growth of harmful algae and bacteria.

At the same time, overfishing and destruction of wetlands have diminished the competing sea life and natural buffers that once held the microbes and weeds in check.

The consequences are evident worldwide.
In addition, our ocean waters are becoming increasingly acidic — from the same causes as global warming:
Scientists estimate that nearly 500 billion tons of the gas have been absorbed by the oceans since the start of the Industrial Revolution. That is more than a fourth of all the CO2 that humanity has emitted into the atmosphere. Eventually, 80% of all human-generated carbon dioxide is expected to find its way into the sea.

Carbon dioxide moves freely between air and sea in a process known as molecular diffusion. The exchange occurs in a film of water at the surface. Carbon dioxide travels wherever concentrations are lowest. If levels in the atmosphere are high, the gas goes into the ocean. If they are higher in the sea, as they have been for much of the past, the gas leaves the water and enters the air.

If not for the CO2 pumped into the skies in the last century, more of the gas would leave the sea than would enter it.

"We have reversed that direction," said Ken Caldeira, an expert on ocean chemistry and carbon dioxide at the Carnegie Institution's department of global ecology, based at Stanford University...

...Scientists say the acidification of the oceans won't be arrested unless the output of CO2 from factories, power plants and automobiles is substantially reduced. Even now, the problem may be irreversible.

"One thing we know for certain is it's not going to be a good thing for the ocean," Barry said. "We just don't know how bad it will be."
I've had the sense for some time now that we are balanced on the edge of a precipice, in more ways than one. Poised at the brink of a region-wide Middle Eastern war, of economic collapse, of encroaching fascism, any number of worst-case scenarios, none of which are likely to improve as long as the current regime occupies the White House. But after reading things like this, it's no wonder to me that Al Gore has chosen to forego another presidential run and devote himself to fighting global warming. As horrific as our political and social problems are at present, just about everything tends to pale in the face of severe climate change, mass extinctions and the death of our oceans.

Real solutions will have to arise out of our sadly dysfunctional political systems and global diplomacy — and I don't expect much progress from the US government in the next couple of years (no wonder Ah-nuld's Kuh-lee-phone-eyuh and a number of states are raising their own internal standards and making separate deals with sovereign countries. California Uber Alles, baby!). In the meantime, we can at least spread the word. It's a small thing in the face of such staggering problems, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.

It's either that, or eat your jellyfish.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Teaching English as a Risky Business...

I taught English in Beijing when I was twenty years old, in 1979. At the time, being an American in China was such a novelty that my nationality was pretty much all that was required. Luckily for my students (all of whom were older than I was), I had this weird latent Protestant work/guilt ethic streak, and I felt obligated to do a good job, as much as I was totally in over my head. I went to the parents of my best friend with whom I'd traveled to China, professional teachers, and begged them to help me, to tell me what I needed to do to be a good teacher and help my students. I ended up being dragooned into making language tapes for no money at my school, a branch school of a more famous university. And though I knew I was being taken advantage of, to some extent, I didn't really mind too much. I liked the idea that I was leaving some sort of legacy behind, at the age of 20, that students would be listening to my voice reading these lame essays — lame, but read with decent pronunciation.

In recent years when I've traveled to China, I've had all kinds of job offers to teach English, just by virtue of my showing up and being able to speak some Chinese. I have no formal training in teaching, and I would have thought that by now, there would be enough qualified folks teaching English that someone like me would not be offered a job as I was more or less walking down the street.

Well, not so much.

Here's a cautionary tale that compares teaching English in China to the worst sort of sweatshop labor that immigrants to America have traditionally endured:
Tanya Davis fled Jizhou No. 1 Middle School one winter morning in March before the sun rose over the surrounding cotton fields covered with stubble from last fall's crop.

In the nine months Davis and her boyfriend had taught English at the school in rural north China, they had endured extra work hours, unpaid salaries and frigid temperatures without heating and, on many days, electricity.

Hearts pounding and worried their employer would find a pretext to stop them leaving, the couple lugged their backpacks, suitcase, books and guitar past a sleeping guard and into a taxi.

As they drove away, "the sense of relief was immense," said Davis, a petite, soft-spoken 23-year-old from Wales. "I felt like we had crossed our last hurdle and everything was going to be OK."

It's a new twist on globalization: For decades, Chinese made their way to the West, often illegally, to end up doing dangerous, low-paying jobs in sweatshop conditions. Now some foreigners drawn by China's growth and hunger for English lessons are landing in the schoolhouse version of the sweatshop.

In one case, an American ended up dead. Darren Russell, 35, from Calabasas, Calif., died under mysterious circumstances days after a dispute caused him to quit his teaching job in the southern city of Guangzhou. "I'm so scared. I need to get out of here," Russell said in a message left on his father's cell phone hours before his death in what Chinese authorities said was a traffic accident.

As China opens up to the world, public and private English-language schools are proliferating. While most treat their foreign teachers decently, and wages can run to $1,000 plus board, lodging and even airfare home, complaints about bad experiences in fly-by-night operations are on the rise. The British Embassy in Beijing warns on its Web site about breaches of contracts, unpaid wages and broken promises. The U.S. Embassy says complaints have increased eightfold since 2004 to two a week on average.

Though foreign teachers in South Korea, Japan and other countries have run into similar problems, the number of allegations in China is much higher because "the rule of law is still not firmly in place," said a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"A number of substandard English language teaching mills have sprung up, seeking to maximize profits while minimizing services," the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee said in a recent report on Russell's case. These institutes have become virtual "'sweatshops' where young, often naive Americans are held as virtual indentured servants."

Davis said officials at her school in Hebei province piled on classes without compensation, dragged their feet on repairing leaks in her apartment and would deduct sums from her $625 monthly salary for random taxes and phone calls that were never made. These ranged from $30 to $85, she said.

She recalled nights without electricity when there was nothing to do but sit in candlelight.

The more "we let them get away with, the more they tried to get away with," said Davis, who now teaches piano in Beijing...

...John Shaff, a graduate from Florida State University, said everything went according to his English-language contract at Joy Language School in the northeastern city of Harbin — until a disagreement over his office hours erupted into a shouting match on the telephone with a school official.

A few hours later, several men led by Joy's handyman showed up at his school-provided apartment, physically threatening him and cursing him in Chinese, said Shaff, 25. About 10 minutes later, they left, and soon, so did Shaff.

"They were all men who would have been formidable to fight," Shaff said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he now lives. The manager of the Joy chain did not respond to interview requests.

Like Shaff, Darren Russell had a disagreement with the manager of Decai language school in Guangzhou, where he had been promised 20 hours of classes a week. Instead, Decai had him teaching at two schools, where he put in up to 14 hours a day and oversaw 1,200 students, Russell's mother, Maxine Russell, said in a telephone interview from Calabasas.

The school had troubles with foreign teachers. Two had quit by the time Russell showed up, and a former Decai employee, a Chinese woman who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she left because she was asked to recruit foreign teachers by offering attractive contracts that went unfulfilled.

In April 2005, sick from bronchitis and exhausted from the work hours, Russell told manager Luo Deyi he wanted her to lighten his work load. An argument ensued, Russell resigned and threatened to tell police Luo was operating illegally, the former employee said.

The school then moved him into a low-budget hotel. A week later he was dead. Police told Decai and Russell's mother that Darren had been killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident. The body was shipped to California.

Maxine Russell, however, said Chinese authorities could not provide consistent witnesses and a time of death. According to the congressional report, which was the outcome of a family request to look into the Russell case, a California mortician who handled Russell's body said he had suffered a blow to his head and his body did not have bruises and fractures consistent with a car accident. The mortician, Jerry Marek, is a former coroner.

While Maxine Russell and the former Decai employee say Russell was a beloved teacher, Luo, the manager, insists he was often absent from class and his "teaching methods failed to meet the requirement of the school and fit the students." She said he had been hired on probation, which he failed partly because of a drinking problem.

"It was very strange and irresponsible for them to blame us for their son's death," Luo said in a telephone interview.
So, those of you currently teaching English in China — what are your experiences? Rewarding, life-threatening, or somewhere in-between?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Sowing Dragon's Teeth

From Reuters:
Israeli air strikes killed at least 40 civilians in Lebanon and a Hizbollah rocket barrage into Israel killed three people on Friday in a worsening conflict that world powers disagree on how to halt. One air strike hit a farm near Qaa, close to the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley where workers, mostly Syrian Kurds, were loading plums and peaches on to trucks, local officials said. They said 33 people were killed and 20 wounded.

An Israeli army spokesman said air strikes in the area had targeted two buildings that military intelligence had showed were used by Hizbollah to store weapons.

But television footage showed bodies of what appeared to be farm workers lined up near the ruins of a small structure in fruit groves. Strewn nearby were fruit baskets.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Everyone's a blogger...

From Asia Times Online:
The People's Daily reported that China's first "police blog", launched last year by Hebei province's Public Security Bureau, is even more popular than the blogs of many pop stars.

The founder, Hao Chao, is a policeman and is proud of introducing something new, initially to the media and now to the public, in an effort to showcase the hardships that police face and difficulties they experience at work. The police blog was an overnight hit, claiming more than a million visitors in its first two months.

Internet visitors approve of the project, saying it has helped them learn more about the police, their work and lives. They say they have learned that police officers are ordinary people who need understanding, support and communication, according to the People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

The blog has also allowed the public to submit suggestions on how the police force can improve. Some say police in high-ranking positions should be encouraged to improve law enforcement and be more efficient when making decisions. Others write the police should own up to their mistakes instead of covering them up.

The police hope their blog will help boost their influence. They now plan to increase the content on the blog, including discussions of typical crime cases and open forums on the law and police work.
The article actually focuses more on blogs started by prominent Chinese businessmen. And some of the implications of this are very interesting indeed:
Xiang Wenbo, chief executive officer of Sanyi Heavy Industries, started to write his blog on only a few months ago. He had never imagined that his blog could be regarded as "China's first ever financial blog". It enjoys more than a million visitors, even though the main subject of his blog is fairly technical: the transfer of shares in Chinese companies.

The notoriety of his site comes from the fact that Xiang's comments on his blog about the takeover of the state-controlled Xuzhou Machine Group Ltd by the US-based Kelly Co helped squelch the transaction. The Chinese government has halted the deal amid criticism of "selling state assets cheaply". Xiang's company had been competing with Kelly in taking over Xuzhou Machine.

"The motive of writing my blog comes from a sense of responsibility," Xiang once told journalists, "No matter whether the blog writers are private or state entrepreneurs, they have an important social role to play, ie, to offer their experience and knowledge to the society. My special experience in starting, conducting and developing a private enterprise and also in introducing reforms in the allocation of stock shares of an enterprise enable me to share them with all that may concern."

Consequently, Xiang has posted a series of articles with titles such as "The takeover of Xuzhou Machine - a beautiful lie"; "Price cheating in the Xuzhou Machine purchasing case"; "See how Xuzhou Machine was cheaply sold out"; "The takeover of Xuzhou Machine by Kelly is an illegal transaction".
In this case, it's easy to conclude that Xiang's criticisms (and his own self-interests) dovetailed with the Chinese government's interests — some faction's interests, in any case. It's easy to appeal to peoples' nationalist sentiments, and it's popular to respond to said sentiments. But it will be interesting to see what happens when some prominent businessman/blogger takes on an issue not so much to the government's liking — or more accurately, one that works against the current ruling faction but plays to their competitors' interests. China may not have competing political parties, but the shades of Red in today's CCP are varied indeed...

Sacrificial Pawn

Kevin Sites, Yahoo's Hot Zone reporter, has what I would characterize as a fair-minded and thorough summary of the war in Lebanon. Some key graphs:
Three weeks in and it's clear that few are blameless in this conflict: Hezbollah for the kidnapping of IDF soldiers and the barrage of rockets they fire toward northern Israel from southern Lebanon, Israel for what many in the international community consider a disproportionate response to the provocation, and the West, specifically the U.S. and Britain, for not endorsing an immediate cease-fire that could have helped prevent so much death and destruction; the casualties may now include the West's foreign policy interests in the Middle East.

But once again the biggest loser, it seems, is Lebanon. The country had finally turned the economic and political corner from its devastating civil war in 70s and 80s and was also asserting — with the exception of the presence of the armed Hezbollah militia in the south — a sense of its own sovereignty after Syrian troops departed its soil in March 2005.

Lebanon was more interested in economic growth than military might, pumping billions into hotels, restaurants, resorts and business. The hope was to regain the title of "the Paris of the Middle East," and for a short time it succeeded.

"Lebanon is just a souk (a marketplace)," said one Beirut businessman during its period of rapid growth. "But it has no political clout whatsoever."

Except, perhaps, as a pawn of both international and internal forces.

Some Middle East observers believe that Lebanon's failure to invest in a strong military — one with sovereignty over the entire nation, including the strongholds of Hezbollah's militia in the south — may have been its undoing.
Sites also points out what few mainstream media stories have mentioned — that cross-border incursions and kidnappings are a common occurence, and a two-way street:
One Middle East source with an intimate knowledge of Hezbollah, who wishes to remain anonymous because he's still involved in back-channel negotiations, says that Hezbollah's July 12 kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers was instigated, in part, by the earlier reneging by the Israeli government on a prisoner swap with Hezbollah.

"These kind of kidnappings are perpetrated by both sides," says the source. "The Israelis have routinely landed helicopters in Lebanon, scooped up people and taken them back to Israel. It's nothing so extraordinary."
There are many levels to this unfolding tragedy. None may be greater than the grave undermining of democratic movements and social liberalization in the Middle East. Milt Beardon, a former CIA officer and ME expert, tells Sites why. Not only is Hezbollah "an organic part" of the 40% of Lebanon that is Shia, it has gained credibility in the region:
"Hezbollah is the current darling of everybody in the Middle East," Bearden says, "mainly because of what they've accomplished by not being destroyed."

"I don't think anyone really believes you can remove Hezbollah through bombing," says the source close to Hezbollah. "It's an organization that is part of the Shia society. In fact, there will be Hezbollahs sprouting up all over the world after this. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are bridging that divide and it's showing how vulnerable many of the Arab governments are."

And though they've shown their vulnerability in this conflict, Bearden believes Arab governments have also found an "out" from the pressure from the West to democratize — since the U.S., to them, no longer seems like an honest broker after its response to Hamas' and Hezbollah's election victories in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon.

"The concept of a tsunami of democracy (in the Middle East) is done for," Bearden says.
The last six years make it hard to remember a time when the US had some clout as an "honest broker," back in the days of shuttle diplomacy and the Camp David accords. But our current Cowboy-in-Chief has little interest in such sissy, peacenik stuff, famously shaking off Colin Powell's calls for engagement in the Israel/Palestinian conflict at the beginning of his administration with the bon mot, “Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things.”

Clarity is breaking out all over these days.

More from Sites and Bearden:
As a member of Conflicts Forum, a group of former cold warriors who believe the West has to establish a dialogue with fundamentalist Islamic organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah to peacefully resolve crises like this, Bearden says the U.S. missed important opportunities to head off the violence.

"I've been in countless hours of meetings with some of them (Hezbollah) to where I can guarantee you that they would have welcomed a quiet dialogue with the United States," he says. "We don't do our fundamental homework anymore. You've got to empathize with the enemy to the extent to that you don't have a cartoon character that you're fighting, but someone that might be smarter than anybody in your administration."
Well, that last possibility strikes me as a pretty safe bet. The cartoon characters seem to be on our side, populating an Administration whose language of diplomacy can pretty much be summed up as, "Hulk smash!"