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Chen Guangcheng’s illegal detention reflects poorly on China, not just Linyi

For over a month now we’ve been covering the story of Chen Guangcheng, thanks largely to Yaxue’s “Heard on Weibo” section. We’ve seen it grow from an online protest, to manifesting in the physical world with activists attempting to enter Chen’s village only to be beaten back time and again (this link is an incredible account of such a group). The issue is now widely known, and the angry question seems to be “How can Linyi’s government treat people this way?”

But now the question is starting to shift to “How can the central government allow local thugs to treat people this way?

In China, calling for action from the Central government would typically be an ineffective approach. Most of the high-profile cases are never officially acknowledged, and so the government can ignore any calls for action (since “nothing” is happening). However, the Central government has acknowledged the case of Chen Guangcheng in an article in the Global Times:

“The city of Linyi is now shrouded in controversy. The claim that the treatment of Chen Guangchen has violated strict legal procedure and human rights standards may not be simply invented.” – Don’t turn a village into a pressure cooker, Oct. 12, 2011

It would seem that a country that values human rights, as China claims it does, should launch an investigation into the abuses and take action to stop them. Global Times offered this weak excuse in the same piece:

“The conflict in Linyi has more to do with local governance level than nationwide political worries. Judging a specific rural area by the highest international human rights standards may be easy, but it hardly reflects reality.”

If human rights are not upheld at a local level how can it be said that they even exist at a national level?

At this point the Central government’s failure to intervene on behalf of Chen Guangcheng, a man who is being held prisoner in his own home without even the pretext of criminal charges, shows a disturbing lack of concern for human rights at the highest level of Government.

Until further statements are made, we have to assume that the government’s proposal made in the first article still stands. The suggestion is that if we all ignore the problem, the local government will solve it.

As I’ve discussed before, the government is often too concerned with its image (face) to take action. Often they much prefer denying problems, than working on fixing the cause. In this case they should weigh their choices.

Inaction is leading to a more active and vocal campaign by netizens, in which they are gaining practical experience in communicating with international media without alienating domestic citizens. These activists could very quickly turn to issues that are far more widespread and more “sensitive” which would be increasingly difficult to contain. Chen’s case is so clear cut and widely known, that it is being openly discussed on Chinese social networks, drawing in people who would have otherwise never been involved in political issues. Several netizens have already called the Central government’s motives into question.

Visualize instead the government sending in police or army units to rescue Chen and his family from the local government. It would be a great step in restoring people’s faith in the central government, and would allow them to reassert that China is improving human rights. It would send a strong warning to other local governments that this kind of blatant abuse will not be tolerated in the future (which is inline with how the Party communicates), and would also allow China to avoid further international attention on its embarrassing human rights record.

I offer this suggestion in light of the netizen’s response to the deployment of a SWAT team in Chongqing to help migrant workers get their unpaid wages (from ChinaSmack).

Migrant worker praising police after he finally received his wages

“Good, this what serving the people really is!”

“Chongqing has been doing such a good job these past two years fighting corruption/crime, always at the forefront of the country, and deserves to be encouraged and imitated! Ding!”

“A miracle! In this day and age, there are still people who do what people do [do the right thing]. So hard to come by!!!”

Hopefully the Central government will recognize that the plight of Chen Guangcheng can either serve as a continual reminder to the international community of how human rights are still neglected in China, or Chen can become a symbol of China’s new push to improve itself. First though they must accept that Chen Guangcheng is not simply a problem for Linyi, but for the whole nation.

White Guy Needed – Foreigners in Advertisements

In China, white people get an inexplicably large amount of respect simply by being white (I didn’t use “foreigners” here because people with darker skin are typically excluded from these “perks” regardless of their country of origin). You get preferential treatment when it comes time to find a job (often making several times what your Chinese counterpart makes)and even in Chengdu, a city with a decent number of foreigners, Casey and I were offered positions as “marketing managers” for a wine company while we shopped at a supermarket.

A few months ago, I was offered a spot in an advertisement for a nearby restaurant. For reading a few lines in Chinese I would have received 2,000RMB (close to what a factory worker earns in a month), and a scrumptious banquet for my friends. The premise of the commercial was this: three Chinese men would spot me sitting in the restaurant’s lobby and say something about me being a foreigner, to which I would respond by explaining many of the simple pleasures that could be found in Chinese alcohol, art, and food. At the end we would part-ways and I would say something like, “I understand China.” Unfortunately the deal fell through due to scheduling problems.

Being offered a job simply because I’m white isn’t as flattering as it might sound. The company making the advertisement said they were looking for someone between 30 and 40 years old (I’m not), who was handsome (I’ll take it), and could read a few lines of Chinese off the script. Other companies are even more up front about it, simply asking for a “white guy.”

Unfortunately, few Chinese commercials promote foreigners in such a positive light.

In advertisements I’ve noticed that white people serve as a kind of shorthand for sophistication and wealth (especially prominent in real estate ads). In other cases we are symbols of modernity, or promote the idea of a company being “international” as if the company is saying, “See, even white people like our product.”

Are KFC's chef's really Chinese? Does KFC even have chefs? Do its customers dress up for their fast food? See the full ad on Youtube (thanks ChinaSmack)

When I discussed this with my Chinese co-workers they insisted that this was a symbol of how much Chinese people respected foreigners. After I mentioned the fact that in China white people can still build entire careers off of being able to speak Chinese (like Dashan), they do note that it is completely unfair. They asked “Why should foreigners get so many benefits just because they look different?”

To be honest it’s a pedestal that I wouldn’t mind stepping down from. These advertisements also reinforce many negative stereotypes about foreigners. Europeans are “cultured”, Americans are “cool”, and Africans are often portrayed as “primitive” (which has been brought up in more than one discussion with African friends here). In advertisements it’s hard at times to distinguish between powerful and colonial, idolized and ogled or between curious and completely daft. At other times these advertisements seem to have shifted slightly as China has become more assertive; the underlying message now being, “See, now the foreigners work for us.”

Hopefully a more confident China will eventually lose the trope altogether, but I’m not holding my breath.

Does Anybody like the Chengguan?

For those of you reading this outside of China, it’s important to understand that China has probably close to a dozen different kinds of police. There are traffic police, railway police, bus police and countless others. When there is a problem, like when my friend had her i-Pod stolen as she got on a bus, it took 6 phone calls to figure out which police should handle the case (ultimately it was the bus police, even though they didn’t think it was their jurisdiction because she wasn’t fully on the bus when it happened).

Of these police, there is one branch that is the most feared and despised, they are known as the Chengguan (City Management).

While most criticisms of gov’t agencies are only ever whispered behind closed doors to your closest friends, this isn’t the case with the Chengguan. Why? Because in many cases the they are seen as the fun police (at least that is how I see them). Their job is essentially to stop people from selling goods on the side of the road or next to the market.

On my way to work every morning I stop and get breakfast from a small cart across the street from the hospital. These friendly people have even paid for a permit to sell from this spot, yet whenever there are “important” guests in the city the Chengguan chase them away. A few days later when the vendors return it seems that all of the other customers who also missed their breakfasts are muttering about how awful the Chengguan is.

I’m not just writing about this scourge because they interfered with my breakfast (it is a factor though), they are also behind many of China’s recent protests/riots.

Here is a short list of articles from concerning the Chengguan, make sure to read the comments from the Chinese posters (but they are filled with profanity)

The most recent event involved a pregnant woman from Sichuan who was selling fruit by the side of the road. When the woman refused to pay the “fine” the Chengguan beat her so badly that she miscarried (further coverage from This bit is denied by the gov’t, but the fact that so many people believe it would happen speaks volumes about how thuggish these police can be.

The result was several days of some of the worst rioting seen to date in China, which required hundreds of armed police to stop. Dozens of cars were destroyed, and gov’t buildings were set on fire. This type of violence is practically unheard of in China.

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These pictures come from a friend on twitter who lives in the area

So far all these reasons, we despise the Chengguan, the one element of the gov’t that can be criticized publicly without repercussion. After all the party needs a group of thugs to enforce its unpopular rules, and by concentrating so many misdeeds into a single organization, they remove themselves from the blame. Perhaps this is the ultimate purpose of the Chengguan, to serve as a scapegoat for societies frustrations, but perhaps some of this anger has already started to shift to those pulling the strings.

Chinese React to Bin Laden’s Death

A few websites have already rushed to translate the reactions of Chinese internet users responses to the news of Bin Laden’s death (ChinaSmack’s coverage). As you know though, I am much more in favor of soliciting views of people who don’t know their comments will be made public. China’s net users often try to say the most inflammatory things simply for attention (like many net users around the world), and so their views aren’t really representative of most Chinese people (Wall Street Journals coverage of this story is more representative of thoughtful netizens, which was met with hundreds of more inflammatory comments).

So far my co-workers seem completely indifferent to the news, which isn’t surprising since it took nearly 20 hours for People’s Daily to update its headline (it was pictured before that, but really, this is worth updating your site for).

The question here now is, “How do you know he’s really dead?” Which coming from Grace, who talked with me last week about her distrust of her own government, isn’t surprising. There is an internet rumor here that the US has reported Bin Laden’s death many times, so it shouldn’t be believed now.

I the Chinese gov’t praised this event at least partially because of the recent unrest in their own Muslim minority areas in the far West. While it is unclear whether or not Al Qaeda has been active in China, it is clear that Uighurs (the ethnic group of Western China) have been active in Al Qaeda. Note: there have been attacks by Uighur separatists, but their affiliation is unclear.

I will be updating this post over these next few days as I collect more candid reactions. They will be posted below.

Evan Osnos from the New Yorker wrote a good piece that included a few reactions from the initial 9/11 attacks. Also an interesting joke/parable that is being passed around the Chinese web –

“Al Qaeda once sent 5 terrorists to China: One was sent to blow up a bus, but he couldn’t squeeze onto it; Another was sent to blow up a supermarket, but his bomb was stolen from his basket; A third was sent to blow up a train, but the tickets were sold out; Finally one succeeded in blowing up a coal mine, and hundreds of workers died. He returned to Al Qaeda’s HQ to await the headlines of his success, but it was never reported by the Chinese press.

Covers of Chinese newspapers reporting the death of Bin Laden. Interesting to see that there was no standardized Chines name for the world’s most wanted terrorist.

I talked with several of my co-workers today and found that most of them were aware of Bin Laden’s death, but they didn’t show much interest in talking about it. A few said they didn’t believe it at first when they heard the news, one sited the lack of a picture for her disbelief. Another said that at first he didn’t believe it because it was the American gov’t, but once CCTV reported it he knew it was real (most of the group laughed at how much he trusted CCTV).