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Eastern Lightning may be a cult, but they still have rights

As you’ve likely already heard, thousands of doomsday predictors have been arrested throughout China as part of the “evil cult” Eastern Lightning. Unfortunately many Chinese Christians are willing to dismiss them as a cult and agree with their treatment, but these arrests should concern everyone advocating for human rights in China and especially those concerned with religious freedom and yet there has been little discussion of this within the Western Media. Within this story are several important issues worth taking a moment to consider.

While Eastern Lightning meets many of the sociological definitions of a cult by urging members to cut off ties to their non-believing family members and friends, unquestioning faith in their charismatic leader, and exerting coercive pressure on those who try to leave (a piece focusing on the practices of this group appeared in Time magazine back in 2001); it has persisted for decades without facing mass arrests. What has changed is their growing public demonstrations, distribution of pamphlets and their calls for overthrowing the Party during a time when the Party is already nervous about their grip on power. While I may not agree with their beliefs and am concerned about abuses being committed by this group, they should still have a right to pray in public and distribute their information (and there is so far no evidence that these arrests are connected to concerns over abuses within the sect), however these basic rights are denied to all Chinese people. Their mass arrests do not seem to be based on rule of law as there has been no due process, but rather on an arbitrary label of “evil cult.” As noted Human Rights Lawyer Teng Biao tweeted, “The government has no power to determine what is a cult. The law can punish only actions, not thoughts.”

Furthermore, it should be considered in what kind of environment is the end of the world treated as good news? As the BBC reported, most of the arrests have come in Guizhou and Qinghai province, two of China’s poorest provinces. In China’s not so distant past, Falun Gong gained great popularity in the countryside as rural health care fell apart. Looking even further back, the Taiping Rebellion took route in Guangxi province and attracted people from the countryside who were looking for any other option than continuing their current lives. And while the Communist Party is not a religious movement, it was able to mobilize this same mistreated demographic. Many would argue that the key to a revolution in China is the “peasants,” and the concern from the Party is that cults grow most successfully among these marginalized groups, but their response of cracking down on believers ignores the roots – China’s rural citizens receive far less support than their urban counterparts.

So far, I have been incredibly disappointed by the media coverage on this important development, and feel that if thousands of Christians, dissidents, lawyers, or teachers had been arrested the coverage would have been vastly different. The idea that the cult members should be treated any differently from these other groups ignores many fundamental beliefs related to human rights. Within China (and every other country), it is not uncommon for major religious groups to act against “new” religious groups. In this case we see orthodox Christians acting against this heterodox sect, but in other cases we see Buddhists acting against Christian house churches in places where Christianity is growing quickly, and Atheists acting against Muslims in places where Islam and racial politics are difficult to unwind. Their complicit cooperation with the state’s desire to control religious practice is a major stumbling block for further improvement in human rights.  Unfortunately, these groups are failing to see that their own ability to express their beliefs freely are wrapped up in the ability of others to practice freely.

So while it may be easy for many to dismiss the arrest of thousands of cult members, it should be difficult for us to ignore the trampling of the rule of law, the limitations on religious freedom, and the rights of individuals to gather and make themselves heard.

Beijing’s floods and an ounce of prevention

Seeing photos of the terrible flooding in Beijing, I can’t help but feel for the families affected by the devastation (video). As is usual with disasters, netizens have begun to blame the gov’t for the outcome of what would likely have been tragic in many parts of the world. Hannah, the newest addition to our team, described it as “apocalyptic,” and noted that Saturday’s forecast had only called for a 60% chance of rain. While it is important to note the level of dissatisfaction with the gov’t, it is difficult to know to what extent infrastructure could have mitigated the floods. As saddening as the loss of life is, it is important to note that natural disasters are bound to happen and then the emphasis should shift to responding to it as it unfolds and in its aftermath.

While I am reminded of the outrage that followed Hurricane Katrina (which was also a reflection of simmering dissatisfaction with President Bush), I am also reminded of the floods my students experienced in Guangxi a few years prior.

Longzhou is located where two rivers meet, and heavy rains upstream lead to the water rising over 10 meters in just a few hours in 2008. Under the cover of night, the water rose up over the cliffs, crossed the narrow street, spilled across the basketball courts and inundated dormitories and classrooms. With no emergency plan and no warning of what was headed their way (there had been no plan to suspend classes), students began to climb higher in the buildings only to be cut off from escape routes and were stranded with few supplies.

One student told me that they were stuck in a classroom on the second floor and had to sleep at their desks that night. As the only Christian in her class she had tried tirelessly before to introduce her classmates to Jesus, but that night, they all became seekers. With no teachers or faculty to offer them a sense of safety (or to prevent her from testifying), many of the students turned to her for prayers of protection. They simply had no idea of what else to do.

The next day rescue teams arrived to pull people from their dorms, and began the months of repairs and cleaning up. The military, of which there is a lot of next to the border with Vietnam, was quickly mobilized and fortunately none of the students died from this disaster.

For the most part when these tragic events happen, China is excellent at recovering. After all, in the past 100 years there have been dozens of natural and man-made disasters. Disasters happen, and there is only so much that can be done to mitigate downpours like Beijing experienced, what we should be concerned about is the needless loss of life caused by poor emergency planning. Floods and earthquakes happen (although S. Korea fared much better with the same downpour), but not knowing what to do in these situations exacerbates the consequences. There should also be a further emphasis on storm warning systems to alert the public to get out of harms way, as a large number of people seemed to have been caught off guard.

In my five years working in public institutions in China I never witnessed any kind of drill for responding to an emergency (and I worked for 2 years in a very large hospital). I am also reminded of a blog post from a school in Liuzhou, Guangxi showing a dramatic fire drill that looked more like something from Universal Studios than an actual attempt at emergency preparedness. For the amount they spent hosting this stunt, they probably could have installed smoke detectors, which the author notes that they still don’t have.

To me, this is the more important story with Beijing’s flood. Yes, infrastructure is lagging behind (the same is true in many American cities), but China has been constantly improving their systems and getting them up to international standards takes time (I dislike this argument for many things, but with infrastructure there is no way of getting around the time issue). However, providing emergency planning is a relatively simple solution, that can make a big difference quickly and cost effectively. While Beijing looks for a scapegoat for their infrastructure problems, they should be working on education and warning systems that effectively prevent similar scenes from unfolding.

China’s tourism push – Does every city really need a new old town?

Yesterday we looked at a few of the pros and cons of rural life, today we’ll be looking at the development plan for this region.

“China is a large country with a large population,” seemed to be the catch-all excuse for much of the poverty we saw as we traveled through rural parts of a central Chinese province.* While I generally find it an unconvincing dodge, the remoteness of this region lead me to contemplate how it could ever be prosperous. Many of China’s remote regions were settled exactly because they were so difficult to reach, offering minority groups and small clans protection from outsiders. But now that trade and manufacturing are the base of China’s growth, these rural places have been left behind. One village we visited was located on what was essentially a cliff that could hold no more than a few dozen homes. They farmed in the narrow valley below, growing mostly rice and corn for their own consumption.

It’s difficult to imagine a way for such a remote place to prosper; in the US it would have been turned into a nature reserve long ago.

The local gov’t officials told me that their current plan was to try to grow tourism. Given that the “city” (that managed the tiny village) was located on a narrow two-lane road, it seemed like a more realistic vision than expanding heavy industry or manufacturing. Currently the region is mostly cash crop farming, with a few cement plants and a handful of mining operations. These industries though are quickly cannibalizing the mountains that the new plan relies on.

The same thing is happening to Guangxi’s famous mountains

It seems though that tourism has become the focus of every small town in China. While this region did have some spectacular views, the closest airport was two hours away and is already seated in an area that has world famous scenery and well developed infrastructure for tourists. The city I was visiting only offered scenic drives on rough dirt roads. Furthermore, every city between this small one and that tourist hub was focusing on tourism too.

It seems that 10 years ago, as domestic tourism was just starting to grow, the entry cost was much more attractive to farmers and villagers, and many decided to build small restaurants and guest houses. Now when you pass these places you see dozens of worn down, empty hotels standing in the shadows of big shiny new ones. Domestic tourists have much higher standards now and are uninterested in staying in what the villagers can afford to build (Jeremiah Jenne wrote a great post that explored a few other angles of tourism).

It’s also important to note that even though there are more and more domestic tourists, many of them have very little time and money for travel. When I talk with my Chinese friends about the vacations I have taken to the countryside, I’m often met with confused looks. Why would I ever visit a poor area when I could just as easily see a rich one? Why would I visit some county no one had heard of when a famous one was nearby? Chinese tourists seem to put a very high value on checking well-known sites off their lists as travel is very much a status symbol (Evan Osnos’s hilarious account of traveling with a Chinese tour company to Europe).

Additionally, this area lacked most of the key ingredients for becoming a tourist hot spot – It was not the site of an important ancient city or religious site, and had no preserved old town like Lijiang or Xi’an (but they were planning on building a new old town at the villagers expense, like many other cities in China); it did not have “famous” scenery, meaning that it was not a destination for poets or painters of the past; and it is still too rustic to attract those seeking something more luxurious like Shenzhen or Shanghai. I worry that the hundreds (thousands?) of villages seeking to develop tourism will fail at massive costs to their villagers.

Other tourist spots, like those in the quake effected parts of Sichuan, have seen a boom in the number of visitors, but have noted that few of them spend money while passing through. As a reporter from the Global Times stated,

“Each day, thousands of visitors come to see the ruined Xuankou Middle School and leave flowers, but they depart quickly.

As most of these spots lie outside the main residential areas, most visitors do not come into the center of town and see the newly reconstructed earthquake-resistant buildings. What’s worse, they do not participate in the economy.”

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the more prosperous villages I’ve visited aren’t focused on tourism, they are focused on cash crops and adding further value to the raw goods they are producing (like milling wheat and using the flour to make frozen mantou to sell throughout China, or growing kiwis and bottling the juice). It’s as if China has leapt from one rural development model to the next without much thought of how it would actually work.

Next week we’ll be looking at some of the projects I visited on this trip and discussing the state of the rural church.

*I’m being intentionally vague here.

Chinese graduates hate their low paying jobs, but are hopeful about the future

Yesterday I shared the answers my former students gave to a short survey I sent them. Today we’re going to look more closely at the data, and try to get a better understanding of the lives these recent graduates are facing.

As I am currently living in Nanjing, where salaries have been moving steadily upward for my friends graduating from one of China’s best universities, it was very interesting to see that the top salary among these 9 from Guangxi was only 2,500 RMB. The average was just 1,842 RMB, which is slightly below the national average for urban residents (1,998 RMB/month). Only 3 of the 9 students reported salaries above that average, two of those earned 2,000RMB/month.

The second surprise for me was how little they worked. I think we often get the idea that Chinese workers are not only overworked, but also underpaid. While none of these students made as much as a Foxconn assembly line worker, only one of them worked nearly as many hours. My friends in Nanjing earning higher salaries, worked far longer than these recent graduates. From the 8 students that reported their weekly hours, the average was 37 1/4 hours per week. There was a clear division between public school teachers (27 hours per week) and employees of private companies (43 hours per week).

This brings me to my third finding, low satisfaction and low levels of loyalty. 67% of the respondents reported that they were not satisfied with their work (compared to 33% in the U.S.), with most of them citing low pay as the reason for their dissatisfaction. As a consequence, 78% said they would try to find a new job in the next year. This should serve as a reminder to foreign companies operating in China, that even though people are willing to work for a low salary, a few thousand yuan per month does not buy employee loyalty. As Hillary stated clearly yesterday, if the company offers opportunities for promotions, she’d stay; otherwise she would take the skills she gained working there to their competitors.

It seems while teaching may be a very low paying job (1633RMB/month vs. 2166RMB/month), the hours worked per week make it one of the more relaxed options. Teaching also offered a better hourly wage (16.5RMB/hour vs. 12.9RMB/hour) than anyone earned in a private company. Unfortunately, none of the rural teachers reported being satisfied with their jobs, and all of them planned to find a new job within the next year. This shows that hourly wage doesn’t matter nearly as much as the possible monthly wage, and this is consistent with what I have heard from virtually every other Chinese friend. I think most of the teachers would be more satisfied working longer hours if it meant higher monthly wages (perhaps providing tutoring to struggling students?), and it might make staying in the rural schools that need them more attractive.

The final take-away from this short survey, is that in spite of low salaries and even lower rates of satisfaction, recent Chinese graduates are overwhelmingly hopeful about their future. Even David, whose quote to all of you was that, “Life Sucks,” reported that he was hopeful about his future. The only respondent who was not hopeful, had one of the lowest hourly wages earning just over 10RMB/hour ($1.65) as a primary school teacher. This is consistent with what I am seeing with my friends in Nanjing, even though many of them are not satisfied with their current jobs, they have been able to hop from company to company in search of something better.

The lives of recent Chinese graduates – Does a university degree bring a better life?

View of the town where they attended University

A few weeks ago I sent a very brief survey to a class of my former students as a way of checking on their progress since graduation. Out of the 20+ students I sent the questions to, 9 replied. Those who did not reply may have been too busy to respond, or without internet (due to geography or poverty), or simply had no interest in participating. These students attended a low-level university (4-year program) in Guangxi province.

The questions I asked were:

1. What kind of company do you currently work for? How much money do you earn each month? How many hours do you work each week? Where is it located?
2. Are you satisfied with your work?
3. Does your job make use of your university education?
4. Do you plan to stay at your company for more than 1 year?
5. How did you choose this job?
6. Do you feel hopeful about your future?
7. Is there any message you would like to pass on about life in China?

Responses were edited to facilitate easier reading, but the original meaning was preserved.

Kate – I work in a private company in Shanghai. I work 8 hours a day from Monday-Friday, and earn about 2,000 RMB per month. I am satisfied with my job and it makes use of my education. I think I will stay here more than a year. I found my job through a friend, and I feel hopeful about my future.

David – I work in an industrial company in a medium sized city in Guangxi. I work six days a week for 8 hours a day and earn about 2,000 RMB per month. In the company I work as a foreign trade clerk, and make use of my English education. I will not stay here more than 1 year. I chose this job mainly because it was related to my major. I think my future is hopeful, but I hope it isn’t like this. My message to the readers is – Life Sucks.

Peter- I work in a public middle school in my hometown in Guangxi. I work from 8-11 in the morning and from 2:30-4:30 in the afternoon five days a week. I earn about 1,500 RMB per month. I am not really satisfied with my job because the salary is below average. My university education seems to have been in vain, and I would like to add that high school was more useful for me. I am going to change my job as soon as I am ready, but that might take more than a year. I took this job to care for my family while my brother works outside the city. I mostly chose this job because my parents wanted me to. Even though I am not satisfied with my job, I feel hopeful because I won’t stay here too long. My message to you is this – No pain, no gain. It’s better to work hard and be patient than angry.

Feng- I work in a primary school in Liuzhou, Guangxi 35 hours a week, and earn about 1,500 RMB per month. I never feel satisfied with my work. I found that my major is useful for my job, but I don’t plan to stay at this job for more than 1 year. I chose this job because it was the best fit for my major. I am not hopeful about my future. I want all of you to know that everything is getting more expensive…

Emma- I work 36 hours a week for an educational company in my hometown where I make 1,500 RMB per month. I would say I am somewhat satisfied with my work. My education doesn’t seem to be useful in my job. I might stay longer than a year here. I chose this job for its teaching content. I am hopeful about the future.

Lucy- I work in a primary school in the countryside 20 hours a week. I earn about 1,900 RMB per month. I am not satisfied with my job, but I plan on staying here more than 1 year. My education seems to be useful for my work. I chose this job because I wanted to be a teacher. I am hopeful because if I work hard enough, I can become a middle school or high school teacher. I’d like to add that I hope they’ll lessen the hours of work.

Lili- I work at a private school at the moment. I earn little money each month because the students did badly in the exam and so my salary was cut. To my great anger, we have to work for 12 hours each day. I am not satisfied with my job. I want to quit.

Sophia- I work in a private middle school 30 hours a week in a town south of Guilin. I am not satisfied with my work. Some of my university education was useful. I don’t plan on staying here more than 1 year. I got this job with the help of my friends. Of course I am hopeful about the future. I’d like to add that I’d really like to find a better job.

Hillary- I work in an international watch company in Shenzhen. I got this job by attending an interview at the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center. I earned 2,000 RMB for the first three months then it was increased to 2,500 RMB each month. I work from Monday to Friday, 8 hours every day. I am satisfied with the working atmosphere. Most of the colleagues are as young as me, and they can speak Japanese fluently, so we enjoy working and talking with each other.

But, as to the salary, I am not so satisfied. 2,000 RMB could only support my daily life. I have no money left to send back to my parents. (In Shenzhen, even a cleaner could earn about 3,000 RMB per month). It sometimes really makes me feel embarrassed. In China, the reason why many parents, especially farmers, strive to support their children to get a university education is that they believe university education could make sure their children find a satisfactory job and earn much more money.

My English major was just a little useful. So in my work, what I learned in university is nothing but a communicating tool, that means there are so many other skills or abilities that I need to study to do the job better.

I’m not sure if I will stay in this company for more than a year. If later I find the company is organized scientifically and I could get a higher position if I really work hard, I will stay; if not, I will leave after I get more working experience in this field, and then find a better job.

Actually, yes! I am hopeful about the future. I believe I will be a good English teacher and help many students study English. (Tom’s note: since replying to my first questions, Hillary quit her job at the watch company and returned home to study for a master’s degree.)

I would like to tell Tom’s readers that –

(No.1) What we learn from primary school to university should be changed. In fact, most of what we learned does not help us in our jobs! I mean we should learn history, geography etc. of course. But we need to learn more useful skills and abilities that we need in our work and life, like how to solve problems in daily life and work, how to use computer efficiently, and so on. What’s more, I think the best teaching method is to teach in a practical way, teachers and educational organizations should create more realistic teaching methods. Thinking back to my time as a student, most of the time my classmates and I learned by reciting information again and again, not really understanding what it was for, or why we were learning it. (I think this situation happens more in rural schools.)

(No.2) We should pay more attention to inheriting and carrying forward our own rich culture, especially our folk culture. Instead of paying attention only to western culture. Our culture is as important and valuable as others.

(Tom’s note: This student has also written to tell me that she hopes China will learn more from the west about how to implement democratic reforms.)

Tomorrow we’ll be taking a closer look at what these 9 students show us about life in modern China.

Some of the best Chinese short fiction (in English)

In the run up to the London Book Fair focused on Chinese literature, the Guardian is publishing a great series of short fiction works from some of the best authors in China (there are a few works left to be published). Unlike the book fair, which moved to avoid offending their guests from the Chinese gov’t by not inviting any of China’s writers in exile or remaining dissidents (One of these guests is Liu Yandong), this set of works doesn’t worry about hurting the feelings of officials who might wish to show China in a more flattering light.

The stories published so far play with some of the expected themes like the rural/urban divide and the challenges of modernity. They also explore some surprisingly dark themes like cruelty, humiliation and the loss of dignity. These authors provide an important alternative to the narrative of modern China portrayed in state media.

The Accident – Murong Xuecun

A well connected lawyer and farmer get into a traffic accident in which the farmer is badly injured. The story focuses on how the incident is resolved in a way that may not show the strict rule of law China has been speaking of lately. Like most of Murong Xuecun’s writings (like his essay “Caging a Monster” and novel “Leave Me Alone“), this simple tale exposes the darkness hidden in daily life.

The Curse – A Yi

A surreal story that blends rural spats, migrant workers and Spring Festival into a very dark tale. What starts with a squabble over a missing chicken quickly becomes a matter of life and death. This is the longest piece in the series so far, but gives a very interesting glimpse of relationships in the countryside.

Old Man Xinjiang – Xue Mo

This story captures a poor old man’s day in a village where everyone knows his sad life story. Old Man Xinjiang, who earned the name when he fled pressed service in Xinjiang and walked all the way back home, has a different view of life and value. Xue Mo beautifully captures simple interactions with a story that would resonate with many who survived the early Mao period.

Galloping Horses – Xu Zechen

Xu’s piece is set in rural Jiangsu province where he grew up. The story is ostensibly about two youth stuck doing chores for their families who envy another pair of children who are free to race their horses along the road. Much bigger themes though are toyed with throughout the piece, and it reminded me of the stories many of my students had told me in Guangxi.