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The China travel experience

A few days ago the New York Times posted a story entitled “Where Europe Trails Asia,” in which a weary traveler longs for the friendly customs line in China over the one in Germany (which, as we all know, has a global reputation for enthusiastic smiles). I thought I should offer my following experience in reply.

On my recent trip home I was reminded of all the fabulous tourist sites I had visited over the past five years – The Terracotta Soldiers, The Great Buddha at Leshan, Dali, Lijiang, and scores of others. However, as incredible as the sites are, I’m often left pondering how much better the trips would have been if just a little bit more thought had been put into the planning of the over all experience. Sadly, I’ve known a number of travelers who have become so irritated by the shortcomings that they fail to enjoy some of the best bits of China.

For example, the other week when I headed to Hangzhou aboard one of China’s zippy high-speed trains, we passed through the massive Nanjing South Station, which is a gleaming monolith of a railway hub, and disembarked in the grubby old Hangzhou station. This however wasn’t the problem, after spending just about two hours on the train there, it took nearly an hour of waiting in a packed, dim, hallway (that seemed more like some kind of gauntlet of sweltering death) just to catch a cab. Or that the old D-trains used to take 2 and half hours from Nanjing station to Shanghai station (both close to the city centers), while the new G-trains depart from more remote stations, and take roughly the same amount of time from downtown to downtown, but you spend only a little over an hour on the comfortable trains, and the rest of the time packed in subway cars. Not to mention the number of stairs involved in any train passage…

These minor inconveniences though could have been completely avoided with slightly more attention to the overall experience as opposed to thinking that only the sites and speedy long-distance transit would override the other challenges.

However, as for things that tourists complain of, the number one issue is scams that pray on tourists. It is just much more difficult to enjoy a vacation when you feel you are being taken advantage of. I recently had friends visiting from Norway, and when I asked about their visit to the Great Wall, their entire story revolved around a rotten bus driver and a scheming cab driver. While surely some of this could have been avoided with more planning, it seems unfortunate that these shady operators are allowed to dupe unwitting tourists at the “official” bus station as it tarnishes China’s reputation overseas.

Lastly, I want to share with you my final morning in China – I woke up in the PVG Da Zhong airport hotel and jumped in the shower only to find that there was no hot water (I’m assuming this was the result of having too many people showering at once). When I confronted the front desk about it (in Chinese) I was told that there was nothing that could be done (meibanfa), to which I suggested something could be done, a discount could be given. In response to this the manager (over the phone, since they didn’t want to talk with me in person) said that it was suspicious that I was the only person in the hotel with this problem. “So I am a liar?” I asked the now very flustered front staff person. “No,” she said, “But maybe you don’t know how to shower.” To which I struggled to reply somewhat calmly with , “I’ve been showering more than 25 years, I am familiar with the process.” At this point the staffer shrugged, and again offered the cop-out, “Meibanfa.” At this point, I was angry, realized nothing more was going to be done about the lacking service, and ran to catch my flight. It was a rough start to a very long day.

As I got to the terminal, I looked out the windows hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean that lies just beyond the runways. Unfortunately, the pollution was so bad that I couldn’t even make out the edge of the runways.

Oh, how I will miss you “foggy” China.

Once we had all boarded the plane the American captain came on the intercom and said, “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but we are going to be waiting here for a while for clearance for take off. The tower has told us to wait, but they didn’t give us any details about how long we’d be waiting, or why we are delayed. That’s just the way China does things. If we knew more, we’d tell you.” It sounded as though he had been through this a few times before.

Now, I have other days to look back fondly on, and this lousy day will soon fade from memory, but I worry that travelers who have less experience with the country may have their entire vacations/business trips tainted by China’s “excellent service.”

Reform not revolution – Thoughts on the New Citizens’ Movement

Yesterday we posted Xu Zhiyong’s essay calling for a New Citizens’ Movement. Today I want to highlight a few of the aspects that make this piece especially interesting to me, and why I believe this essay lays out a realistic path for change.

Reform not Revolution

What has been made clear time and again in Global Times and Peoples Daily is that the Chinese people have little appetite for revolution, they aren’t wrong about this. After all, they got their fill of the chaos that revolution brings during Mao’s reign. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, and a successful movement is going to have to reassure the people that what they are doing is not going to turn China into Libya, Egypt or Syria. I think in this respect, the New Citizens’ Movement accomplishes this by stressing reform not revolution.

The goal of the movement is a democratically elected gov’t and a country ruled by law. Few revolutions have managed this without bloodshed, but those who have seen growing prosperity and stability. In Chinese history, revolution has been a bloody and violent affair (and this is stressed for political reasons in Chinese text books), and revolution creates a new group of winners and losers that can severely limit the success of the new system. Reform strips the Party of these lines of argument.

The New Citizens’ Movement also smartly caches its goals within China’s current laws that are enforced at the whims of the Party. By reforming law from a tool of the Party to a means of protection for the people, it appears as a more palatable choice than starting yet again from scratch.

Unity instead of Division

Several months ago I had the opportunity to do a podcast with Xu Zhiyong about rural education and migrant schools. I made a comment related to the tension between locals and migrant workers that Xu rightly countered. For China to leave this current system behind, it has to abandon the idea that for someone to win, someone else has to lose. In the podcast he pointed out that a better education for the children of migrant workers created a better workforce and a better environment for the urban residents. Furthermore he argued that the hukou system must be abolished in order to tear down these artificial divisions that have been created in Chinese society that keep people from recognize their common hopes and frustrations.

The New Citizens’ Movement successfully argues that even though China has many different problems affecting society, that there is a common solution to these – a gov’t responsible to the citizens. Whether it is the environment or forced evictions, an elected gov’t would not suppress these voices as they have tried to do in Wukan and Shifang. At the moment, China’s various activist groups are all calling for the gov’t to resolve a variety of problems, but this helps to demonstrate that even though there may be many different directions there is only one destination.

Furthermore, the essay recognizes that a successful reformation can not exclude groups from the benefits it would create. Even though the Party would likely fall from power as a result of these reforms, the movement does not aim to make Party members into enemies. If you re-read the essay, you will notice that Xu does not attack the Party, but the problems endemic to the current political system. Power-holders are unsurprisingly reluctant to forfeit power, but allowing them a space in a new system is a step that I believe is a requirement for peaceful transition (which would look something like reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa).

Breaking the cycle

The third aspect, and one that I think is especially useful, is that the New Citizens’ Movement realizes that motivating the gov’t to reform itself is an unrealistic path, and instead encourages individuals to refuse to participate in actions that perpetuate the system. After Shifang, much was made of the riot police beating protesters. This is the kind of violence that the current system demands, but a corrupt system cannot function without corrupt individuals. This is one of the central points of the New Citizens’ Movement, that through reforming one’s self the gov’t will be reformed.

Xu Zhiyong himself is an excellent example of this principle. In his account of his detention he refused to co-operate with police who were operating outside of the law. Imagine the kind of change that would take place if gov’t officials refused bribes, judges ruled by the laws, and individuals refused opportunities to make quick, illicit profits. I think this is a far more effective approach to stem many of China’s social problems than calling for more laws that will not be enforced.


Reading Xu’s essay the first time reminded me of an argument I had had with a Chinese friend back around Christmas. My friend was making the claim that democracy was not suitable for China, and that it was a tool of the West to trip China up. After an hour or so of rather heated discussion, another Chinese friend in the room stood up and told our friend to shut-up. “When do I get a say in my country?” he pleaded, “I’m Chinese, I want democracy. Don’t I count? Don’t I deserve a say?”

While I doubt that the New Citizens’ Movement is going to sweep over China at any point soon, I find it hopeful in that it lays a clear framework for what China’s future could be. By pushing for meaningful reform, the unity of social movements and the Chinese people, and individual reform, Chinese activists are once again asserting their desire for a democratic China that is ruled by law. I find it incredibly frustrating that while Xu Zhiyong is currently under house arrest for his work with the New Citizens’ movement (and a number of other projects), the New York Times is wasting ink on a laughable op-ed calling for the establishment of a Confucian gov’t.

Chen Guangcheng has landed in the US

For seven years Chen Guangcheng has been silenced in China for his role in opposing illegal forced abortions in Shandong province, that ended today with his arrival in the US. Even after his escape from thugs in Linyi, the gov’t in Beijing kept him in a tightly guarded hospital room. Finally, he will have a chance to talk openly about his experiences and the situation facing hundreds of other activists in China.

I hope you will take a moment to reflect on the power of that image – a man once tortured and imprisoned, now is able to stand in front of the world.

I wanted to say that he was no longer afraid of the Chinese gov’t and their reprisals, but much of Chen’s extended family are still facing harassment from officials in Linyi. Even 10,000 miles away from Beijing, he is reminded that “opportunities and risk exist at the same time,” and is not yet truly free from the authorities.

Image is from NYT, read their full article here

Video of Chen’s speech in NY from New Tang Dynasty

Top China stories of the week 12/04-12/10

  • The Death – Microcosms, by Eric Fish on Sinostand, is the start of a short series looking to explore whether modern China’s culture has been shaped more by pre-existing traditional values or reforged in the Party’s own image to reinforce ideas relating to authoritarianism. The whole series uses short stories from his time working in a university, and is definitely worth reading.
  • A grave matter, from the Global Times, exposes a case of local government officials exhuming and cremating a body after the family refused to pay the 5,000rmb “fine”. The piece goes on to explore traditional Chinese beliefs about death and the after-world.
  • China’s quid pro panda, from Foreign Policy, examines the terms of Scotland leasing a pair of pandas from China, as well as the history of such agreements. Pretty much all you’ll ever need to know about panda-diplomacy.

Things were better in the past

As Thanksgiving and the winter holidays draw near, we often imagine Norman Rockwell-esque gatherings. Elaborate and delicious meals, the sounds of convivial conversation, the feeling of warmth that comes from time spent with family. I think for most of us, it is these things that come to mind, even if we haven’t personally experienced these things in our own lives. We imagine a time in the past when things were better, and from that false memory, complain about the present.

I think that's me on the left somewhere

I’ve noticed that among my Chinese friends, the topic of discussion has been more frequently focused on China’s current woes. The other day, one co-worker was disgusted by the deaths of over 20 children in a school bus crash, and the other one talked in hushed tones about how the gov’t only wants to enrich itself. A new issue arises every day, and the feeling becomes that China’s current situation is worse than ever.  Their statements suggest there was a time when things were “better”.

We can even see this effect in even farther looks back, a recent Op-ed in the NYT claims that China’s Confucian dynasties ruled with benevolence. Throughout China’s history though, the average person was often seen as having little worth to the state, and life expectancy did not increase beyond 35 between 0-1800. As Sam Crane points out in a recent post on The Useless Tree, Legalism, not Confucianism defines China’s past imperial powers; and that since the first emperor, dynasties have been primarily concerned with expanding state power and territory, and silencing dissent.

China has never been a better place to live. Compared to 221BC or 1949AD, I would argue that almost every aspect of life has been improved. Women have a much better standing in society, basic education and literacy are nearly universal, the standard of living has improved in every corner of the country, and information is more widely available. This is not to say that there is no work left to be done, and is in many ways more a reflection of how difficult life was in the past.

And yet, I still meet people who look back fondly. One friend described the fun of singing Red Songs with her classmates during the Cultural Revolution, and even sang me a few verses, beaming with joy. When the song concluded, she told me how the Red Guards had locked her father in his own classroom for days. As a result of her parents’ concern for her safety, she was adopted by her uncle. Yet somehow, when she was  refused the “opportunity” to be sent to the countryside for education through labor, she was incredibly upset. It is an extreme understatement to say that most Chinese over 40 years old have a difficult relationship with their own histories.

Part of what is underlying this rosy recollection, is what came after the Cultural Revolution – the fall of Maoist ideology and China’s opening up. These changes brought real opportunities to the masses for the first time in generations. There was a sense that people could suddenly become rich, and that anyone with enough pluck could quickly climb the social ladder (in line with the idea of a Confucian meritocracy of the past).

Over the last thirty years though, the walls have gone back up around the social ladder, and movement feels restricted again. My co-worker ranted the other day about how guanxi (relationships) is a necessity just to live a decent life, and moaned her lack of connections.  She said, “If I lose my job here at the hospital, I couldn’t even see a decent doctor.” Another friend from Chengdu summed it up in a recent email:

“I feel worried for China’s economy. Not just for real estate, but the whole picture. What upsets me is not the loss of property, but losing the potential of making money.”

And so as we embellish our own memories of the past, as do our Chinese friends much to the Party’s Chagrin. The Party tries to herald it’s progress and China’s bright present, but they are finding that it is very difficult to compete with a past that never fully existed. If the Party hopes to maintain it’s grip on power, it can finally acknowledge the mistakes of the past, which it could distance itself from, to emphasize their progress; or it can continue to pursue its path of Legalism with a benevolent facade.

Top stories of the week: 11/13-11/20

  • Ai Weiwei speaks out on his detention, appeared online for Newsweek and covers both the artist’s arrest and his ongoing campaign to pay a 2 million dollar tax bill. Ai’s description of his arrest is troubling, as well as Beijing’s attempts to silence him of which he said, “If you play a chess game, and play two or three moves, they throw the board away.” Shortly after paying part of the tax bill, the gov’t brought charges of pornography against him.
  • Chinese executioner says job not complicated, appeared this week in Reuters. It gives a glimpse into one of China’s best kept state secrets: how many people are executed each year? It’s a little grisly, but it’s important to keep a focus on these issues.
  • Much ado about Manchu, from People’s Daily details the decline of the language, and shows what little is being done to protect it. In the next 100 years I expect  there will be many articles like this about disappearing languages in China and the rest of the world.
  • Assignment China, is a documentary available online with interviews from foreign correspondents who arrived in China in the late 1970’s. The footage is amazing and gives a very interesting view of China at that time. Not necessarily new, but I enjoyed it.