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Where good news is disappointing and bad news is hopeful

Just a quick thought today:

As I tell people in the States, when it comes to China, seemingly good news is often bad, and seemingly bad news is often good. In many cases, like increased numbers of AIDS cases, higher numbers of people living below the poverty line, and shrinking college admissions, bad news can actually be signs of problems being acknowledged and addressed. On the other hand, reforms to the criminal code, the completion of bridges and rails, and “elections” often serve as reminders of how far China has to go in terms of human rights, safety, and developing a gov’t that is actually selected by the people.

In a story published the other day in People’s Daily, the gov’t announced that it planned for every other village in China to be staffed by at least one college graduate. This seems like a rather necessary step, as one begins to realize that the statement means that at the moment most villages in China do not have a single college grad on staff (not that they are necessarily qualified to lead either, but would likely bring new ideas). Surely, this kind of policy would help to spark innovation and develop the countryside.

However, as the article goes on, it seems to be another well-intentioned, but poorly thought out policy. It’s a rather transparent effort to create 400,000 jobs for college grads to stem the growing number of unemployed students (this article is explicit in the intent). Again, it seems that the raw number is more important than whether or not these individuals are actually improving services in these areas, and with that bulk of new employees it’s hard to imagine that they will be very carefully screened for their abilities instead of their connections. As one applicant said in another article on the topic, “becoming a civil servant means a lifetime of insurance, stability and being relatively well-paid.” Such a program will further strain local budgets that already fail to adequately cover education and health care.

So what may look at first glimpse as good news, may actually be another costly policy that looks better on paper than it does in practice.

On the other hand, today People’s Daily reported that a Professor had plagiarized his student’s work and then claimed that he won an award with it (although PD found no evidence that he had actually won.) The article doesn’t do much to help with the underlying problems as it still refers to the man as an “award winning professor,” and includes a quote from a school official that seems to imply the award was what really mattered.

It seems at first like another example of the rampant cheating that happens in China’s universities, but in this instance the student has vocally opposed his former professor. Even after the prof. apologized and added the student’s name to the project, the student has continued to reject these attempts to calm the story.

This is not the first instance of a student rebuking a teacher for claiming their work, even though the students could face rather stiff punishments from their schools. To me it is a great example of the awakening in China of individual rights, and the value of creativity.

The end of my time in China, but not the end of Seeing Red in China

With the conclusion of the school year, I marked the end of my 5th consecutive year in China. Soon, I will be heading back to the United States and applying to graduate programs related to international development and theology. It has been a fantastic time. I feel very fortunate that I have had the opportunity to be here and to witness China firsthand.

I plan on continuing to write about China, and will try to digest a similar amount of People’s Daily, Global Times, and whatever else looks interesting. I know that I will not be able to keep up with frantic pace of five posts a week, so for the past few months I’ve been working with Yaxue and another friend (you will meet her soon) to get things in place so that Seeing Red in China will continue posting at a similar frequency. This is going to come with a shift towards the translation of essays and articles from activists around China that we feel could use a bigger spotlight in addition to our usual commentary on Chinese culture and current events.

Thank you for all of your support and comments over the past 18 months or so of blogging. I have found blogging to be an immensely useful way of sorting through my thoughts and ideas about modern China, and you readers have helped point me to sources and stories that I would have otherwise missed. You have challenged me in many ways, and that was exactly what I had hoped to get from this project. I’m also glad that the nearly 500 posts have proved interesting to someone besides my wife (who has been a large part of this blog’s success).

I hope Seeing Red in China will continue to be one of your many sources of information related to the middle kingdom.


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.

Health care reform in China, one small step at a time

As the U.S. continues to grapple with what the Supreme Court decision last week will mean for their health care coverage, China has begun to experiment with their own reforms. In the U.S. our policies left millions without health insurance, and individuals struggled with bankruptcy and chronic illnesses. In China, the situation has deteriorated to a point where patients stab their doctors, hospitals have police stations, and demonstrations are held several times a month in front of the public hospital where I work.

I’ve written about China’s hospitals before in Storming the hospital and Chinese doctors speak out about China’s health

The reforms being tried in all of Shenzhen’s public hospitals and one of Beijing’s look to address one of the key underlying issues – over prescription. When China’s health care system began to fall apart in the 1980’s, hospital’s turned to selling drugs to make up for their losses in gov’t funding and drug sales came to make up over half of hospitals’ revenues. This in turn has almost completely destroyed the trust between patients and doctors, with patients assuming that any medication suggested by their doctor might just be a scam and doctors fearing retribution from patients and their families. This reform looks to remove the profit from selling prescription drugs and makes up for the losses with higher consulting fees (which I have long argued are too low; you can see two doctors at my hospital for the cost of taking a taxi, or three doctors for the cost of a double cheeseburger meal at McDonalds).

This I believe is exactly the direction Chinese health care should be moving in, as it  should help restore the trust between doctor and patient (collecting cash filled envelopes from patients and drug companies are two other factors that will need to be addressed). As the People’s Daily story reports, Beijing residents’ health insurance will cover the bulk of the consultation fees, and the cost of medicines have dropped roughly 7 yuan per inpatient, and 235 yuan per outpatient according to Shenzhen’s committee for health, population and family planning (my hospital sees over 2 million outpatients a year, so this is a substantial savings for the public). Patients interviewed for the story reported a savings on medicines from 40-80 yuan, this should be a great financial relief for those suffering from chronic diseases. This will also hopefully reduce the abuse of antibiotics that have been creating increasingly drug resistant illnesses.

An all too common site at Chinese hospitals.

This step though, is really only beneficial to the people who live in Shenzhen and Beijing, as everyone else is excluded from their local insurance systems. This is an especially large concern in Beijing because many people from other provinces journey to the capital for health care. For them the cost remains roughly unchanged, which was already considered too expensive*, and means that they will either rely on what is largely substandard healthcare in their hometowns or go untreated (which create greater social costs if it is a communicable disease).

Further more migrant workers who lack a hukou will be greatly affected, since it is impractical to return home for health care and too costly to see a doctor, and the result will likely be an increase in illegal clinics. These clinics feature unknown drugs, poor hygiene and staff without medical training; these are the kinds of places that reuse needles and spread disease. Just yesterday People’s Daily reported that a 2-year-old child died in an illegal clinic in Beijing over the weekend. The clinic where the child died was known to the police, the owner had been previously punished for illegally practicing medicine, but they failed to close the facilities. PD also reported that Beijing had an estimated 1,200 illegal clinics as of 2009. A migrant worker interviewed for that story said, “Medicine is relatively cheap at illegal clinics. Public hospitals are expensive for us and it’s not easy to get registered in the hospitals.”

So while this reform is one step that needs to be taken to restore trust in the system, without further reforms it places additional pressure on rural residents and migrant workers increasing the already gaping chasm between the social benefits these groups receive. To paraphrase what an administrator told me, “it is ridiculous to try and create a modern health care system without a modern, national insurance system.” She hopes China will expand insurance options and open up private health insurance systems, even after seeing the mess they created in the U.S. In her view, they would spark the competition needed to cause the bigger reforms in the system. She added that China is a developing country and that it will take time to change the health care system, China’s patients though have already run out of patience.

*My OTC allergy medication costs more in China ($.33 per pill) than in the U.S. ($.04 per pill)

An official account of corrupt officials – How People’s Daily reports on graft in China

A few days ago, it was announced that Liu Zhijun, former head of the Railway Ministry was stripped of his party title as a result of misconduct. In the Western press it was said that his graft involved hundreds of millions of RMB (over 800 million), and yet People’s Daily (PD) has never hinted at an amount. With this small spark, I decided to do a case study of PD’s reports on corruption in China.

The Party’s mouth piece is left in a precarious situation, a lack of reporting on corruption would give the people the impression that nothing is being done to confront the very visible problem. Reporting too much though gives the impression that every gov’t official is corrupt, and the Party is failing in their efforts to control it. This tight rope act must be carefully managed so as to maintain precisely the right balance in appearance of action and control.

In order to get a sample of the stories published by People’s Daily, I used Google Site search with the phrase “corrupt” (which also caught corruption and ant-corruption), and then limited the results to 1/1/2011-12/31/2011 (results). This returned a total of 374 results, of these roughly 60% were false positives caused by links to other articles. The remainder fell into three general categories; the largest focused on the Party’s anti-corruption efforts, the second largest focused on denouncing corruption and opinion pieces encouraging the gov’t to take action, and the smallest subset consisted of just 14 articles related to specific cases of corrupt officials being prosecuted.

These cases proved particularly interesting, since they give the clearest picture of corrupt officials and their crimes (see table at bottom). The smallest amount published was 10,000rmb, which was used for a banquet for the Luwan District Red Cross in Shanghai, while this received a great deal of attention on Weibo and was part of a very painful public image crisis for the Red Cross (which had also been hit by the Guo Meimei scandal), it was an insignificant amount compared to the other instances of corruption. The average amount accumulated by individual corrupt officials tried in 2011 was over 18,000,000RMB (based off only what has been reported in PD, which excludes the Liu Zhijun case), with the most corrupt being Xu Zhongheng, former mayor of Shenzhen, who was accused of taking over 33,000,000 RMB. The largest instance of corruption reported, was related to the trial of the managers of the Wenzhou Vegetable Basket group, which is a State Owned Enterprise; the CEO and 15 others took over 426 million RMB from the company during a restructuring process. People’s Daily though prefers to focus on individuals even when it clearly involves a group of corrupt officials.

I think for a casual reader the steady stream of information about anti-corruption efforts and limited reporting on individual trials may give the impression that corruption is being effectively controlled. Yet, when one looks at all of the reporting together, it seems woefully inadequate. For example, the paper mentions an effort to register the financial assets of 1.67 million officials, yet only 51% reported their property ownership, 36% registered their investments, and 48% reported the employment status of their relatives (who as we learned from the Bo Xilai scandal can also receive massive perks from their connections). Unsurprisingly the paper is complicit in glossing over these disparities; in the previous year roughly 146,000 corruption cases were investigated, yet only 14 were reported in the PD. These efforts seem at best to be a weak attempt at transparency.

The lowest amount reportedly taken by an individual official was 1.2 million RMB, which makes me wonder what the threshold is for punishment. Unfortunately we will never know how much the 146,000 officials were caught with, but the total must be massive considering that according to the cases reported in People’s Daily just 29 officials pilfered 647.18 million RMB.

Furthermore, the People’s Daily quickly backed away from the sensational report released last year from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that 16-18,000 officials had fled overseas with up to 800 billion RMB over the past 20 years. This figure was later replaced with the somewhat less damning claim of 4,000 officials with 50 billion USD over 30 years (roughly 40% of the original figure). The fact that there is a phrase to describe officials getting ready to flea, naked officials, indicates the scale of the problem.

Despite being the mouth piece of the Party, People’s Daily did publish a few bold editorials related to corruption. “Tofu Projects in China,” focused on various vanity projects throughout the country that had been poorly constructed and wasted public funds, and “The Recipe of China’s Food Safety Crisis” squarely blames corrupt inspectors for the country’s failure to protect its citizens from harmful ingredients. The paper also reported that corruption was rife in the construction industry, and that bribes can make up to 5-10% of the cost of a single project (China invested over 4 trillion RMB to bolster the economy after the 2008 downturn, do the math).

Overall, it seems that the tight rope act is now in danger of taking a disastrous fall as Weibo and other platforms become the more popular sources of information, largely because of inept reporting by PD and other “official” papers. Sadly, state media fails miserably at providing the people anything more than a glimpse of the scope and scale of the corruption. There are a few bright spots though, one being that corruption efforts do seem to actually be expanding to formerly off limits levels of gov’t, and secondly, that local elections seem to be reducing corruption at the local level, which has a large impact for China’s farmers.

The crackdown and foreign garbage – a few ideas that still need to be addressed

For the last few weeks, the expat community in China has been abuzz with talk about Beijing’s crackdown on foreigners who are here illegally, and the growing anti-foreign sentiment that seems to be stoked by state media (Beijing Cream’s summary of what sparked it all and the fiery post that almost got China Geeks sued). So far the crackdown has already spread to Yanbian and Chengdu is preparing to announce similar measures, a nationwide campaign in the next few months would not be surprising. If we’re completely honest though, I think most of us would agree with the importance of enforcing visa policies, but dislike the tone of the rhetoric and the nationalism it encourages. I think we should also admit that most of us know people who are currently violating the terms of their visa, and that this pushes us to view the directives in a different light. Today I want to bring up a few ideas that I think are worthy of further discussion, without rehashing too much of what has already been said.

Note: China “cracks down” on lots of things, and my Chinese friends found nothing surprising about the language used. It’s highly likely that local authorities did not consider how the campaign would sound to foreigners. Hopefully, someone will learn a lesson from the backlash, the poor “journalists” at People’s Daily have been trying to put a positive spin on it for days now.

“Strengthen the management of foreigners. Crack down on the three types of illegals.” Banner in Beijing from @niubi. The three illegals are: illegal entry, overstayed visa, and illegal employment

First, it is important to note that “foreigners” is a catch-all term for a very disparate group. South East Asians and North Koreans (a second campaign was launched in North Eastern China to combat this) fill the needs of cheap physical labor in industries that are no longer enticing to Chinese workers; African traders have found a base that offers them a reasonably comfortable life, while opening a market for cheaply made Chinese goods; and young, mostly white, English speakers only partially fill the gigantic demand for teachers. They are attracted to China for many reasons, but the fact that work is easy to find is likely the most common one (I was almost made a VP of marketing for a wine distributor while shopping at the supermarket once). Unfortunately, China seems to have been completely unprepared for this, and has what could only charitably be described as a rudimentary system for handling the influx.

This brings me to my second point: except for the occasional, vague threats, there is little reason to follow China’s visa regulations for the time being. As far as I have seen, companies hiring foreigners breaching the terms of their visas never face repercussions (same in the US), and so have no reason not to hire these people. At the same time, the chances of getting caught working illegally are probably about the same as being audited by the IRS, and the salary generally is much higher than whatever the fines would be (for English Teachers). While I am in no way encouraging this behavior, it is not hard to understand why so many otherwise law abiding individuals break the terms of their visas.

This is further exacerbated by the often mercurial visa process, and the hassle associated with it (this of course coming from expats like me, who have never had to apply for a US or EU visa). Not only is it confusing for an individual applying for a visa, but it can also be incredibly difficult and expensive for companies/schools to get permission from gov’t officials to hire foreigners. In the cases I am familiar with it has been the school or company that encouraged the expat to come on a tourist visa, insisting that it is common (it is) and legal (it isn’t).

The majority of the people I know in this category are living in China on student visas, but find themselves working on holidays and weekends for spending money. I doubt that very many of these people will be swept out in this campaign, yet this group seems to be the most vocal about the crack down. Instead I think it will focus on people from other Asian countries and Africa, these are the groups that my co-workers quite openly despise and are seen as a source of crime (I don’t know of any statistics backing this up, but neither do any of my co-workers).

In the debate, it’s also worth noting that there are a large number (but a small percentage) of foreigners in China that are truly despicable, but are here completely legally. This was the case with the Russian cellist who swore at the woman on the train, and the British tourist who attempted to rape a local woman (which in Chinese is simply two undifferentiated foreign devils). Checking visas and passports does nothing to curb the underlying problems related to Chinese law enforcement.

Twice I have been approached by completely unknown expats who were teachers that openly bragged about sleeping with their students or prostitutes. After the disturbing conversation, they gave me their business cards. Yet, when I contacted their schools and the local authorities about these individuals, I was completely brushed aside. The training school in Guangdong said the man had a heart condition and therefore could not engage in sexual activity. Shanghai Normal University, where the other man was employed, said that they were confident that such a thing had not happened and weren’t going to investigate it. The gov’t agencies in Shenzhen never replied to my emails. Sadly, I doubt that this is uncommon.

Yet, I worry that even if these schools were to fire these individuals, another institute would offer them a position. The sad reality is that many institutions are so starved for foreign talent, that they never question the character of the individuals; even when presented with damning evidence they are more concerned with saving face than protecting their students (I know of similar cases involving Chinese teachers that were also covered up).

Furthermore, legal cases involving foreigners are still unclear in the eyes of law enforcement officials which leads to “special treatment.” This of course is something that expats have little control over, and quite frankly should not demand. As mentioned in today’s People’s Daily, expats pulled over for speeding are occasionally let off without a fine due to the police officer’s inability to communicate with them. While English shouldn’t be a requirement for all officers, perhaps a translation service could be set up to help police communicate with expats to avoid such unequal application of the law.

Others are let go because the officers are concerned about how to handle the situation and are wary of the possible mountains of paper work, which has been another aspect specifically mentioned in Chinese editorials on the issue. Perhaps here foreigners are targeted because it is not possible to openly criticize the military personnel and gov’t officials who also receive these undeserved privileges.

So I would like to propose the following – that we expats living in China improve our efforts to police ourselves. When we hear our friends talking about looking for work, we push them to get the proper visas. When we see obnoxiously drunk expats staggering out of a bar, we get them into a cab and on their way home. When we hear of teachers sleeping with their own students, we take action to protect their students. You can also focus on your own behavior- like withstanding the pushing on the bus without screaming and maybe even give up your seat when no one else is willing. Reply to as many “Haalllooows” with a friendly smile and wave as long as you can stomach. As unfair as it is, remember that wherever you go, you’re not only representing yourself or even your country, but all waiguoren, all ~5.6 billion of us.