December 2007 Archives

It's the time of year when we reflect on what the previous year brought us.

Here in China, one year goes so quickly that it seems like four.

In fact, that was the finding of an economist with Standard Chartered in Shanghai. China is developing so fast, he reported, that one year's worth of development in a Chinese city is equal to four years of development in a European or North American one.

This year, that finding couldn't have been more true in Beijing.

The new China Central Television tower, a state-of-the-art facility that resembles a twisted, square doughnut, went from being a hole in the ground to towering above the central business district.

American bawdy chain-restaurant Hooters opened in the city's entertainment area, another million or two migrants waded into the city core and the Olympic buzz reached deafening proportions.

But with the new going up, the old must come down.

Many of the top restaurants and bars from a few years ago no longer even exist. When I first arrived in Beijing in 2004, a bar called Cloud 9 was rated as the city's best, and the entertainment district was called Sanlitun South.

A few months later, the bar and the entire entertainment area were bulldozed.

When a friend from Canada visited in the summer of 2005, we walked around the historic hutongs, or traditional Chinese courtyard homes, south of Tiananmen Square.

A few months later, the entire area was rubble. These areas are being rebuilt with gleaming new malls, department stores, office towers and luxury apartments.

On one hand, the improvements are turning Beijing into a much cleaner, more livable city. On the other, much of the charm and history of the city's past are being bulldozed along with the buildings.

It can be difficult -- and at times, frustrating -- living here. One comes to feel comfortable going to certain places, only to find they no longer exist a short time later. Keeping track of changing neighbourhoods, malls, bars and restaurants requires a profound dedication to the city's many free-listings magazines.

One of the places we used to visit for an after-work drink was called the Goose and Duck. The Beijing sports bar institution was named because of its connection to Canada -- the Canada goose, the Beijing duck.

Owner John Harkness would walk around the tables, his ponytail poking through the back of his ball cap and with an ice cold bottle of Tsingdao in hand. Each night, the band (which had been at the establishment as long as I could remember) would play nearly the same tired set list -- a mix of ballads from the 1970s and 1980s. We expats would chat about life in China over a few games of darts.

We haven't made it to the Goose much recently. Everyone I know who moved to China has either returned home or settled into a rather normal existence of getting up, going to work, coming home, making dinner and heading to bed.

Which is why it was special when some longtime high school friends and my family visited China a few months ago.

On a lark for old times' sake, a group of us piled into taxis and headed for the Goose. We ordered a round of beers and divided everyone up into dart teams.

The crowd was a mix of several of us who had lived in China for a few years, my dad and some friends visiting from Kelowna, Vancouver and Victoria. We chatted, laughed, played darts, took some photos and then everyone headed home.

As it turns out, that was our last visit. When some colleagues tried to visit a few weeks ago, the Goose was closed. It has moved further out of town into a sterile strip mall.

The old one was in the way of Beijing's rapid development.

The story of the Goose is just a microcosm of the changes occurring across this sprawling metropolis.

Simply put, Beijing is unrecognizable from the city I first visited in 1999 and completely different from the city I moved to in 2004. Sometimes one wonders whether the changes haven't only begun.

American and European chain stores, restaurants and cafés will continue opening here to cash in on China's growing wealthy class.

More students, small-business owners, managers, travellers and journalists will come to these shores seeking their piece of the "Chinese dream."

Nobody can stop the march of time, just as the old Goose and Duck couldn't stand in the way of Beijing's breakneck development. I'm thankful for the memories of old Beijing, even if that city no longer exists.

It's a good reminder, as we reflect back on 2007: Be thankful for what you have because you never know when it will be gone.

This article was published in the Victoria Times Colonist on Sunday December 30, 2007. The original article can be found here.

生日快乐毛泽东!

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Today he would have been 114 years old. A lot of candles for a cake that perhaps he may have shunned as being decadent, but still, I don't doubt that today, December 26th, that there may have been a few candles lit around China on behalf of Mao Zedong.

Of course, most of us are well aware of Mao's history as the leader of the CCP, his rise to power, his foundation of Communist China, his suspect economic policies, the great purges that left thousands displaced around the country, his fights with the Soviets over the direction of Communism around the world, his eventual normalization of relations with the United States and eventually, his death on September 9th, 1976 at the age of 82. But the question is today, on the 114th anniversary of his birth in Shaoshan, in southern China's Hunan Province, is what legacy of him remains here in China?

Of course, Mao Zedong's image is still plastered all over this country. You need look no further than the giant portrait of him on Tian'anmen and the dozens of people hocking copies of his 'little red book' around that giant picture to realize that. But how much of Mao still remains part of contemporary China? It's a question the academics, general public and even government officials continue to debate. I don't think anyone will try to contend that Mao's vision for China is what we see today. Mao would be aghast at the reforms brought in by Deng Xiaoping that have now turned this country into a market economy. And the decentralization of power would have raked at the very fiber of his ultra-political being. As such, when I first moved here to China, I was fully under the impression that the days of Mao's influence in China were well over. But today, as I write this, part of me is questioning this.

As Cam noted in a previous blog about The Economist's take on Mao's influence on modern business, there still seems to be some flicker of Mao that still burns in the heart of a number of Chinese. Now, you might argue that it is mainly the older generation that still looks upon Mao as the savior of the country and the 'guiding light.' And that point would be valid. But in my recent experience, I've come to believe that the 'idea' of Mao is strong, even with the generation born after the Chairman shuffled off the mortal coil. Recently I took part in a lengthy KTV session with a group of 20-something Chinese. (This is a whole other story!) As they lumbered through the numerous Chinese pop songs, the selections eventually began to filter out a bit, and some Chinese 'folk songs' began being belted out. It was then that I realized that each and every one of the young people taking part in this warbling KTV session knew all the songs venerating Mao. (And trust me, there are no lack of those kinds of songs!)

I've also engaged in discussions with some of my younger colleagues about Mao and his role here in China during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And even if they know about Mao's 'shady' past, they still bristle at the suggestion that he was mainly to blame for the problems his political direction took this country. I feel it stirs up a sense of nationalism in them...almost like I'm offending by knowing the same truth they do.

So today, I am forced to wonder how dead the memory of Mao Zedong is in contemporary Chinese society. His candle may have been extinguished over 30 years ago, but I still believe there remains a flicker of his light in the souls of even the youth of today in China.

I'm very fortunate to be blessed with a father who is retired, but used to work for Air Canada. As such, flights home are usually quite frequent. But due to the busyness of 2007, I didn't make it home a single time, except for right now: Christmas.

Neither myself nor Paul have posted much lately, and I've noticed a similar trend on other blogs (and even news sites). 'Tis the time of year where people focus on other (often much more important) things. This year, in my family, we have taken the bizarre step of deciding against any gift exchanges. This is odd in our particular case, mainly because our Christmases are usually rather extravagant affairs. And because my family visits China 5 to 6 times a year, they aren't really impressed by tea and chopsticks sets on sale at the Hong Qiao Market. So shopping for everyone is as difficult now as ever.

That's why, oddly, I was relieved when my parents and sister notified me of their decisions. I didn't worry about shopping. When I arrived in Canada, I wasn't out fighting for parking spots and stuck in traffic (which is bad, even in my hometown of Victoria). Instead, I've spent much of the past week reading Right Side Up, an excellent book about the rise of Stephen Harper and the fall of Paul Martin (and written by one of my favorite journalists, Paul Wells), and working on my brand new computer (I can't believe how cheap they've become!). Overall, I'm relaxed. No crowded subways, no construction waking me up at 6am, no Beijing traffic, no absurd banking experiences.

When I returned home last year, I was a TV host and living in Guangzhou. The past year may be, personally, one of my craziest to-date. I moved to Shanghai for three months, then back to Beijing. I've lived in 3 different apartments in 3 different cities in the last 12 months, which is probably why I find it so relaxing to sit and do nothing. It's everything I thought it could be.

Anyway, I don't want to bore you with personal tales. Thanks to everyone who stopped by Zhongnanhai this year. The growth of the site since it launched in August has been phenominal, and I hope we can keep it going. Next year promises to be one of the most exciting in China's modern history, as Beijing unveils a new airport, CCTV tower, a whole new Sanlitun, the Spice Girls, and of course that particular sporting event next August. It should be busy for us in the news business as well, and I hope to post as much as I can on this site. Without giving too much away, this page should look very different in the near future. We hope you'll stay with us.

Wherever you are when you read this, I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Cam.

Run your company, Mao style

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For years I've been told by my (admittedly political) Chinese friends that Mao Zedong Thought still underpins today's economic development. They believe Mao continues to guide China forward, and his teachings still help peasants, labourers, stock-brokers, middle-managers, and CEOs make decisions. I've sloughed this off off a few times, which is why I was surprised to see today's article in the Economist.

This article, called "Mao and the art of management," argues that Mao Zedong Thought might not only be useful for Chinese businessmen, but also western ones too.

It breaks Mao's lessons down into four segments:

  1. A powerful, mendacious slogan
  2. Ruthless media manipulation
  3. Sacrifice of friends and colleagues
  4. Activity substituting for achievement

Pertaining to the media, the Economist believes that western companies can control the media, just not to the same degree as Mao:

Chief executives are not in a position to crush the media as Mao did. Nevertheless, his handling of them offers some lessons. He talked only to sycophantic journalists and his appeal in the West came mainly from hagiographies written by reporters whose careers were built on the access they had to him.
The law constrains the modern chief executive's ability to imitate Mao's PR strategy. Publicly listed companies have to publish information, rather than hand it out selectively. But many, within bounds, emulate Mao's media management; others, determined to control information about them, are delisting. Burrow beneath laudatory headlines on business and political leaders, and it becomes clear that the strategy works.

The whole story is interesting, in a bizarre way. What a turn of events: western businessmen possibly taking advice from one of Communism's great heroes.

The Beijing Youth Daily (北京青年报) has published a large feature on CCTV 9 anchor Edwin Maher in today's edition. In it, he addresses the most recent comments surrounding his profile in the Los Angeles Times.

"During the last four years, the Chinese media has changed a lot and is still going through changes. I think indeed that the door has opened more wide than before; it is more balanced and more objective when reporting sensitive issues."
Edwin became serious when I asked about his opinion on Chinese news reporting. He said, in essence, working as an anchor doesn't mean you can insert your own news or political point-of-view into anything you read in front of the TV anywhere in the world. The anchor's responsibility is to read news clearly and improve the way you read it, but the standpoint is decided by the executives. Edwin believes, whether in the United States, Australia or in China, every media outlet has its own standpoint and has to face criticism from others. This is something can not be changed. It is impossible to satisfy everyone, and CCTV is no exception.
During the last four years, the Chinese media has had lots of changes and is still going through changes, something which makes Edwin happy. For example, more and more political talk shows and those kinds of programs are being broadcast live. Different opinions and standpoints can be expressed.
在过去将近四年的时间里,中国的新闻界发生了并正在发生着许多变化。"我确实觉得中国新闻的这扇门正在开得更大,对于敏感事件的报道也更加平衡、更加客观"
当谈到对中国新闻报道的看法时,埃德温严肃了起来。他说,就本质而言,世界各国的媒体有很多相似的地方。在任何地方做主播,都不意味着可以将自己的新闻观点或者政治立场加入到播报中,主播的职责是清晰地播报内容,提高节目的播报水平,而新闻的立场则是由更高层的人来完成。埃德温认为,无论是美国、澳大利亚还是中国,所有的媒体都有自己的立场。同样,每个媒体也都要面对来自不同方面的批评,这是无法改变的。让所有人满意不可能,央视也不例外。
让他感到欣喜的是,在过去将近四年的时间里,中国的新闻界发生了并正在发生着许多变化。比如,现在很多时政访谈的节目也开始直播,让不同立场、不同观点的声音得以表达。"我确实觉得中国新闻的这扇门正在开得更大,对于敏感事件的报道也更加平衡、更加客观。"

Previously on Zhongnanhai:

Edwin Maher controversy - which side is more balanced?

One of the great joys of being back in Canada is a seemingly limitless selection of excellent books and periodicals. I picked up the latest issue of Foreign Affairs last night (great Christmastime reading, I know) and read through a Campaign 2008 series they are currently running.

In each issue, they are running two essays written by two of the first tier candidates from each party. I have taken the liberty of posting their thoughts on China below. Not surprisingly, it seems China is not in the top-tier of foreign policy priorities for any of the candidates. References to China are found after platforms for handing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, Middle East peace, North Korea, energy independence, the rise of Russia, and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The collection of essays can be found on the Foreign Affairs website.

Barack Obama - Renewing American Leadership

And as we strengthen NATO, we must build new alliances and partnerships in other vital regions. As China rises and Japan and South Korea assert themselves, I will work to forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements, such as the six-party talks on North Korea. We need an inclusive infrastructure with the countries in East Asia that can promote stability and prosperity and help confront transnational threats, from terrorist cells in the Philippines to avian flu in Indonesia. I will also encourage China to play a responsible role as a growing power -- to help lead in addressing the common problems of the twenty-first century. We will compete with China in some areas and cooperate in others. Our essential challenge is to build a relationship that broadens cooperation while strengthening our ability to compete.

Hillary Clinton - Security and Opportunity in the 21st Century

Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century. The United States and China have vastly different values and political systems, yet even though we disagree profoundly on issues ranging from trade to human rights, religious freedom, labor practices, and Tibet, there is much that the United States and China can and must accomplish together. China's support was important in reaching a deal to disable North Korea's nuclear facilities. We should build on this framework to establish a Northeast Asian security regime.
But China's rise is also creating new challenges. The Chinese have finally begun to realize that their rapid economic growth is coming at a tremendous environmental price. The United States should undertake a joint program with China and Japan to develop new clean-energy sources, promote greater energy efficiency, and combat climate change. This program would be part of an overall energy policy that would require a dramatic reduction in U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
We must persuade China to join global institutions and support international rules by building on areas where our interests converge and working to narrow our differences. Although the United States must stand ready to challenge China when its conduct is at odds with U.S. vital interests, we should work for a cooperative future.

Rudolph Giuliani - Towards a Realistic Peace

Much of America's future will be linked to the already established and still rising powers of Asia. These states share with us a clear commitment to economic growth, and they must be given at least as much attention as Europe. Our alliance with Japan, which has been strengthened considerably under this administration, is a rock of stability in Asia. South Korea has been a key to security in Northeast Asia and an important contributor to international peace. Australia, our distant but long-standing ally, continues to assume a greater role in world affairs and acts as a steadfast defender of international standards and security. U.S. cooperation with India on issues ranging from intelligence to naval patrols and civil nuclear power will serve as a pillar of security and prosperity in South Asia.
U.S. relations with China and Russia will remain complex for the foreseeable future. Americans have no wish to return to the tensions of the Cold War or to launch a new one. We must seek common ground without turning a blind eye to our differences with these two countries. Like America, they have a fundamental stake in the health of the international system. But too often, their governments act shortsightedly, undermining their long-term interest in international norms for the sake of near-term gains. Even as we work with these countries on economic and security issues, the U.S. government should not be silent about their unhelpful behavior or human rights abuses. Washington should also make clear that only if China and Russia move toward democracy, civil liberties, and an open and uncorrupted economy will they benefit from the vast possibilities available in the world today.
John McCain - An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom
Dealing with a rising China will be a central challenge for the next American president. Recent prosperity in China has brought more people out of poverty faster than during any other time in human history. China's newfound power implies responsibilities. It raises legitimate expectations that internationally China will behave as a responsible economic partner by developing a transparent code of conduct for its corporations, assuring the safety of its exports, adopting a market approach to currency valuation, pursuing sustainable environmental policies, and abandoning its go-it-alone approach to world energy supplies.
China could also bolster its claim that it is "peacefully rising" by being more transparent about its significant military buildup. When China builds new submarines, adds hundreds of new jet fighters, modernizes its arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles, and tests antisatellite weapons, the United States legitimately must question the intent of such provocative acts. When China threatens democratic Taiwan with a massive arsenal of missiles and warlike rhetoric, the United States must take note. When China enjoys close economic and diplomatic relations with pariah states such as Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, tension will result. When China proposes regional forums and economic arrangements designed to exclude America from Asia, the United States will react.
China and the United States are not destined to be adversaries. We have numerous overlapping interests. U.S.-Chinese relations can benefit both countries and, in turn, the Asia-Pacific region and the world. But until China moves toward political liberalization, our relationship will be based on periodically shared interests rather than the bedrock of shared values.

John Edwards, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee did not make any significant remarks pertaining to China in their essays. Essays for other candidates have yet to appear.

Before moving to China, I admit that I knew very little about its wartime history. I knew that China had been engaged in a long-running battle with the Japanese, while at the same time dealing with its own civil war between the KMT and the Communists. But it wasn't until I came here and really started to try to learn more about that period in time that I truly began to discover the brutality that the Japanese troops employed on the people here. From chemical weapons experiments in Manchuria to forced sexual slavery to mass murder, the Japanese of the day were ruthless in their quest to 'bring order to East Asia.' Anyone who denies these acts took place is sadly misinformed. And of course, when recounting these atrocities, most people's minds invariably drift toward the Nanking Massacre.

But what has become troubling over the years is the quibbling between Japan and China over the numbers. Putting aside those who believe the massacre didn't take place, the number of deaths 70 years ago in Nanjing generally ranges anywhere from 40,000 from the conservative elements in Japan to over 300,000 as the official figure by the Chinese government. That's all fine and good. Given the fact that many of the birth records were destroyed in the over 6 week siege of the city, the main evidence has been drawn from captured Japanese military records and eyewitness accounts of both survivors and the foreigners who set up the Nanking Safety Zone. And, in my estimation, as far as history is concerned, we will never know the exact number of deaths. But what gets my dander up is when the Chinese government refuses to budge on its contention of over 300,000.

I've never attempted to research historical documents or done a population analysis of Nanjing in 1937 to determine the number of deaths. As such, I'm not in a position to say one way or the other whether or not the figure of over 300,000 deaths is accurate or not. And to be quite frank, 70 years later, the numbers - not to sound sadistic - don't really matter that much anymore. The main point today is that the world acknowledges that a brutal display of humanity took place.

Of course, most independent observers recognize that China uses events like the Nanking Massacre as a propaganda tool to whip up nationalism. The question is: Is the government trying to stoke an anti-Japanese sentiment or is it just trying to rally its people behind a unifying cause, and make them forget about all the other crappy things the CPC government has done to them over the years? I would argue for the latter. I believe this government really does want to strengthen its political relationship with Japan. For China, Japan is an important trading partner, and has strategic links with the United States. And if the dookie ever hits the rotary blades over Taiwan, the CPC is going to need to have close dialogue with Japan to keep that country out of the brewhaha. However, every time the CPC commemorates a wartime anniversary or reads about some low level Japanese politician making some small statement about comfort women, it fires out venomous language that only the communist world can come up with. As such, it creates anti-Japanese sentiment as a by-product, something I truly believe this government doesn't want to foster.

As such, if I were living in Zhongnanhai, I'd be carefully considering my language options when it comes to its past with Japan. Slap a pacifist long enough, and eventually that Quaker isn't going to quake any longer. And the CPC should recognize that even though it's got a powerful country under its control, when it comes to powerful buddies in their respective corners, Japan takes the cake hands down.

One of the books I'll never forget reading is the Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang. I was working at China Radio International at the time, and like many newcomers to China, was curious to learn as much as I could about the place. In the news at CRI, I would often come across the Nanking Massacre. Some of my Chinese friends told me about it. Whatever happened in Nanking I knew was bad, so when I saw the book on sale at Hong Kong's Airport one day, I snapped it up.

Needless to say, it's a harrowing tale of the barbarity of Japanese soldiers in Nanking in 1937. They invaded on December 13th, and only 30 days later, it's estimated that 200,000 people had been killed. In addition, historians estimate 20,000 rapes took place.

The situation would've been much worse had a group of foreign residents not banded together and created a Safety Zone -- a zone which shielded Chinese refugees, but whose border was breached repeatedly by Japanese soldiers looking for their Chinese counterparts. While there were many heroes in this story, perhaps the man who did the most was a German by the name of John Rabe. But while he lived in a luxurious residence and used his profile, Nazi-connections, and influence to bravely protect Chinese citizens, he had a sad ending to his life; after returning to Germany, he was arrested and interrogated. Following the Soviet seizure of Berlin, he was arrested again. He lived out the remainder of his life in poverty.

The tale of what happened in Nanking is not well-known, but might be soon. A number of movies are currently being made, with the first one, simply titled Nanking, having been released in China this past fall. I've watched the DVD twice (it's now available at most DVD stores in Beijing and Shanghai), and obviously with this kind of subject matter, can be quite emotional. If there's one complaint about the movie, it's that it didn't give the viewer a full picture of the harsh realities in Nanking at the time (or, at least as harsh as the book was able to describe).

I went to Nanking this past spring while I lived in Shanghai, with my sole purpose to visit the War Museum. Unfortunately it was closed for renovations at that time. While I was impressed by the city's aesthetics, I couldn't help but think about what it must've been like to be there 70 years before.

I highly recommend reading Iris Chang's book, and also watching Nanking. If you're not familiar with the event, do yourself a favor and learn about it. It's one of the great tragedies of the War, and one we should never forget.

Elsewhere:

'Tis the season for many westerners living in China, and of course those in several countries all over the world. It's the season for giving, compassion, and egg nog -- but not necessarily here in China. Some believe that China regards Christmas as another example of the "soft power" invading from the west; judging by the high number of Christmas decorations dotting store windows and lobbies here in Beijing, perhaps those people are right.

But the government doesn't want it to get out of hand. It has made clear to journalists to avoid "emphasizing" Christmas in their reports. Let's see how many Christmas stories now appear in the Chinese media.

In other news...

Zhongnanhai is happy to claim that it is batting 1.00 on "guesses" about government changes. (For evidence, please read this... okay, it wasn't much of a gamble at the time, but the part about pressure to lower the number of people on the standing committee of the politburo from 9 to 7 was later confirmed in an article in the International Herald Tribune/NY Times.) We certainly don't like to trumpet our one correct guess, but merely to state it for the record. We like to think of ourselves as quite bashful here at Zhongnanhai.

Bloggers already have a bad reputation for reporting opinion and gossip as "facts", so we don't wish to go down that road (at least too far). However, we'll take as responsible a stab as possible regarding the following:

In March next year, new portfolios will be handed out to the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee. This is a regular occurrence which follows the Party Congress the previous October. However this year, Zhongnanhai is hearing much larger and high-profile government personnel changes are in store. One highly-respected US news agency is already seeking confirmation prior to running a report.

We'll be sure to post anything here as soon as we get confirmation. Stay tuned.

It's been with intense interest that I've watched the discussion unfold surrounding the controversial article on Edwin Maher, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times last week. (Our sister site, China Media News, was first to post the article on Wednesday).

The article was somewhat critical of Mr. Maher, calling him a "sellout" for lending western credibility to Chinese government propaganda:

"It sounds like an effort to lend a whiff of Western-style credibility to their news operations, in a superficial way, without having to actually adhere to high standards such as fairness, independence, balance, public service and accuracy," said Neil Henry, a UC Berkeley School of Journalism professor.
"But a propagandist is a propagandist, no matter what one's race or country of origin."
Maher hears from his critics -- from irate e-mail writers to the foreigners he meets. "One writer said there was no excuse for what I was doing. And Westerners on the street will ask how I feel about being a mouthpiece for the Chinese government."

Black and White Cat has since provided a translation from an article in the Global Times, in which the Chinese media have come to Edwin's defense:

A senior media expert told the Global Times that some media in the West are always assuming a role of "moral judge" as if they alone "understand news," they alone are news experts, and only their reports can be the most objective. However, they are completely unaware that they themselves are seeing China through colored glasses. Some foreign experts have lived in China for decades and criticize their so-called western news experts, saying they simply don't understand China, don't understand the Chinese media, or that they have only seen things superficially.

The article on Maher has heated up the debate between western and Chinese journalists, most notably which ones are more balanced in their reporting.

As an acquaintance of Mr. Maher, and former employee of CCTV 9, I can attest to his professionalism, kindness, and generosity. Edwin is like the grandfather of the room, often bringing treats and joking with his much younger colleagues. Through his years of television experience, mostly as a weatherman in Australia, he has earned the respect and admiration of nearly everyone on staff at CCTV 9, including management. I share this respect for Mr. Maher and his accomplishments.

That being said, and before we continue, we need to point out a couple of facts:

  1. CCTV 9 is directly run by China's Central Government, and must broadcast the expressed wishes of the government.
  2. Western media outlets may come under pressure from governments not to report something, however are entitled to make the ultimate decision themselves (a right protected by law).
  3. Western media outlets are free to criticize their own government, officials, leaders, companies, and other organizations, as long as it does not violate libel laws.

The LA Times article, as far as I can tell, seemed fair enough. To those of us who know Edwin, perhaps criticizing him is unthinkable. But the story told both sides: first, it reported that some western journalists believe he has lowered himself by being a mouthpiece for the government. Then it sought reaction from Edwin himself, who talked about the gains being made in state-run broadcasting and that, really, he doesn't care what the critics think anyway.

I would like to ask what LA Times reporter John M. Glionna should have written about Maher to make it more balanced. Did they ask Maher for his comments? Yes. Did they talk to CCTV? Yes they did, quoting one anonymous official. One segment of the story could not have possibly been more balanced:

...CCTV officials say they hope their foreign reporters will help provide a more credible Chinese perspective on world affairs.
Media experts call the move a public relations ploy.

The article also pointed out that CCTV is not alone in seeking foreign journalists, but that Al Jazeera, CNN, and BBC do the same. Contrary to the reporting in the LA Times, as this correspondent sees it, the Global Times took a much more extreme line, writing "They hurl one insult after another, like 'news sellout' and 'mouthpiece'."

The more I hear about the argument for "balanced" journalism among Chinese journalists, the more I'm starting to believe balanced journalism is anything that doesn't touch their sacred cows. Balance means both sides: good and bad. Left and right. Positive and negative.

To make matters more muddied, there are many westerners in China who quickly come to China's defense when its journalism is criticized by outsiders. Often times, the longer foreigners remain in China the more they seem estranged from their home countries, and the more comfortable they are towing China's official party line.

Now, if we examine the piece in the Global Times, we see some seriously flawed journalism.

As this reporter understands it, these so-called Western media figures simply don't understand Maher and they have never made any enquiries on this matter to CCTV.

Actually, as mentioned, the LA Times talked to a station official, and Edwin Maher himself.

"Maher is absolutely not the kind of person they say he is," a senior media worker told the Global Times, expressing intense indignation at the unreasonable attacks from certain Western figures in this report. This person believes that Maher is someone in the media who deserves respect, both for his character and professional ability. This media worker dismisses the criticisms of these so-called Western media experts, "Do they understand Maher? Do they know the facts?"

What kind of person did the Times article say he was? Selfish? Dishonourable? A liar? A bad man? No, they criticized him for using his stature in the media business to help promote a Communist government which is unelected, has a horrendous human rights record, and continually threatens its neighbor, Taiwan. (There are those that will claim the previous sentence was a loaded one, however each of those points are factual.) Obviously those working under this system won't appreciate this point of view, because it cuts a little close to home. But in an open media environment, I would submit, this criticism is fair game.

In addition, the LA Times article did talk about what kind of man Maher is, and also mentioned his long and distinguished career in the industry. These two quotes from the Global Times article are not only misleading, they are downright wrong, and an extremely poor example of the kind of Chinese journalism it claims to defend.

Obviously a western article that is overly critical of China, its government, or its media institutions without any rebuttal is biased. But one that shows criticism of China, and its defense, is fair. And in my opinion, the article on Edwin Maher in the LA Times lived up to that spirit.

At the end of the day, comparing western journalism with Chinese journalism is exceedingly difficult. They are completely different, and run in a completely different manner. When people complain that CNN is the "mouthpiece" of the US government, I ask them about the continual negative coverage of George W. Bush, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, the falling US dollar, and other US policies. Would CCTV 9 run similar criticisms of the Chinese government? Of course not, unless it was pre-approved by the party cadres who roam the highest floors of Xinhua News Agency.

Whatever defenders of Chinese media say, it's still a far cry from being dependable, fair, balanced, and credible news. Sure, Chinese journalists often dig up interesting human interest stories. Some even push the envelope by touching on sensitive subjects. And as Edwin Maher mentioned, the window continues to open. But while some battles for a free press are being won, the war is almost a certain defeat, at least as long as the Communist party remains in power.

One fact is indisputable: The government of China directly manages news stories, angles, and coverage on CCTV 9 and other national media. Regardless of what the reporters can uncover under this system, their work is tainted by association. Western news organizations have many flaws, but at least there is diversity of choice and a number of points-of-view and opinions. This does not exist within China's state-run machine.

For every article that comes out of the west that is overly critical of China, there is another one which has gone to great lengths to understand China's changing landscape, it's rapid development, and its culture and people. Criticism of "western" journalism is not only unfair, it also lumps all newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television programs, blogs and others from Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and a handful of other countries into one homogeneous group. On the other hand, media which fall under China's central government can all be categorized in one group, because they all take their marching orders from Xinhua.

I expect some negative feedback from this post, but I refer you to the three points I made earlier. As someone who has worked at China Radio International, CCTV 9, and two other municipal TV stations, I know what happens behind closed doors. As someone who continues to write for foreign newspapers and worked for five years as a journalist in Canada, I know what happens there too -- and sometimes, it's not pretty. But it's far better than it is here, and will be for decades to come.

The staff at these organizations are some of the most talented, friendly, and outgoing that I have worked with, and I consider many of them good friends (some for life). I support them in their quest to use their creativity to create good journalism. Unfortunately, they are working with one hand tied behind their backs. The current state of Chinese journalism is not their fault -- it lies with the government.

As for Edwin Maher, I support what he's doing at CCTV 9. He's aware of the criticism leveled at him, and to his credit, he doesn't care. I admire that much more than somebody who claims CCTV 9 is something that it's not.

I had a long meeting tonight with a Disney representative in Beijing on a completely unrelated matter to the rumors of a Disneyland in Shanghai. But yet, I couldn't help but inquire. What's happening?

He didn't shed too much light on the situation for me, but said, in his view, that having a Disneyland open by 2010 is overly optimistic, at best. He said the Shanghai Municipal Government and Disney have already reached an agreement to move forward with a theme park, and that agreement has been given Beijing's blessing. But Disney refuses to move forward unless the central government allows the broadcast of the Disney Channel, and so far, it has refused.

The Disney Channel would be vital to securing (indoctrinating?) a young fan base of Disney characters. I have read (sorry, no link, as I can't recall where I read it) that many in Hong Kong were only familiar with Mickey Mouse, as they had not grown up with the other Disney characters such as Snow White, Goofy, Donald Duck, and others. The Disney Channel would go a long way towards rectifying that.

Of course, permitting Disney to broadcast images of Americana 24/7 to impressionable children might be too much for the folks inside Zhongnanhai.

After years of rumours, it looks like Disneyland may be on again in Shanghai.

The authorities have confirmed that the previously suspended plan to build a Disneyland theme park in this city has been revived and preparations are going ahead full steam.
Qian Weizhong, director of the economy committee of Nanhui district, said residents had moved off the land targeted for Shanghai Disneyland, in suburban Chuansha town.
The planned theme park will occupy 6 sq km, which is about 4.7 times the size of Hong Kong's Disneyland, according to the original plan.
"Local authorities have received positive feedback from the central government about the Disneyland project," Qian was quoted as saying by the Oriental Outlook.

Zhognnanhai has done some investigation into the report, and has unearthed a couple of interesting findings.

First, it's true that the plan to open a Disneyland is back on. In fact, the plan has always been to open a Disneyland in Shanghai, but those plans were shelved when Chen Liangyu was put under house-arrest and de-throned as the city's communist czar this year.

Disneyland was one of Chen's many projects (which previously included the F1, Tennis Masters Cup, Maglev, among others). To this correspondent's eyes, Chen certainly played a gigantic role in asserting Shanghai as the country's glitzy entertainment capital.

However after his scandalous downfall, nobody wanted to touch a Chen project with a 10-foot pole. But that has changed following the 17th party congress and installation of a new Party Chief for Shanghai (Chen's replacement, Xi Jinping, has taken on a new role on the Politburo Standing Committee).

But what many news items are not mentioning is that Chen's favored location for Disneyland, in Chuansha Town, is no longer favored by the central government. Instead, it's looking at opening the theme park on Congming Island.

Also, as some news items have revealed, an agreement was in place between Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the central government which is still in effect. According to the terms, Shanghai has agreed not to open a Disneyland until after 2010, to provide Hong Kong with ample time to grow its business. In the meantime, Shanghai will focus on its hosting of the 2010 Expo.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially as Congming Island and Chuansha fight it out for the rights to host Disneyland. The economic implications are immense.

And one can not speak of the economic implications without considering Hong Kong. One must assume that Hong Kong, which still requires special permits from mainland residents before entry, will suffer if a Disneyland is opened in Shanghai. According to some reports, the Disneyland in Hong Kong has already struggled, and delayed plans for further expansion as a result.

Regardless, this is good news for Shanghai's tourism sector, and its overall economy.

I used to have many discussions with my former Communications Manager at the Ministry of Transportation in the Province of BC Government regarding US political strategy. He was the ultimate spin-meister, was professional, and offered keen insight into winning political PR wars. (He was also well-read, and we often swapped books on the subject).

I am also interested in public/media relations (I currently work in this field in Beijing), however I've never shown much interest for branding strategies, marketing, luxury brands, etc. The rough-and-tumble of a political campaign, however, gets my juices flowing. And there's nobody better at winning elections than the guru himself, Mr. Karl Rove.

I can only imagine he's chomping at the bit to get involved as Election '08 rolls around. He has a sterling record as chief campaign advisor dating back to his small-time days in Texas. Many would argue that he ruined America, divided the country, and/or has caused trouble for the GOP going forward. But there's one thing we can't overlook: he's a proven winner.

So with that, I direct your attention to his extremely well-thought out advice column for Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate who's struggling to stay above water in his fight with front-runner Hillary Clinton.

This is solid advice, and for the sake of the Democrats, I hope Obama takes it.

An editorial in the New York Times this week denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin for rolling back Russia's democratic reforms. "Putin has so emasculated the democratic institutions that evolved in the 1990s that it is apparent he has little confidence in his people. The Kremlin controls the political process, deciding who can run for office and who gets access to national television coverage," the editorial complained.

It's a pertinent observation, one that often comes from western media outlets that criticize countries that don't give their citizens the same individual freedoms we enjoy in Canada. There's no doubt Putin and his United Russia party have a stranglehold on power. They exert a strong influence on Russian media and even disperse or ban opposition rallies.

But, chances are, if you ask a Russian which they prefer -- the chaotic, destabilizing and humiliating years after the Iron Curtain fell, or Putin's rising economic and political giant -- I think we can all guess the answer.

The New York Times admitted as much, "Buoyed by high oil revenues and a rising economy, he is credited with restoring national pride and stability," the editorial noted. People in Russia are better off, proud of their country again and mostly content.

The same is true in China, where discontented foreign voices grow louder as China's coming-out party, next year's Olympic Games, approaches. The Falun Gong, its Epoch Times newspaper and other pro-democracy groups have been rallying for democracy, improved human rights and a halt to the harvesting of organs.

But it's telling when those calling for such things are outside the country.

The Chinese are not a weak people. When they are unhappy, the government will hear about it. Revolutions have overthrown dynasties throughout China's history.

More recent demonstrations, such as the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, show they aren't afraid to stand-up to a government abusing its power. Even shady land-grabs have resulted in full-blown protests -- some violent -- as Chinese citizens stand up for their rights, which are enshrined in the country's constitution.

But outside of ideological or political disputes, most people, especially in the urban centres, seem relatively happy with the Communist party and its government for one simple reason: The economy is growing, and has been, at an unprecedented pace, for almost 30 years.

China is not a democracy but that doesn't mean its government is any less attentive to the population. In fact, it knows it must continue with economic growth, rein in high pollution levels, keep a lid on inflation and ensure people are content, just like any government elected in a democratic environment. Failure to do so could result in a full-scale revolt and threaten the party's hold on power.

It's also not like the government here imposes its will on a weak and feeble populace: The new property law introduced this spring spent several years in various levels of consultations around the country. Steve Dickinson, a lawyer with the U.S. law firm Harris-Moure in Shanghai, told me, that "If the Chinese don't like a law, they'll just ignore it."

That makes China tough to govern. Its sphere for public discussion is also far larger than many people realize: More and more Chinese are publicly calling for stricter environmental standards, halts on rising property prices and improved public transport, among other things.

Democracy is still the preferred form of government. It safeguards human rights, ensures minority voices are heard and provides checks and balances on parties in power. But it can only work when the environment is ripe for it to thrive.

Democracy has been a failure when imposed on Iraq and Afghanistan, has struggled in Palestine, the Philippines and Thailand and might not even be suitable for India, which boasts a population and potential similar, if not equal, to China's.

India has been growing at a slower pace, its infrastructure is old and crippling and it is often mired in political infighting.

Conversely, China's infrastructure is new and expanding quickly (the gross domestic product expands by double-digits each year) and the government has a free hand to modernize the country.

But all politics are local and that's where the Chinese seem most content. More and more people here are buying apartments, new cars and luxury handbags. They are starting businesses, travelling overseas and putting their kids into good universities. They are becoming stakeholders in the system. Very few want to see their golden goose killed.

Despite its stewardship of the economy, however, China's Communist regime remains troubling. Taiwan is continually threatened, dissidents remain in prison, the Internet is censored, intellectual property rights infringement and corruption are rampant. China's military budget is growing by billions each year.

Many Russians and Chinese, I'm sure, would like to see democracy reach their shores someday -- but only if it works. Western organizations calling for the immediate implementation of democracy in these countries, without any proper evaluation of their history, development, economy, culture or political conditions, are naive.

This article originally appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist. It was published on Sunday December 2, 2007.

"...sometimes the Asian should raise their voice."

I have a good friend based in Yokohama, Japan, who had her hackles raised thanks to part of an episode of the Tyra Banks show. I have posted the segment below.

The show examines one woman's decision to have a surgery to create a fold in her eye-lids, something Tyra assumes is to make her look more "caucasian". This is where my friend takes exception.

She believes that face-whitening creams and eye-lid surgery is not necessarily to make Asians look more caucasian, but because that is the current standard of beauty in Asia. As she said, "Those Asians we see on American's Elle magazines aren't that pretty from our standard."

What seems to raise her ire is the thought that Asians are trying to be something they aren't: white. She says this simply isn't true, but that bigger eyes and whiter skin are considered more attractive. She brought up an opposite example: "Ashley Simpson had surgery to make her nose smaller... does that mean she wants to be Asian?"

Or, to take it one step further, if a North American dyes his or her hair black, is that an attempt to be Japanese?

The answers to these questions, of course, is no. And to assume that Asians want to be like white people is naive at best, and extremely arrogant at worst.

If you get a chance on this Saturday afternoon, please head to China Matters to read this post on the on-going saga surrounding China's decision to deny the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk port in Hong Kong during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.

China Matters argues that China has taken the first step to exert its authority over Asian waters, and George W. Bush has done nothing but meekly go along with this new reality:

The Chinese clearly wanted to make a point with the Kitty Hawk--and make it publicly.
And to have the Bush administration flinch--and trout out a lame, concocted excuse that the Chinese briskly and completely rebutted--makes it looks like the truth about what's going on in the west Pacific is something that the PRC is ready to deal with, but the U.S. is unwilling to confront.

This is a must-read for anybody following the Kitty Hawk story.

Previously on Zhongnanhai:

Elsewhere:

This is definitely good news for Canadians (and many others) living in Guangdong Province.

The Premier of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell, has announced that non-stop flights between Guangzhou and Vancouver will commence next summer.

Officials signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) during a bilateral meeting Thursday, confirming the commencement of the first direct flights between Vancouver and Guangzhou in 2009. Premier Campbell is also meeting with China Eastern Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airlines during his trade mission to discuss expanding transportation links between China and B.C.
"Currently, citizens of Guangdong must travel either to Shanghai or Beijing to take advantage of air services to Vancouver, or alternatively transit through Hong Kong," said Tony Gugliotta, Vancouver Airport Authority's senior vice-president of marketing and commercial development, in the release. "Direct air service will allow greater ease and comfort for the many travelers moving between our two provinces."

I have been bullish on the potential of Guangzhou for as long as readers of this blog can remember, and this is a good sign that the capital of Guangdong will cement itself as an economic hub in southern China. It has been rumored, for years, that Air Canada is also planning to open up the Guangzhou-Vancouver route, and perhaps this will spur that decision along.

As a side note, anyone who's traveled through Guangzhou's luxurious Baiyun Airport knows that it's ready to welcome more international flights. On a recent trip through China with friends, people were in unanimous agreement that Guangzhou is the nicest big-city airport in China (not including Hong Kong International). Now, more people will get to see it themselves.

There are currently non-stop flights between Guangzhou and many international destinations, including Los Angeles in the United States.

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