February 2008 Archives

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for cbc-communists.jpgFollowing a post last week on the CBC's website being blocked in China, we've discovered a thing or two that has been going on behind the scenes.

In early November, the CBC was accused of pulling Beyond the Red Wall, a controversial documentary on the Falun Gong movement, because of pressure from the Chinese government.

The CBC denied the claim. CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay said the Chinese embassy in Ottawa and consulate in Toronto had contacted the CBC about the airing of the documentary. Keay also offered that quality was an issue:

We want to ... make sure it's an absolutely rigorous piece of work because it's become clear over the past 24 to 36 hours that there's a lot of interest in the thing...We want to make sure it's a solid piece of work that will stand up to intense scrutiny.

Instead, with an eye to the iffy situation in Pakistan, a profile on Musharraf was rerun.

But to the surprise of some, Beyond the Red Wall was broadcast on November 20th, 2007. Reports suggest minor changes had been made to the original, all approved by producer/director/writer Peter Rowe.

This very well may be one of the reasons the net nanny has wrapped its quieting arms around the CBC. It has certainly generated a lot more publicity as a result. Says Rowe: "and I suspect the Chinese now wish they'd never raised the issue."

Also worth noting is that Canamedia pulled Beyond the Red Wall from YouTube due to copyright claims.

Last year when it opened its 2nd location here in Beijing, there was a good deal of excitement (at least in our circle of friends) about Kro's Nest. kros2.jpg And I'm quite sure the proprietor of said pizza joint (which, by the way, makes some of the biggest "wheels" I have ever seen) were quite excited about the prospect of cashing in on their location outside Workers Stadium's north gate this summer during the forthcoming Olympics. But alas, it appears it is not to be. As reported on China Radio International this morning:

Restaurants, bars and nightclubs in one of Beijing's main nightlife centers and celebrity hangouts are to be closed to help ensure security at an Olympic football venue. A local official says about six restaurants and bars inside the Beijing Workers' Stadium compound will be ordered to suspend operation for more than 20 days before and during the Olympic Games. He says the venues, popular among Beijing residents, would suffer lost business, but the order was issued to guarantee security for the Games.

Security? The only imminent threat Kro's poses is bloating and a logy feeling after leaving. As for clubs like Vic's and Mix, procreation would be the main bullet to avoid. The notion that this is a security issue is a complete farce! In my mind, this is a blatant money grab by BOCOG, which wants people eat the crappy food inside Workers while watching an Olympic soccer match, rather than waiting until after to scarf down a pizza. So if this is going to happen to Workers during the Olympics, what about other nearby areas, such as Sanlitun? I suspect that municipal officials are going to be clamping down on this entire city like a python on a bunny come Games time.

UPDATE: Had a chance to have a brief chat with the owner of Kro's over the weekend as I was leaving (feeling a bit logy after a medium with a couple of friends), and asked him about the situation. His response was two fold: 1) It's nothing that a bottle of baijiu can't fix, and 2) Once he knows what exactly is happening, he'll let everyone else know.

The basic point that he was trying to make to me is that things are still up in the air. And if he does get shut down, Gongti shouldn't be expecting any rent out of him!

I flew back to Beijing from Dalian today, impressed by the city (which, according to the in-flight map, is actually slightly south of Beijing) and the wonderful people I met there. Never in my travels have I been invited to more meals, hung out with more people, or made more friends in such a short period of time. The whole experience left me somewhat ebullient upon my return.

But alas, even when strongly holding onto a positive attitude, somehow the capital finds a way to wrest it from me.

The scene was the Beijing Saida Airline and Train Ticket Office (No. 11-2 Gongrentiyuchang Beilu - across from Hooters - 6413-2381 or 6413-2382 - email: FanSongLei@hotmail.com). I make frequent visits to this particular ticket outlet, as I often have to catch the train to Tianjin. And before I begin my diatribe, must say that the service has mostly been professional.

Until tonight.

I entered the office around 9pm with my girlfriend. We stood in front of the metal bars and peered down at the two customer service representatives sitting at the two service windows. My girlfriend and I stood there as they intently stared at their respective monitors, with the younger guy on the left continually tapping the spacebar and peering into his colleague's computer screen.

After about 30 seconds went by, I asked them for a ticket to Tianjin, mingzao. "Shao deng yi xia," came the reply. My girlfriend said something was wrong with their computers. So we waited.

Another man walked into the office and stood behind us line. The situation seemed fishy to me and my girlfriend, and we got inklings they were playing video games. The young, slender man on the left cotinued pounding away on his spacebar as we stood silently waiting for service.

"Are you guys playing video games?" asked my girlfriend. "No," they said. Just problems with the computer. I didn't buy it.

I walked down the small corridor and around the corner. I opened the door to their office so I could see their screens. Sure enough, both were playing a shoot-em-up game. They were furious that I had the gall to walk into the office to see for myself.

I walked back to the front counter, where I notified the other customer what they were doing. He sighed and had a mild look of frustration on his face, but continued to just stand and wait (this reaction, in China, could be the subject of a very long psych paper). So did we. There was nothing else we could do.

The customer service reps (and I can't think of a title more unsuitable) continued to play their games, pounding on the space bar and other keys with a look of intense concentration on their faces. They were now openly showing their contempt for us. Three minutes had past, and another customer walked into the store.

Now there were four of us waiting in line to buy train tickets, and the two guys behind the counter couldn't bother stopping, or even pausing, their obviously extremely important game.

The good news is they halted not long after the fourth customer entered the room, and preceded to take his order for tickets first. Then they served the man who was previously standing behind us, clearly punishing us for daring to ask two train ticket sales people to sell us train tickets (and daring to find out they were lying to us when they said they "weren't" playing video games).

They weren't happy when I whipped out my feeble mobile phone camera to snap headshots. Two were sitting at the two windows, while a third man came and went and seemed to spur them into action. All three of their photos are below.

This story doesn't do what we witnessed justice. On our walk home from the sales office, my girlfriend mentioned that we should've had a video done of what occurred, complete with me going into their office to see their screens.

Needless to say, Beijing isn't known for its customer service. There are hundreds - even thousands - of stories just like this one. I don't usually write about these anymore, mainly because they are common and just part of choosing to live in China. But this one seemed to take the contempt and blatant disregard of the public to a much higher degree.

There will be those who link issues like this to the upcoming Olympics. Fortunately, I have a feeling Beijing will be on its best behaviour during those two weeks in August, and people will leave here cooing over how friendly and helpful Beijingers are. And to be truthful and fair, most of them are. But far too many people who work in the customer service industry not only aren't good at their craft, they simply don't care. Bad customer service is one thing, but giving bad customer service and not giving a shit about it, or you, is another.

The fact that an event like this can happen in 2008 in Beijing (or anywhere, for that matter) astonishes me. It shouldn't - I know better. But it still does. And I wonder when I'll finally just get used to it.

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I'm always amazed by how short sighted we can be in the media. I freely admit that generally speaking, when the masses tend to agree on something, they're generally right. But consensus does not always equal correct, especially when it comes to politics. Right now, I think most of us can agree that a large amount of the media attention in the US Presidential race is focused on Barack Obama. Obama.jpg
The junior Senator from Illinois has captured the attention of the media, given that he's A)black, B)camera-friendly, C)creating a lot of buzz with the younger generation, which - these days - comprises a good chunk of the demographic of the people in the media (the Walter Cronkite-types no longer rule the airwaves). As such, the media tends to gravitate toward covering him. But, as Zhongnanhai's Cam can well attest, (sorry buddy), making predictions about who is going to be the next US President at this point would be a ridiculous venture. We're only approaching March. November is a long way away. And in politics, the fortunes of any one particular candidate can change in a heartbeat. One can't deny that Obama does have the forward momentum in the race for the Democratic nomination. But, as Mitt Romney's campaign well showed, shots of momentum do not make a campaign. And even if Obama does make it through the Democratic nomination ahead of Clinton, he's still got a tough fight ahead of him against the senior statesman McCain (I know the irony of me pre-nominating McCain for the Republican nomination in this particular post, but at this point, betting against him to win would be like betting against the Harlem Globetrotters).

So to my colleagues in the media, I posit this thought: Punditry is fun. But ask any odds maker, and they'll tell you that it's perhaps not always wise to bet on the favorite, especially when credibility is the only bargaining chip you've got.

This is a post in a series focusing on the US Presidential race. As the 2008 campaign has global implications, the writers at Zhongnanhai will be occasionally posting on this topic. You can read more of our coverage by clicking here

underground.JPG Dedicated readers of this blog will know that I am unabashed about my love for all things history, particularly when it comes to China. Though I do love the ancient history of this country, I find myself intrigued more and more by the cold war-era history under Mao. When I walk around this city, I'm still fascinated by the faces of the older generation. I often wonder to myself whether or not they were caught up in the fervor of the Cultural Revolution, and if so, what side of the persecution were they on. And living in a neighborhood close to the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai, I will occasionally take strolls around the area, and make note of places that have conspicuous, plain-clothes guards standing out front non-government looking buildings (though I'm almost 100 percent they have some connection to the government). And another thing I've also taken note of is the surprisingly large number of air-raid shelters I've found in my wanderings. These, of course, date back to the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split, when the central government feared (and some say rightfully so) a Soviet nuclear attack. But, unfortunately, these throwbacks to the cold war-era are virtually inaccessible to us today, unless you're willing to face arrest by breaking into them. However, at least one intrepid laowai has managed to worm his way into the underbelly of Beijing. I direct you to a wonderful blog being compiled by Eric Abrahamsen for a new book coming out, which I will definitely be picking up when it's finally finished.

Zhongnanhai (the blog) has been hearing many different versions of the changes that are occuring inside Zhongnanhai (the government compound).

We have speculated on this blog about the political future of one high profile official, and we are still waiting to hear official word. That being said, a number of other rumors are circulating this week, as China's leadership meets behind closed doors until Wednesday. This three day session aims at hammering out the details ahead of the National People's Congress, which opens on March 20 (Update: As Xinhua has confirmed, the opening date for the NPC is March 5). The new recruits to the Standing Committee of the Politburo will receive their portfolios, and several other staffing announcements will be made on that day.

This blog is unwilling to stake its reputation (what little of one we may have) on these rumors, although, shall we say, we're "confident" that we're right. That being said, our sources tell us "anything can change" when it comes to Chinese politics.

So let's begin the guessing, and compare notes following the formal announcements on March 5:

  • Wang Qishan, the former mayor of Beijing who stepped down last year, will become the Vice-Premier in charge of the economy.
  • Hui Liangyu will return to the fold, and become a Vice-Premier.
  • Xi Jinping, the annointed successor to Hu Jintao, will take over Zeng Qinghong's former role.

More details will be posted as it leaks out of this week's meeting.

Really, Ralph...Really?

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This guy has about as much political sense as the cartoon character that share's his first name on The Simpsons! Ralph Nader has once again thrown his dumb ass into the US Presidential race. This man, who must realize that he has absolutely no hope in hell of winning a single Electoral College vote, let alone the election, has decided to waste more of his supporter's money, which should actually be used to treat whatever mental disorder they're obviously suffering from. This man has become such a political liability that he now has the term "Effect" attached to his name. If you're unfamiliar who Ralph Nader is, let me rustle up a short bio for you.

Mr. Nader, who is actually a Harvard Law School grad, if you can believe it, has unsuccessfully run for US President four times already, and is getting ready to fail for a 5th straight time. A left-wing activist, Nader became a well known consumer rights advocate who gained his notoriety by taking on the auto industry over safety concerns. And, though it loathes me to say so, the guy did a pretty good job as a consumer campaigner, and actually helped some innocent victims of consumer products get compensation. But Mr. Nader is best known as the guy who basically handed George W. Bush the election in 2000. Flashback to the days of the dangling CHAD if you would, please. It was the 97,421 ill informed, likely mentally unstable people in Florida (likely in the Everglades) who marked their X (which was likely very close to the signatures on their welfare forms) for Nader. Mr. Nader's supporters - if he wasn't around - would likely have voted Democrat. And those votes would likely have been enough to give Florida to Democrat Al Gore, and thus, would have put him into the White House. Hence the term the Nader Effect.

So should the Republican's be lining up to fund this guy's campaign this go round? I don't really think so. I suspect that Democrats and left-leaning social activists have actually learned their lesson from 2000, and are not going to bother spoiling their ballots by casting a vote for a 3rd party candidate. As such, I really don't see the Nader Effect wreaking havoc on the election this year like it did in 2000. So best of luck, Ralph! I'm sure there's some tattooed nimrod somewhere that's probably jumping for joy at your announcement to run again this year. And hey, who knows, 5th time could be the charm?!?

This is a post in a series focusing on the US Presidential race. As the 2008 campaign has global implications, the writers at Zhongnanhai will be occasionally posting on this topic. You can read more of our coverage by clicking here

As many of us are aware, the production in China of the World War II-era film 'Shanghai' set to star John Cusack and Gong Li has been blocked by SARFT (State Administration for Radio, Film and Television). No official reason has been given. However, Zhongnanhai has, through reliable sources, learned of the main reason behind the scrubbing of the shoot here in China. As has been reported, officials were concerned about the script. But what has since been revealed to us is that it was a scene toward the end of the film that apparently disagreed with the censors. As was relayed to us from people closely connected to the film, SARFT officials were reluctant to have a film shot in Shanghai which would portray the Japanese 'villain' in the film (to be played by wonderful actor Ken Watanabe) as sympathetic. As the story goes, apparently in the film, Watanabe's character, a Japanese officer who previously takes part in atrocities during the invasion of Shanghai, witnesses the murder of someone (who that someone is wasn't made clear to Zhongnanhai). Following this murder, Watanabe's character is said to display some form of remorse. And according to our source, apparently SARFT felt that this was a big sticking point because of the 'historical fact' that the Japanese would never show such remorse because they were all brutal. According to our source, this was - as we say in Canada - the TSN turning point, and threw the production off the rails, though the portrayal of opium-addicted Chinese people was apparently also a sore point.

Thankfully, the producers of 'Shanghai' are still soldering on with the film. As has been relayed to us, the vast majority of the production will now be taking place in London, with the China scenes set to be filmed in Thailand, though this has yet to be confirmed. I, personally, can't wait for the film to come out for two reasons. A) I'm a history junkie and love anything related to it and B) I'm a big John Cusack fan (and Gong Li ain't bad to look at either!)

As for SARFT and the Chinese government, all I can say is the hypocrisy of this is maddening. This is the same government that has promised to open up its doors to foreign film productions. But yet, it will hold its nose at anything that would give credence to the possibility that not all the Japanese were evil bastards during the invasion. But, to say I'm surprised would be a lie. This is the same government that is hypocritical enough to tell the world not to politicize the Olympics, while at the same time conveniently forgetting the fact that it boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow for 'political reasons' (though China wasn't officially part of the US-led boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). To quote Charlie Brown -- 'Arrrgggghhh!!!'

I've been working on a fascinating episode of BizTraveler this week on outsourcing. It's not exactly a sexy topic by any stretch, but what is surprising (to me, an outsourcing ludddite) is how wide-spread this practice is, and how, as one executive told me, "Everything can be outsourced."

I sat down with the Vice-President of the China Sourcing website, and he gave me a quick tour of how it operates. The site works to link overseas buyers with local providers, and really, there is no project too small. Consider one buyer is looking for a simple list of all the swimming teams and clubs in the San Francisco bay area; why do it yourself when you can outsource?

In addition to my duties at BizTraveler, I've also been assisting one international IT outsourcing provider in China with their marketing, PR, and media placements. I knew very little to nothing about the industry before I started, and now I'm finding myself slowly following industry news and trends.

According to the Vice-President of the China Sourcing website, China drew just US $2 billion in revenues from outsourcing projects last year, compared to India's US $40 billion. But the industry here is on a strong upward trajectory, as a generation of Chinese emerge with strong English skills, university degrees, and western business experience.

I arrived in Dalian this afternoon to shoot two more segments of the show this week at the famous Dalian Software Park. It's my first visit to the city, and while I haven't been here long enough to draw any conclusions, the intial impressions are quite good.

I've been doing some Google searching of late to find any good restaurants or must-see sights while I'm in town. I'm sure many readers may be familliar with these already, but I thought I would jot them down for anyone else who happens to come up this way (the "Hong Kong" of the north as some call it, although I must say that's a stretch):

As mentioned, I got in early in the day but slept most of the afternoon (note to self: must get to bed earlier) so have only walked around a bit tonight. I can't wait to see more of the city, and also check out the software park.

If anybody who lives in Dalian has any suggestions for places to eat, drink, and be merry, then please let me know!

OK...it's time to let this go people! I have, for basically the last couple of weeks, been hearing and reading way too much about Edison Chen's foray into the wild side. I'm no prude...but I'm not quite at the point in my life where I'm ready to break out the 8mm and bust out a Pam and Tommy Lee. But that said, I think the hype about this kid's sex life is getting to the extreme. Prime example is this weekend in Hong Kong. Fiona Sit Hoi-Kei, one of the women apparently in his videos (I say apparently, because A) I have no idea who the hell she is and B) even if I did, I wouldn't have been able to pick her out in the pictures anyway, unless I was intimate with her particular shaving practices, or lack thereof) was drilled in the head with a bottle at a charity event this weekend in Hong Kong. A charity event! I know that the Chinese people hold a different standard when it comes to sex, particularly in the public arena. Certian things in this culture remain a lot more taboo than they would in the West. But seriously, assaulting a young woman because she allowed herself to get her mojo flowin' in front of a camera??? I know we maintain different standards, but -- unless you're a terrorist or other form of extremest -- humanity holds a pretty good standard when it comes to unleashing physical violence. Hate this woman if you want, (which I think too is completely absurd) but don't fling objects at these people because they had sex. I would love to talk to the alleged assailant (described only in the SCMP as a 27 year old Mr. Lin) and find out if he has ever had non-missionary style sex. If so, according to the strictest of the strict Catholics, he's engaging in a moral sin, and should be punished. (And the hard-core Catholics know how to dole out a good lashing!)

Those who know me know that I'm no fan of anything star-esque. I find the narcissim of the people repugnant. But I find the whole idea of star worship by the average person even more disturbing. Anyone who has enough time on their hands to care, in depth, about the coming's and going's of the Lindsay Lohans, Brittany Spears or Edison Chens of the world is someone who really, really doesn't have a grasp on where their priorities should be. And quite frankly, I thought the people of Hong Kong were better than that!

Organizers of Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympic Games will be doing all they can to snag some of Beijing's limelight during this Olympic year.

In May, the British Columbia - Canada Pavilion will open near Tiananmen Square to showcase the games, the province, and the country. And, according to Vancouver radio station CKNW, it will host more than 60 paid BC civil servants:

(This transcript was obtained through the government's media monitoring system)

Announcer: More than 60 public servants are getting an all-expense paid
trip to Beijing for this year's Olympics. But they won't be volunteers, they'll be working to promote the 2010 Games.

Reporter: The 63 employees have been seconded to work at BC-Canada
House, which was a big hit at the Torino Games in 2006. Premier Gordon Campbell says their priority will be to promote economic opportunities in B.C.

Premier Gordon Campbell: I guess we have two choices; we can either have people that know British Columbia and understand what we're doing, or we can contract the people in China to do it. We think it's better to have people that know British Columbia and we'll be paying them. It's clear we'll be paying them. We're obviously going to pay them to get there.

Reporter: The $15 million program has been expanded from two years ago when nine workers went to Italy two weeks before the Games started. The Beijing Pavilion opens in May - a full three months before this year's Olympics.

With the province posting a $50 million dollar surplus this week, I suppose it feels flush enough to forego the cheaper labor costs in China. (The budget, incidentally, introduced a carbon tax, the first of its kind in North America).

This correspondent, being a former public relations officer in the BC government, has many friends and family who have applied for the posting. As of yet, nobody has been notified whether their applications have been approved.

My fingers are crossed.

My head continues to spin as we move closer to the day when the Clintons are finally dispatched from Presidential politics (I can only assume she won't run again in 2012, especially against the incumbent President Obama) and the Illinoisian (is that right?) Obama lines up for the main event against Arizona Senator John McCain.

Obama is on a roll. He's won 11 consecutive primaries and caucuses, including the overseas American primary. (And we know that he has ample support here in Beijing). As I've said before, I tend to like Barack Obama. At least, I like what I've seen of him. He has a grand vision for the country. He wants to unite the red and blue states behind his leadership. He wants to bring equality to everyone, and change to Washington. I would reckon even most Republican voters would agree with him on all of those points. But after all of these feel-good platitudes, what do we have left? Nothing. Yet.

Barack Obama has been given the largest free pass that I've ever witnessed in presidential politics. Those who wanted more scrutiny paid to Bush and his National Guard documents, Clinton and her income taxes, or McCain and his pseudo-mistress lobbyist private-airplane friend, seem to recoil when Obama is put under the spotlight. Those who criticize him are "divisive", represent "old-style politics", and might even be "racist".

The reason I bring this up is because I respect many of Obama's supporters. Many of my friends follow the news daily, read up on their politics, and can comment with an informed skepticism on Chinese affairs, the US trade deficit, and the Pakistani elections. But many of these same people have no problem blindly following a politician who's given them not a whole lot to follow. Whatever fairy dust Obama is sprinkling on these people, I'd like to know what it is.

Despite this easy ride, some say things are beginning to change for the good Senator. I read an editorial a while back, and I've been unable to find the link (my apologies), which stated that Obama's wave is cresting. A politician can not sustain a two-year long campaign on lofty rhetoric alone, and will need to alter his strategy and throw some policy meat to his skeptics (those few that exist) before people begin to tire of his empty repitition.

Karl Rove, who is much disliked despite his strategic brilliance, believes we've hit the turning point, following an Obama speech in which he outlined some broad left-leaning policy goals:

Mr. McCain can now question Mr. Obama's promise to change Washington by working across party lines. Mr. Obama hasn't worked across party lines since coming to town. Was he a member of the "Gang of 14" that tried to find common ground between the parties on judicial nominations? Was Mr. Obama part of the bipartisan leadership that tackled other thorny issues like energy, immigration or terrorist surveillance legislation? No. Mr. Obama has been one of the most dependably partisan votes in the Senate.
Mrs. Clinton can do much more to draw attention to Mr. Obama's lack of achievements. She can agree with Mr. Obama's statement Tuesday night that change is difficult to achieve on health care, energy, poverty, schools and immigration -- and then question his failure to provide any leadership on these or other major issues since his arrival in the Senate. His failure to act, advocate or lead on what he now claims are his priorities may be her last chance to make a winning argument.

Chris Matthews, a self-described Democrat and a man hailed as a fan of Obama ("I felt this thrill going up my leg"), has also finally decided to ask some tough questions. He had Texas State Senator Kirk Watson, an Obama supporter, on his program this week. When Matthews asked him the simple and fair question - What has Obama accomplished as a legislator? - he had no answer (you can view the video here - warning: it can be painful):

MSNBC's Chris Matthews: "You are a big Barack supporter, right, Senator?"

State Sen. Watson: "I am. Yes, I am."

Matthews: "Well, name some of his legislative accomplishments. No, Senator, I want you to name some of Barack Obama's legislative accomplishments tonight if you can."

State Sen. Watson: "Well, you know, what I will talk about is more about what he is offering the American people right now."

Matthews: "No. No. What has he accomplished, sir? You say you support him. Sir, you have to give me his accomplishments. You've supported him for president. You are on national television. Name his legislative accomplishments, Barack Obama, sir."

State Sen. Watson: "Well, I'm not going to be able to name you specific items of legislative accomplishments."

Matthews: "Can you name any? Can you name anything he's accomplished as a Congressman?"

State Sen. Watson: "No, I'm not going to be able to do that tonight."

Matthews: "Well, that is a problem isn't it?"

One commenter, on the Huffington Post, sums up his feelings after watching the video:

Chris Matthews isn't my hero now that he has finally put Obama under the microscope. He should have been doing it all along. As regards [to] Obama's record: I am still waiting to know what, if anything, he has authored and passed in the U.S. Senate. Usually I am treated to a list the bills he co-sponsed in Illinois. Apparently some Obama backers are banking on the fact that most Americans won't notice the difference between being in the Illinois state senate and the U.S. Senate. Hillary has authored twenty pieces of legislation that has passed into law....in the United States Senate. Not co-sponsered.... authored. Obama's legislative record is very thin, by any standard, and Chris had every right to point that out. If we shouldn't care about the resume of a man that would be President, who's resume should we care about? Not that I think any of this will cause any Obama supporter to think twice. They reject the idea that they are "cultish". Strange, since they demonstrate slavish devotion to Obama and are impervious to arguments based on reason and common sense. "Change" and "hope" are held up as cure-alls. Objectivity is treated like Kryptonite.

Despite these, Obama is now roughly tied with Senator Clinton according to the latest polls in the State of Texas. The Obama train keeps rolling, and even if Clinton can pull out victories in Ohio and Texas, her "final stand" according to her husband, that would merely keep her in the race. She'd still face an uphill climb to the nomination.

Meanwhile on the Republican side, Senator McCain has been blindsided by what could hardly be called journalism on the front page of the New York Times. The article, for those who haven't seen it, basically says McCain may or may not have been influenced by a lobbyist, and may or may not have been romantically involved with her. The Old Grey Lady had been sitting on the piece since last year, and only published it after it learned the New Republic would go ahead with their own story about the Times holding the story.

It was shoddy journalism. If Barack Obama is against this "old-style" politics, why doesn't he say something about the way McCain was treated? Even long-time readers of the Times, according to today's letters section, were embarassed by the writing. Obama can dismiss criticism against himself as "old-style" and "divisive", yet his silence indicates that he welcomes it when used against his political rivals.

This post, and this previous one, may seem critical of Barack Obama. In part, they are. But I don't think I've written anything unfair. Barack Obama may well be a ground-breaking President that changes America for the better. But as of today, he has told us very little about what he would do other than simple platitudes, rhetoric, and cliches. I'm embarassed that so many otherwise intelligent people have fallen so easily for the sweet nothings Obama has been whispering.

I am not an American, and thus can't vote in November (I'm sure the Obama fans just breathed a sigh of relief). I don't know who I would vote for if I could. The job as the Commander in Chief of the world's most powerful and influential country is a big one. I need to see concrete evidence the person is ready enough, mature enough, strong enough, and capable enough to take on the job. I also want to know what that person would do when he or she sits down for the first time in the Oval Office. I think everyone can agree this is fair request -- and we've haven't received any answers yet from Senator Obama.

This is a post in a series focusing on the US Presidential race. As the 2008 campaign has global implications, the writers at Zhongnanhai will be occasionally posting on this topic. You can read more of our coverage by clicking here.

Reasoning through the unreasonable

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Hosting an analysis show on state-run media here in China can be best described as an interesting experience. Coming here two and a half years ago, I had to sort of retrain myself and put myself in the Chinese government mindset when it comes to the things you can or can't say. I'd like to think that I picked up the concept rather quickly...though there have been a few occasions where I've crossed that invisible and undefined line in the sand that the CPC doesn't like. Thankfully, the repercussions have been minimal. That being said, I'm still often times at a loss to explain (and never given any official explanation) as to why certain events and topics are taboo. The past week and a bit is a prime example of this.

Three major international events have taken place recently that - in my mind - screamed to be talked about on an analysis show like mine: Kosovo declaring independence, Castro resigning (and possibly dying, though this is just a pet conspiracy theory of mine) and the election in Pakistan. But, much to my frustration, all three were on the banned list. So I'm going to try to reason through for you why said events will not be aired.

Kosovo: Well, this one is pretty obvious. Any connection - thin as it may be - to the potential independence of Taiwan makes the Foreign Ministry's sphincter pucker up tighter than a snare drum. In fact, any connection to the "3-T's" is almost always off limits. Once during a program on immigration, I made reference to the Statue of Liberty in the United States as a beacon for European immigrants to that country. That reference was subsequently nixed because - as was reasoned to me - it potentially could have reminded people of a certain icon that was on display during a certain event that took place here in Beijing in the summer of 1989.

Castro: This one is a bit more confusing. But I think there are a few reasons behind why I won't be talking about Fidel. One is historical. Though they are both communist countries, China and Cuba have never had a strong relationship. Castro closely allied himself with Khrushchev in the 60's and made the Soviet Union his close ally. This came at a time when the Sino-Soviet split was starting. And since then, China has had no more than a passing relationship with Cuba. Another reason, in my estimation, is the current state of global affairs. The United States, one of China's key export markets, continues to maintain an embargo on Cuba. As such, analyzing Castro and Cuba on Chinese state-run media - as far as the Foreign Ministry is concerned - could be interpreted by the US as sympathetic gesture toward Cuba, and potentially strain relations with its big trading partner. And the third reason I can think of is potential concern about angering the Cuban embassy here. A few years back, the Cuban embassy launched a formal complaint with the Foreign Ministry after one of the news readers at this radio station referenced Fidel Castro as Cuban dictator instead of the preferred nomenclature of Cuban leader. Needless to say, this radio station has been walking on eggshells ever since when it comes to the Cuban embassy.

Pakistan: This one too is a bit more difficult to figure out. But there may be a couple of possible explanations. One is that this current CPC leadership group has always maintained a good relationship with Pervez Musharraf. And given the outcome of the vote, the Pakistani administration wouldn't be too pleased to hear Chinese media picking apart the reasons why Musharraf got his ass handed to him at the polls. The other, and perhaps more obscure, reason may relate the leadership in Zhongnanhai itself. Musharraf is the President and head of the Pakistani military. Hu Jintao is the President and Chair of the Central Military Commission. Musharraf is potentially going to be ousted by a coalition of people who don't support his policies. Hu Jintao...well... You see why there might be some concern about analyzing the situation too deeply.

As I've said before, there are times working in state-run media where I'm surprised what I can get away with saying. But, that being said, I suspect as the Olympics draw nearer, anxiety is only going to push the people in charge of the state-run media organs to become that much more politically conservative.

CBC blocked

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for CBC.png Since early February, the CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster, has been inaccessible to Internet users in much of China. Neither its English nor its French homepage load for us here in Beijing. Access to podcasts as well as audio and video streams are similarly affected. This seems an odd choice. Is the net nanny selecting English-language (and indeed French) public broadcasters at random? NPR's website and audio streams are fully accessible as are the BBC's (with the exception of its news and sport pages as well as its Chinese service). Australia's ABC also loads. Any ideas? Is this also the case elsewhere in China?

This is a question I'm sure the Clinton campaign has been asking for months now. The current state of their two campaigns, during their speeches tonight, have never been so stark; Clinton at a school in Youngstown, Ohio, promising to be ready on "day one", and vowing that she is the most qualified person to be Commander in Chief.

Then the networks cut to Barack Obama, who, contrary to political etiquette, jumped on stage while Senator Clinton was mid-speech. He was in the Toyota Center in Houston filled with 20,000 roaring fans (his estimate). The scene was like a rock concert, and in comparison, made Clinton seem like she was delivering a eulogy rather than a stump. Perhaps she was.

Obama now has major momentum, and the question is how to stop him. I don't raise this question because I dislike Senator Obama, but rather because there is currently high-priced PR talent on both the Clinton and McCain campaigns trying to answer it themselves. What on Earth are they telling their candidates?

Some politicians seem to repel criticism like teflon, but everytime Obama seems to be criticized, even in the most polite forms, it seems to backfire on those levelling the charges. Anytime the Clintons raise even the smallest issue, it is turned around as "old-style" and "divisive" politics, exactly the kind of politics Obama is campaigning against. The criticisms give more fuel to Obama's main argument.

The strategy to attack his oratory seems to have had minimal results, if any. Obama is offering hope, his opponents, if they choose to attack, represent those dark and evil forces that fear change in America. True or not, that seems to be how the electorate sees it.

Consider the lines of attack the Clinton campaign has used on Obama:

  1. Bill's famous outbursts in South Carolina, claiming Obama's campaign is a "fairy tale".
  2. Hillary drawing a line between speeches that raise hope, and deeds the get results.
  3. Obama is not experienced enough to handle complex foreign policy matters in a time of war.
  4. Obama's healthcare plan isn't as comprehensive as Clinton's, and would leave 15 million Americans without coverage.

Then there are the smaller issues, like Clinton's claim that Obama plagiarized parts of his speeches, and the McCain campaign making hay with Michelle Obama's comments that this is the first time in her adult life that she's been proud of America.

So what's sticking? I'd argue none of it, although it remains to be seen how much the GOP can milk out of Michelle's words. But as Dick Morris said on Fox News tonight, nobody has ever gained momentum by attacking a candidate's wife.

The New York Times explains that the Clinton campaign knows it has to begin shedding a negative light on Obama:

Clinton advisers, acknowledging that they must change the course of the campaign by defining Mr. Obama in negative terms for voters, said they intended to try to draw sharper contrasts by highlighting what Mrs. Clinton believes are his biggest weaknesses: his readiness to be commander in chief, and his support for a health care plan that would not initially seek to cover all Americans.
Yet Mr. Obama's advisers plan to continue making the case that after nine consecutive victories, many by large margins, Democratic and many independent voters are speaking clearly that Mr. Obama is their choice, and that the party should begin coalescing around him.

Mrs. Clinton's team features some major campaign strategists, such as James Carville and Paul Begala, so it's telling that even they have been unable to make serious dents in Obama's support.

So, PR professionals and armchair quarterbacks, what can be done? As likeable as Obama is, nobody should be getting such a blatant free pass. There are legitimate questions about his experience that critics seem timid to raise, because nobody wants to be seen trying to knee-cap America's potentially first black President. Even one of John McCain's senior advisors, Mark McKinnon, says he can't continue to work for the Senator if Obama is the Democratic nominee. Although, he points out, he'd still vote for McCain:

"100%, ... I met Barack Obama, I read his book, I like him a great deal. I disagree with him on very fundamental issues. But I think, as I said, I think it would be a great race for the country and I would simply be uncomfortable being in a campaign that would be inevitably attacking Barack Obama. I think it would be uncomfortable for me, and I think it would be bad for the McCain campaign."

In all of this, I feel slightly badly for John McCain. How is a 71 year old, career civil servant supposed to go up against such a young, brash, eloquent man calling for change in Washington? McCain is not part of Washington's "in crowd", despite portrayals from the Obama campaign. He has also never been a major player in, or supporter of, the Bush administration. But charges from the Obama campaign that he represents the status quo and is yesterday's man, in my opinion, will stick. It's just too bad, because McCain has a 20-year long career in the Senate calling for change. A fine statesman has finally made it to the big dance, only to be up against an historical candidate that will be extremely tough, if not impossible, to beat. Where's John Kerry when you need him?

I rarely (in fact, this is the first time) agree with Rush Limbaugh, but he has often stated that people like Obama because they can project their hopes and dreams on him. Obama represents a blank slate: he has authored no major legislation in the Senate. He has been a part of no major votes. He talks in uplifting phrases, saying there are no red and blue states, only the United States. This is powerful stuff, and it does instill one with confidence and hope going forward. But at some point, the rubber is going to hit the road. Obama will have to make actual decisions, he'll inevitably disagree with his GOP colleagues, and may even make choices that upset some of the very Democrats that are currently supporting him. When the rubber hits the road, what choices will he make? What does he stand for? Where does he draw the line? At what point does he forego cooperation to push forward the principles he believes in? In fact, what exactly does he believe in, besides platitudes and rhetoric? As long as he doesn't have to answer these questions, Obama can continue to be the candidate who supports whatever you support.

So, dear readers, I ask you. How do you campaign against Obama? How do you gain traction for your arguments, and slow his momentum? What is the messaging that will resonate with Americans, and make them reconsider whether Obama is fit and/or ready to be President? I will certainly think more about it, but I welcome responses.

This is a post in a series focusing on the US Presidential race. As the 2008 campaign has global implications, the writers at Zhongnanhai will be occasionally posting on this topic. You can read more of our coverage by clicking here.

Getting into the jam

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This very well could be the best music video ever shot in Beijing. Director, artist and fellow traveller Rob Slychuk gives the capital's subway a little Electric Six.

For more on Rob Slychuk click here.
For more Electric Six music click here and here.

One of the things I loved about living in Shanghai was that it's a very walkable city. Beijing is great, but often times my girlfriend and I finish dinner and would like a nice outdoor stroll before heading home. Where to go? Hou Hai is noisy, touristy, and tacky. The quaint hutongs in Qianmen have largely been demolished. And walking along Second Ring Road doesn't really do it for me, surprise surprise.

But Shanghai was much different. Sure, you had the tourist-ridden Bund waterfront and Nanjing Lu. But the French concession, Suzhou Creek area, and People's Square were nice places to wind down an evening (or start your morning, depending on the time of day). I also enjoyed my morning walk to work from the Hengshan Lu subway station to Zhaojiabang Road, traversing streets filled only with pedestrians and delicious xiaolongbao steaming in bamboo baskets. What made it different from Beijing (in this one particular neighborhood near Hengshan Lu) was the lack of cars, honking, and noise (at least in comparison to Beijing).

So it is with a smile that I read Richard Spencer's latest dispatch in the Daily Telegraph today. He reports that the Bund waterfront is getting a makeover, and one that will turn the classical strip into a more pedestrian friendly venue:

The city's government has begun a £280 million scheme to divert the motorway that separates the Bund's neo-classical buildings from the Huangpu river into a tunnel, and demolish the flyover that disfigures the view.
Most dramatically, the 100-year-old steel bridge across Suzhou Creek at the north end will be removed, taken to a local shipyard for renovation, and then replaced.

The move is a smart one, and one other cities could consider implementing. For years, in Vancouver, people have been asking for Granville Street, one of its main downtown thoroughfares, be turned into a pedestrian-only street. City Hall has resisted, not sure how it would re-route traffic. But I'm certainly not the only person to say our priorities should be with the pedestrian -- and not pollution-spewing vehicles. Let the drivers figure it out, I say.

Beijing would do well to scrap cars from Nanluoguxiang. The area has become Beijing's answer to Khao San Road in Bangkok, yet Nanluoguxiang can barely hold the crowds of people it often draws at night, let alone the cars that honk their way down the alley, shoving backpackers and locals aside.

The revamped Bund, which the city hopes to have completed prior to the Expo in 2010, should be a nice addition to the city, and further re-energize the area. Not that it needs it, according to Spencer:

In many ways, the government is following the market. In recent years, Chinese and international developers have refurbished many of the buildings. The HSBC building had the plasterwork which concealed its celebrated mosaic ceiling removed, and is once again home to a bank.
Number Three is home to Armani, an Evian Spa and a number of expensive restaurants. Cartier has taken over the ground floor of Number 18, whose top floor is the city's most fashionable nightclub.
Thirty of the buildings have protected status, while the renovation of the bridge will turn attention to the Astor House Hotel and Shanghai Mansions, Art Deco haunts of the city's pre-war glitterati.
Suzhou Creek itself, once known only for its smell, being cleaned, and the warehouses alongside it are being turned into art venues.
The renovation comes as the city is starting to revel in the sort of reputation for sophistication and glamour - as well as vice - that it enjoyed in the pre-war years, which are themselves being recreated in recent films like The White Countess and The Painted Veil.

Spencer talks a bit more about the Bund's changes on his blog, which is well-worth checking out.

The Edison Chen scandal is everywhere. It's been front-page news in Hong Kong for weeks now, and there is certainly no dearth of information on the internet. Zhongnanhai was going to stay out of the mess, but then we stumbled upon Imagethief's excellent post and figured we'd better plug it here, and also give our own two cents.

(If you aren't familiar with the scandal by now, where the hell have you been? You can read all the sordid and juicy details on the scandal's Wikipedia page - thanks Imagethief, who's clearly done his research!).

I had lunch at the ifc mall in Hong Kong last week with a woman who is heavily involved in the city's film industry. She was deeply upset by the scandal, and spoke with a rare emotion. After all, there weren't any pictures of her that were released, so what's the big deal?

What seemed to affect her was that she'd spent her whole life studying film, and is now a professor at two film schools in Hong Kong. She loves the medium, she loves the storytelling, and she loves the people she's worked with. What she doesn't love is what the industry has become, especially in Hong Kong, where trashy, tabloid magazines can match anything Britain or the US has to offer. And for the first time, she was considering doing something else.

We still don't know what the long-term implications of the photo scandal will be. In her view, it could ruin lives (and certainly, at the very least, reputations). So far, Bobo Chan (as of this posting) has not been found, and her wedding has been called off.

There's no doubt the implications of this scandal are much more serious than others in America because of China's culture. Pre-marital sex is still greatly frowned upon (ironically, Gillian Chung, a poster-girl for abtaining from sex before marriage, herself is caught up in the controversy), moreso than in the west. Whereas the Paris Hilton sex-tape controversy boosted her career, this is already hurting those involved: The credit card company Manhattan Titanium has already pulled its endorsement of Edison Chen, and he's also been cut from the new movie Jump. Other losses are expected.

Imagethief believes that taking pictures in the first place is a bad decision, and I wholeheartedly agree. That being said, people will always take sordid pictures of themselves; there's no stopping it. Edison Chen was simply careless with them, and now this scandal has the potential to leave lifetime scars on these girls and their careers. This is reprehensible, and Edison Chen should be Public Villain #1.

Imagethief takes a look at the potential fallout for Edison and his starlets. While a portion of his post is below, I recommend visiting his site to see it in its entirety:

The sad fact is that it's going to be much easier on Edison than on Gillian, Cecilia, Bobo (oddly named for a girl, even in Hong Kong) and the other women. That's because the universal double standard will unfortunately apply. Dudes who bed strings of starlets are swinging studs who will be admired by other men everywhere. Even if, inexplicably for straight guys, they have pink laptop computers. (Although it does occur to me now that I read this back that the entire episode has an air of "prove you are straight" overcompensation about it.) Edison needs only issue a public apology to the fans and affected girls and retire from the limelight for an appropriate spell of restorative contemplation before re-emerging a better man and, purely by accident you understand, using the momentum of the scandal to plug his latest project.
Unfortunately girls who allow themselves to be photographed in flagrante by their boyfriends and who are then unlucky enough to have those pictures sucked into the vortex of the Internet face a tougher path. Their public images will most likely not be enhanced, at least not in the circles that count for a mainstream career. Unless they're Paris Hilton, who, in Imagethief's book, is the exception that proves the rule. Remember, unless that camera was disguised as a riding crop or a tube of Astroglide, these weren't sneak pix.
Apologies all around then, and perhaps a confession that the pictures were taken at "a difficult time" (it's going to be funny how many of these girls were dating Edison at "a difficult time"). This can be followed by a spell in rehab, which is the modern equivalent of slinking away to join a convent without the shaven head or any of the other obnoxious religious rituals and the added bonus that it is temporary. After that we'll see how it goes. Gillian probably survives. As for Bobo, well, it's anyone's guess.

Despite Edison's carelessness, ironically it will be him who likely will suffer the least. Sadly, such is life.

Recommended Reading:

It truly aggravates me when I see guys like Steven Spielberg waxing on about how he finds it his moral duty to help the people of Darfur by pulling out of the Olympics. It is pure, sanctimonious crap! I have no doubt that Mr. Spielberg is a very intelligent man. Having seen many of his films, I can tell that there is something special about this man's ability to make a movie. And that's the point. If he really wants to help the people of Darfur, he should making a movie about the genocide that's taking place there, and giving people insight about the wrongs that are taking place in that region of Sudan. I'm tired of guys like Spielberg, Mia Farrow and Bono sitting on their high horses and quarterbacking some kind of political grass-roots action against the flavor-of-the-month cause. If you really want to make a political difference, do like Reagan and Schwartzenegger did, which is actually put yourself up for election so you can actually enact political change, rather pulling half-baked PR stunts like pulling out of the Olympics, which isn't going to effect the overall look of the Games here in Beijing this summer, and quite frankly, isn't going to make one lick of difference when it comes to getting China onboard the Darfur situation more than it is already.

Don't get me wrong. I do sometimes enjoy when this government is given a poke in the eye, like, for example, when the WTO rules that it was completely off base in its auto parts dispute with the United States, Canada and the European Union. But I could give a tinker's damn about Spielberg's involvement in the Olympics, and I don't think anyone else outside of a few self-righteous activists and the media care much either. And don't think for a minute that Mr. Spielberg made this move out of any true moral decision. He is basically hedging his bets. He realizes that if he goes ahead with his efforts in Beijing this summer, the same people who have rushed to applaud his decision to pull out would likely have turned on him and put pressure on people in the United States and elsewhere to boycott his films. And, unfortunately, these same zealots have much more influence over the mass of undereducated Americans then the people they elect to lead them.

So good luck trying to get one of your films screened in China anytime soon Mr. Spielberg! Oh, and for the record, I do believe that China should be doing more to stop the genocide in Darfur, and it will take politicians to make that happen!

I have to admit that I am a staunch opponent of so-called 'reality' television. If I want reality, I'll go outside for a walk and watch people interacting with one another. That's reality. But it is a disturbingly popular trend. Since the launch in the United States of the very popular TV series 'Survivor,' numerous other 'reality' television shows have since popped up, including many music-based programs like American Idol and the Chinese versions of the show, which include Super Girls and last year's male version, Happy Boy. And as wildly popular as Happy Boy was amongst Chinese viewers, I regret to inform you (actually, I relish in it) that the program was rigged! This revelation comes from one of the judges on the program, Chinese award-winning rock star Zheng Jun.

On January 30th of this year, Zheng Jun appeared on the China Radio International bilingual music program The Pulse hosted by my friends and colleagues Mr. Rich and Maddy and was asked about his experience on the program. Here is the transcript of what Zheng Jun revealed:

Maddy: But since you have the power to choose [the winner of the program], but you leave the show.
Zheng Jun: No no no no. When I stay there [on the program] the leader of the TV station, the director they gonna contact you before the show and decide who should be the winner.
Mr. Rich: Really?
Maddy: Really?
Zheng Jun: So we [the directors of Super Boy] want to you just think about it. Because we [the directors] think this can make the show better.
Mr. Rich: I see. So it can make people go crazy for the ratings.
Zheng Jun: Cause this guy maybe looks better, or this guy...people think this guy is a good dancer or something. This guy is a good musician or song writer, but this guy we think is boring...stupid or boring. So the director, they want you to do what they want you to do. So we always fighting during the show cause we three judges we decide this guy should be the winner, but then we gave this note to them then they changed it.
Mr. Rich: Right.
Zheng Jun: Then they changed the name, then they changed it again! Then they changed it again!
Maddy: They can make up their minds either!
Zheng Jun: Finally they changed it again.
Mr. Rich: Right
Zheng Jun: And finally we were always fighting.
Mr. Rich: This is crazy!
Zheng Jun: This is crazy! Cause it's not...
Mr. Rich: It's not fair!
Zheng Jun: It's not fair. It's a game, but it's not a fair game.

So, as you can see by Zheng Jun's revelation, the 2007 Super Boy competition was nothing of the sort!

We knew this could potentially be a tough year for China politically. With the Olympics due in August, everybody with any pet complaint about China feels emboldened to let the world know about it.

Darfur is hardly a "pet complaint", as it involves genocide which many critics feel China is at least partially responsible for. And those critics have been pressuring Steven Spielberg to withdraw his support from the opening ceremonies. It's been rumored that he was considering bowing to this request, and now he's made it official:

"I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual," Spielberg said. "At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies but doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur."
"Sudan's government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes, but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing suffering there," Spielberg said in his statement. "China's economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change."

China's Olympics are sitting on the head of a pin. What the government must fear most is that these acts of defiance will gain momentum, leading to more widespread withdrawals and perhaps even a boycott (although a boycott is extreme, and unlikely). Keeping a low profile and avoiding early discord will be key to keeping critics at bay.

The more people like Spielberg make a big show of their opposition, the more others will feel more confident in making their own stand.

Periodically we will be posting about the US Presidential election, which is a big story worldwide. I thought I'd chime in with thoughts about John McCain below.

It is with bemused smiles that I've watched leading Republicans squirm as John McCain begins to secure the party's nomination for President.

Glenn Beck on CNN proudly proclaimed that he'd hold his nose and vote for Hillary in a general election, called a "suicide vote" in the New York Post. On Super Tuesday coverage on Fox News, Brit Hume seemed so dejected you'd think the Democrats had just swept to power, leaving the GOP in tatters.

Perhaps that is what he, and many others in the Republican establishment think: electing John McCain as the party's nominee is tantamount to destroying the party as we know it.

Laura Ingraham made a comment on Fox saying that she'd stick with McCain in a general election, but she's hoping he'd be open to "influence" from the conservative establishment. Herein lies most Republicans' problem with McCain: he's not easily influenced.

Make no mistake, McCain is a profoundly conservative man. As a Senator with 20 years of experience, he has a long record to pore over. Many voters who have heard questions about John McCain's conservative credentials are surprised to learn that he's a pro-life Christian, opposes strict gun control laws many feel would infringe on their civil liberties, supports the continuation of the war in Iraq until a definitive American victory is won, and voted to make Bush's tax cuts permanent. So what's his party's problem with him?

For starters, McCain is not a partisan Republican. The GOP has an old-boys network that supports one another, even if the policies they introduce and support are self-serving and hurt the American people. Campaign finance reform is Exhibit A. Republicans, the party which draws the most "soft money" donations, steadfastly opposed the McCain-Feingold legislation. McCain knew the legislation would hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats, but that didn't mean introducing the bill was the wrong thing to do. He saw beyond his own party's interests to do something that most Americans would agree with: reign in the influence of money from third-party organizations on America's democratic process. But today, he continues to pay a price for going against the establishment.

Secondly, he voted against Bush's tax cuts. McCain has been adamant during the campaign that he supported the tax cuts, but only if the bill also included reductions in spending. It didn't, so he voted against it. Like McCain's early support of General Petraeus' surge, his support for spending cuts may also have been right; with no reduction in spending accompanying a huge billion tax cut, America is running itself into the ground financially, with an expected $410 trillion deficit this year and $407 projected in 2009.

Despite his occasional disagreements with the party establishment, McCain is a steadfast Republican who has served his party well. But unlike most other candidates in the past several decades, McCain is an American first, a Republican second. He's a classic conviction politician who knows the issues well and sticks to his principles. What riles his critics in the party is that he won't kowtow to their partisan demands.

The Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, and James Dobsons of the world are clinging to their last vestiges of influence, and can't bear to see a Republican in the White House who not only won't listen to them, but won't even acknowledge them. The battles of the last 15 years, pitting extremists on the left with zealots on the right, has hurt and divided America. It's time to move on, and John McCain is as good a choice as any to get the process started.

I don't blame establishment Republicans for fretting over a John McCain presidency. Anybody who is about to see their influence and stature diminished will surely begin hitting the panic button. McCain is his own man, and does what he believes to be right. It's ironic that the GOP's best hope for a new generation of ideas and stronger spirit of bipartisanship lies with a 71 year old patriot who has served his country honourably for his entire life.

As McCain has said repeatedly on the campaign trail, he cannot ask for your vote until he has earned your respect. And any man who does what he says, and sticks to his principles, is a man deserving of at least that much.

Life in China is never dull

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I've never seriously considered writing memoirs. First of all, I'm only 28. But besides that, I've never been a president or prime minister, led a revolution or covered world events that helped define our time.

Yet, sometimes I figure I'd better at least write this stuff down because someday I might look back on it in disbelief.

"This is definitely for the memoirs," my friend James mentioned, as we walked out of a movie studio recently.

We were in a heavily secured military institution in western Beijing, where the People's Liberation Army propaganda films are shot. The stern-faced guards at the gate forbid pedestrians entry, so we had to meet our producers elsewhere to be escorted by SUV into the premises. As foreigners, we definitely weren't allowed to take a leisurely stroll around the grounds.

We were both recruited as voice-over talents for a film to mark former premier Zhou Enlai's 110th birthday.

Zhou was the suave diplomat who worked under Mao Zedong and helped pave the way for Richard Nixon's historic visit in 1972. When Zhou died in 1976, thousands of Chinese flooded the streets to mourn, leading to a violent government crackdown.

The film, which will air March 1 on the state-run broadcaster's flagship national news network, features James, my close friend from Canada, and me serving as voice-dubbing artists for nearly all the roles, giving the film a hokey quality at best.

James dubbed over a Spanish actor in English in a Chinese movie, while, for unknown reasons, I dubbed over an actor already speaking English (in addition to being the voice of Zhou himself).

To further defy logic, the movie will air on a Chinese-language television channel.

This isn't the only television work we've been up to lately. As a reporter who spent several years in the trenches in Vancouver, I've learned that even that modest experience brings unearned credibility when TV channels are seeking talent in China. I've recently stumbled into what some consider the holy grail of television jobs -- host of a travel show.

It all began simply: A channel in Tianjin, about 100 kilometres southeast of Beijing, was seeking a host for a show called BizTraveler. It's patterned after Business Traveler, hosted by the either-love-him-or-hate-him Richard Quest on CNN's International channel

The first couple of episodes were on run-of-the-mill stuff, like how to behave at Chinese banquets; how to design your booth at a trade fair; and even how to sing at Chinese karaoke (this particular scene is why the lone DVD copy of this episode remains under lock and key).

But then the producers of the program wanted to get a little fancy. Or, should I say, wacky. So off we went to Hainan Island for a bit of fun in the sun, to show how business people can unwind in style.

I first heard of Hainan Island in my second week in Beijing, when I still lived in a government compound in the far northwestern corner of the city. I was having dinner with a colleague when he told me he wanted to work there.

"Where's that?" I asked.

"It's the Hawaii of China, man," he said. "Down in the far south. A small tropical island."

Consider me thrilled when I learned we'd shoot an episode over four days on the island's southern city of Sanya. Sanya is the heart of Hainan's tourism industry and is going through a building and tourism boom. The Hilton Hotel anchors a string of luxury properties along picturesque Yalong Bay, with its white powdery sand, crystal-clear waters and unpolluted skies. The beach compares with anything that Mexico or Hawaii offers and accommodation, food and entertainment expenses are only a fraction of the cost.

Two other popular beaches, designed for the proletariat, more closely resemble Waikiki. But even those beaches are pristine and the water warm. The island is a popular vacation destination for Russians, who nearly equalled the Chinese on the beaches and at the coffee plantation, hot springs resort and botanical gardens that I visited. And, for the record, Hainan-grown coffee is no Tim Hortons, but it can certainly hold its own.

For the thrill of Chinese viewers, I went diving for the first time (I did not badly), sped around the island on a Sea-Doo (fun, but I got a nasty sunburn), and had my feet eaten by tiny fish.

Yes, you read that correctly.

While at the Nantian Hot Springs, I sampled the "fish therapy" pool, filled with hundreds of one- to two-centimetre-long fish that eat dead skin cells and replace them with a fluid that is apparently good for your skin.

The end result, though, was seeing my two clumsy feet fill the big screen, while being munched on by dozens of small fish.

One for the memoirs, for sure.

This article was originally published in the Victoria Times Colonist on January 27, 2008.

The UK Daily Mail is out with a provocative story that claims all athletes attending the upcoming Bejing Olympics will be forced to sign a contact banning them from making any negative comments about the government. The move has already rekindled memories of the English team doing the Nazi salute at the 1936 games in Berlin.

Should a competitor agree to the clause but then speak their mind about China, they will be put on the next plane home.
The clause, in section 4 of the contract, simply states: "[Athletes] are not to comment on any politically sensitive issues."
It then refers competitors to Section 51 of the International Olympic Committee charter, which "provides for no kind of demonstration, or political, religious or racial propaganda in the Olympic sites, venues or other areas".

The move by the Chinese authorities is shortsighted at best, and will bring increased negative coverage at worst. Already, by making athletes sign the contact, negative stories will be written in newspapers and blogs, drawing attention to China's lack of freedom of speech and authoritarian government; surely the Chinese authorities would rather foreign press focus on the venues and athletes. And really, at the end of the day, will the contracts actually work? We'll have no way of knowing for sure, but my guess is this does far more harm than good. Now, people will be watching extra carefully to see who breaks the contract, and what the fallout will be.

China claims to want an open Olympics, and this is a far cry from that goal. It must understand that forcing these contracts on athletes plays into the hands of their critics, and confirms their already negative stereotypes.

When is it too soon to start talking about upcoming bids to host the Olympic games in China? Well, now is as good a time as any.

Zhongnanhai has learned that the Chinese government is already working behind the scenes on plans to secure the Olympics for the city of Shanghai. This correspondent has often pondered that hosting the winter games, perhaps in Dalian, Jilin, or Haerbin, would make sense. But apparently China wants the summer games again, and believes Shanghai would make an ideal host.

One could hardly disagree with the assessment. Shanghai has a long history of hosting world-class events, from the Formula One race to the Master's Tennis tournament. It already boasts two large football stadiums and the largest underground transportation network in China. It is already an international metropolis with world class hotels, shopping, and sightseeing. Compared to Beijing, Shanghai wouldn't have as far to go, in terms of development, to host the games.

The plan is to have the games in Shanghai within 20 years, so we'll have a bit of a wait yet. This correspondent sees no reason why it won't happen.

Easily one of the best aspects of living in China is eating the food. The sheer variety and selection of entire cruisines - not to mention dishes - sets this country apart.

Chinese food is, as many of us have discovered, a far cry from the MSG-laden, deep-fried slop that is served up in American or Canadian Chinese fast-food restaurants. As I often tell my Chinese friends, Chinese food abroad is similar to pizza: it's fast, you can order it directly to your house, and even when it's bad, it's still good.

But rarely - actually, never, according to my recollections - have I ever gone fine dining to a Chinese restaurant abroad. Again, like pizza, it's not really considered a "fine dining" kind of cuisine. So it's nice that in today's edition of the New York Times, we are treated to an article by Fred Ferretti, an apparent Asian food expert, who wants to set the record straight regarding Chinese cuisine.

Let's start at the beginning. Virtually all of today's so-called Chinese cooking in the United States can best be described as undistinguished, served in restaurants generally indistinguishable one from another.
The how of this is easy. The Chinese who sailed to the Golden Mountain of America to lay the ties and tracks of the transcontinental railroad were all men. In this womanless society, these workers ate a food of survival; unfamiliar ingredients were cooked in rudimentary Chinese fashion. This coarsened cookery is what evolved into the Chinese-American genre. It is bastardized food, prepared first to feed a worker and then to please an American palate that dotes upon overcooked vegetables and sauces thickened with cornstarch and sugar.

I've known that westerners are generally ignorant about Chinese food (not necessarily their fault), but the depths of the ignorance was surprising:

Over the years, news organizations with reputations for accuracy and thoroughness have told me the following about Chinese cuisine: The "spring roll is similar to a typical egg roll"; "Chinese black tea is difficult to find" in America; "yum cha" is Australian for "dim sum"; Italian prosciutto is virtually identical to, and may be substituted for, the hard salted hams of western China.
All of these are egregiously incorrect. What is one to make of an authoritative Chinese cookbook that suggests "chopped California dates" as a substitute for red bean paste; opines that string beans will stand in nicely for bamboo shoots; sweet potatoes for taro; almonds for ginkgo nuts; a bouillon cube for soy sauce; salt for fermented black beans?
We are told that beggar's chicken, traditionally cooked encased in clay or a hard dough, can be made authentically in an oven roasting bag. It cannot. It is reported that cutting up and sautéing a black-fleshed chicken is an authentic preparation. No, it is not. In China, black chickens are never eaten; rather they are steamed at length, with the resulting broth drunk as a health tonic and the meat discarded. In the last year, I have read that there are five, six or eight great regional traditions of Chinese cooking. In fact, there are four, always and ever four.

California dates for red bean? "Yum cha" is Australian? Bouillon cubes for soy sauce? No wonder Chinese food in America tastes the way it does.

This valiant defense of Chinese food is accompanied by another article in the New York Times - published on the very same day - called "Wary U.S. Olympians Will Bring Food to China".

When a caterer working for the United States Olympic Committee went to a supermarket in China last year, he encountered a piece of chicken -- half of a breast -- that measured 14 inches. "Enough to feed a family of eight," said Frank Puleo, a caterer from Staten Island who has traveled to China to handle food-related issues.
"We had it tested and it was so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive."

Now, as I've said before, there is an outcry internationally about Beijing's pollution, food, and environmental problems in the leadup to the Olympics. We want to make sure our atheletes are well cared for and looked after. The question is, what about the rest of us? I've seen enlarged chicken breasts in the supermarkets here, and must say, they are quite tasty. But have we really considered what we are putting into our mouths?

The US will be sending over pork, beef, and chicken for their athletes, and have asked several other companies to chip in.

The U.S.O.C. will send measuring cups because, as Ms. Hamilton noted, the United States does not use the metric system. Kellogg's has been asked to supply cereals like Frosted Flakes and Mini-Wheats, as well as Nutri-Grain bars, because those products are not readily available in China. Finding molasses, they learned, is next to impossible. Ice? Also a challenge.

Frosted Flakes, Mini-Wheats, and Nutri-Grain bars are hard to come by? They obviously didn't stop by Jenny Lou's or April's Gourmet in Beijing, or the countless foreign food markets that are popping up all over the country. As for molasses, well, I've never looked. And they are correct about ice, which is nearly impossible to find.

What I gather from these articles confirms my prior beliefs: Chinese food tastes good, but it isn't the healthiest option by any stretch. It must be somewhat insulting for Chinese people -- who take such pride in their cuisine -- to see foreign Olympic delegations bringing their own food.

For the record, I love Chinese cuisine, and feel blessed to have had authentic "yum cha" in the south and roast duck in the north (and everything in between). One hopes the athletes, following their competitions, will sample the local fare and help others more fully understand China's complex and delicious treats. Although they might want to take a pass on 14 inch (half) chicken breasts.

Unlike many others that have moved to China, I was quite familiar with the place before I decided to pack up my belongings and find an apartment. I first visited Beijing back in the late 1990s, and the city had changed quite substantially by the time I decided to call it home in 2004.

But while I knew a bit about Beijing, and have since lived and traveled throughout the country, my hands-on experience in the rest of Asia is quite limited. Yes, I've been to Thailand (like almost everyone). I also had an amazing trip to Tokyo about a year and a half ago, and have been trying to find time to head back ever since.

(As an aside, I actually studied Japanese language for four years in high school and college in Canada. I also studied Japanese history, culture, and contemporary society. As a big fan of Japan, it's odd how I ended up in China. I'll save that story for another day.)

The cruise I'm currently on through Southeast Asia has been a big eye-opener. Singapore was absolutely incredible. It's a cleaner Hong Kong (not that Hong Kong is dirty, by any stretch) with beaches. One of my former colleagues in Guangzhou, Lena Gidwani, was born in the city, and urged me to accept any working opportunity there with promises that I'd have the time of my life. I doubt many would turn down the opportunity, after having visited.

The cruise also visited Bangkok, which I won't go into too many details about (everyone's been there, right?), as well as Sihanoukville, Cambodia. I just finished a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Southeast Asia correspondent Henry Kamm, called Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land. The book shed light one one of the world's forgotten countries, and a society that has suffered immensely through a coup d'etat, an authoritarian leader (Lon Nol), the Khmer Rouge, a Vietnamese puppet state, failed election, and disastrous UN occupation. For anyone interested in Cambodia (formerly known as the People's Republic of Kampuchea) or Southeast Asian politics and history, this book is a must-read.

Our port-of-call, Sihanoukville, is the only beach resort in Cambodia. The town is home to a few million people, although you wouldn't know it by driving around the city. It's a mix of shacks with a few motorbikes and some people on the edge of dire poverty. When it comes to development, China is light years ahead of Sihanoukville. Nonetheless, the beaches in the town were perhaps the most exotic and appealing I'd ever seen. White, powdery sand streched for miles with little thatched-roof huts doling out beer and other snacks to the few people that were in the area. There were no crowds, no big American tourists, neon or lineups. It was tranquil. A few backpackers had made their way to the area, and some were even indulging in "Happy Food" (this is another tale for another day -- let's just say the two "Happy Shakes" I drank took their toll on me, and I went to bed early). I was handed a photocopied leaflet advertising some cheap drinks at one of the beachfront bars... 50 cents for a pint of Angkor beer.

Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, was an eclectic place that I didn't have much time to see. In fact, I was there for only 2 hours, not enough time to comment fully. But it left me with a Shanghai-esque vibe. Nha Trang, Vietnam's top beach resort, was next, and fulfilled everyone's expectations. Expect big things from this town in the future. Several people on board our ship are already making plans to return.

Finally, what I've been leading up to. Our final stop (not including our disembarkation in Hong Kong), Hanoi. I'm not sure if this will help for all of our readers, but picture a city like this: Montreal's French architecture, Guangzhou's narrow alleys and vibrant street life, New Orleans' warm weather and crowded balconies, and Beijing's feel of being a communist capital city. That doesn't really sum up this place, but it's the best I can do.

Vietnam is definitely growing. Sometimes, while living in China, I think we tend to believe that China is the only Asian giant that is drawing foreign direct investment, exporting products, and attracting the world's attention. But in fact, Asia, as a whole, is booming. Vietnam is a key example. In my drive from the picturesque Halong Bay to Hanoi, I passed an LG plant, a Toyota plant, and a number of other big name technology companies. A plethora of garment factories also lined the highway into town.

Hanoi is much smaller than its southern (and perhaps flashier) cousin, Saigon. But I can't help but think it's got a really good vibe, and reminds me tremendously of Montreal. As I write this, I am in a hotel in the city's old quarter. This historic area features tree-lined narrow streets, outdoor restaurants, cafes, delis, bars, and hotels -- yes, hotels everywhere. I'm in a completely vertical hotel that only features two rooms on each floor, and it appears almost all the hotels in this area are the same.

The French influence is everywhere. Cafes serve coffee and croissants, bakeries are common, the smell of French bread being freshly baked permeates the city, and the sandwiches are delicious. Whereas Shanghai and Tianjin have French conessions, it seems the majority of Hanoi has retained its French architecture (while I have travled around Hanoi for a day and a half, I have only spent one night here -- so please take my observations with this in mind).

Finally, Hanoi reminds me of what I pictured Beijing to be like in the 1980s. My hotel, in the beautiful old quarter, features a double and a single bed. My ceiling is seven meters high. I have a beautiful balcony overlooking Hanoi. And I'm paying $20 a night.

The restaruant and bar scene is just budding, with beer and meals still incredibly cheap. Bia hoi, which are outdoor beer gardens, can be found everywhere in the capital, with beer going for as low as 25 cents. Street food, like in China, is abundant.

But while prices are low, the options for international cuisine are already staggering; a quick look at a local magazine shows that Hanoi offers a number of food options in the following categories: cafes, delis, Chinese, Thai, French, Mediterranean, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Ukranian, Russian, Vegetarian, and western. The nightlife is also picking up, with a number of bars hosting large crowds late into the night, 7 days a week.

The other thing that makes Hanoi a bit easier for foreigners -- and the merits of this can be debated, perhaps in the comments -- is that the traditional Vietnamese characters, which were based on Chinese characters, have been abolished. The Vietnamese pinyin is known as Quoc Ngu. It was invented in the 17th century by French Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes, and was adopted as Vietnam's sole writing style. I tend to think this is a sad development (I'd hate to see Chinese characters disappear to be replaced by pinyin), however it definitely makes communicating and learning the language much, much easier.

This trip through Southeast Asia has opened this region to this correspondent much more than it was before. Those that are interested in China must understand that its fate, and its history, is tied to its neighbors. Following what they are doing, and how they are developing, will help one's understanding of China's own challenges.

And aside from those platitudes, visit Vietnam. You won't regret it.

One Country, Two Photographers

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I've been very lucky to come across some extraordinarily talented photographers of late, many based in China. I'll start off with two of them: David Alarie, in Beijing, and Shi Ying, now in Shanghai. Both have a great knack for clearly documenting events and capturing the many facets of life in China and elsewhere.

By David Alarie:


By Shi Ying:


For more from either photographer, consult their personal sites here and here.

There's no doubt that this week's storms across China have made big news abroad. CNN and BBC led with the story for several days last week, when the storms seemed to be at their worst.

As usual, I'm on vacation. I seem to always be on vacation when big news breaks, which seems to be the curse of this particular journalist. When the Premier of British Columbia, my home province, was arrested for drunk driving while in Hawaii, I found out from an airport television in Toronto while en route to Charleston, West Virginia (why I was going to West Virginia is a story for another day). When anti-Japanese riots broke out in Beijing and Shanghai in the spring of 2005, I was meeting a long-time friend in Hong Kong for a mini-vacation. Now, when the world's news focus is on China, I'm somewhere in SE Asia.

Perhaps, for most people, avoiding a harsh winter storm is a good thing. But I'm a news guy, and I like to be around news. So from that perspective, being isolated on a cruise ship when exciting news needs to be reported is a tough break. Fortunately, Zhongnanhai's very own Chris Chaplin was contacted by the BBC to find someone to speak on the calamity in Guangzhou. The photos of up to 800,000 people crowded at the train station were chilling. The quotes from some migrant workers even moreso, as one particular man called the government "illigitimate", among other things that I'm sure Hu Jintao didn't appreciate.

What was more startling from me, observing from afar, is how the storms and crowds didn't seem to affect Beijing. Much of the reporting from both BBC and CNN (and the newspaper wire services) were out of Guangzhou, with CNN having an additional reporter in Nanjing. When I had the rare opportunity to go online, most friends and colleagues in Beijing said the reporting was overblown, and most of the trouble affected the south anyway. Perhaps this is a testament to China's vast size (and how, as I've written before, the south is simply outside of Beijing's orbit).

As I write this, I am sitting on a beachfront patio in Nha Trang, Vietnam, a place that anybody who loves beaches must surely visit. I will arrive in Hong Kong on the 8th. With any luck, I'll be able to secure a flight from south to north -- so here's hoping the weather story is long dead by the time we dock in Asia's World City.

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