Recently in Beijing Category

BEIJING - As I'm sat at home writing this post in my comfortable dry apartment, in near silence - I, like many of you, feel desperately helpless. I've donated, I've told people how to donate on the radio and I've appealed to everyone I know back home to donate. And they are doing.

But, I cannot help thinking that I should be doing more. With the death toll likely to rise above 50,000 - I want to help with my hands. I want to help give water, distribute medicine, wipe away people's tears. And a part of me wants to grieve with the people here in China.

I'm not Chinese, but I live here. This is my home too right now.

Where I come from we don't have earthquakes or snow-storms of the magnitude that we have seen here. We just don't. And for me to be on the radio every-night delivering news about the rising casualty list - is hard.

Whilst on the show I'm signed into my messaging client - so that should anything go wrong, or need amending, my superiors can contact me swiftly and silently. For the past couple of evenings one of my Chinese friends on my contact list has been asking me the same question, 'Why is our nation's flag at Tiannanmen Square not at half-mast?'.

It's a good question.


According to Wikipedia:

Flying the flag at half-mast is a symbol of respect, mourning and distress. The flag is lowered to allow the invisible flag of death to fly on top of the mast, thus signifying death's presence, power and prominence.

The flag certainly would have been lowered in many other countries, as you can see from the Wikipedia article - so why not here? And I really am not criticising, I just want to understand why.

As I was looking around for more information I came across this entry on Danwei where novelist Han Han says:

'It seems that the flag is never lowered for civilian matters, no matter how big. I've basically never seen a flag at half-mast. One time at school the flag was raised to half mast where one of the pulleys got stuck, but that was a half-mast raising, not a half-mast lowering.'

Just how big a civilian matter does it need to be? There is no doubt that a flag flying at half-mast is hugely symbolic, wherever in the world you happen to be. Anyone who happens to glance will know what it means - it means that the nation is mourning. It would in no way show weakness, or a lack of strength - rather, in my eyes it would show solidarity at this tragic time.

UPDATE - At 14:28 on the 19th of May 2008, 3 minutes of silence will be observed across China. Additionally, the National Flag will be flown at half-mast for the period of the 19th-21st.

By Cam MacMurchy

The protests against the Chinese government - and more specifically, it's hosting of the Olympic Games - are spreading. The lighting of the Olympic torch, a normally sombre ceremony in Greece, was disrupted by a group from Reporters without Borders calling on China to ease up on Tibetan protesters:

"We cannot let the Chinese government seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country," the group said.

Thumbnail image for TorchTest.jpg

Moments after the incident, a Tibetan woman doused herself in red paint and lay in the road before a torch runner while police arrested two other Tibetan protesters planning a peaceful demonstration about a mile from the ancient sanctuary at the birthplace of the Olympics Games.

The incident was being broadcast live on Chinese TV when it had to cut away.

The protests have begun stirring some deeper feelings, which perhaps other foreigners can attest to as well. There is no doubt that the Chinese government has created this situation itself; it has dismissed its foreign critics and resorted to vitriolic hyperbole anytime somebody challenges the official government position. As anybody in PR well knows, this doesn't work when dealing with a free press and free people. The party's stubbornness and lack of finesse on this issue is coming home to roost.

For all those that claim China is effective at controlling information, I agree - but only information for domestic consumption. Normally that's good enough, but the Olympics are a global event and don't just belong to China. As such, it needs to do a better job of communicating effectively in a language (and I mean figuratively, not literally) that can be understood by people and critics outside of the country.

I had a talk with a good friend tonight about these most recent protests. She told me, over MSN:

I feel sorry for my country ... we try hard to hold the Olympics ... and we put our effort ... but we don't know how to deal with the rest of the world

Everybody is shocked by this ... I mean Chinese ... they don't know how to handle it ... but it is just common for foreigners to criticize government

I feel for her, and I feel for China. I would submit that the Chinese people will feel attacked by these protests and criticisms, when in fact they are aimed at the Chinese government. I think criticisms in other countries are assumed to be directed at the government and not necessarily the people, but an extra effort is needed in China to make this distinction. Here, many people consider the government and the country to be one and the same.

Finally, as someone who has lived in China for nearly four years and has been visiting since the 1990s, I feel a sense of pride in China's accomplishments. I want to see the country succeed and do well, and stage a memorable games. With this in mind, I'm saddened by the protests, which seem to be becoming even more vitriolic. The Chinese people are invested emotionally in these games, and an Olympics marred by violence, protests, and boycotts would be a loss of face that may take decades to fully overcome.

That being said, and this is where the moral dilemma comes in, China must answer for its policies. I just wish this government was more prepared for this, and cleaned up its own house before inviting over the guests.

The Communist Party of China had this coming, and it chose to ignore the warnings. Now it is faced with a mess of its own making.

It's just too bad the Chinese people are caught in the crossfire.

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.

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.

Today marks an auspicious and disturbing anniversary for my neighborhood here in Beijing. I live a ten minute walk away from Tian'anmen Square, the political heart of the PRC and the favored focal point for those who oppose CPC policies. 7 years ago today, seven people walked onto the square in the mid-afternoon, doused themselves with gasoline and attempted to set themselves on fire. Five of them succeeded, two of them died and the remaining survivors, including a then-19 year old college student, will live the rest of their lives severely disfigured. This extreme act was allegedly committed by FLG members protesting against the CPC's ban of the movement. Though questions have been raised about some of the events and motives in the case, known today as the Tian'anmen Square self-immolation incident, there can be no doubt that this was a protest of one form or another. No one voluntarily lights themselves on fire unless they've got a pretty good statement to make. But the point of this post is not to discuss that particular incident itself, but to heed a reminder to those who would use this summer's Games as a launching pad for protest: Big brother is keeping a very close eye on you!

As I mentioned, I live a very short distance from Tian'anmen. I actually catch the Tian'anmen East subway station every working day, and as such, catch a constant glimpse of what's happening in the neighborhood. And I can tell you that in the last couple of months, security in and around the area has been noticeably increased. The police are now consistently doing random searches of people who appear to be either hocking crappy merchandise or are out there to try to scam unsuspecting tourists. I will admit that personally I have never been stopped or even questioned by the PSB, but then I normally don't make it a habit to hang around Tian'anmen very much. That said, when a guest was in Beijing last fall visiting from Canada, I did get a first-hand demonstration of how quickly the security forces in and around Tian'anmen will react if they see something they don't like.

I was touring my friend around the various locations in the heart of the capital, including the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and so on. As boring as it was for me personally, a short blast of excitement did take place while we were in front of the main Zhongnanhai gate to the west of Tian'anmen. As I was taking a picture of my friend standing in front of the gate, a middle-aged Chinese man and woman walked up to the yellow line in front of Zhongnanhai and pulled out a sign on a piece of cardboard and started holding it up. In the span of less than 3 seconds, 4 plain-clothes security personnel were on them, stripped them of their sign and began grilling them about what exactly they were doing. And though I had a camera in my hand, I've lived in the neighborhood long enough to realize that if you don't want it confiscated, you'd better not have a camera in plain site when trouble starts brewing. Though I wanted to stick around and find out what the outcome would be, I felt it best to get my friend out of the situation and out of any potential harms-way, given that neither of us were carrying our passports (a PSB requirement for all foreigners). And as we were making our way out of the area, more and more security personnel were descending on the area. It was a real eye opener as to just how prepared they are for protest in and around the Tian'anmen area. And this was a time when nothing politically sensitive or interesting was taking place!

Now I'm not going to try to tell anyone what to do. If you have plans to come over here this summer and use the Olympics as a springboard for political points against the CPC, I personally don't care (though I think it will be a wasted effort). But I can tell you what's likely to happen if you do: If you're a foreigner, you will be detained, your visa will be revoked and you will be kicked out of the country permanently. And you'll want to hope it's as simple as that. And consider yourself lucky that you're a foreigner! I don't even want to know what happens to the Chinese nationals who want to make a public protest against the government these days. But if the protesters 7 years ago today are any sort of indication, the long road to recover from their nasty burns is still being - and will continue for the rest of their lives - in a Chinese prison cell.

So make your stand this summer if you want, but be prepared for the inevitable outcome!

As a Canadian living in China, I can say, with some certainty on behalf of my fellow Zhongnanhaiers Cam and Chris - also Canadians - that we apologize in advance to the people of Beijing and, potentially, the world!

Say what you will about our native country, but we do have a pretty good history of world exports when it comes to people. Here in China, of course, Mark Rowswell, AKA: Dashan and Dr. Norman Bethune are well known Canadians. Comedic movie stars including Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Dan Akroyd and the late John Candy also hold distinction as being native Canadians. And even in the modern music world we've managed to pump out a few bright spots, including Alanis Morissette, Brian Adams and Avril Lavigne to name just a few. But also included in this last list of Canadian musical exports is, unfortunately, an artist whose work I have come to despise over the years: Celine Dion.

The warbling songstress from the province of Quebec has inundated Canadian radio for over 20 years...forced down our throats because of outdated Canadian content rules. As such, we as Canadians have been forced to live with this woman for far too long. One of the greatest days of my life was when she announced that she was going to be playing Vegas. This meant that there was very little chance any new music from her would be making it onto CD's or downloads during that time! But now, news from afar has jolted my sensibilities. Ms. Dion will be here in Beijing in April, and is taking a crack at leaving her stink on the upcoming Olympics.

To quote a fellow broadcaster from May 6th, 1937: "Oh, the humanity!"

A recent trip to the Beijing airport has shown me that racial profiling may be taking place here in the capital.

This past Friday I arrived at the airport at about 4:15 to pick up a friend who arrived here from Canada on his first trip to Asia. I was quite excited to see my friend, and waited patiently (with beer in hand) at the arrivals gate for him to come through. Given that he was on an Air Canada flight, there was an obvious delay. As such, I had nothing better to do than stand there and watch the comings and goings of my friend's fellow travelers that day. And what I began to notice was that the security at the exit point were systematically picking out black people who were coming through and taking them aside to search through their bags. In the span of no more than 15 minutes, at least 5 people who appeared to be of African decent were pulled aside and asked to open their suitcases for further inspection.

Now, to be fair, I didn't get an opportunity to speak to any of the people who were searched, as I had to stand and wait for my friend to arrive. And I also didn't get a chance to speak to any of the security staff about why they were conducting said searches (not as though they would have told me anything anyway) But, barring some insider information the security may have had about the people they were searching, it appears that they were specifically targeting black people for searches.

Being a white, Anglo-Saxon male, discrimination and racial problems were obviously something I didn't have to contend with living in my native Canada. However, upon coming here to China, I think I can relate to, with some modicum of understanding, the frustrations that minorities have to go through. But what was kind of surprising was the fact that people of African decent, the same Africa that China is bending over backwards to nuzzle into its bosom, were being targeted for searches. Ok, go down to Sanlitun on any given night and many an African gentleman will be trying to throw some 'poppa' your way. But the airport is not Sanlitun! Respectable people with legitimate jobs take flights. Sure, drug dealers take flights too. But I found it rather appalling that people of African decent were being singled out.

Of course, racial profiling is not a Chinese phenomenon. But as more and more people come to Beijing to witness the transformation of this city, I suggest that the authorities at the Beijing airport take a closer look at their policies if they do not want to be viewed as hypocritical.

Not to be on the overly graphic side of things, but when I blow my nose, should the tissue there after look like a Rorschach Test? It is undeniable that there are massive pollution problems in China, not the least of which being the air quality issues. Yet, the Chinese government continues to pay lip service to the issue. Case in point, a good piece of journalism by Kandy Wong in Monday's business section of the South China Morning Post. (Unfortunately, the SCMP is a subscriber service, so the article is inaccessible unless you buck up some dough) But the crux of the article essentially says that a government advisor has told the automobile industry that this country is, yet again, going to delay implementing the fuel tax it has been humming and hawing about for over a decade. The rationale is that, because the price of oil is so high right now, it would not 'be in China's best interest' to institute this additional burden on the drivers at this time. The same article also points out that sales of more fuel-efficient vehicles in this country is on the decline!

So why is the government really delaying the fuel tax? Of course oil prices are high right now. But virtually every economist you talk with will tell you that oil prices are going to remain high. The days of a 20 dollar barrel of oil are long behind us. Yet, this government refuses to acknowledge this issue and deal with it. I submit that there are two factors behind this foot dragging. One: Domestic consumption of vehicles is on an unabashed pace. And this government has to mommy-coddle any sector of the economy that stimulates domestic spending. Two: Inflation. Despite what you may or may not hear about how well China is doing on keeping inflation in check, I have come to the conclusion that this issue is of significant concern within the walls of Zhongnanhai. Food prices are on the rise. And if you tack on a fuel price hike to this scenario, it may just be the catalyst for an inflationary snowball effect.

As much as Beijing will put on a 'Green Olympics,' don't for a minute believe that economic stability is going to take a back seat to giving Mother Earth a helping hand. Time to invest in a Michael Jackson mask!

Oh, and by the way, if you think the pollution is going to get better in China anytime soon, just read the latest report from the International Energy Agency and decide for yourself!

Beijing pollution of Olympic proportions; Health of athletes threatened by city's growing air-quality problems

Times Colonist (Victoria)
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Page: C2
Section: Editorial

'We've kind of adapted to it now," said Annette Antoniak, the president and CEO of Vancouver's Olympic Games Secretariat. She was referring to Beijing's horrific pollution problem during her visit here last week: "But BOCOG has several sustainability measures dealing with pollution."

BOCOG is the acronym for the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, and they do, indeed, have their work cut out for them. But sadly, Antoniak is right: People here are adapting to it, despite its incredibly negative impact on the health of Beijing residents. On the day I met her, Beijing's sky was clouded by a thick grey coat of dust -- an event which is quite common in the capital.

Trying to articulate Beijing's pollution problem to those who have never visited is difficult. There isn't a slight haze in the sky, as can occasionally be seen lingering over Vancouver. Pollution has been so thick in the capital that the airport has been closed and visibility reduced to a few hundred metres. I'll never forget my first few days in the city, when one of my friends said she couldn't wait to get back to Los Angeles to "breathe clean air."

But such is the problem facing Beijing: it's now the second most polluted city in the world, and despite repeated efforts to clean up the problem, it seems to be getting worse.

Beijing has promised that next year's Olympics will be "green," and clearing the muck out of the air has been a priority since Juan Antonio Samaranch awarded the Games to Beijing back in 2001. China has toyed with reduced-car days, has introduced thousands of new, cleaner buses and taxis, and has even moved several coal-burning plants outside of the city. Still, this past June was the most polluted in Beijing in seven years.

How bad is it? Just ask Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, an American Olympian who recently took part in a men's mountain biking test event: "About a half an hour into the race, I had a lot of trouble breathing," he says. "I got to a point where I tried to relax and take a deep breath, and then I started getting nauseous." He threw up halfway through the race. Only eight of the 50 competitors even finished.

If this happens next year, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said some events might have to be postponed, or even cancelled.

Me, I'm not sure there is any reason to worry about the air during next year's Olympics. China is masterful at controlling whatever it wants to, and the air is no exception. It was noteworthy that during the grand one-year countdown ceremony in Tiananmen Square in August, award-winning pianist Lang Lang and others were able to perform outside under a crystal-clear night sky.

The same occurred during this month's "Big 17" -- the 17th Communist Party of China National Congress -- when the skies were blue and stars were out at night. It's clear (no pun intended) that the government can ensure the air is clean when it wants to (the unique advantage of a Communist country is it can order all factories to close whenever it chooses), and I'm willing to bet the skies are blue above Beijing from next year's opening ceremony until the last Olympic visitor flies out of Beijing's new Capital Airport.

But what does this mean for Beijing residents? Unfortunately, not much.

The government is ready to suffer some economic losses by restricting car use or closing factories when VIPs are in town or national "face" must be gained. But for regular Beijing residents, well, the government seems to let the rest of us suffer. The day after the Big 17 ended, it was difficult to see more than a block or two thanks to the thick particulates in the air, leading one Internet poster to write: "OK, fun's over -- turn the factories back on."

The United Nations says Beijing's small-particulate matter is eight times World Health Organization standards -- a nice thought when going for a morning jog. (In fact, many trainers advise people not to exercise outdoors due to the air quality.) Because of the problem, some Olympic committees have already announced that their athletes will be based in nearby South Korea or Macao and flown in the day before their events.

I have no doubt that next year's Games will be a roaring success with beautiful, clear blue skies. But a two-week Olympic Games can't mask the real problem: Beijing's pollution is bad, and it's not getting any better.

In a city and country where politics permeates through virtually every aspect of society, it's nice to hear that occasionally business and political machinations can be separated.

Zhongnanhai sat down today with Annette Antoniak, President and CEO of the British Columbia Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Secretariat, for an exclusive interview. Ms. Antoniak is in Beijing as part of a fact-finding and coordination mission, given that British Columbia is playing host to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Now, granted, Ms. Antoniak has to be somewhat diplomatic, given that this particular tour is an intergovernmental affair. However, in past dealings with Ms. Antoniak in her previous role as the person in charge of the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, I seem to recall her being a somewhat straight shooter when it came to dealing with the media.

With that in mind, during our interview with Ms. Antoniak, she was very complimentary toward both the Beijing Organizing Committee and the Beijing Municipal Government. "Anything that we have asked, they have been completely transparent and helpful to us." Admittedly, Ms. Antoniuk did concede that this transparency doesn't extend to monetary issues surrounding the games, but also pointed out that it was really none of Vancouver's concern.

So kudos to BOCOG and the Beijing Municipal Government for being a part of the 'Olympic family.' One might have assumed that given the secretive nature of Chinese officials that there may have been roadblocks. But from our chat with Ms. Antoniak, it doesn't appear to be an issue.

And an FYI for all our Canadian and Beijing readers. Expect in the next couple of weeks to see a good chunk of Canadiana opening up near Mao's bloated corpse with a definite Olympic theme.

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