Recently in Times Colonist Category

In the latest article filed to the Victoria Times Colonist, "Rising anger as Chinese feel under attack," I take a look at how far apart the pro-Tibet and pro-China sides are, and how this divide (and lack of understanding) has played into the anger surrounding CNN pundit Jack Cafferty's remarks:

On Tibet, both sides have completely different narratives. Westerners generally believe the Chinese military invaded sovereign territory in 1950, forced the Dalai Lama into exile, began a system of "cultural genocide" and eliminated religious freedom and human rights. To many westerners, this is black and white.
The Chinese see it in black and white too. They believe they liberated Tibet from a backward feudal system and have invested in economic development to lift many Tibetans from poverty. They also believe Tibet has historically been a part of Chinese territory and that foreigners have caused China endless suffering (the Opium Wars, annexation of Hong Kong, foreign settlements in Shanghai, Tianjin and elsewhere; burning and looting historical sites in Beijing).
And they believe that as China's one moment to shine -- the Olympics -- approaches, foreign powers are again trying to rip the country apart and keep it from succeeding.
China has a victim complex. Talk about severing part of its territory is like ripping open a still-bleeding wound.

The article was published in the Times Colonist on Sunday April 20. If you are having trouble with that link, it was also posted on the Puget Sound Radio Guide.

This is the latest article by your correspondent in the Victoria Times Colonist. In it, I take a look at the deep-seated resentment on either side of the divide and what compromises might be made in an effort to find a solution:

China will not let go of Tibet. The region's only chance for full independence is with the overthrow of the Communist party, which is as firmly entrenched as ever.
China is so confident of its hold on the region it will send the Olympic torch through the streets of Lhasa in mere weeks as a reminder of its control. Resorting to violence and the killing of Chinese will reduce the cause's moral authority and only stiffen the resolve of the Chinese.

You can read the full article here.

DALIAN, China - It's often discussed by expats here how difficult it is to get people in our home countries to understand the magnitude of change occurring in China. Despite the coming Olympics and growing news coverage of Chinese affairs, old stereotypes persist.

"We've had people show up here expecting to see dusty streets and Chinese farmers in pointy hats," said Victor Jansson, who works in the business development division of the Dalian Software Park. It's his job to promote China's biggest software park, and wining and dining first-time visitors from around the world is part of his job.

Dalian is off the radar for most people, a city that most have either never heard of or have no idea of its whereabouts. For the record, it's on a peninsula about an hour flight northeast of Beijing, and this scenic waterfront city is continually rated as China's most livable.

Dalian is making a name for itself as China's outsourcing headquarters. According to the vice-president of the China Sourcing website, which works to link Chinese providers with overseas buyers, China drew just over $2 billion US last year in revenue from the outsourcing industry, compared to India's $40 billion.

But the industry in China is on a strong upward trajectory thanks to a high number of low-cost talent with strong university educations and good English skills. The average salary of an IT professional is under $500 US a month.

British Telecommunications opened in the park last September, and it's gone so well they have since put a claim on another building for planned expansion. BT has joined HP, GE, IBM, Sony, Dell, Toshiba, and others who are already in the park, bringing the total to nearly 400 companies.

The first and second phases of the park are complete, and cover more than three square kilometres. When everything is finished -- including two new huge developments and a resort and leisure area for employees -- it will spread out over 30 square kilometres, taking up roughly half of Dalian.

"Clients are shocked when they arrive to see state-of-the-art technologies, beautiful offices, and well-dressed staff speaking perfect English," Jansson notes, which makes his job of selling the zone a whole lot easier.

Although once one sees Dalian, most of the sales job is already complete.

Continue reading the article here.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: The appearance on Adler Online has been postponed until Monday at 3pm EDT (4am Tuesday in China). Details on when and how to listen are posted here.

The mixed joys of Beijing by bicycle; The air could kill you, but the sights of the city are worth it

Times Colonist (Victoria)
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Page: D2
Section: Comment

I'm starting to like my bicycle. I mean, I didn't always like it. It sat inside the bicycle department of Carrefour, a French Wal-Mart, when I first laid eyes on it. I had heard horrendous stories of bicycles being stolen in Beijing, and everyone had advised me not to spend too much because I'd be back buying another one soon anyway.

That's when I saw "the one," a plain grey bicycle with spring-loaded seat that looked like it came out of the 1950s. Surely nobody would want to steal this, I thought. I paid my RMB 180 (about $25 Cdn) and loaded it into the trunk of the taxi.

When I passed word of my purchase to friends and family in Canada, they thought I was nuts. You see, traffic in Beijing is a mishmash of cars, buses, pedicabs, electric bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians and rickshaws, and they all go in every direction at once, making cycling a risky activity. Somehow, I still haven't witnessed a major collision (knock on wood).

I couldn't blame my friends at home for being concerned, but I figured I'd get a second opinion. That night I took my bike for its first ride, down a narrow street in my neighbourhood to a popular Thai restaurant. A few of my Beijing-based buddies came outside to catch a glimpse of my glimmering new purchase.

"Cam, that's a girl's bike," one of them said, with a wry smile. I looked at the bike carefully.

"Really?"

"Yeah, it is," said another one. "You see, the bar comes down like this. But it was cheap, so don't worry about it."

Since that day, and despite my bike's feminine qualities (there's nothing wrong with that, right?), it has served me well as I've traversed Beijing's crowded and polluted streets. Sure, it's no fun when Soviet-era buses blow sand and soot into my face on my morning commute, but cycling has also afforded me the opportunity to stop at countless parks, shops and restaurants that I would've never seen had I been one of the legions of taxi commuters.

Biking in Beijing is relatively easy, compared with Victoria or Vancouver. In those two cities, one has little space to move. Trying to thread your way between the curb and a roaring bus isn't easy. Conversely, some of Beijing's streets feature bike lanes as wide as two traffic lanes -- and they are often separated from the cars by a nice green boulevard.

Of course, as Beijing modernizes, fewer and fewer people are opting to get around by bicycle. Cars are the new status symbol, and Beijing is adding 1,000 new cars to its already congested arteries every week. Unfortunately, many of these vehicles are starting to use bike lanes, and at night they are becoming parking lots.

Even though I may be "losing face" by biking to work with the other less fortunate, I still enjoy it much more than my usual taxi or subway ride. I like it so much, in fact, that I'd like to replace my girl's bike with a manly bike -- maybe a black bike with flames painted on it; I'm not sure. I've promised myself I'd buy a half-decent bike and an excellent lock, and I'll explore even more exotic corners of Beijing.

Since I've made this decision, I've stopped locking up my bike. Foolish, you might say. Perhaps. But seeing as it's a girl's bike anyway, and I don't really like it, and it's cheap, and I want a new one, why not?

Well, it's not going so well. In a city where most people have had four or five bikes stolen, mine seems to stick around no matter how much I neglect it. I even leave it unlocked outside my apartment when I arrive home each night. I came down a few mornings ago and saw it locked to a chain-link fence. I asked the guard to unlock it for me. As he rustled through his pockets looking for the key, he berated me for leaving it unlocked and told me I was lucky nobody had taken it.

The other day I stopped at a Starbucks for my morning brew before I got to work. I kicked out the kickstand and started walking in through the revolving door. A girl in front of me noticed I hadn't used a lock. "You take care of your bike," she said, "or it will be stolen!"

"Thank you," I said, "but I'm only going to be a few minutes."

On the same day, I stopped by an office where I had a short meeting. I left the bike, unlocked, conspicuously placed around the corner of the building. Maybe two minutes had passed when a man came running to tell me my bike was unlocked. And while I was inside the meeting, a guard came bursting in to say I had "forgotten" to lock my bike. I could feel my cheeks go red with embarrassment.

I'll say this much about Beijingers -- they care. Rather than ruthlessly stealing my girl's bike in the dead of night, they seem more concerned with making sure I don't lose it! Even in a booming, urban environment of 16 million people, there are still people who look out for one another.

Of course, this hasn't affected my quest for a new bike -- as I write this, my bike remains unlocked downstairs. I might not have liked it at first, but I admit it's growing on me, albeit slowly. It clearly likes me, anyway. I have a feeling the day I decide to keep the bike will be the day I notice it's finally gone.

China's President a lame duck?

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This is an article written by your correspondent in the Victoria Times Colonist in Canada. Keep in mind, it's targeted at readers who are overseas and might not have the same intense level of interest in Chinese affairs as those who read this and other blogs.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd post it anyway. The actual version can be found here (or here in China, as I've had a hard time bringing it up without a proxy).

Who's really calling the shots in China?
Times Colonist
Published: Sunday October 21, 2007
By: Cam MacMurchy

This past week was about as close as China comes to election time. Delegates from around the country descended on Beijing for "The Big 17," as it's known in Chinese. Every five years Communist party members descend on Tiananmen Square and meet inside the Great Hall of the People to choose the party's next generation of leaders. It's known, in Communist-speak, as the 17th Communist Party of China National Congress.

People living in Beijing felt the ramifications of the congress weeks before it even started. Blogs and Internet sites were shut down, online forums were heavily scrutinized, police stepped up their presence on city streets and known political muckrakers were thrown in jail. Judging by the rare clear blue skies we experienced, it seems the party even shut down factories to literally ensure there was no rain on this parade.

Not much actual work gets done in the event itself, despite the fact it was dubbed the "biggest political event of this autumn" by Will Hutton in the Guardian. The "event" actually occurs in the lead-up to the congress, when party leaders huddle and decide who should retire and who should be promoted to the Politburo and its prestigious Standing Committee.

Although it's not formally enshrined in the constitution, it is generally agreed that the president of China and general secretary of the Communist party -- both titles currently belong to Hu Jintao -- should only rule for a maximum of 10 years. This marks the halfway point for Hu, and many analysts expect this congress to give us some insight into who might succeed Hu in 2012, and what direction that leader might take.

But what's becoming increasingly clear is that each successive leader in China seems to be weaker than the previous one, meaning they don't have much say in which direction the country goes anyway.

Mao Zedong had nearly absolute rule over China until his death in 1976, which led to disasters such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping stepped up in 1978 and began the opening up and reform period, which resulted in today's capitalist society. But since Deng, successive leaders seem to be little more than figureheads.

According to The Tiananmen Papers, an inside look at government deliberations during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, then-general secretary Zhao Ziyang was subject to decisions made by the "elders" -- a group of old comrades who worked behind the scenes and influenced the leaders of the day. In fact, according to the book, Zhao opposed the crackdown on protesters and was put under house arrest until he died in January 2005. The final decision to roll the tanks into Tiananmen Square was made by the elders, and them alone. Nearly 20 years later, despite China's rapid modernization and promises of more democracy (a term the Chinese are completely redefining), it seems that those holding real power in China stand in the shadows behind President Hu Jintao.

Most of the media attention over the past week has surrounded who will sit on the nine-member standing committee of the Politburo, also known as the "Nine Who Rule China." The future president and general secretary will come out of this group in 2012, so any personnel changes in this small clique are put under a microscope.

It's been widely speculated that Hu would use this opportunity to appoint his chosen successor to the standing committee -- or even a couple of comrades he considers close allies. But as of this writing, it appears only Li Keqiang, an old friend from Hu's days as head of the Communist Youth League, will make the cut. The other new appointee will likely be Xi Jinping, known as a "princeling" because his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a high-profile vice-premier under Mao. Many of the children of the first-generation cadres are known as "princelings" for their wealth and political status.

The point is that Hu Jintao, despite being president and general secretary, lacks the authority to unilaterally make decisions on who joins the Politburo, and who will succeed him in 2012. In the past, Mao chose his own successor (Hua Guofeng, who only lasted two years) and Deng directly appointed Jiang Zemin.

Since then, it's been a bit of a mish-mash with the president having a bit less influence each time decision time rolls around. Those gaining in influence appear to be the party elders, who are currently led by former president Jiang Zemin (a rival of Hu, and a man who favored Xi on the standing committee) and Zeng Qinghong, China's very own Karl Rove.

It's too early to say what will happen in 2012, although it's widely believed that Xi Jinping is the early frontrunner to become China's new president. So what do we know about him? Will he continue with China's free-market approach? Bring back Marxism-Leninism? Tighten the reigns on the news media? We don't really know, and even if we did, it probably doesn't matter.

That's because despite promises to govern in a more transparent fashion, decisions are still made behind closed doors among a tight clique of leaders who control the world's most populous country and fourth-largest economy.

Like George W. Bush, Hu Jintao heads into his second term as a lame-duck president. But maybe he's been that way all along.

Times Colonist (Victoria)
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Page: D2

It is 5:45 p.m., and I'm standing inside the hot and crowded arrivals area at Shanghai's swanky Pudong Airport. I'm waiting for a couple to step off a flight from Vancouver via San Francisco. It's their first visit to China, a land they want to see first-hand after reading countless headlines about the World's Next Superpower.

Shanghai, or so I thought, would be an ideal example of China's rapid modernization. The city is home to 19 million official residents, and millions more undocumented workers. According to Germany's Spiegel magazine, Shanghai has 549 skyscrapers with more than 300 currently under construction -- but many consider that to be a low estimate. One glance from the 88th-floor lookout of mainland China's tallest building, the Jin Mao tower, will reveal skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. The city, mixing tree-lined streets and small cafés with raging capitalism and giant office buildings, is the heart of China's entrepreneurial spirit, modernization, entertainment and night life.

After they breezed through customs, I took them to the state-of-the-art magnetic levitation train which connects Pudong Airport and the city's subway system. The train, when it was built, was the first of its kind in the world and hurtles down the track at 430 kilometres per hour. Even though it was dark and stormy, the train was a perfect introduction to how much things in China have changed from the days of the bicycle.

Shanghai is widely known as China's most "modern" city, but I was surprised when my two guests mentioned that China didn't seem to be as modern or developed as they'd read in newspapers and magazines.

Old Shanghai, which sits just west of the famous Bund waterfront, remains barren of businesses. The old shops featured boarded-up entryways and broken windows, vestiges of Shanghai's opulent past that were never restored.

During our time in Shanghai, the pollution was as bad as I'd ever seen it. The aforementioned view from the Jin Mao tower was highly obscured by particulates. It was also difficult to see through the thick brown and grey haze while trundling along the city's expansive highway system. When we wandered through the streets of town, beggars, amputees, burn victims and young children approached us for spare change. It was the same China that existed before, but has somehow been pushed to the background to make room for the sexier stories of wealth, development and modernity.

If Shanghai is still suffering from growing pains, Beijing may just be entering adolescence. In one year, the Chinese capital will host possibly the largest coming-out party of any nation in history. Yet many are starting to wonder whether the city, and country, are ready.

Pollution remains a major source of frustration for the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee and residents of the capital. The municipality has taken a number of steps to reduce air pollution, including limiting the number of coal-burning plants, moving others out of the city and replacing thousands of inefficient buses and taxis. But despite their efforts, this past June was the most polluted in Beijing in seven years.

Even journalists, who were promised greater press freedom, have come under intense pressure in the leadup to the games.

Not that you would gather that from the state-run China Daily, which recently ran a story headlined "Foreign media enjoy greater access." Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao was quoted as saying, "We are also encouraged to see that the new regulations have been widely welcomed and followed by foreign journalists, either staying in, or just making a brief visit to, China."

What the story failed to mention is that 67 per cent of foreign correspondents said China has failed to live up to its promise of "complete freedom" to report, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. In fact, the recent report on the state of China's press freedom found 157 incidents so far this year of intimidation of sources, detentions, surveillance, official reprimands and even violence against reporters, their staff or sources.

Then there are food-safety issues, traffic problems, overcrowding, poverty, environmental degradation and other concerns that remain to be solved.

There's no doubt that reporters, tourists, entrepreneurs, and business people are flooding into China in advance of next year's events. But there is much more happening in China than just glitz and glamour, wi-fi hot spots and five-star hotels. The country remains a developing one.

Olympic visitors will soon discover that, just like my friends did in Shanghai.

I am hoping, very soon, to be free of this weight which is the GFW. Thanks to the help of Dan over at China Law Blog, I may have found a solution to my hosting woes, which should make this site much more accessible in China. If anybody else wants to put their blog on the right side of the GFW, Dan has some ideas and can recommend some good blog hosts. (I'd link to his email and blog, but alas, that vital function of blogging is unavailable to me at the moment. My sincere apologies.)

There were a couple of things I wanted to discuss this week, but with my inability to link to articles and other poignant facts, I have declined until the new site is up and running. That being said, I thought I'd post my latest missive in the Times Colonist in Canada. As I'm not an American, I can't comment on what mobile phone rates are like in the United States. But I think the article will leave no doubt about how I feel regarding Canada's shoddy plans. I received quite a few comments on this article on Facebook (everybody is on there, right?) so I clearly touched a nerve with Canadians.

Let me know what you think.

Chinese progress belies stereotypes; Ease of cellphone access makes Canada look like the Third World
Times Colonist (Victoria)
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Page: C2
Section: Comment
Byline: Cam MacMurchy
Column: Cam MacMurchy
Dateline: BEIJING, China
Source: Special to Times Colonist

BEIJING, China - A recent survey released here showed that most foreigners -- before they visit China -- hold deep stereotypes about what life is like here, based on Chinese movies that make it to North America.

Many of those surveyed said that when they think about China, they think about kung fu, the ability to fly through the air and above all poor, backward farmers in straw hats tilling the land.

The stereotype is badly outdated, as China's cities are now dotted with Starbucks, wi-fi cafes and glistening skyscrapers. BMWs wind through high-end entertainment districts, and businessmen in Armani suits chat loudly into their micro-sized mobile phones.

In fact, nearly 500 million Chinese use cellphones, making it the largest mobile phone market in the world.

Many people here have never used a home phone, because mobile phone rates are cheap and much more convenient.

And with the largest mobile phone market in the world continuing to grow exponentially, Research in Motion couldn't resist trying to crack the market with its ubiquitous Blackberry.

But there's a big difference between using a Blackberry in China and in Canada -- price.

And our prohibitive pricing schemes and cumbersome customer services are holding Canada back from other technologically advanced countries like -- dare I say it -- China.

Let's say you arrive in Beijing for a six-month study or work term and you need a mobile phone. First, you'd walk into a mobile phone store, which are found on almost every block, and select the phone that's right for you.

This could range from a low-end, three-year-old Motorola right up to the newest Blackberry, Palm or Windows Mobile smartphone. Nearly all of the phones are "unlocked," meaning you can use them with whatever cellphone carrier you choose, and change whenever you like.

Then you'd pop into a 7-Eleven or another convenience store (or even a road-side vendor) and buy a SIM card (your phone number).

This will cost, on average, about $4.50 and include more than an hour of talk time. Pop the SIM card into your new phone and you instantly have a fully functional cellphone. No activation required, no paperwork, no credit check, no signature, nothing.

When you run out of airtime, you can buy $15 recharge cards at nearly every street-level newspaper vendor or convenience store across the country. Simple.

Of course, there are other options for heavy users, such as monthly plans. I once used a monthly plan in Shanghai that included plenty of talk-time and two gigabytes of data transfer for $75 a month. No credit check required. You prepay each month, and if you don't, you're cut off. Your monthly bill arrives by e-mail. Again, it's surprisingly simple, efficient and even environmentally friendly. The rate plans are cheap; the payment process is easy. So why can't this be done in Canada?

"There's no doubt that wireless data pricing is higher in Canada," Andrew McLaughlin, the director of global public policy for Google, said recently in the Financial Post. Google now offers a number of mobile services such as Google Maps, mobile Gmail, and mobile searching -- excellent services that many Canadians opt not to use because of Canada's high data surcharges. RIM is leading the way in asking the Canadian government to pressure the big three mobile-phone carriers, Telus, Bell, and Rogers, to lower their prices and give entry-level consumers access to the market.

Rogers currently offers customers a 200-megabyte monthly plan for $100. That steep fee doesn't even include talking minutes, and assuming you want to use your phone to make phone calls, you must pay extra for that. The data plan alone amounts to 50 cents per megabyte. The plan in Shanghai I mentioned earlier amounted to less than four cents per megabyte. And, for good measure, China Mobile threw in 2,000 minutes of talk time.

Why the discrepancy? As the Financial Post story continued, it's not only China and other Asian countries with cheaper cellphone rates; Europe also offers complete data and voice plans for a fraction of what's being charged in Canada. "They've got these entry-level service plans that they're putting out there that you're not seeing here in Canada," said Don Morrison, RIM's chief operating officer.

Last Christmas I arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong and needed a pay-as-you-go phone number for the few weeks I'd be home.

I had to sign up at a Rogers counter, provide all kinds of personal details, fill out forms, sign some additional paperwork and then wait while the staff "activated" my phone. As the activation system was down, I had to wait more than 25 minutes.

All of this cost me $50 -- before I had even purchased any talk or data time. When I finally bought a card, it took several steps through an automated service before my phone was usable. This entire process in China would take two minutes at a 7-11, and cost a fraction of what it does in Canada.

Cellphone service is only one area where China has made things much more consumer-friendly. Far from being a country filled with straw-hat-wearing farmers, China has, perhaps, even zoomed past Canada in the technology field.

Sadly, it is we who are backward.

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