Saturday, February 28, 2009

Picture of the Day: Low Carbon Footprint

This afternoon a parade of mules lugging bricks passed by the Holiday Inn Lido.

One was frightened by the big buses and cars whizzing by him, but his owner managed to calm him down.

These people, who live on the outskirts of Beijing, come into town on these large flatbed carts and go to sites where buildings have been torn down.

There they scavenge for bricks they can use to build their own houses, or perhaps to sell. They pack them neatly on their carts and then their mules have the tough task of bringing them back to their villages.

These mule-drawn carts, some of which have fruits and vegetables to sell, are only allowed on the 4th ring roads and beyond -- you never see them closer to the centre of the city.

But what's great about these people is that they really have low carbon footprints -- not only do they re-use recycled items, but also transport themselves using mules.

While they are doing it out of economic necessity, it's good to know not everything is wasted.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Fundamental Misunderstanding

Today I had lunch with a former colleague who I haven't seen for a few months as he's now based in Xinjiang, his home province.

However, he's back in town for the upcoming National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress next week to see what new policies will be implemented.

He was telling me how much he missed Beijing, as Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang is very polluted. "Sometimes you can't even see 200 metres in front of you," he explained, saying the city is surrounded by mountains on three sides, trapping the air.

It also doesn't help that the main industries there are producing steel, which in turn uses a lot of coal. Many homes still use coal for heat and cooking too.

Nevertheless, he raved about the landscape, how there was so much to see, as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region covered one-sixth of China. The north was more about scenery, while the south was about its culture.

He added the place was rich in natural resources, like minerals and lots of oil. However, there's the West-East pipeline that transports gas to Shanghai. He said there's a cap on how much gas can be consumed in Xinjiang, which is why many cars are lined up at gas stations all the time, as most of it is piped to the east.

One of the biggest concerns in this western region is social stability he says, as there are constant terrorist threats from Uighurs who want to separate and form their own country of East Turkestan.

"I don't understand why they want to harm innocent people," he said.

I explained that genetically they aren't even Chinese -- they are from Central Asia. And perhaps, I suggested, they feel desperate, which is why they have resorted to violence to get their message across.

"But the Chinese have made their lives so much better," he said. "Now they live almost like people here in Beijing. We liberated them."

As soon as he said that I realized I had to tread very carefully through this conversation. But what did China liberate them from? Sound familiar?

We ended that thread of the conversation soon afterwards, but he seemed sad about how his home province has become so polluted and not as developed as he had hoped.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Still Ranting

The sale of the two bronze animal heads from Yuanmingyuan is over and yet China is still raising a ruckus about them.

Early this morning Beijing time, the heads of the rat and rabbit were sold for nearly $35.9 million, not including commission.

They were sold to anonymous telephone bidders and now the giant band of 81 Chinese lawyers who originally tried to halt the sale of the bronze heads want to find out who the buyers were and harass them.

Liu Yang, head of the legal group tried to put a positive spin on their fruitless efforts: "But our effort was rewarded by the attention this case attracted. We have heard condemnation of the parties in this deal. We are glad to see the reactions of the government and public," he said.

Now the Chinese government wants to put tighter controls on auction houses like Christie's by imposing limits on what they can take in or out of China.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) has ordered entry and exit administrative departments for cultural heritage at all levels to carefully check "heritage items" that Christie's seeks to import or export. The notice also extends to agents and employees of Christie's.

These entry and exit departments are separate from customs administration.

And the notice says if these cultural heritage employees find relics owned by Christie's that might have been looted or smuggled, they should report these finds immediately to the SACH.

"In recent years, Christie's has frequently sold cultural heritage items looted or smuggled from China, and all items involved were illegally taken out of the country," the notice said. It didn't specify the items or transactions.

Earlier today the SACH issued a statement condemning Christie's for putting the two animal heads up on the auction block, saying the auction "damaged Chinese citizens' cultural rights and feelings and will have serious effects on Christie's development in China."

Firstly, does the Chinese government not understand how auctions work?

Christie's and Sotheby's do not own the objects they sell; they merely act at middlemen who bring potential buyers and sellers together and try to get the highest prices for the sellers.

These auction houses wouldn't be caught with items in their possession.

Secondly, these items were looted, stolen, pillaged... over 150 years ago. They left China so long ago that it's almost impossible to get them back legally.

The best thing the Chinese government can do is try to get its "cultural relics" back through diplomatic means.

Why not have some class and in a non-confrontational way try to meet the owners of the other animal heads and come to come kind of gentlemanly agreement? We all know that money talks.

Thirdly, the totally disorganized response from the government and the band of lawyers is the result of a knee-jerk reaction that had no effect at all. This sale was announced months ago, and only at the last minute did these lawyers, on their own volition, make a pathetic attempt to stop the auction.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government then tried to jump on the bandwagon and hoped to fan the flames of nationalism, but no one changed their MSN message to "give us our heads back!" or "those heads belong to us!"

The only one to really join in the chorus is artist Jackie Chan, who has become the posterboy for China.

"They remain looted items, no matter whom they were sold to. Whoever took it out (of China) is himself a thief," he was quoted by AFP as saying.

That was over 150 years ago, Jackie. We probably will never know the real thief.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lighting Up Attention

Last night I took the 614 bus home from Dongzhimen.

And one of the commercials on the TV screen was a startling one that grabbed your attention.

It showed three scenarios where people present cartons of cigarettes to friends and family as gifts.

In the first one, the recipients, middle-aged men, are horrified, as in place of the cigarettes, they see a pair of blackened lungs.

Next, a group of people have shocked expressions on their faces, when they see a man in pyjamas, dragging an oxygen tank with him and a saline drip.

The last scene shows an older couple, who, instead of seeing the man holding a carton of cigarettes as gifts, sees him present a funeral wreath instead.

The message basically says that giving cigarettes is not a good idea, as the recipients may think you're trying to kill them.

China has some 350 million smokers and the country's State Tobacco Monopoly Association is a hard one to crack as it is one of the Middle Kingdom's biggest taxpayers.

While the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has suggested to member states to adopt graphic picture warnings on their cigarette packaging to get the message across, China has been slow to do that.

It has dragged its feet by adopting the minimum requirements, like printing warnings in the smallest font size and covering an area of 30 percent of the packet, without a distinctive contrasting colour background to highlight the message.

The reason? The State Tobacco Monopoly Association manages the work related to the implementation of the convention.

Talk about counterproductive.

However -- if the television commercial I saw gets more play not only on buses, but subways and TVs, then it may definitely shock people into thinking twice about lighting up.

It's a good start that I hope continues to have messages that are even more horrifying to watch.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Celebrate Or Else

Tomorrow is the start of Tibetan New Year, called Losar.

Similar to Chinese Spring Festival, Losar is a 15-day holiday where family members gather, have large feasts, set off fireworks and burn incense.

But this year many are in a sombre mood, wanting to remember those killed in last year's riots.

There are estimates more than 120 died in the violent clashes with Chinese authorities. And this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the failed anti-Chinese uprising, after which the Dalai Lama fled to India, making things even more tense.

As a result, many Tibetans are joining in a non-violent protest campaign called "Say No to Losar", launched by Tibetan groups in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama's home in exile.

"Instead of the usual celebrations marked by singing, dancing and other festivities, silence will be observed and butter lamps will be lit in the temples and homes to pray for the deceased," they announced in a statement last month.

But Chinese authorities will have none of this mourning and instead is trying to show the world how wonderful things are in Tibet -- without any foreigners witnessing it firsthand.

All foreigners have been banned from entering Tibet, with the earliest date they can enter the region being in April.

The Chinese are trying to launch their own campaign, organizing concerts, fireworks, horse-races and archery competitions. They've even declared a week-long public holiday in Tibet that started yesterday, and free admission to museums and parks.

They've also handed out coupons worth $120 each to 37,000 low-income families to shop for the holidays.

China Radio International features reports of excited Tibetans busy shopping for the holiday and eager to celebrate the New Year.

"They want to show that the Tibetan people are happy, that they have returned to normal life. But by intervening, they're making them unhappy," the Los Angeles Times quoted Tsering Shayka, a Tibetan historian now living in Canada. "They are trying to come up with gimmicks instead of solving the problem."

And apparently if people don't comply, there are some 20,000 additional soldiers and paramilitary troops deployed in Tibetan areas, and in Qinghai Province, village leaders were threatened with arrest if they didn't urge people to celebrate.

There are reports tensions are high in the area... and with the Year of the Ox, both parties are stubborn and determined to have it their way...

Monday, February 23, 2009

At Loggerheads

Later today the massive art collection of the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent will go under the hammer.

He and his partner Pierre Berge amassed some 733 items, from paintings by Picasso to ancient Egyptian sculptures. They started collecting in the 1950s and their Paris apartment was stuffed with all kinds of beautiful objects that inspired Saint Laurent in his fashionable designs.

However, there are two highly prized objects that China is demanding back.

They are the bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, which were part of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing when it was looted by French and British forces in the Second Opium War in 1860.

There are 12 animals altogether and in 2007 casino magnate Stanley Ho was declared a hero for buying back the horse's head at an auction for about $9 million.

It's now displayed in the Lisboa Grand hotel in Macau, encased in a glass box with a bust of Ho in his younger years.

But back to the current auction. Christie's says the selling price is 10 million euros ($12.6 million) each, but China won't shell out for them.

It is demanding the animal heads be returned since they were stolen in the first place.

However Berge won't even entertain the idea, saying China would have to greatly improve its attitude on human rights before he would even consider handing them back. That doesn't help repair China-French relations...

China is now taking the legal route and a ruling is expected today on whether the bronzes should be handed back or included in the three-day sale.

Apparently some 80 Chinese lawyers are involved in the case, and they have even persuaded the Global Aixinjueluo Family Clan, a civil society registered in Hong Kong to be the plaintiff. The group consists of descendants of the emperors in the Qing Dynasty who were Manchus.

“The Old Summer Palace, which was plundered and burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, is our nation’s unhealed scar, still bleeding and aching,” Beijing lawyer Lui Yang said. “That Christie’s and Pierre Bergé would put them up for auction and refuse to return them to China deeply hurts our nation’s feelings.”

Why does China always use the argument that its nation's feelings is hurt? It just weakens its case.

Nevertheless, some experts in cultural-property issues say that items looted decades or centuries ago don't necessarily have to be repatriated if the country involved did not sign the 1995 UN Convention on the repatriation of stolen or illegally exported cultural relics.

While it may be legally impossible to get back, the experts suggest perhaps something like the bronze heads should be returned because of their historical significance.

However it seems both parties are adamant about getting their way with these prized items.

We'll have to see how it goes.

In the meantime, to be honest -- these animal heads are hardly beautiful in their artistic quality, but rather crude and generic... does China really want them back? And are they really worth $10 million each?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Waiting for Hillary

This morning I had an opportunity to see US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The ideal was actually scenario would be to shake her hand, pass on my condolences about Socks the cat passing and hope she had a productive Asian tour.

But this was how I spent my Sunday morning:

8:20am Meet my colleagues in the office. Two of them aren't here yet! One doesn't answer my call...

8:40am We head over to two company cars waiting for us, black Audis. The driver of the car I'm in starts moving the car before we've closed the back right door and there's a horrible crunch sound. Part of the siding is ripped out. Brilliant.

8:55am We arrive at the south gate of the US Embassy. We've been told to arrive by 9am, but again my missing colleagues still aren't there! Oh wait... we see them coming out of the car now.

9:20am It's cold standing outside the US Embassy. Another coworker points out to me the US Embassy emblem that features the eagle's claws, the one of the left holding an olive branch, the other a bunch of arrows. So it's either war or peace with the Americans.

9:30am We're finally allowed inside the security area where we must give up all electronic equipment that was not previously registered with the embassy. So that means no digital cameras, no cellphones, no iPods... so much for taking a picture of Clinton. The security staff hold our things like a coat check area and we must wear a red badge that indicates we're visitors and must be escorted at all times.

9:42am A Chinese staff member leads us to a holding room and tells us to wait for an American to take us further in. Really extreme security. Meanwhile my other colleagues are fussing over how to present Clinton some gifts we've prepared for her, including a framed blown-up picture of her, Bill and Chelsea during their 1995 trip to Xian where they visited the Terracotta Warriors up close in the pits.

10:09am We're now led into another area where Clinton will engage with 20 female leaders in China invited to have a discussion with her about women's issues. It's a room that has broadcasting equipment good for press conferences and translation. In the front cream-coloured sofas have been set up, with a lacquered wooden screen as a background. The Chinese carpet on the floor is a nice touch.

10:40am I'm dying for the loo and find it around the corner with no lock on the door! How strange is that.

10:46am As we're not part of the women's forum, we're ushered out into the public affairs offices and literally sit around and shoot the breeze with our US embassy contact. I ask him if the US ambassador to China has been named yet and contrary to speculation in the Chinese media, no one has been chosen yet. There was talk Clinton would make the announcement on her trip here, but she explained to the media that they have yet to decide who will take this important post.

Our contact has already planned out what President Barack Obama would do if he were to visit Beijing. He says he'd arrange for Obama to play basketball with the Chinese team and then to have a webchat with young people, answering any questions they have about him, even his favourite NBA team.

He also explains he's anxious because Clinton needs to leave the embassy by 1pm for a police escort to the airport. The airport have cleared a certain time frame for her plane to take off. If she misses it, she'd have to wait until after 4pm to take off.

11:20am Some of us need to go to the washroom again and a woman staffer escorts five of us to the loo. She politely waits for us outside and only after all five of us come out -- and she even checks the women's washroom -- before taking us back to where we were.

11:32am Our contact decides to move us closer to the room where the forum is being held as we will meet Clinton there at 11:50am. Other security staff keep pushing our group around saying this space has to be clear or that space can't have people congregating... we stand around waiting and still finalizing our logistical procedure for giving Clinton our presents.

11:46am One of my colleagues complains that we should already be in the room setting up but the discussion still isn't over yet.

11:55am Our contact hears clapping, signalling the end of the forum discussion, but Clinton has yet to come out for her breather before meeting us. My coworkers are getting antsy because they worry we will have less time with the Secretary of State.

12:07pm Clinton is finished and we are finally allowed into the room, escorted of course. My other colleagues are already busy moving furniture and getting lights and cameras ready. Clinton's handlers are giving explicit instructions that photographers can only take pictures for the first minute, but then after that no photographs allowed. They demand to know why there are three video cameras when they had been told there would only be two. One is quickly wisked away before more complaints arise.

12:12pm Wires are running all over the floor and there's concern someone may trip. Tape is brought out and two coworkers are taping down wires until the last minute. The rest of the wires are shoved under the carpet... which isn't really a good idea.

12:18pm Where's the microphone for Clinton? One of her handlers says Clinton wants to put it on before walking in. Makes sense. Then in the back we can hear her voice as the mic broadcasts it into the room.

12:20pm We're asked if we're ready because Clinton is coming. There's a hush in the room as she emerges, smiling in a dark navy suit and turquoise top underneath. She sits down and puts on her own microphone, the old pro that she is. She's only 10 feet away from me...

12:21pm A Tsinghua University professor chats with her about climate change, asking her what she, Bill and Chelsea do about protecting the environment. She answers that they use compact light bulbs, recycle and insulate their house.

She regurgitates a lot of what she said the day before, about how she is hoping China will not repeat the same mistakes as the US in its wasting of natural resources. She stresses it's not about per capita emissions -- something China constantly prides itself on -- but on absolute emissions. Clinton says China and the US are the two top emitters of greenhouse gases so the two countries must work together, raising the profile of climate change to a higher level in their dialogue so that things can get better.

There are no specifics, but she praises the good start the two countries have in their relationship and hopes to build on that to include climate change. She also hopes something constructive will come out before December when the countries will meet to discuss the next step after the Kyoto Protocol.

12:37pm The chat ends and we quickly gather, hoping for an opportunity for a group photo with Clinton. However her two handlers, two young women are tough gatekeepers and try to stop photographers from taking more pictures and us giving her gifts. However, when one of my colleagues shows her the large framed photo she exclaims with excitement and thanks us for it.

We also wanted to ask her to write a congratulatory note to our company, but one of her handlers was physically pushing the paper away. Clinton sees this and says, "Jessica, I'll sign it."

Definitely a star diplomat.

12:47pm Clinton is already out the door, wearing an overcoat and flanked by her entourage and the Washington press corps following her.

12:52pm I and a few others leave but we have to be escorted by a staff member all the way to the security area and out the door. We get our stuff back and then exit the embassy.

One of the world's most powerful women has left the building.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fact of the Day

According to a top health care expert from the Ministry of Health, 60 percent of corrupt officials have incurable diseases such as cancers and cerebral hemorrhages.

Hong Shaoguang says the cause of the diseases is usually from the high psychological stress incurred from conducting corrupt activities.

It can be stressful trying to skim off public coffers, launder money and conduct illicit affairs and still try to act like an upstanding official.

He said the conclusion was backed by an investigation into 16 corrupt officials in China and research which followed 583 corrupt officials in Brazil by a Brazilian health care organization.

However, that's only 60 percent of KNOWN corrupt officials...

Nevertheless, the Chinese government should jump on this and use this information in its campaign to strike out corruption: Warning! Corruption is bad for your health!

Double Identity

Yesterday as we left our office to go to lunch, we saw this Scottish terrier tied up just outside.

And he was wearing an outfit to keep warm -- but not just any ordinary sweater or coat, but a panda outfit, complete with black ears for a hoodie.

Perhaps he's having an identity crisis, wondering if he's a panda or a dog.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Afternoon Fun

Last night we had more snow fall on the ground so this morning traffic was a bit of a mess.

I did my usual routine of getting to the bus terminus before 8am to catch the 101 bus at 7:55am.

But it was no where to be seen... at 8:02am it hadn't arrived.

By 8:10 there was still no sign of it either, which is strange as the bus comes every five minutes.

I thought of trying to flag down a taxi, but they were all occupied.

So I used my creativity and took the 614 bus at 8:12am to get to the Sanyuanqiao subway station. And just as I got on the bus, I could see three 101 buses just getting back to the terminus...

At 8:22 I got off the bus and walked to the station. And by 8:50am I arrived at the office, 20 minutes late.

I wasn't alone in getting to work late, and it was still snowing lightly.

By by lunchtime most of it started melting.

After we ate lunch some of my colleagues asked me if I wanted to take pictures with them in a nearby park with the snow as the backdrop.

The park area is by a canal which has a thin sheet of ice on top and you can see dead leaves frozen in the water.

By now there's only about an inch or so of snow on the ground, but we make the most of the scenery, posing with the snow-covered trees. We even attempted to make a snowman.

When my colleagues watched me try to roll the snowball around the ground to make it bigger, one asked me if I was a snowman-making expert, as I'm from North America.

But as I tried to roll the small snowball around, the snow didn't want to stick to it which was really strange.

Perhaps it's a sign it's artificial snow...

Nevertheless, we found another larger snowman, well, half of one sitting on a ledge, complete with eyes, nose and mouth made of rolled up bamboo leaves. One of my coworkers donated her scarf to drape around his neck as we posed with him.

It might be the last snow of the season and we enjoyed the stroll and fun in the snow like little kids.

Then it was back to the hum drum of the office for the rest of the afternoon...

A Shocking Tale

When foreigners first arrived in Beijing to live, the first thing many do is look out for others like them.

As they walk down the street or in the store, they try to give them a nod, like, "Hey, I'm like you in this foreign place..."

They're hoping this kind of silent bonding will make them feel less alone in this city of 17 million Chinese.

But now they are starting to give other lao wai a more skeptical look after hearing a shocking but true tale of foreigners attacking their own kind.

On February 17 a businessman who comes up to Beijing regularly, had dinner with some business associates at The Tree, a pizza joint I've been to a few times in Sanlitun. It's mostly frequented by foreigners, but it is in a slightly offbeat location that entails going through winding back alleys to get to.

After dinner and drinks around 9-9:30pm, but not to the point of inebriation, this tall Caucasian man in his 40s decides to leave his associates early and leaves the restaurant.

Just outside, a tall, thin foreigner who had a Spanish accent approached him and asked if he'd want to walk with him to where the taxis are.

He agreed, and just as they turned the corner a few paces from the restaurant, a shorter man also Spanish-looking, jumped from behind and shot him with a stun gun or a taser.

He fell to the ground and as soon as he recovered from the shock, the businessman tried to fight these two men but the second man stunned him again and gave him a blow to the head.

That knocked him to the ground again and he was out cold. When he came to his senses, he found himself lying in the snow, with his wallet and cellphone missing.

He staggered back to the restaurant where they called the police and he was taken to the station to file a report.

A representative from the British Embassy was contacted and took him back to his hotel.

The businessman immediately cancelled his credit cards and the international service on his cellphone. The most valuable items in his wallet were photos of his daughter.

He was in a great deal of pain in his legs and spent the next day in bed. It was only today could he sit comfortably.

This stun-gun duo can't do this tag-team attack for very long in Sanlitun as once word gets out, they will get caught soon.

While the actual attack is shocking, it's the fact that foreigners have turned on each other which is even more bizarre.

I've heard of fights erupt in bars where foreigners frequent, but an attack to rob someone is downright scary.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Bad Taste

A Chinese construction company has jumped into the entertainment field by creating an entertainment park where visitors can play war games with laser guns.

According to a newspaper article, the place has the perfect props and setting, with lots of open spaces to run around in and hills and mounds to duck behind.

Where is it?

In Huilonggou district, Penzhou City, in the earthquake-hit Sichuan Province.

Many netizens, people who either write blogs or comment on forums, were outraged by this commercial venture.

"How would the Americans react if someone builds an amusement park on Ground Zero?" asked an Internet user.

Others said the quake-ravaged area is a "place of sadness and condolence", and an entertainment establishment showed "disrespect for the dead".

But apparently more were fine with it.

According to an online survey on, of the 6,624 people who participated, 64 percent were in favour of the theme park, and only 29 percent disagreed.

Dai Jun, general manager of Baoshan Group, the construction company, reasoned: "The spirits of the earthquake victims would wish for a happy life for those who survived, and for a prosperous economy for the survivors to live in. The theme park is attracting a lot of crowds and a lot of revenue."

He stresses that that particular area was formerly the Peony Garden and no one actually died in that exact place.

Though the article doesn't explain how much it costs to play war games in the park or how much revenue the place is generating, Dai's comments are outright crass.

It seems like an easy way for this construction company to make a quick buck without having to build anything really.

Looks like some people will do just about anything to make money.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Temporary White-Out

This morning I woke up to see a few white things floating in the air.

Could it be? Snow in mid-February?

It had just started snowing before 7am and by the time I was at the bus stop waiting to catch the 101 to get to work, the flakes were big chunks and falling fast.

I examined a few that fell on my jacket and indeed the individual flakes could be made out and for a moment wondered what fantastic geometric patterns they'd reveal under a microscope.

Traffic just continued as if snow wasn't falling -- was it arrogance on the part of the drivers? Or was the snow that dry that it didn't matter? It turned out it was the latter as no one slipped or slid on the roads.

However the snow practically disappeared by lunchtime -- and there was hardly any evidence of it having existed, as sidewalks were dry.

But in the evening the white flakes have made their entrance into Beijing again and might still be there tomorrow morning.

Although it's only a few millimetres, this is the most snow I've seen in the capital since I moved here almost two years ago. How strange! My colleagues had told me stories of the roads snarled with traffic once snow fell and how it would take hours to get home...

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Rude Awakening

The severe drought in north China is continuing the grab headlines.

One of the eight wheat-producing provinces, Henan, only got 6mm of rain this weekend after 110 days of no rain. Wheat crops need at least 30mm to survive.

And officials there think the drought will continue for some time.

So much for trying to fire rockets into the air to seed clouds in order to entice them to rain.

According to government figures as of February 9, 18.4 million hectares of farmland and 9.1 million hectares of cropland have been hit by the drought, affecting 3.46 million people and 1.66 million heads of livestock.

Scientists believe climate change is to blame for the dry weather conditions, with warmer temperatures affecting food security.

Lin Erda, a member of China's national climate change expert panel and senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, says in recent years, around 22 million hectares of land have been hit by drought annually, leading to the loss of 10 million tons of grain per year.

He cites the most serious years were in 2000 and 2001 when China's crop yields lost 50 million tons of grain each year.

The warmer temperatures have also led to water shortages, with Lin predicting the annual water shortage in China's western region to be 2o billion cubic metres between 2010 and 2030.

But the problem is also due to the water systems that carry the precious fluid to the fields.

Qiu Weiduo, a conservation expert at a research institute under the Ministry of Water Resources, says human factors are to blame, apart from the weather.

Chinese officials claim the country's water efficiency is at 45 percent. But Qiu believes it's much less than that.

Irrigation efficiency is defined as the ratio of water consumed by crops in an irrigated area compared to the amount diverted to the source. Qiu says in China, it's at 30 percent, due to poor infrastructure, such as reservoirs, canals and leaking pipes that date back to the 1960s. In developed countries, Qiu says irrigation efficiency is at least 70 percent.

Flood irrigation is still the top method used in China even though it's criticized for its lack of water effiency. Perhaps old habits die hard.

But the irrigation efficiency percentage is shockingly low and is leading to an increasing gap between the have's and have not's.

Even though the government has sent out agricultural technocrats out to the fields to help the farmers with scientific solutions, no technology is going to solve this problem overnight.

What really needs to be done is getting the government to finally pay attention to what the farmers need and update the water systems.

If skyscrapers can be built in less than two years, surely new and well-constructed pipes, canals and less polluted rivers would be a significant help.

Not only for food security, but for the environment too.

The wastage of any precious natural resources, especially water, should be a crime.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

All-American Chinese Style

Tonight I went to a concert at the Poly Theater featuring the China Philharmonic Orchestra playing... American music.

It was interesting watching Chinese musicians from the mainland performing a program featuring 20th century American composers.

I got relatively inexpensive tickets 280RMB ($40.93) each, but there were even cheaper ones. It turns out there weren't many takers (or was it Valentine's Day hangovers?), as the auditorium was barely half full. While the first floor was kind of full, the second level, where I sat was quite empty save for the back seats.

People tried to sit closer, but staff tried very hard to get the patrons to go back to their original seats. It's important for them to understand the etiquette and enforcement is the only way to go.

Guest conductor Jahja Ling is of Chinese origin from Jakarta. He starting playing piano when he was four-years-old and later went onto The Julliard School studying piano in New York. After his masters, he turned to conducting and in 1982, he was chosen by Leonard Bernstein himself to be a Conducting Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute.

The program started with Bernstein's Excerpts from On the Town, a lively start to the concert. And the second part of the excerpts featured a slow movement in which Ling just used his hands to guide the string section. It almost seemed like he was hypnotizing the players and the audience into a reflective lullaby.

Then the stage was opened to include a grand piano and pianist Jessie Chang came on, wearing a black halter dress.

It turns out the musician is married to Ling. They met in 1999 during a church service in New York and in a 2001 article, the widower with two grown sons recalls admiring the Taiwanese Chang's maturity in not only music but life. They now have two young daughters.

Ling's interpretation of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue seemed a bit slow, but still energetic. However, Chang delivered a performance that lacked technical brilliance, and not much showmanship to compensate.

Nevertheless, the audience admired her effort and clapping continued until the intermission.

In the second half, the orchestra performed Aaron Copeland's Saturday Night Waltz and Hoe down from Rodeo.

This performance was just as strong as the first and seemed to lead to a promising finale.

However, the orchestra seemed to have lacked practice on Gershwin's Porgy and Bess Suite. Timing was off in parts throughout the piece and only until the finale did things come together, as if relieved the end was nigh.

It was a relatively short concert, finishing 1.5 hours later including a 15-minute intermission.

A musical taste of Americana in the heart of the Middle Kingdom. Not bad.

180-Degree Turn

Many of China's only children are starting to learn the value of money in this financial crisis.

Some have lost jobs or see the threat looming and have drastically cut back on their spending.

Before, many would spend their entire paycheques on clothes, eating out and entertainment, as they live their parents.

But now, realizing that things are getting bad and could get worse, they are realizing that it's important to save, or even contribute to the family coffers.

Some young people are now putting away half their salary in their bank accounts, but others are taking even more extreme measures.

One blogger started a "100 kuai club" where he spends 100RMB a week and has detailed his expenses on a forum. There he has also encouraged others to contribute their creative money-saving ideas and try to keep within that budget.

That probably means lots of walking/cycling, eating at the company canteen, and not much of a social life.

As for myself, I'd already been putting away half my salary, but now I've cut my weekly allowance to almost half and am cooking more, hardly taking taxis these days and depending more on public transit to get around.

It's just good to see the next generation now realizing why their parents scrimped and saved for their children to enjoy.

However, it's a tough reality for these young people, knowing that when they get older, they will have to look after their parents as well as their own children. And that's a heavy burden when you're in mid- to late-20s.

And the financial crisis has just speeded up the sad truth... better late than never.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Creating a Ruckus

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is on a six-nation trip to South America.

He's now in Jamaica, but earlier this week he was in Mexico.

And while he was there he made a curious speech to some overseas Chinese about foreign intervention:


“There are some foreigners who had eaten their fill and had nothing better to do, pointing their fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; or third, cause unnecessary trouble for you. What else is there to say?"

This quote is being talked about on blogs and forums here... sounds like Xi wants to cement his place in the cyber world...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Clearing the Air

Today Beijing got its first rainfall... since October 24, some four months ago.

This morning the clouds were dark and ominous, but no precipitation appeared until lunchtime when it was spitting.

But by late afternoon there was light rain and then at dinnertime it was pretty steady. My winter coat was soaked and I wished I had worn boots instead of my suede shoes.

However, it's good whenever it rains, as it clears the air.

And in Beijing's case, it's washing the sky of the ash from the numerous fireworks in the past few days and of course the horrific fire that destroyed the building that was to house the Mandarin Oriental, a television studio and data processing centre.

Apparently the city's air quality the day after was one of the worst in a while.

The government is trying very hard to kill the story about CCTV officials who defied the law to set off their own category "A" fireworks, the same ones used during the Olympics, and are set off by computers.

Today 12 people were detained over the incident, including the CCTV site manager. Heads are going to roll, figuratively and perhaps literally.

Despite government directives for Chinese state media to bury the story, people are still talking about it or checking out the latest comments on blogs.

The disdain for the network is shown in one comment, "Liar, liar, pants on fire", referring to the giant angular loop that looks like dakucha, or big pants.

There was also criticism about how the network didn't even take advantage of the breaking news story on its own newscast and instead focused on the wildfires in Australia.

One blogger named Han Han wrote: “Such self-castration just perfectly fits the image of CCTV being the world's number one eunuch media,” he wrote. “For sure, the present CCTV does not deserve to have one.”


Sounds like CCTV has some major rebranding to do.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Not Quite Harmonious Society

This week China's human rights record was under scrutiny by members of the United Nations.

Each of the 192 member states are evaluated every four years on their human rights records.

And at its presentation, China defiantly told the UN Human Rights Council that its citizens are free to voice their opinions to the press, and any harassment of journalists is punished.

The Chinese delegation led by ambassador Li Baodong also told the February 9 meeting that the government opposes torture and would never allow it to be used against ethnic or religious minorities.

Of course human rights groups totally disagree with his bold statements, but what he is saying is true on paper written in black and white. They just aren't practiced in reality.

Also during the meeting China's allies and countries it sponsors came out to the Middle Kingdom's defense.

Egypt lauded China's "endeavour to protect human rights and socio-economic development", adding "we understand the need of China to keep the death penalty ."

Iran congratulated China's "efforts to promote human rights", and citing "the negative impact of the Internet," encouraged China to tighten censorship to prohibit "defamation of religion."

And Cuba praised China for being "an exceptional country," and urged it to enforce "strict compliance with the law... to prevent people disguised as human rights activists from trying to destroy the state."

However, UN Watch rated the countries and here are the results:

1. Of the 19 countries that had overall positive scores by promoting human rights and universal freedoms, Canada was the only country that ranked as "very constructive".

2. Following close behind were France, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Slovenia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States who were described as "constructive".

3. Then there were those countries who were somewhat positive, but considered "weak": Argentina, Australia, Bosnia, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Japan, Slovakia, South Korea and Zambia.

4. The next member states were labeled as "detrimental", with numerous human rights violations: Bolivia, Ghana, Russia, South Africa and Uruguay.

5. Then followed the "very detrimental": Angola, Egypt, Jordan, India, Iran, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia and Senegal.

6. Finally last -- but not least -- are the ones UN Watch say are "destructive", countries that praised, legitimized and encouraged country policies and practices that violate human rights: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Syria, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

So much for ally testimonials...

What's interesting though, is that President Hu Jintao is on a five-nation trip this week, visiting Saudi Arabia, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius.

Birds of a feather flock together?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Someone's in Trouble

The fire at the China Central Television (CCTV) complex on the East Third Ring Road was the talk of the town today.

Everyone was talking about it in the office, watching videos posted on people's blogs or looking at pictures of the fire that devastated an almost completed Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Today it's a blackened skeleton of itself that has to be torn down, wasting billions of yuan designing and building it.

The culprit?

CCTV themselves.

Apparently some bigwigs decided to set off some fireworks, but not just the ones you get at roadside stands, but those leftover from the Beijing Olympics to create a big bang.

They hired a company from Henan Province to set them off for them.

And as some videos show, like this one, the sparks from the fireworks set the roof of the building on fire.

They probably didn't notice what was going on and continued to set more fireworks off until the building quickly burst into flames and soon after engulfed the entire building.

Fire crews were pretty much helpless in trying to control the fire that started from the top down, limited by their ladders and water hoses.

It took them some five hours to finally put out the blaze but it also led to the death of one firefighter who suffered respiratory track injuries and injured six others and a construction worker.

What is also interesting is that because these fireworks were more powerful than the cheapie ones people could get on the street, the owners (CCTV) should have gotten a license to set them off and didn't listen to police either when they were setting them off.

So... what else can CCTV do except apologise for its actions, saying it was deeply grieved "for the severe damage caused to the country's property".

And they damn well should. After all, it's the taxpayers' money as well as the hard work of migrant workers helping China accumulate so much in US dollars that is paying for the some 5 billion RMB ($731 million) complex.

Now it's all gone in a puff of smoke.

Perhaps the charred remains should be a monument teaching everyone not to play with fire...

Monday, February 9, 2009

CCTV on Fire... Sort of

Breaking news -- a building which is part of the new CCTV building in east third ring road is currently on fire.

A friend of mine called me just after 9pm tonight reporting huge flames shooting out of the odd-shaped building next to the loop nicknamed "da kou char" or "big pants".

Apparently flames six to nine metres tall could be seen on the building and fire crews are trying to put the fire out.

News reports say the cause of the fire is unknown.

Here are some pictures from someone's blog...

CCTV staff were supposed to move into the building in time for the Olympics, but that was written off. The latest date was supposed to be this coming December, but now that may be delayed again...

The Last Blast

Tonight the city sounds like it's under fire.

It's the last night people can set off fireworks and firecrackers for Spring Festival.

They have until midnight and after that people can be fined if they're caught setting them off.

Here's a taste of what's outside my apartment window...

Mid-Afternoon Snack

After watching the villagers perform for the Lantern Festival, we returned to town and I headed to Nanluoguxiang, a hutong near Houhai to check it out as I hadn't been there since the Olympics.

Many new shops were open selling cute trinkets from stuffed animals to silk sachets. There were some new cafes and restaurants too. Most of the existing boutiques and cafes were still open, but a few sadly were closed or just temporarily shut for the holidays.

The place is still a tourist attraction on the weekends, especially for the locals. They love coming here to marvel at all the artsy shops or take photographs. A wedding couple with the bride in a white dress and sneakers were also taking pictures in the area.

As I walked northwards towards Gulou Dajie, I saw a sign saying "Shuang pi nai" or "double-boiled milk".

It's a favourite Cantonese dessert or snack, the milk custard, not too sweet, with a silky smooth texture and delicious taste. Macau has the best double-boiled milk cafes in its Legal Senado square.

So I followed the sign down an alley, near where a man was using an electric saw to cut a plank of wood...

For 10RMB I got a small plastic bowl that was unfortunately lukewarm. Double-boiled milk is best piping hot from the steamer... but these were handcarried on a tray from somewhere else.

Nevertheless, despite its goopy appearance, the taste was creamy but not rich. For Beijing, it hit the spot.

Maiden of Honour

Yesterday's event to mark the Lantern Festival was held in a driving school, but next to it was a security bureau.

And in front of the office were statues... of western-looking women... fair maidens from centuries past.

Perhaps the place wanted to show it's cultured, or a quasi tourist attraction?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rustic Talent Show

Today is the day before the Lantern Festival which traditionally marks the end of Spring Festival.

Early in the morning my colleagues and I headed to northwest Beijing to a village in the outskirts of Haidian District to see some folk performances held around the Lantern Festival.

They gathered in the parking lot of a driving school, some bused in from nearby areas and it was a big operation.

In front was a stage with a table and five judges, while everyone else stood on the ground either watching the proceedings or participating.

There were 13 groups in all, each having 20 to 80 performers, presenting traditional folk routines.

The first group was made up of women in their 50s and 60s performing the dragon dance with two long dragons. They were obviously tired by the end after holding poles to keep the long mystical serpents dancing and following a fiery ball.

There were some drumming demonstrations and two sets of lion dances. You have to feel for the guys who make the back half of each lion. They have to bend down all the time, holding onto the person at the front and follow whatever they do. Not only that, but they have to be able to lift up the front person too. Hope they get a back massage afterwards.

Another group featured a bamboo pole some 15 feet high and each man balanced it with their hands, fingers arms, heads, and chins. They also twisted it with one hand. After each person performed a few stunts, he'd push the pole up with his head and in that way pass it to the next guy. I can't imagine how much that pole weighed.

There were also two performances of stilt walking, and some of the people hopped on one stilt. Crazy. At the end, both made a kind of pyramid and put a little kid on top.

Martial arts was also featured, with a group doing wushu with bamboo sticks that looked pretty good for an amateur group. And some 80 women dressed in white Chinese suits did a choreographed dance with red fans.

Perhaps the liveliest performances were the folk dancing complete with humour.

Elderly men and women dressed up in bright clothes and makeup, some with interesting props like a play horse, a wedding palanquin, and fans. One elderly man was particularly funny with his bug eyes, dancing with his fans.

In the end the judges praised all the groups. There was no specific prize, but each group was given some 5,000RMB ($731.50) each for their efforts.

Who knew Chinese seniors were such talented and natural performers?

Unfortunately, these performances for the Lantern Festival are not as popular as before, with the younger generation not interested in carrying on the tradition.

One wonders how much longer it will be until these events disappear... or perhaps the Chinese government will step in and turn them into intangible art forms that will be preserved one way or another...

Picture of the Day: The PRC Map

Last night on my way home, I saw this map of China outlined in lights on the gates of the apartment complex next door to me.

And it shows the mainland along with Hainan Island in the south, and to the southeast.... Taiwan.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Chinaman in New York

Ai Weiwei is a well known Chinese contemporary artist, best known for his sculptures, installations and architecture.

He helped come up with the initial concept of the Bird's Nest for the National Stadium, but left the project before it was completed, complaining that it is part of a "pretend smile" of bad taste. But he defended his participation in the project, saying "I did it because I love design".

His father, Ai Qing was a poet and during the Cultural Revolution was denounced and sent to a labour camp in Xinjiang. Ai Weiwei also spent five years there.

In 1978 he studied at the Beijing Film Academy where he took classes with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.

In the early 1980s, Ai Weiwei went to New York and did performance art, installations and studied at Parsons School of Design.

And for about 10 years, Ai recorded his life there through his camera.

He took some 10,000 photographs that are currently being exhibited at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, a place that he helped set up with the founders.

It's in an area called Caochangdi, but it's hard to find, just beyond the Fifth ring road.

I took the 970 bus that seemed to go to that area but when I got off, I didn't really know where I was and just wandered into a side street. After a while I reached a bus stop and just then the 909 bus was going to Caochangdi and I hopped on.

It was at the next stop that just passed the sign for the gallery.

After another five minute walk in a very remote area, I finally reached the mini compound made up of contemporary style buildings in gray Chinese brick.

And inside was only a small selection of the thousands of photographs Ai took.

Most of them are of a young Ai looking bored or indifferent, inside his apartment, at the New York subway, drag queens and protests.

There are also pictures of his now well-known pals -- directors Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang, artists Chen Yifei, Xu Bing, composer Tan Dun as well as poet Allen Ginsberg and artist Jasper Johns. He also caught Bill Clinton and Al Sharpton on film.

These are Ai's thoughts on his New York photographs:
These photographs were taken between 1983 and 1994 during the decade I spent living in New York before returning to Beijing. At that time I didn't really have anything to do. I was just hanging out, whiling away my time everyday by taking pictures of the people I met, places I went, my friends, my neighbourhood, the street and the city...

... Life in the past fifty years has been much like a falling leaf with no goal or direction. In the end, however, the leaf will land in some corner. The images' appearance and order are much like this. They are disorganized, but paths of thought appear that seem most clear when the photos are all mixed up...

And the exhibition is just as he describes it, a collection of photographs with no particular objective or theme, but images of his past life as an observer in New York.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Quiet Dining

I just came back home from taking my colleague to Da Dong Roast Duck.

She just arrived in Beijing for work about six weeks ago and even though she visited the capital a few times before, she never tried Peking duck.

So I took her to the best place in town.

I'd always made a reservation in advance and this time was no different.

But when we arrived at the appointed time, there were no crowds of people swarming the reception desk demanding to know when they would be seated, or customers with their mouths watering as they watched the ducks roasted in the open ovens.

We were immediately seated and soon after we ordered, the food arrived at our table.

And for the hour and a half that we were there, not many people came, and those who walked in without a reservation got a table right away.

During the Olympics the place was absolutely packed in the lobby and I remember waiting for a good 45 minutes for a table.

And the last time I was there in early November, it was still humming.

While the restaurant serves delicacies like abalone, sea cucumber and foie gras, the prices for most of the other dishes on the menu are quite reasonable.

However I noticed this time that half a roast duck is 99RMB ($14.50) when it used to be about 79RMB.

Nevertheless, seeing the restaurant starting to empty out at 8pm was a stark reminder that the global financial crisis is hitting Beijing and quieter times may be ahead.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Strange Coincidence?

Yesterday was World Cancer Day.

The International Union Against Cancer (UICC) from its French acronym, has launched its "I Love My Active Childhood".

The year-long campaign is focused on the rising obesity rates in children due to their high consumption of fast food.

Chinese doctors were quoted in the media, saying kids should be more physically active, and eat a balanced diet with more fruits and vegetables and more fibre.

They also admitted that second-hand smoke could also lead to cancer in children, but this year's campaign isn't targeted at smokers.

Nevertheless, this message of living a healthy lifestyle coincided with McDonald's China announcing it would open 175 restaurants in the country this year.

The fast-food joint will hire 10,000 staff to add to its already 60,000 strong army.

McDonald's also said it was cutting the prices of its food by 33 percent.

Now kids have a better argument to eat there because it'll save the family money during these tough economic times...

Naive Filial Piety

There's a sad story circulating in the Chinese media about a teenage girl who tried to kill herself in a misguided attempt to donate her liver to her father dying of liver cancer.

Chen Jin, 13, from Jiangsu Province is still in critical condition in hospital after she swallowed some 200 sleeping pills on January 24.

At the end of last month, doctors said Chen's father only had a few months to live. Chen didn't find this out until January 23 when she saw the doctors' prognosis report in her mother's purse.

"Chen is my dearest daughter. She has been so understanding and concerned since her dad fell ill even though she is only 13," said her mother, Cui Lan, a laid-off factory worker. "She loves her dad and she usually cooks rice porridge to bring it to his ward in hospital."

"When she waved goodbye to him and returned home on the afternoon of January 23, saying she will bring some porridge the next day, I didn't sense that something so silly was about to happen to her."

But the next day she found her daughter lying unconscious on the bed with a suicide note that read: "Mum, sorry about this but I cannot make your company any more - please take my liver to save dad's life."

Cui rushed her daughter to the hospital some 10 hours after Chen had swallowed the pills.

"She loves her dad more than herself," Cui cried.

"Her dad and I have been in bad health and have resorted to sleeping pills, but our girl took down all of them attempting to end her life to save her dad."

When the story was first published, Chen's father didn't know what happened to his daughter.

His treatments have already cost tens of thousands of yuan, and Chen's hospitalization have compounded medical costs to RMB 100,00 ($14,000) for this poor family.

Some hospital staff and former colleagues have donated money, but obviously it's not enough to pay for everything.

While the chances of survival for the father are slim, hopefully the girl will fully recover and be able to take care of her mother, who has almost lost the two most important people in her life.

That is the least she can do for her father.

Hope Drying Up

Vast areas of China's wheat producing areas are suffering from drought.

A lack of rainfall in northern China has led to areas that are literally bone dry. River beds and ponds have dried up, with pictures showing children playing in what used to be covered in water and not a drop of H2O in sight.

The drought is affecting 93 million hectares of land, or 43 percent of the country's total wheat-producing areas.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have ordered all out efforts in fighting the drought, pouring in an additional RMB 300 million ($44 million) to the RMB 100 million already allocated.

The State Council has ordered relevant departments "to enhance farmland management, mobilize human resources, ensure technology service and enlarge irrigation areas".

The Ministry of Agriculture has sent 12 working teams of experts to direct farmers on drought relief work.

Some areas are even looking into firing rockets into the sky to stimulate rain clouds and hopefully some rainfall.

How did it all come to this?

If areas haven't had rain for a few months or weeks, something needs to be done right away. Why did they wait until yesterday when the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters issued an orange alert?

Now the state media are showing pictures of fire crews spraying water on parched areas. There are also plans to direct water to the dry areas. But what about the poorer areas where it is so dry that it looks like a desert? Is redirecting water a temporary solution that doesn't really solve the problem?

Not only are migrant workers returning to their homes because they can't find a job, but also coming back to see their land so dry they can't even grow anything in the dried up soil.

Sounds like the economic crisis is compounding further...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Sobering Reality

At the tail end of the Spring Festival holidays, I had dinner with a colleague and her husband and his friend.

They took me to the Wahaha Hotel in Dongsi, a place opened up by the bottled water company.

It's located in Dongsi, the old part of Beijing.

They explained to me that in the old days, the social class of the city was determined by where you lived.

Those in the west were intellectuals, and those in the east were rich; people in the south were poor, and those in the north like where I live now were considered servants.

They explained that a long time ago, the graveyards of the rich were located in the north and they hired these servants who lived there to tend to them.

She joked that we were these servants since we live in Wang Jing.

When we got to the hotel restaurant, it looked very posh inside. The lobby entrance was flanked a pair of giant glass lotus flowers and lots of marble everywhere.

We were seated in a grand-looking restaurant, with quasi individual dining areas separated by a divider with a giant hole in the middle that could be a doorway.

While the menu ranged from simple dishes to abalone and sea cucumber, my friends ordered a lot of food for four people.

As we ate they had a grand time making jokes, deploring the fact that we had to return to work the next day, and talked about the husband's friend's trip to Japan.

My colleague talked very openly about her interest in Tibet. She had been there once in the 1990s and loved it. I asked her to explain why, but she said she couldn't quite put her finger on the reason.

But she did like nature and the Tibetan mastiffs. She's an animal lover.

She told me that a friend who works for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is a Tibet expert and he did a happiness survey of China. He found that the overwhelming majority of people in Tibet are happy even though they don't have much money.

And that impressed her about Tibetans, how they could just be happy with their station in life. "They aren't concerned about making money or trying buying a house. They are very spiritual and Chinese people lack religion," she said.

At dinner she joked that her dream was to go live in Tibet and have some Tibetan mastiffs.

In the end we had ordered too much food and while she did take some in a doggie bag, she didn't take all of it, leaving much of it wasted.

When they drove me home, we passed by the Poly Group building, a giant glass structure on the corner of Dongsishitiao. It's diagonally across from the Poly Theatre, where many well-known musicians perform.

She pointed to the building and said, "You know this theatre? It's funded with money made from arms."

I was shocked and pressed her to explain, thinking of the wonderful concerts I had attended there, including Lang Lang.

"When the foreign media accuse China of selling arms to places like Sudan, it's not the government that does it, but the people related to officials," she said.

"Everyone knows that," she continued. "They are the ones with the connections, getting the weapons and shipping them. They make lots of money from it and fund things like concerts and art exhibitions. But there is nothing we can do because they are related to officials."

Now I have mixed feelings about attending future concerts here. On the one hand it feels dirty knowing where the money allegedly came from to fly in top acts or to fund the China Symphony Orchestra, but at the same time, the mainstream arts and culture scene would not thrive without this money.

The dirty politics of art was bound to come up eventually...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Shanzhai Shoe Throwers

Chinese state media have been flowing with praise over Premier Wen Jiabao's European tour, going on and on about him visiting five countries -- Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and Spain.

They portray him as a statesman going to these places and trying to diplomatically tell them to place more orders for Chinese-made products so that the number of unemployed migrant workers can decrease.

He tried to portray China as a place that isn't hit too badly by the global financial crisis, and that he "sees the light at the end of the tunnel".

"In some places people are disappointed, people are frustrated and people are pessimistic. They are quickly unsettled by the current situation," Wen told a business conference during his London visit.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel... I am calling for confidence, cooperation and responsibility. I've been calling for that all along because if we can do that we can save the world."

But not everyone was as optimistic as Wen.

During his speech at Cambridge University, a protester stood up at the back of the auditorium and shouted, "You should be ashamed of yourselves. How can you listen to the lies he's telling?"

The man then threw a shoe that landed on stage, but a few feet from the premier.

"Stand up and protest, you're not challenging him," the man added before he was taken away by security.

Wen was unruffled but reprimanded the protester, saying: "This despicable behaviour cannot stand in the way of friendship between China and the UK." [这种卑鄙的伎俩阻挡不了中英两国人民的友谊。]

While trying to create warmer ties with Europe, why not show a bit of humour? At least former President George Bush did when shoes were thrown directly at his head by Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi in December.

But perhaps Wen wanted to show he really means business. Or maybe he was tired of all the Tibet protests dogging his UK visit and just wanted to go home.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Rough Road Begins

The Spring Festival holidays have come to a close.

For some of us who work in State-owned enterprises (SOEs), we actually returned to the grind yesterday. A Sunday? you ask.

In China, it's decreed staff of SOEs must return to work after 7 days' holiday even if it is a Sunday.

And as you'd think, there wasn't much to do.

But in the evenings, the festive mood hasn't disappeared yet.

As soon as it gets dark, the booms from fireworks are still in force, albeit the volume gets smaller and smaller as the days go by.

When I returned to Beijing on Thursday, the firecrackers and fireworks were going strong, particularly on Friday night with a giant explosion of colourful sparks right in front of my window on the 18th floor.

Other lingering aspects of the Lunar New Year festivities include showing highlights of the CCTV New Year show on TV screens in the subway carriages and buses.

On January 25 I did admit being one of the millions watching the show on TV more for curiosity than as a traditional ritual like most, who then later pan the performances.

This year there were Peking Opera performances, choreographed dancing and singing, cross talk shows and of course kung fu demonstrations.

In the cross talk performances, there was one featuring Da Shan or Mark Roswell, the well-known Canadian who speaks flawless Mandarin.

He was up on stage with four other Chinese guys, teasing each other with their (scripted) witty jokes. The others constantly referred to him as da bizi or "big nose".

Unfortunately my Mandarin isn't quite up to par with Roswell's so I could only barely make out what was going on...

There was also an updated kung fu performance that was comical as well as interesting to watch. Men and women fought each other and it seemed the females had the upperhand, with one woman punching her fist through what looked like an iron wok, or easily beating the men at their own game.

Interspersed through the act were young boys with half shaved heads and doing their own kung fu demonstrations that were admirable.

At the end Bruce Lee lookalike Danny Chan who also portrayed the martial arts legend in a TV series, appears on stage. Dressed in a yellow suit, he does a quick demo with nunchuks before everyone else gathers around him at the end.

A sombre part of the show was when the survivors of the Sichuan earthquake in May were remembered.

And CCTV got some of the memorable characters to come to Beijing. They included the young boy who saved some of his classmates, a school principal, and Coke boy, the young teen who survived hoping to have the soft drink once he was taken out of the debris. He stood there, minus his right hand.

It was a good reminder for the public that these people are still around and still need our help.

I had read an article about how some survivors were understandably still having psychological problems, but also that they were tired of being used by companies who wanted to look like they were doing a good deed.

They cited getting clothing that didn't fit them at all, or things were donated to them that didn't have much use, but the companies got good PR exposure from it.

Nevertheless it was sobering to see these heroes on stage, wishing everyone all the best in the Year of the Ox, inspiring people to jia you, or keep going.

And we'll need to keep going now that the government has come out saying that some 20 million migrant workers, 15.3 percent of the 130 million are unemployed, far higher than earlier estimates.

We'll have a better picture of the depressing economic situation when some of them will try their luck in the cities, or stay put in their hometowns.

They are stuck either way -- not much work in the cities or they won't have land to till at home due to recent land reforms where they can transfer their land to agricultural companies.

The government is trying to encourage people, both migrants and fresh graduates to start businesses, but what can they do? What to they know about being entrepreneurs?

Another plan is to get fresh graduates to work in villages all over the country in the hopes of implementing new ideas, but in the end they turn out to be glorified assistants carrying out local party boss' orders.

It seems things haven't been thought out carefully and Beijing is just trying to put bandaid solutions on things and hoping the plaster won't come off.

This will be the leadership's biggest test ever and the Year of the Ox won't be easy for them to manage. Let's hope for everyone's sake they can tame the bull...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Taking the High Road

Near our hotel and along the city's main thoroughfare there's a raised highway that is lit up at night.

At first we thought it was an inner-city commuter train and wanted to ride on it. We later realized it was a road -- just for buses.

It's called BRT -- Bus Rapid Transit and the service was only started in September last year.

The blue buses go to three different destinations, but since most of the path goes in a straight line, the buses stop at almost the same stations.

Bus fare is relatively cheap at 0.5RMB ($0.07), as buses street level are 1RMB. Once you pay the fare you're given a blue plastic chip and beeped through the turnstile.

At each station, an attendant stands there, making sure passengers don't walk onto the road (even though it's cordoned off) and they board the bus safely. How difficult is that?

The buses themselves are very clean and quiet and come quite frequently. My friend joked that perhaps bus drivers who did a good job were promoted to driving these kinds of buses, as our driver had a plant next to him and cushy seat.

However it isn't much of a challenge driving these buses, with no cars or pedestrians to watch out for.

One worries drivers could fall asleep at the wheel...

For a long time Fujian Province was neglected by Beijing because it was geographically close to Taiwan.

Officials concerned about possible war with the "renegade province" didn't want to invest too much money in Fujian.

But these days many of the businesses and investment come from Taiwan, making the economic links between them inextricable.

So it's in the last few years that the government has thrown more money into Xiamen and there are many construction projects around the city.

And the BRT is probably one of those infrastructure projects that had good intentions, but they didn't have enough foresight (or money) to go all the way and move the city forward in developing a more modern and environmentally friendly one.

Why have diesel-powered buses when an electric-powered train system would be better?

It's a half-step forward for a city that could leap forward with much potential.

Homage to the Father

There's a park in Xiamen called Zhong Shan Gong Yuan, or Dr Sun Yat-Sen Park.

And being Spring Festival, the place was dolled up with red lanterns around the outer circumference of the park, and at the gate.

Vendors at the entrance sold balloons and popcorn, nuts and raisins.

And inside there's lots of trees and underneath are stone tables and stools for people to play cards. Many elderly gather there and keep their brains sharp by hanging out there for the afternoon with friends, while young families stroll around with kids in tow.

There's also a pond where people can rent paddle boats and refreshment stands for drinks.

And of course a statue of Dr Sun stands in the middle of the park, a stately-looking figure who looks down on us ordinary citizens enjoying this public space.

Apparently many Chinese cities have parks and streets named after him, paying homage to the Father of Modern China.

I'm pleased to say this is one of the few parks that I've seen in China that isn't highly programmed -- people are quite free to use the open space as they wished, particularly the grass areas. Some played badminton, children and babies tumbled around on the grass, and others sat on benches and chatted.

A short walking distance from the park is Zhong Shan Lu, Dr Sun Yat-Sen street. It's very similar to Nanjing Lu in Shanghai, a giant pedestrian-only area filled with shops and food stalls.

Here Chinese boutiques lined the streets and people could get cotton candy, bubble tea, or watch artisans make dough figurines. It's a pity to see them selling ones of the Fuwa or the Beijing Olympics mascots or Doraemon, when Peking opera masks or other traditional Chinese characters would be more interesting.

But this is capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

Luckily Zhong Shan Lu wasn't too crowded. Not too many people were shopping as a way to contribute to the economy, but it was nice to see families out strolling around to catch some of the excitement during the New Year.