Sunday, February 28, 2010

Memorable Games

After almost 17 days, the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games are almost over.
It's been filled with a lot of excitement, drama, tragedy and redemption, which is why it's the Olympics.
It started off badly with the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, which brought a sombre start to the Opening Ceremony, that was nonetheless very Canadiana with Wayne Gretzy lighting the torch.
This was followed by violent protests by anti-Olympics people, but they soon disappeared and Vancouver got into the spirit of things by the end of the first week of the Games. People flooded the downtown core wearing anything red, from hockey jerseys to scarves, and the ubiquitous red mittens that even Oprah distributed to her show audience. The burning patriotic passion was unprecedented for usually reserved Canadians.
Then came the sad news that figure skater Joannie Rochette's mother suddenly passed away two days before her short program. However, Rochette, either through shock or determination or both, gracefully performed and managed to win bronze in the end. Rochette spoke so eloquently after her win, saying how her mother was probably with her during her skate and how she didn't want to regret not competing, as it was her childhood dream to compete in the Olympics.
Excitement also started to build when Canada started winning medals on Day 2 and by the end of Day 16, has 13 gold medals, unprecedented for any host city, and the overall medal haul topped best-ever results in Turin with 25. The host country is guaranteed a medal tomorrow at the men's hockey match against the United States.
The most memorable moments were Alexandre Bilodeau winning the first gold on Canadian soil, and Maelle Ricker being the first woman to win gold in her hometown; the skating pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Jon Montgomery drinking a pitcher of beer in Whistler Village and the hockey team losing its preliminary match against the US.
Meanwhile, China had the same medal count of 11 in Turin, but the number of golds significantly increased. In 2006, China won two golds, four silvers and five bronze, and in Vancouver the Middle Kingdom got five golds, two silvers and four bronze.
China had many firsts in these Games, including a gold and silver in the pairs figure skating, a bronze in curling and Wang Meng winning three golds in short track speed skating. Her compatriot Zhou Yang won her first-ever gold in the 500m race, followed by another in the 1,500m and was handsomely rewarded with an apartment for her parents in Changchun.
Overall it seems Chinese Olympic Committee officials are pleased.
"We can say that at these Olympic Games we have had a major breakthrough in winter sports," said Xiao Tian, deputy chef de mission. "Of all our athletes the Chinese ladies' short track team is by far the most successful."
He also added they were pleased with the men's and women's freestyle aerials, where seven of the eight competitors made the finals. The only one who didn't make it was defending champion Han Xiaoopeng.
Nevertheless, the Chinese team credits part of its success to hiring eight foreign coaches for the athletes. For example, the freestyle aerialists are coached by Dustin Wilson, and the curlers by Dan Rafael. After his angry outbursts of the performance of the curlers, and yet helping China win a bronze may lead to a saving face for both parties involved.
While winter sports are not China's forte, its latest medal haul is a good sign that the country is rapidly improving and hopefully garner more interest and appreciation from its people.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Taste of Boulud in Vancouver

I've dined at Maison Boulud in Beijing's former Legation Quarter, just off of Tiananmen Square many times, and am overall very impressed by the food, service and atmosphere.
And in December 2008, celeb chef Daniel Boulud expanded his stable of eateries by opening DB Bistro in Vancouver.
However, he took over the space previously occupied by Iron Chef Rob Feenie, a Vancouverite and the founder of Lumiere and Feenie's. But he lost the majority of his shares in the restaurants in 2005 and was forced out by the owners two years later.
They invited Boulud to come and set up shop in the same space, though changing Feenie's to DB Bistro, and Lumiere, the higher end restaurant kept its name.
So I was keen to try out DB Bistro, as a comparison to Maison Boulud.
But my first encounter with the restaurant over the phone left a bad taste in my mouth.
When I called several days earlier to make a reservation, I was promptly asked not only for my phone number, name, time and the number of people in my party, but also my credit card number and email address.
The woman explained it was because of the Olympic period that people made reservations and didn't show up and so a credit card number was needed. If I didn't show up for my reservation, she said, then $80 would be charged on my credit card.
"Don't worry I'll be there," I said, annoyed by this new temporary policy. I explained that I lived in Beijing and went to Maison Boulud; I was specifically coming to DB Bistro to try the food.
She was very excited to hear this and made of note of this in the reservation.
However, when we got there at the appointed time, the restaurant was empty at 6pm with a few people sitting at the bar watching the Canadian men's hockey team battling it out against Russia, ultimately defeating them 7-3.
With the jubilant mood, we perused the menu specifically created for the Olympic period.
At first glance it's very French with coq au vin, pate, and seafood bouillabaise, but also uses many local ingredients, like Quadra Island mussels, wild mushrooms and greens.
After our orders were taken by a very tall Scottish-sounding waiter, he brought us some lukewarm bread and also an amuse bouche of a lamb tortellini, a deep-fried square ravioli that was warm and delicious.
For starters, I had the special of a pate terrine that had dried figs in the middle. Accompanied with dark brown toast, the foie gras pate was as expected: rich, sinful and smooth. While it was definitely artery-clogging, it was a divine occasional treat.
The celery and chestnut soup was also rich too, a cream-based soup that had a roasted chestnut flavour.
Soon after our appetizer courses a waiter brought out an oval plate with a whole seabass that was covered in a thick coat of salt and herbs and baked. The salt crust keeps the fish meat moist. The fish went back into the kitchen to be deboned and served with chunks of potatoes and vegetables.
The meat was very soft and moist, hardly flaky. It wasn't very salty either which was a nice surprise.
I had the roasted black cod, two chunks of the perfectly cooked fish, on a bed of chick pea panisse, cooked with julienne peppers and tomatoes. There was also hummus but shaped into cubes for an interesting presentation.
The blanquette of veal with herbs and lemon was cooked with carrots, turnips, pearl onions, mushrooms, crispy sweetbreads and a side of basmati rice.
By the time we finished our mains, we were quite full, but not without a taste of dessert.
A week earlier the restaurant served passionfruit souffle, but not tonight. Instead we had a lemon tart which was a nice finish that wasn't too sweet and the long rectangular slice was just the right portion. It was a surprise to find that the warm madeleines that are usually served gratis in Beijing are $8 here.
While the meal was great, service was cordial, and constantly asking how the food was. Eventually three or four other tables were filled and settling into dinner.
The bill? A bit over the top with a 20 percent service charge already built into the tab, considering the going rate is 15 percent.
For three people, the bill was just over $200, including coffee and a bottle of sparking water.
While it was a wonderful dinner, the extra charges didn't materialize into making guests feel extra special which you can't put a price on.
DB Bistro Moderne
2551 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
604 739 7115

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gas Guzzling Stops Here

Breaking news, folks -- Hummer is not coming to China.
Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company pulled out of a deal to buy the Hummer brand from General Motors, apparently because the Sichuan-based company failed to get regulatory approval before a required deadline.
However, China's Ministry of Commerce said on Wednesday that it never received an application from Tengzhong regarding the proposed purchase that would have given the company an 80 percent stake in Hummer. The deal was supposedly valued at $150 million.
As a result of the deal falling through, GM has started shutting down operations for Hummer. The development is the latest setback for GM trying to unload its unwanted brands.
Back in October Tengzhong had agreed to buy the Hummer brand, trademark, trade names and intellectual property license rights to build Hummer vehicles. The company was also going to take on existing dealer agreements.
Representatives from the two companies had taken pictures with each other a few months ago in Detroit, which seemed like it was going to be a done deal.
Apparently not.
"We are disappointed that the deal with Tengzhong could not be completed," said John Smith, GM's vice president of corporate planning and alliances. "GM will now work closely with Hummer employees, dealers and suppliers to wind down the business in an orderly and responsible manner."
In a separate statement, Tengzhong said it was "disappointed that the transaction cannot be further pursued, but the company respects the outcome."
What happened?
Perhaps after the fallout of the financial crisis, or realizing there isn't a huge market for Hummer vehicles, or after the climate change summit that it might be politically incorrect to acquire the brand, or that they didn't have the know-how to properly manage a foreign brand, Tengzhong pulled out.
The public may never know the real reasons behind the decision, whether it was politically motivated or not, but it's an interesting development considering China's bid to expand its expertise and reach overseas.
In the meantime there's a silver lining to this story -- with the end of Hummer these giant gas-guzzling vehicles will eventually become obselete and we'll all be able to breathe a little easier.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tough Call

The Canadian coach of the Chinese curling team has created a fracas after both the women's and men's teams faltered in the last few days.
While the Chinese women beat heavy favourite Canada on Sunday, China was beaten by bottom-seed Russia, along with two other losses, resulting in Dan Rafael's anger bubbling over.
"I'm furious," he told reporters after the loss to Russia on Monday. "The problem with this team is that they have no passion. It's their job."
Li Dongyan, the team leader and general secretary of the Chinese Curling Association tried to do some damage control, denying that Rafael had been told to avoid critical comments; instead he explained that the Canadian coach was spending too much time talking to the media and not enough to the players.
"The players have to wait for a half-hour, at least," said Li. "So I just told him to cut down the time, not to keep quiet. That's a different meaning. You can take five or 10 minutes. We have nine games plus two games for playoffs; if every time he's here for a half-hour, they have to wait in the locker-room. Just cut down on the time."
The Chinese are not used to being in the centre of a controversy especially when the host country is mad about curling, while almost the whole of China has no clue what curling is.
Rafael was hired by the Chinese over two years ago, taught them some strategy, techniques and soon the two teams were onto a successful track, particularly the women.
But the language barrier has been difficult for him to deal with, as Rafael has to talk through an interpreter and doesn't know if his message is being effectively communicated across to the players.
He also doesn't accept the Chinese sports system that expects athletes to practice several hours a day everyday without hardly any breaks.
Before the curling event began at this year's Olympics, Rafael was unhappy that Chinese officials wouldn't allow the curlers to do interviews until after their first match. And also the players hardly had any free time, with officials keeping them on a detailed busy schedule for every hour of the day.'
"If I showed you my schedule, you'd drop to the ground," said Rafael. "You're told when to get up, when to eat, when to sleep. I don't think they can breathe without fear of losing control. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It's just the way it is."
But in the meantime while the Chinese men won't make the medal round, he has no idea how the women will do, as their curling has been so inconsistent.
"I don't know who is going to show up," he told reporters, trembling with anger. "The team that played Canada or the team that played Russia? I don't know what to do anymore. At this point, it's not whether we finish first or fourth. If you're going to show up and play like this, you might as well stay in your room.
"My personal view, my opinion, is I don't think they have the passion most curlers have," Rafael continued. "If you were in their shoes, wouldn't you have passion? Wouldn't being in your first Olympics and representing your country, motivate you? I don't know what they're thinking. I really don't. They're not children. They're adults."
The Chinese women's skip, Wang Bingyu tried to deflect their coach's criticism. "Of course we love curling," she said. "Not many people from China know about curling. We don't have a club and we keep playing."
And that's the difference between most amateur athletes in the Olympics and those in state-run programs -- the passion.
Many Olympic athletes sacrifice a lot of time and money to pursue what they love, their parents driving them to competitions and shouting encouragement from the stands, and helping out with fundraising. Meanwhile in China, the government completely funds the sport, but the athletes are expected to practice day in and day out, secluded from their families and friends. While both systems are different, it seems the former makes winning a medal -- any medal -- all the more satisfying.
Afterwards, former athletes of most western countries are able to develop careers after they retire from the sport, whether it be a coach or in sports administration, public speaking or otherwise, while China seems to neglect many of its former stars, letting many of them fade into obscurity without much education or connections to help them network.
Zou Chunlan is one example. She was once a professional weightlifter and had 14 medals to her name and made the national team. But after she was laid off the team in 2000, she received 75,000 RMB ($9,400) as a one-off compensation for her injuries, but because she only had the equivalent of a Grade 3 education, she resorted to being a masseuse in a public bathhouse.
So maybe Rafael is right -- but the Games aren't over yet -- maybe the Chinese women's curling team will prove him wrong.
Perhaps Rafael is trying to avoid blame for the Chinese curling teams' poor performance so far.
As his contract ends in June, he's already expressed that he won't be renewing, effectively closing the chapter on his Chinese experience.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fact of the Day: Gambling for More

There is possibly more evidence that there's still a lot of hot money floating around in Chinese pockets.
During the Spring Festival holiday, Chinese tourists flooded casinos in Macau, gambling away some 9 billion patacas ($1.13 billion) between February 1-21.
Of the table game revenues in the past 21 days, one-third was collected during the one-week Spring Festival, from February 13-19, reported the Macao Post Daily.
In January, total casino revenues was 8.6 billion patacas.
In addition, the highest daily game revenues during the first 21 days of February was at least 900 million patacas, breaking the highest single day record of 800 million patacas last month, the newspaper said.
Either Chinese people got massive new year bonuses from their bosses for their hard work all year, or some people are amassing their own bootie in the hopes good luck will turn it into an even bigger jackpot.
One thinks the Macau casinos were the real winners...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fact of the Day: The Cost of Energy

Foreign media like The New York Times have touted China as leading the rest of the world when it comes to using green technology. The country has tons of wind turbines, households using solar panels to heat up water, and cutting electricity usage by installing lots of energy-efficient light bulbs.
However, the green energy produced only makes up for about 25-30 percent of China's total energy usage -- it still needs lots of coal to produce electricity, which means many more coal accidents are going to keep occuring.
The head of China's coal mining safety agency says the Middle Kingdom will need at least 10 years to improve safety in the country's coal mines.
Zhao Tiechui is head of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety. He recently admitted that China's mines are very dangerous, and that some coal entrepreneurs have little awareness of safety laws.
The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, reports that on average, seven miners were killed each day in 2009 for a total of 2,631. The number was 584 less than in 2008.
The worst official death toll was in 2002, when almost 7,000 miners were killed.
Most mine owners only think of the short-term gains -- but if they implemented better safety standards then there would be fewer accidents and fatalities and more coal could be mined. But in reality, these owners don't care one bit about their employees' lives, having enough money to pay for compensation to victims' families as well as snap up expensive apartments and Hummers.
So much for trying to be green.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Chinese Women Deliver

At the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the Chinese women are dominating the aerials in the qualifying round.
On Cypress Mountain, China just about blew away the competition, showing the world what they can do.
Coached by Canadian Dustin Wilson, the Chinese got amazing height from their jumps and did the most intricate twists and turns, and then landing well too.
Li Nina is a silver medallist from Turin and hopes to jump for gold, and is currently in second. Guo Xinxin is now third, and Cheng Shuang is fourth. Xu Mengtao didn't land properly, but her good jump still got her in eighth place.
Their only competitor now is Alla Tsuper of Belarus.
This clearly shows how China is progressed so quickly in this sport and with their hard work and technique refined by a Canadian will result in standing on the podium.
Meanwhile all eyes were on Wang Meng in the women's 1,500m at the Pacific Coliseum -- but she ended up being disqualified in the semifinals, after falling.
"I don't know what happened," she recalled at the press conference afterwards. "I was not rushing. I was in a good position with one lap to go. I guess if the referee disqualifies me, there is nothing I can say."
Nonetheless, her compatriot Yang Zhou stepped up to the plate and skated to an Olympic record of 2:16.993, winning gold, followed by South Korea's Lee Eun-Byul and Park Seung-Hi getting silver and bronze respectively.
While Yang was ecstatic with her victory, she felt bad for Wang.
"When Wang Meng started skating she told me not to watch her. She did not want me to get nervous. But I couldn't help myself. I peeked at the screen. And when I saw her fall, my heart sank," she said at the press conference. "Then I heard the referee had disqualified her, my heart sank again."
However, Yang said she mentally focussed on her race and went for gold.
"I did say that this gold medal is something I wanted. But there is another event I want to win. Stay tuned."
We will.
Photo: Xinhua

Word of the Day: 被-ing Passive

The word bei (被) has been nominated "Chinese character of the year 2009" in an online poll conducted by a linguistic centre under the Ministry of Education and the state-run Commercial Press.

According to Nciku, an English-Chinese online dictionary, bei (4) is used in a passive sentence to introduce the doer of the action or the action if the doer is not mentioned.

But now the word is used to express a sentiment deeper than a passive voice -- to convey a sense of helplessness in deciding one's fate.

These days bei is used to reflect dissatisfacton over the abuse of official power.

For example, bei ziyuan -- 被资源 -- to be volunteered or compelled to volunteer actually ridicules government departments that force people to something against their will while alleging they "do it out of their own free will."

Bei jiuye -- 被就业 -- means being found a job, inferring employment statistics are not accurate.

Here are a few more bei phrases:

bei zisha -- 被自杀 -- to be forced into suicide.
bei shizong -- 被失踪 -- to be forced into disappearance, referring to those who don't tow the party line.
bei xiaoshi -- 被消失 -- to be forced to suffer losses, particularly financial.
bei hexie -- 被和谐 -- to be harmonized, or to be censored.
beidaibiao -- 被代表-- to be represented.
beizengzhang-- 被增长-- to be increased, or to doubt official statistics related to an increase in salaries.
beiwangyin -- 被网瘾-- to be addicted to the Internet. Apparently the official definition of Internet addiction is 40 hours a week, but then that would mean that all office workers who depend on using the Internet for their work would be considered to be beiwangyin-ed.
beigaotie -- 被-- to be high speed rail-ized. As the government builds more high-speed rail networks, this results in higher ticket prices imposed on passengers.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spiritual Meeting Draws Chinese Ire

After weeks of warnings from China, US President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama in the White House today.
It's funny how China vehemently protested, threatening to impose sanctions and such, considering Obama had told senior Chinese leaders directly in November that he would meet the Tibetan spiritual leader.
The US ignored the angry protestations in an attempt to stand up to what many analysts are describing is China's growing arrogance.
The Obama administration also tried hard to keep the meeting as low-key as possible, having the meeting in the Map Room, not the Oval Office, and keeping media out. A photograph of the two was released shortly after, taken by Pete Souza. The Dalai Lama also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department.
After meeting the president, the Dalai Lama met with reporters and even tossed snow at them, revealing his mischievous side, as he is born in the Year of the Monkey.
Later US Press Secretary Robert Gibbs released the following statement:
The President met this morning at the white House with his Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China. The President commended the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" approach, his commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government. The President stressed that he has consistently encouraged both sides to engage in direct dialogue to resolve differences and was pleased to hear about the recent resumption of talks. The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.
Meanwhile China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement: "The US act grossly violated the norms governing the international relations, and ran counter to the principles set forth in the three China-US joint communiques and the China-US joint statement," he said.
The statement on the ministry website also said the meeting went against the repeated commitments by the US government that the US recognizes Tibet as part of China and gives no support to "Tibet independence," he said. Ma demanded that the US seriously consider China's stance and immediately adupt measures to "wipe out the baneful impact and stop conniving and supporting anti-China separatist forces that seek 'Tibetan independence.'"
China's ranting and raving is futile, but it hopes that the strong language will provoke the US to step down.
However, every other American president has met the Tibetan spiritual leader before, so why not now?
China sounds more like a petulant child than a mature, rising power.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Battle for Soft Power

In 2004 China opened its first Confucius Institute in Seoul, South Korea, after trying out a pilot program in Tashkent, Uzbekistan earlier that year.
The purported aim of these institutes is to promote Chinese language and culture, by providing training for instructors as well as textbooks. It also offers information for people and companies interested in doing business in China.
As of November 2009 there were 282 Confucius Institutes all over the world. Many countries and cities are keen on opening an institute, mostly because of the interest in China, but also because as long as the hosts provide space (usually in post-secondary institutions), the institutes are willing to provide much of the curriculum and training.
While the Chinese government is trying to promote the Confucius Institutes as counterparts to Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institute, there are skeptics who think China is trying to use these cultural institutes as a vehicle for propaganda purposes. Some educators have expressed concern the Confucius Institutes were meddling in their existing curriculums, while others felt having a presence in their city or country gave the Chinese an opportunity to expand its soft power.
What's ironic is how China has chosen to name its institutes after Confucius, the ancient sage from the 6th century BC, as Chairman Mao once vilified him as a symbol of backward conservatism.
And now the Chinese mainland will have another battle on its hands -- Taiwan is interested in starting up its own cultural institutes.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou recently said that he has instructed the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) to implement plans to set up Taiwan Academies around the world to promote traditional Chinese language and culture.
He explained such academies were necessary as the Confucius Institutes are now dominating the teaching of the Chinese language and culture in non-Chinese speaking countries.
It is an obvious attempt by Taiwan to battle for supremacy in the "one China" issue, but starting so late, it's definitely going to be an uphill battle for Taiwan to make any ground with its Taiwan academies even though the CCA already has a handful of cultural centres in some foreign capitals and a few language schools on all continents. 
Ma hopes they will incorporate the language institutes with the cultural centres, as most of them are only focused on promoting Chinese culture and Taiwanese contemporary arts.
Nevertheless, it's an interesting attempt for Taiwan to promote Chinese, as the island nation uses traditional Chinese characters, and its own symbols to help pronounce characters. It's a system not used anywhere else in the world, as pinyin, developed in China in 1950 has made it so much easier for foreigners to learn the language.
When the CCA starts getting this project off the ground, it'll be interesting to see who wins out in this battle for soft power supremacy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More Love on Ice

In China, news is finally sinking in that the country swept gold and silver in the pairs figure skating, the first time ever.
While it was a known fact that gold medallists Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue were married since 2007 and are now hinting about settling down to have a baby, the silver medallists had an announcement to make -- they too are a couple.
There were questions after Pang Qing and Tong Jian finished their routine and Tong kissed the ice.
Originally he explained to the media that he was so swept up in the moment that he pucked up on the ice.
"Actually I wanted to kiss Pang after the free skating competition, but I didn't find her by my side," Tong was quoted as saying by the China Daily newspaper Wednesday. "Many fans who have cared about us have asked us about our relationship... I want to announce that we are in a relationship with each other."
Pang and Tong are both 30, and had missed the podium in Turin in 2006, finishing fourth.
Now the next question is... will there be wedding bells soon?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Golden Couple

China has made history tonight with its first gold and a silver in figure skating at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, ending Russian dominance in this event.
Specifically coming out of retirement for the Olympics, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo skated a romantic routine to Adagio with a few mistakes, but overall technically good. When they got their score of 216.57, they realized they had won gold and hugged each other. At 36, Zhao is the second oldest Olympic champion in figure skating, Shen at 31, is the 10th oldest. 
Their compatriots Pang Qing and Tong Jian also made their best performance skating to The Impossible Dream from The Man of la Mancha, nailing a series of difficult jumps and lifts. They gained confidence as their routine progressed, and at the end got a standing ovation from the 11,350 audience members. Tong was so swept up in the moment that he knelt down and kissed the ice. It was also their last Olympics.
However, the third Chinese pair, Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao, who had won silver in Turin in 2006, had to settle for fifth place as Zhang Hao had a big spill on the opening jump.
Regardless, their results are redemption for their coach, Yao Bin.
He had competed in the 1980 World Championships and 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, and he and his partner's routine was considered so crude, that they were practically booed and laughed off the ice.
Yao has shown the world that determination, hard work and of course money brings Olympic gold.
Now who's laughing?
At the press conference after the competition, Shen hopes their win will help promote their sport in China.
"We hope that by winning this gold medal, we can inspired not just the young people of Harbin, but young people everywhere in China to like figure skating."
Zhao was also elated by their historic win.
"I am thrilled that we have finally realised our dream. We have won many medals at other competitions and when we hear our national anthem and see the Chinese flag being raised, we always wished that it was at the Olympic Games."
And now that they have achieved their goal, it may be time for the husband and wife team to move onto other pursuits.
"We are too old to continue skating, so maybe it's time to have a baby," Zhao said.

The Power of Love

In a tribute to Valentine's Day and the start of Chinese New Year with the Year of the Tiger, the following is an abridged statement by Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, co-author of the Charter 08 campaign for constitutional reform. He made the statement at his trial on December 23, 2009. The result of his appeal against an 11-year jail sentence for subversion was upheld.
The statement was from the Guardian and translated by Professor David Kelly of the China Research Centre, University of Technology, Sydney. The original Chinese version follows. 
June 1989 was the major turning point in my 50 years on life's road. Before that, I was a member of the first group of students to take the newly restored college entrance examinations following the Cultural Revolution; my career was a smooth ride, from undergraduate to grad student and through to PhD. After graduation I stayed on as a lecturer at Beijing Normal University.

On the podium, I was a popular teacher, well received by students. I was also a public intellectual: in the 1980s I published articles and books that created an impact. I was frequently invited to speak in different places, and invited to go abroad to Europe and the US as a visiting scholar. What I required of myself was to live with honesty, responsibility and dignity both as a person and in my writing.

Subsequently, because I had returned from the US to take part in the 1989 movement, I was imprisoned for "counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement to crime", losing the platform I loved; I was never again allowed to publish or speak in public in China. Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher lost his podium, a writer lost the right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the chance to speak publicly. This was a sad thing, both for myself as an individual, and, after three decades of reform and opening, for China.

Thinking about it, my most dramatic experiences after 4 June 1989 have all been linked with the courts; the two opportunities I had to speak in public have been provided by trials held in the people's intermediate court in Beijing, one in January 1991 and one now. Although the charges on each occasion were different, they were in essence the same, both crimes of expression.

Twenty years on, the innocent souls of 4 June are yet to rest in peace, and I, who had been drawn into the path of dissidence by the passions of 4 June, after leaving the Qincheng prison in 1991 lost the right to speak openly in my own country, and could only do so through overseas media, and hence was monitored for many years; placed under surveillance (May 1995 – January 1996); educated through labour (October 1996 – October 1999), and now once again am thrust into the dock by enemies in the regime.

But I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom, I stand by the belief I expressed 20 years ago in my hunger strike declaration – I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I'm unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities. This includes the prosecution at present: I was aware of your respect and sincerity in your interrogation of me on 3 December.

For hatred is corrosive of a person's wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation's spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and block a nation's progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.

I firmly believe that China's political progress will never stop, and I'm full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme. I'm also looking forward to such progress being reflected in the trial of this case, and look forward to the full court's just verdict – one that can stand the test of history.

Ask me what has been my most fortunate experience of the past two decades, and I'd say it was gaining the selfless love of my wife, Liu Xia. She cannot be present in the courtroom today, but I still want to tell you, my sweetheart, that I'm confident that your love for me will be as always. Over the years, in my non-free life, our love has contained bitterness imposed by the external environment, but is boundless in afterthought. I am sentenced to a visible prison while you are waiting in an invisible one.

Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my every cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning. But my love for you is full of guilt and regret, sometimes heavy enough to hobble my steps. I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.

Given your love, my sweetheart, I would face my forthcoming trial calmly, with no regrets about my choice and looking forward to tomorrow optimistically. I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where all citizens' speeches are treated the same; where different values, ideas, beliefs, political views ... both compete with each other and coexist peacefully; where, majority and minority opinions will be given equal guarantees, in particular, political views different from those in power will be fully respected and protected; where all political views will be spread in the sunlight for the people to choose; [where] all citizens will be able to express their political views without fear, and will never be politically persecuted for voicing dissent.

I hope to be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.

Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.

I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints.


    众所周知,是改革开放带来了国家的发展和社会的变化。在我看来,改革开放始于放弃毛时代的“以阶级斗争为纲”的执政方针。转而致力于经济发展和社会和谐。放弃“斗争哲学”的过程也是逐步淡化敌人意识、消除仇恨心理的过程,是一个挤掉浸入人性之中的“狼奶”的过程。正是这一进程,为改革开放提供了一个宽松的国内外环境,为恢复人与人之间的互爱,为不同利益不同价值的和平共处提供了柔软的人性土壤,从而为国人的创造力之迸发和爱心之恢复提供了符合人性的激励。可以说,对外放弃“反帝反修”,对内放弃“阶级斗争”,是中国的改革开放得以持续至今的基本前提。经济走向市场,文化趋于多元,秩序逐渐法治,皆受益于“ 敌人意识”的淡化。即使在进步最为缓慢的政治领域,敌人意识的淡化也让政权对社会的多元化有了日益扩大的包容性,对不同政见者的迫害之力度也大幅度下降,对八九运动的定性也由“动暴乱”改为“政治风波”。敌人意识的淡化让政权逐步接受了人权的普世性,1998年,中国政府向世界做出签署联合国的两大国际人权公约的承诺,标志着中国对普世人权标准的承认;2004年,全国人大修宪首次把“国家尊重和保障人权”写进了宪法,标志着人权已经成为中国法治的根本原则之一。与此同时,现政权又提出“以人为本”、“创建和谐社会”,标志着中共执政理念的进步。
    尽管我坚持认为自己无罪,对我的指控是违宪的,但在我失去自由的一年多时间里,先后经历了两个关押地点、四位预审警官、三位检察官、二位法官,他们的办案,没有不尊重,没有超时,没有逼供。他们的态度平和、理性,且时时流露出善意。6月23日,我被从监视居住处转到北京市公安局第一看守所,简称“北看 ”。在北看的半年时间里,我看到了监管上的进步。

Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Instant Better Half

As people migrate home for Spring Festival, many young people alternatively dread and love coming back for the holidays. They get home-cooked meals and see old friends, but then they have to endure the relentless questions of when he or she will get married.
The lucky ones bring back their better half for family approval, or even go home to celebrate their wedding.
But for those who have yet to find their significant other, the pressure is immense.
It's gotten to the point where some young people have come up with a creative solution. They look to "rent" boyfriends or girlfriends for the holiday and "acting" as a sigificant other will lead to adequate financial compensation.
One young woman bluntly explains her situation on an Internet board:
"I'll be 28 this year, which I think is a normal age to be single, but my parents back home have been harassing me every day to get married. I promised I would bring home a boyfriend for New Year's, but I've been too busy with work and haven't found one. I don't want to let my parents down, so I've decided to rent a boyfriend to come home with me."
She had a list of criteria, that the guy be taller than her, wear glasses, have a good job and he must not be too skinny.
In exchange, she would pay him 5,000RMB ($375) for the 10-day home stay in which she clarified they would not be sleeping together.
Rental boyfriends and girlfriends have become a trend in the last few years, as young professionals who have migrated to big cities have found it hard to meet people or don't have much experience in dating and relationships.
Young women who are rising in their careers have an even harder time finding Mr Right because most Chinese men are intimidated by women who have better-paying jobs than themselves. The greatest fear of many of these professional women is becoming a sheng nu, or "leftover woman", and so some resort to actually paying for a companion to please their parents.
However, do these young people not understand that having rental boyfriends and girlfriends is only going to step up the pressure? Parents, pleased to see their child with a companion will immediately pepper them with marriage questions and expect the nuptials to happen in the near future. Also, what happens the next year? Do they "rent" they same person again? Or what happens when they come back home with another "boyfriend" or "girlfriend"?
So while it's interesting to see this kind of arrangement sprouting up in China, it only sets up false expectations for parents.
This is the first generation of children who have good careers, making good money and living in cities. Their parents have little idea of what goes on in their children's urban lives to understand the pressures these young people face, let alone the scrutiny of when they will tie the knot and have babies.
Hopefully this huge generation gap will eventually get smaller, but it will be a while before these parents understand, that while their children are keen to get married, relationships take time.

China's Medal Hopes in Vancouver

There was a lot of anticipation of who would be the final torchbearer to light the flame for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games at BC Place stadium. But when people like Rick Hansen, Betty Fox, Terry Fox's mother, and Nancy Greene Raine already carried the torch, there was no question it would be The Great One, Wayne Gretzy.
The Opening Ceremony didn't come nearly as close as the amazing display put on by the Chinese in August 2008, but who can top the precision of the drummers, Li Ning flying in the air to light to torch and the fantastic fireworks display?
Following that, all you can do is just focus on doing something truly Canadian.
There were the northern lights, the spirit bear, whales, Donald Sutherland, Bryan Adams, kd lang, Nelly Furtado and Measha Brueggergosman.
While all eyes are on the 206 Canadian athletes looking to win gold on home soil, something that has evaded them in two Olympics -- in Calgary and Montreal -- there's also anticipation the Chinese team is going to win big too.
In the 2006 Turin Games, China won 11 medals, including two gold, four silver and five bronze.
The Chinese figure skating pairs look hot this year, led by veterans Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo who came out of retirement just for this Olympics. The three Chinese pairs are coached by Yao Bin, who, in the 1980 World Championships and the 1984 Games was booed and laughed at for his and his partner's crude attempts to compete in figure skating. They had no video footage -- only pictures -- on which to try to create their own routine that was seen as elementary at best.
But 30 years later, China could sweep the podium and prove to the world that with determination (and money), anything's possible.
Also the Chinese women's curling team is on a roll, with skip Wang Bingyu. They are coached by Canadian Dan Rafael.
The freestyle skiing team is also coached by Canadian Dustin Wilson, who trains them in Inner Mongolia. He works with former gymnasts and martial arts practitioners who can twist and jump easily in the air. While they may not have the culture of hanging out in the slopes apres ski, they do know they want gold. They already have proof in Han Xiaopeng, who won gold in men's aerials. Li Nina is also a favourite for the women's aerials.
China has brought 90 athletes to Vancouver, it's largest contingent ever for the Winter Olympic Games. And though they are not loudly proclaiming they intend to surpass 11 medals, it's quite sure they are determined to go faster, higher, stronger.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Virtual Media Backwardness

I'm currently back in North America for a few weeks and am amazed by how much most of my friends and colleagues are so connected in their use of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
While constantly updating their status is a given to them, for us in China, is a thrill if we are able to jump over the Great Firewall that censors or blocks websites and be able to log on.
After not having access to these websites in China since July, it's strange to be able to log onto them so easily and type in my status for everyone to see and also be able to read the instantaneous feedback.
This morning on CBC Radio's Q, I heard an interview with a journalist from Montreal who tried an experiment where he and a few other French journalists only used social networking sites as their only sources for news, though they were allowed to click on the links that were provided for the full news stories.
He found this situation very strange, but it was an opportunity to see how the younger generation, or what they call "digital natives" consume their news, and most of them do get their current affairs information from social networking sites. What was interesting was that some of the stories were incorrect, or were rumours, and they were not corrected in any way, which can be misleading.
After a week of this experiment, the journalist concluded that it was absolutely crucial for people in the media to be connected one way or another through these kinds of websites. That's because he says that news is not only consumed, but sent out by citizen journalists as well. He gave the example of the Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan who was filmed being fatally shot during the post-election protests in June and how this was uploaded quickly and spread all over the world. That's why he felt it was important for reporters to engage with these citizen journalists as they may have a scoop on a story, or to get first hand information from them.
And this is where Chinese media is going to fall far behind from the rest of the pack.
If networking sites are the wave of the future, China is not going to be surfing it.
The Chinese government is so intent on trying to influence the world through its "soft power" by expanding its media outlets... and one of the best ways to engage your audience or potential audience is through social networking sites.
But the longer the government delays allowing its citizens to get access to sites like Facebook and Twitter and their Chinese equivalents, the further behind the country will be in communicating its messages across to the rest of the world.
And how is that supposed to help China's cause?

CCTV Update

The state council announced Wednesday that 71 people have been held responsible for the CCTV building fire exactly a year ago that left one firefighter dead, eight injured, and led to direct financial losses of 163.83 million RMB ($23.99 million).
The building was supposed to house the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which was almost ready to open at the time.
Of the 71 responsible, 44 will face legal prosecution, and the remaining 27 will suffer party and administrative disciplinary measures. No names and further details were released.
It finally took a year to figure out who dunnit and was it really a group of 71 people? Or are we trying to spread the blame?
The intrigue does not end there.
A few weeks ago an investigation by the State Council concluded the outer shell is still pretty much in tact and so a renovation would give the building a new lease on life literally.

However, many people including Ole Schereen, one of the main architects of the CCTV project say that the burnt out hotel is not structurally sound and should be pulled down.

Nevertheless, some 1,000 workers have been hired to renovate the building, by knocking down the exterior walls. 
It is expected that the building will be renovated in less than two years at which time CCTV staff will finally move into their new but somewhat old building that should have been finished for the 2008 Olympics.
Knocking down exterior walls sounds like extensive renovations. And since it's practically completely burnt out, why not knock it down anyway? Renovations are only going to be more expensive and have a higher chance of being structurally unsafe as Schereen has said. 
Perhaps the government wants to save face and keep the building, but it's only going to make the situation worse.
Live and learn.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics

A few legal cases moved forward in the past day or so:
Firstly, democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo who was convicted of "inciting subversion of state power" and sentenced to 11 years in jail was denied an appeal today.
The Beijing Municipal Higher People's Court upheld the conviction which many high profile international intellectuals including Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama are now calling for Liu to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
American Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr quickly denounced the verdict, saying in a statement: "We believe that he should not have been sentenced in the first place and should be released immediately."
While the verdict was somewhat expected, Liu could now take his appeal to the Supreme People's Court.
If he does so, this will put the government in an interesting position where the government could either reconsider his sentence or face further uproar from human rights groups around the world.
Secondly, China has now formally charged the four Rio Tinto employees with accepting bribes and stealing trade secrets.
It was back in early July when the four were arrested and only now do they know what charges they are facing, though no trial date has been set.
Previously they were accused of spying and without any concrete evidence, the authorities changed the charges to accepting bribery and stealing trade secrets that allegedly damaged the interests of China's state-owned steelmakers. This is puzzling as they are not charged with handing out bribes, as one would expect.
According to Xinhua, the four employees, on many occasions, "requested and received" a huge amount of bribes from state-owned steel producers. The statement said they had gained trade secrets from Chinese steel companies by "luring [them] with valuable goods and other illegal methods."
Rio Tinto has responded, strongly denying that its employees were involved in any kind of wrongdoing.
The Australian government is also following the case closely, as one of the employees, Chinese-born but naturalized Australian citizen Stern Hu was held for more than a month without any access to a lawyer or his family, or was even formally charged.
"We continue to emphasize to the Chinese authorities the need for the case to be handled transparently and expeditiously," said a spokesman for Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in a statement.
Thirdly, a Chinese activist trying to document the shoddy buildings that led to more than 80,000 deaths of so many people in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake was jailed for five years for subversion on Wednesday.
Supporters and human rights groups say Tan Zuoren was going to publish an independent report on the collapse of school buildings.
His trial was held in August in Chengdu, but no verdict was announced until now. At that time artist and activist Ai Weiwei tried to attend the trial and testify for Tan. Instead Ai was beaten up and prevented from leaving his hotel room. The beating was so bad that he later had to have emergency surgery in Germany to relieve the pressure on his brain from a blood clot.
He has also compiled a list of names of the students who died in the 8.0-magnitude quake.
And at yesterday's verdict, Hong Kong journalists were barred from entering the courtroom and their hotel rooms were searched on the pretext of looking for drugs. The reporters were held up in separate rooms and were not allowed out until the verdict was read out.
"I think this is a very important case for China, more important than that of Liu Xiaobo," said Ai. "It shows the Chinese legal system has taken a big step backwards. Tan's 'crime' was entirely one of speech, of conscience."
While the Chinese government says some 80,000 people died, it says only 5,335 children perished in the earthquake.
It's interesting to note that these three cases have moved forward or closed within the last few days of the Year of the Ox. Perhaps the Chinese courts want to start fresh after the Spring Festival?
The courts hardly seem to be following the rule of law, but rather Chinese traditions.
Doesn't sound like using a "scientific outlook on development", using President Hu Jintao's words.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Trying to Spread the Word

China is trying to fight back against bad press by creating an army of 100 journalists to lead state-run media.
They have been trained in the country's five top universities, including Beijing Foreign Studies University, Tsinghua University, Communication University of China, Remin University and Fudan University in Shanghai.
These hand-picked postgraduate students are taking a two-year masters in journalism program and then will staff such media outlets as Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television and China Daily.
Through their multidisciplinary training, the next stars in Chinese journalism are expected to extend the international reach of state-run media globally.
"The Communist Party's Central Committee has required agencies in charge of international communications to work more closely with the designated schools and, in return, the universities will get extra funding," said a recruiter at Beijing Foreign Studies University department of international journalism and communications.
The training program is part of a plan to spend between 35 billion yuan to 45 billion yuan ($5.12 billion-$6.58 billion) to expand state-run media outlets.
Xinhua is expected to get most of the funds as it recently launched its 24-hour satellite news network in an attempt to rival CNN and BBC, while China Daily is launching a US edition.
In November, Li Changchun, a senior official in charge of ideological affairs has urged state-run media outlets to expand their international reach and give China a greater voice on the world stage.
"To cultivate favourable international media coverage is an urgent and important task for internationally oriented news outlets to help the country's rapid social and economic development, further opening up and raising the country's status," he said.
Dr Zhang Zhian of Fudan University's journalism school says the 2008 Tibet riots triggered the government's concern that journalists needed to be better trained and media outlets had to expand due to what officials perceived as biased reports by foreign media.
"The unfriendly coverage in foreign media led [authorities] to discover that China is still insignificant in terms of a voice internationally," Zhang said. "To better tell the world about China, the country needs to train plenty of journalists specializing in international communication."
However, Hong Kong Baptist University professor Huang Yu doesn't think the initiative will bring much of a harvest in terms of effectively battling "biased" coverage.
"Fundamentally they can do little to change [their roles as propaganda institutions] because they have to serve the national interest," he said.
And for Zhang to describe foreign media reports as "unfriendly" is naive on his part. Journalism is not a form of public relations -- it is reporting the news as it happens. It is not about editorializing or writing for propaganda purposes. It is about describing the facts and adding quotes from the people who were there or are stakeholders of the event or situation.
For China to think throwing lots of money at media is going to make it a more powerful propaganda weapon maybe admirable, but hardly effective. Most people outside of China read Chinese-state media see right through it or are skeptical of it. While Chinese media has become more progressive in recent years, when it comes to nationally-sensitive issues, it is still fundamentally the same -- government-directed and for propaganda purposes.
And in the foreseeable future, that will never change.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lessons Not Learned

It is appalling to find out that the tainted milk scandal continues a year and a half after it was first reported in the fall of 2008.

Investigators are discovering now that milk producers took back powdered milk laced with melamine from store shelves, but then put it back on the market or re-purposed it into things like popsicles.

The Associated Press is reporting that 170 tons of tainted milk powder were found in places like Shanghai, as well as Shaanxi, Shandong, Liaoning, Guizhou, Jilin and Hebei provinces in a 10-day crackdown campaign. China's Health Ministry says at least five companies are suspected of reselling the tainted milk that should have been destroyed.

However, the crackdown ends on Wednesday, which means companies that have hidden these melamine-laced milk products could put them back on the shelves again. What good does a 10-day campaign do? Everyone knows it's all for show.

Meanwhile this has again led to a further erosion in confidence not only in the country's food products, but also the government's ability to protect its own people from dangerous products that are domestically made. It would have been all too easy to blame other countries for this mess, but when it's an inside job, it only reveals the failures in the government's food safety program, especially after it pledged to streamline processes to make sure this would not happen again.

Why didn't the government do more thorough investigations? Understandably there are thousands of milk producers, most of them small, but a strict system of inspection needs to be put in place to prevent bad milk from reaching the general public. It's reported that many of these small milk producers do not have the technology to test for melamine, so why doesn't the government subsidize the equipment or at least conduct their own inspections on a very regular basis. This also shows the government's inability to get the job done properly, and only makes its citizens more skeptical of officials, wondering if they are acting in the public's interests.

And what about the milk producers themselves -- don't they even care about their own consumers? Obviously it shows profits are more important than actually giving consumers a good product. When you have people intentionally hurting or even killing others for money, it just shows morals have gone out the window. And it seems shocking that the government isn't earnest enough to want to solve this problem once and for all, as most of the people who drink these milk products are babies and children.

This has obviously led to a spike in imported milk products, driving up demand and prices. The government is considering limiting the amount of imported milk powder, as it's hurting domestic dairy companies.

China is desperate to build its own brand, to look like it is an innovative leader, and through this become a legitimate world power.

But how can it even do this when proper standards and quality control mechanisms are not in place or not even enforced. Why not try to make good quality products first before trying to invent new ones? That way you'd have more buy-in from your own people that yes, China is great.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fact of the Day: Migrant Spending

The Chinese government is keen to boost domestic consumption. The latest effort is to push for more spending in the rural areas, opening up micro-credit loans for farmers and subsidies for them to buy vehicles and big-ticket household items like washing machines.

While there are a few farmers who have struck it rich, buying up tractors to help them make their food production more efficient, there are still many more especially in the central and western regions who are still literally dirt poor.

That's why many give up their agricultural livelihoods and turn to becoming migrant workers.

However, they aren't necessarily big spenders, as they find things expensive in the city, and want to save as much as possible to bring back to their families.

According to the January 2009 journal Chinese Social Science (Zhongguo Shehui Kexue), there was a study of 56,000 households in 2006.

It found that a migrant worker living in a one-person household spent 7,872RMB ($1,152) that year, while an urban person with an average salary only spent slightly more at 7,905.41RMB ($1,157).

Those in the lowest income bracket only had an annual expenditure of 2,953RMB ($432).

As an expatriate living in Beijing, I cannot even begin to fathom how they manage to spend so little every year; obviously food quality is not a priority and neither is clothing.

It makes you realize not only how hard these people work, but how much they want to save in order for their families and their next generation to have better lives.

Aren't these numbers enough to convince President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao that the majority of the population -- farmers and migrant workers -- need a better social safety net?

If they were given better access to education, health care and pensions then maybe they wouldn't hold on so tightly to their money. But most of all they would feel that the government cared about them and wanted to reward them for their invaluable contribution to the country.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Lesson in Contradictions

Last week Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to make China's universities "world class".

And Dr. Richard Levin, president of Yale University thinks this may happen in the next few years as China spends 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on higher education. The goal is to narrow the gap between Chinese universities and the top ones in the world within a generation.

However, the country has been pledging to make this happen since 1998 through market-oriented reform in the post-secondary sector. But universities got greedy, expanding too quickly, and so they had to accept more students, which led to very large class sizes. This of course impacted students the most, who felt like they weren't really learning anything relevant to their future careers.

This also led to widespread corruption and plagiarism, as many students must publish a paper as a graduation requirement, and so many will pay journals to print their papers, as these journals are state-funded and hardly get enough money to support themselves. There are also many services where students can pay for a thesis to be written for them. There is no strong punishment for those who plagiarize and so it continues, even in the workforce, where some foreign friends of mine have complained that articles they edit have had paragraphs lifted directly from western publications.

What is also interesting is that Wen admitted that a lack of independent thinking and freedom of speech, not the shortage of money was what impeded Chinese universities' development.

"Only independent spirit makes good universities," he said. "[The current] stereotyped development method doesn't work. Universities should be given decision-making power in administration and curriculums."

He says this because Chinese post-secondary institutions are required to strictly follow the government's education requirements that include Marxism and Deng Xiaoping theories. So is Wen hinting that it's time to do away with these and perhaps loosen government supervision over education?

This seems to be a contradiction to what is happening now because students who have different opinions or are considered to have radical ideas are often given counselling or punished.

Professor Shi Yigong, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University agrees. "[Overseas] universities are always the most creative places, filled with academic contention, but China's rigid system has long hindered undergraduates' creativity," he said at a recent Beijing conference.

Ideology aside, free thinking is the only way China as a country will progress, and its young people need to have the confidence and even the ambition to dare to think differently. Right now China is only good at coming up with methods of stealing other companies and countries' intellectual property instead of trying to innovate and create a product that sparks the imagination.

While some may argue that copying comes from the traditional rote-learning method, this is no excuse. China is proud of its achievements of having invented gun powder, paper and silk thousands of years ago.

So why can't it continue to innovate now?

If Wen cannot answer this question, he obviously doesn't know what his government is doing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Anything for Love

China's post-80s generation have a heavy burden on its shoulders.

As the first generation of only children, they are realizing now that they have to study hard to get into university to get a good job so that they can afford an apartment, get married and support their parents in old age.

But financial burdens aside, they can also be the most shallow people on earth.

There's a Reuters story today coming out of Shanghai where a 21-year-old woman wants to have extensive plastic surgery so that she can look like American actress Jessica Alba in order to win back her boyfriend.

The young woman, who gave her name as Xiaoqing, said she was devastated after her boyfriend, who is a fan of Fantastic Four and Into the Blue, broke up with her.

Xiaoqing said that during their 18-month relationship, her 28-year-old boyfriend was obsessed with Alba, putting up pictures of the actress everywhere in their apartment and talking about her constantly.

While he didn't say outright that he wanted Xiaoqing to look like Alba, he had hinted he wanted her to look like Alba and even bought her a blonde wig to wear.

This was too much for Xiaoqing who broke up with him a month ago, but now she wants him back.

"When I broke up with my boyfriend, I was very sad," she told Reuters. "My friends... kept consoling me but it didn't work, so they suggested I do plastic surgery to look like her (Alba)."

The Shanghai Time Plastic Surgery Hospital has agreed to perform the operation, but hospital director Jiang Shan has talked to Xiaoqiing and asked her to think more clearly about what she is doing.

"If she wants to look much better than she does now, for example if she wants her skin to look smoother and her overall facial facade to look more beautiful, I think we are able to help her fulfill her wishes," Jiang said.

"But if she wants to totally look like Jessica Alba, I would think she is still not confident of herself and that she needs to solve this problem psychologically."

"I have never been able to let him go," Xiaoqing said. "If in the end he still does not accept me after I undergo the plastic surgeries, I will give up. I will then choose to let go, start afresh and live life by myself," she added.

So if she spends all this money and time and not to mention physical pain in going through these operations and her boyfriend does not want her back, does she realize that she's going to look like the Chinese version of Jessica Alba for the rest of her life? That she can't undo what she's done?

To radically and physically change oneself just for acceptance from someone why may not even love you is absolutely ridiculous. It reveals how insecure and pathetic desperate people can be.

But it also shows how sad her boyfriend is in his obsession over a Hollywood starlet and even goading Xiaoqing into looking more like Alba.

This story reveals the low self-esteem young people have; many in China do not have much experience when it comes to relationships and so they think it is literally the end of the world when they are rejected by someone they think they are in love with.

That's because their parents have tried to shelter them as much as they can from life's hardships, but instead that has made any surmountable challenges or obstacles impossible.

Xiaoqing has said that she will consult with her mother on whether she should go ahead with the plastic surgery when she goes back to her hometown in Hubei Province for Spring Festival. Hopefully her mom will be able to persuade her out of this pitiful move.

One also wonders if Alba thinks this kind of imitation is flattery... or not.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Riling Up the Middle Kingdom

Sino-US relations are now in rough waters only three months after US President Barack Obama played the role of a polite guest in China, trying hard not to offend his hosts. Chinese officials also made sure Obama's personality didn't shine much either, as Chinese state media were practically muzzled from reporting on the American president's trip -- every staff-written story had to be pre-approved by the Foreign Ministry which meant editors either gave up bothering to write anything or stories were published a day late.

There were complaints at the time that Obama didn't speak out enough about human rights violations in China or push the Middle Kingdom to revalue the renminbi.

However, the Obama administration is beginning to strike back, starting first with Google threatening to leave China due to censorship issues. While the world's largest search engine is still operating in the country, the issue has raised a lot of questions, from complying with the communist government when it comes to censorship and how this goes against Google's philosophy, as well as the perils of doing business in China.

Then the offensive continued with the recent decision to sell $6.4 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan. The US is legally bound to supply weapons to Taiwan in a bid to defend itself after the Chinese mainland vowed to take back the "rogue province" even if it has to militarily.

However, the package, the first sales proposal under the Obama administration, is considered relatively modest compared to other years. This sale includes 114 Patriot missiles, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, 12 Harpoon missiles, communication equipment and 2 Osprey mine-hunting ships.

As expected, the Chinese reacted angrily. "The US side is fully aware that the Taiwan issue is related to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and involves China's core interests and the national sentiment of 1.3 billion Chinese people," according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Chinese state media continued the attack, spewing vicious and nationalistic rhetoric and warned that if the sale went ahead, this would seriously damage Sino-US relations.

Obama didn't let this deter him and fired yet another salvo, this time announcing that he would meet with the Dalai Lama.

While he purposely avoided meeting the spiritual leader before going to China in November, White House spokesman Bill Burton said that Obama had told Chinese leaders he would visit with the Dalai Lama.

"The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious and cultural leader, and the president will meet with him in that capacity, Burton said. "To be clear, the US considers Tibet to be a part of China,' Burton said. But he added, "We have human rights concerns about the treatment of Tibetans. We urge the government of China to protect the unique cultural and religious traditions of Tibet."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry replied back on its website that Beijing strongly opposed any form of meeting between American leaders and the Dalai Lama.

"We urged the US side to fully realise the high sensitivity of the Tibet issue and cautiously handle the concerned matters, so as to avoid causing further damage im the Sino-US relations," the statement said. "We oppose any attempt by foreign forces to interfere in China's internal affairs using the Dalai Lama as an excuse."

The US and China are now engaged in a battle of words, but the rhetoric has ratcheted up several notches, making one wonder how this will turn out.

It will be interesting to see how hard Obama will be pushing China out of its defensive mode and at the same time continue to engage it on a productive level. China has already threatened some kinds of economic sanctions, including penalties on the companies that are providing the arms to Taiwan.

But despite the flurry of words, both sides need to cooperate on a certain level, so China can't completely shut out the US -- it needs customers for its exports. While the US is taking the risk of infuriating China, someone needs to stand up to the Asian giant. With the talk of "China rising", this is all getting to the country's head and it needs to know that jumping up and down like a selfish spoiled child is hardly constructive for the world.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless

The news coming out of Hong Kong today is the verdict of the Nina Wang battle of the wills.

Wang, once the richest woman in Asia, was chairwoman of Chinachem. Her nickname was Little Sweetie as the eccentric businesswoman usually wore her hair in pigtails and dressed in short skirts. She also claimed to live cheaply, buying cheap clothes and eating fast food.

She died in 2007 of cancer and after her death, her feng shui master and lover claimed he had her latest will that entitled him to her enormous wealth.

Tony Chan claimed he had her will dated in 2006 that would have given Wang's entire fortune to him that was estimated between $4 billion to $13 billion.

However, today Justice Johnson Lam ruled that the "feng shui" will was invalid, saying that he had forged her signature, and instead her estate would be handed over to the Chinachem Charitable Foundation from a will that was written in 2002. Her siblings manage this foundation.

She and her husband, Teddy Wang had set up the charity in 1988.

Her life with Teddy was also an epic drama. The pair were childhood sweethearts who married in 1955. They set up Chinachem Group, a real estate and development conglomerate and their wealth attracted a lot of attention. In 1983, the couple was kidnapped, but she was let go so that she could arrange Teddy's ransom.

However, in April 1990 he was kidnapped again. Nina gave half of the $60 million ransom demanded, but he was never seen alive again. There were stories that his body might have been dumped in Victoria Harbour, but it never surfaced.

She had a long protracted battle in the courts over ownership of Chinachem which she finally won in 2005 in Hong Kong Supreme Court after two lower courts had sided with her father-in-law Wang Din-shin. He had Teddy legally declared dead in 1999.

Nevertheless, the most recent court fight involving the feng shui master though seemed even more salicious than the previous one.

Chan had a spotty career as a former bartender, waiter, machinery salesman, market researcher, and computer parts exporter before becoming a feng shui master.

During the trial, a lot of information was revealed, how Nina and Chan met at a dinner in 1992 and how she hoped he could help her locate her husband. But then it led to them having an intimate sexual relationship to the point which he testified they were practically husband and wife. He claimed that she even gave him her signature pigtails were a sign of their intimacy, as well as digging holes in Chinachem sites around Hong Kong that had gems, statuary and ancient coins buried in them.

This not only revealed how gullible Nina was, but also the shameless manner in which Chan tried to get as much access to her wealth as posible. He testified that he was having a sexual relationship as his wife was pregnant with their first son.

But Wang's sibilings saw him as a boytoy -- who was 20 years younger than Nina -- or a eunuch in the court of an empress dowager.

In the end the court sided with her family.

"The court does not believe that their relationship was such that Nina was prepared to give him her entire estate irrespective of her other commitments and responsibilities," said a summary of Judge Lam's judgment.

"Giving him gifts or even large sums of money during Nina's lifetime when he made her happy is one thing. Making him her sole heir in respect of her entire estate is quite different."

Lam also added that Chan was not a credible witness and even lied in the court.

Chan's lawyer Jonathan Midgley says he will appeal.

So this may not be the end of the story, but perhaps the start of more stories of how gullible some wealthy people can be and how there are many schemers who will go to any lengths to get access to their wealth.