Monday, June 29, 2009

"i find English is really useful"

A few days ago, someone in China wrote me:

I am a chinese university student.when i seached some information about tiananmen suqare event,I found your webside,as you know that our government block all the information about this event,we know nothing about it and i just want to know what happen 20 years ago.

The message was anonymous. At first I wondered whether it was really from a student wanting to know the truth, or someone in an official position was trying to probe for my personal information. In any case I replied, telling him/her to ask his/her parents about the event, while referring him/her to Philip Cunningham's book Tiananmen Moon. I also asked why he/she was interested in learning about "6.4". And here is the reply (posted with permission):

You ask me why I interested in learning about this, it might be a long long reason, and i don't know how to express myself well because of my poor English, but i will try.

Tienanmen Square Massacre happened 20 years ago, our history book and our teachers never never talk about it, when we asked what is 64 event, they never answered, I aways want to know what happened and why it happened, our TV, newspaper, even our websites never mention it. Our government block all the information about this event, this event become a political taboo in China, people seem have forgot it, especially our 80s. I am major in international relationships, democracy, human rights, freedom, equity, we talk about it everyday, however, they are dreams nowadays in China.

It's undisputed that so many problems exist in China's society. Chinese's government attempt to control our minds. I hate ideological education, I hate malfeasance, I hate our education system. I aways comfort myself that China is a developing county, we should give time to Communist Party and believe that tomorrow is another day. but our Community Party seems against the current .they doing something very disgusted, such as blocking all the opponent voices and swearwords about government.

I have collected a lot of helpful information about Tienanmen square event with Google.COM but not Google.cn. I know what happened now. it's not until now that i find English is really useful.

The website you gave me is unable to visit in China, how pathetic! thank you very much for your reply, forgive my poor English and i will try my best to learn it well.

I've heard that the young generation of Chinese, the so-called "post-80" and "post-90," were very ignorant about the recent history, which is quite worrisome. Even after some of those who have come to study abroad and learned about "6.4," their blind nationalism make them view the massacre as necessary. It is a comfort that there are still young people in China who care about the truth, and study hard a foreign language for this purpose.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Elapsing Moon – A Trip to Tibet

by Maple Xu

[in translation]

Tibet's ambience this year is quite apprehensive. The shadow from last March's riots remains; to the central and local governments, each bush or tree looks like an enemy soldier. They basically don't welcome individual tourists. For safety considerations, I made an exception to my usual practice and joined a tourist group.

Lhasa's street, May 2009

This is the third time I’ve entered Tibet. The first time, in June 1992, I took the train from Chengdu to Xining, then a bus through Tsinghai Lake, Tanggula Mountains, Hoh Xil, Yuzhu Peak to arrive at Lhasa, then a truck from Lhasa to Shigatse and Zhangmu, and finally a small military postal plane (with only 4-5 seats) to return to Sichuan.

The second time was October 2003, in a car with friends. We entered Tibet from Yunnan's Gaoligong Mountains. Along the way were huge roadblocks caused by landslides, and muddy pitfalls that had formed under year-long rains and the grinding of heavy trucks; the road couldn't be called a road. As such, what remains in my memory is not scenery and place names, but nervous worries on when our delicate car made for urban use would become stranded, in a place with no cell phone signals.

This third trip, in May 2009, is the result of a sudden fantasy: I wanted to ride on the new high-speed train from Shanghai to Lhasa, to enjoy the sights of the Tsinghai-Tibet Plateau in the pressurized train-car that prevents both ultraviolet exposure and altitude sickness.
~
Lhasa's first day gives me a strange feeling. On the streets it is not only tourists that are sparse, Tibetans are also hard to come by. When you occasionally run into one or two, they shy away, and avoid any photo-taking. Instead, soldiers are everywhere, like every three or five steps there is a checkpoint. They are fully armed, with submachine guns and iron shields in their hands. Even the insides of the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace are full of armed guards. Foreigners must get permission from the local police before going in. Which places are open for visiting and which are not are all at the local police's mercy, otherwise guns can be fired at any time. It is a bit frightening but also a bit exciting. (I'm surprised that our tour guide, a 28-year-old Tibetan named Phurbu I'll describe in detail in the next log, tells me in a private conversation that the presence of the soldiers actually makes him feel safer.)

I don't dare to focus my camera on soldiers or the locals, so I take pictures of the scenery.But the originally narrow, grassless dirt road harmonious with the Potala Palace has been replaced by a clean, wide cement thoroughfare lined with green trees, red flowers and heavy car traffic. It is no longer suitable for Tibetans dressed in Han-style clothes to reach the Jokhang Temple (Dazhao Shi) in the traditional manner by making body-length kowtows all the way. Modern iron fences disharmoniously surround age-old temples; the bold and unstrained Tibetan dogs that used to run around on the streets freely can no longer be seen. Local residents are well behaved, their polite but vigilant eye-expressions replacing honest and simple smiles. All in all, now Lhasa can be called a modern and civilized city, yet an unnamed loss fills my heart.

The Lhasa without the thick smell of smoking pine and burning incense, the Lhasa without pious believers in dusty Tibetan robes who kowtow and pray along the way, the Lhasa without people leisurely sitting on the ground and looking at tourists with friendly smiles, the Lhasa that has lost its original look, how does it distinguish itself from Chongqing or Shanghai or any other tourist city?

Another thing that surprises me is the large amount of white waste, results of quick food supplies for tourists. Neither the Tibetans nor the local government seem to care about it. Those white plastic containers, abandoned as freely as one pleases, lie calmly in the holy city's sunlight, at every corner of Lhasa, even the riverside of the beautiful Yarlung Zangbo, becoming the most eye-catching scenery.
The temples are obviously overloaded with tourists that have brought serious damage to the architecture and Buddhist statuary, but the desire for ticket revenue seems only on the rise. In recent years, the involvement of the World Heritage Committee has forced the temples to restrict the number of visitors. However the temples are not short of counter measures. Large-scale price increases are only a small appetizer. On the surface, they limit the number of entering visitors to 200 a batch. But they maximize the number of batches a day by herding the visitors like sheep. In front every Buddha or bone-pagoda is not a lama but a fellow wearing a wide-brim hat, who shouts non-stop "Hurry, move! Don't pause!" And the crowds follow the order obediently as if in a spell; whether you are old or young, whether you are a foreigner or Chinese, you must move with a speed that can't even be called "looking at flowers on a running horse." In less than an hour, you finish a tour that would normally need the better part of day.
Exiting the dim palace and coming outside into the blinding sun, tourists look at each other in blank dismay: "What did you see?" As if suddenly awaking from a dream-walk, they are annoyed at being fooled, but the only thing they can do is to find balance and pleasure in the misfortune of the next batch of visitors.

I guess this is the dilemma that every old city whose main revenue comes from the tourist industry faces. To maintain a historical place and local traits often also means keeping outdated and coarse ecology. Don't Tibetans also wish to live a modern life, to have flush toilets and hot-water showers in their homes? What rights do we have for ourselves to enjoy modern convenience, while requesting others to live in a primitive environment for our entertainment?

Yet I've also heard that in tourist towns of the US West, they paint bathrooms and service areas the same color as the surrounding mountains; I've heard in Rome they’d rather spend hundred times more to maintain the city's old look; I've heard in Yunnan a businessman pulled down every electricity pole in his tourist area and painstakingly hide the power network underground; I've heard in Zhouzhuang, Zhejiang Province, villagers lay in front of steam rollers to stop the construction of a highway across their ancient town.
 
The Lhasa River, May 2009
~
A few days ago someone was puzzling over why nothing was happening on June 4th this year. Another one smiled: If you talk about 6.4 with those born in the 80s or 90s, they will ask, What's that? Another kind of currency?

Will there be one day that Chinese become so poor that their only possession is money?

My memory brings me back to the dusk one day over a decade ago. By the limpid Lhasa River, several Tibetan girls were humming and washing clothes. At the end of a flagstone path one or two yellow houses stood with black-and-red window frames, prayer streamers hanging above the roofs. The sky was a clear blue infiltrated with a tint of purple. A breeze sent over a faint smell of smoking pine and the strong fragrance of buttered tea, as well as the acrid odor of burning cow-manure cake. I languidly lay on the meadow until sunset and the moon rose. That wheel of dreamy moon – its quality you could never find in an urban moonlight – is carved into my bone marrow.

That moon has long elapsed behind tall buildings and colorful neon lights. Will it ever return?

(All photos ©2009 Maple Xu)

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Very Moving Review in Asia Times

A surprise brought to me by Google alert –

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BOOK REVIEW
Poignant tales of the Cultural Revolution
Apologies Forthcoming by Xujun Eberlein

Reviewed by Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - First, let us pause and lament all of the vast, untapped talent that tragically goes to waste every hour of every day around the globe. And make that a long, deep and profound pause because the waste, as any observant traveler knows, is truly colossal.

Once you are finished contemplating this immense desert of aspiration and aptitude, however, remember to give some small thanks to those who manage to spot and bring to light at least a modicum of what otherwise would have been lost - and I am not referring to drawn-out cultural carnivals such as American Idol or any of its many offshoots outside the United States. Continue to read >>

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Fall of Lady Liberty and Chai Ling's Revenge

Years ago when I first saw the documentary "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, my impression of Chai Ling was mixed. From what the former student leader said in her controversial interview (available in both Chinese and English) with an American journalist, it was certainly appalling that she expected the deaths of many fellow students to serve the 1989 movement's purposes. On the other hand, she looked genuinely grief-stricken by the prospect of bloodshed, and I couldn't help but feel sympathy toward her as well. After all, she was only 23 years old, a young woman who had grown up in China's "revolutionary heroism" culture. In such a culture, there's nothing out of place with what she expressed, that only the blood of innocent people can awake and enlighten more people. It is from a Western perspective that such an idea is simply unacceptable.

What I'm saying is, more of the blame should be placed on the revolutionary education she grew up with, rather than her naivety of believing in it. Who was not once young and naïve? I happen to also think Wang Dan has a point that no matter what Chai Ling had said, she did stay in the Square with other students until the last minute, and her action was more important than her words. (For the record, "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" also truthfully reported this fact.)

Reading excerpts of the newly published Tiananmen Moon (h/t The China Beat) by Philip Cunningham, the very journalist who interviewed Chai Ling 20 years ago, made me feel that Chai Ling might have been more innocent than some have thought. Although her idea of using bloodshed to arouse people was hardly a moral one, she appeared to be sincere and serious about the student movement and was indignant toward some other selfish power-thirsty student leaders. As such, I'd like to believe the young Chai Ling twenty years ago was a humanly imperfect idealist, as young activists are. If she sometimes took herself too importantly, it was largely because of the situation: being young and the leader of a mass movement can carry anyone away.

Today Chai Ling has become an American businesswoman. She is 43 years old, certainly no longer naïve, and apparently has done well financially. Now with the wealth she has gained in the democracy of America, she starts a new fight, only this time her target is not a totalitarian government but a critical part of democracy: an independent, nonprofit film maker who dared to express criticism toward both the Chinese government, and some student leaders, however slight of the latter.

Whatever legal reasons Chai Ling has been deploying, "defamation" or "infringing trademark," the drunkard's heart is not in the cup: the real nature of Chai Ling's lawsuit against Long Bow the firm maker seems more personal, as many internet articles have pointed out. From a societal point of view, this lawsuit is a big regression in Chai Ling's political ideal. From a personal point of view, her motivation is explicable yet the action is totally unwise.

If it is excusable that Chai Ling didn't have a concrete idea of democracy when she was leading that democracy movement two decades ago, shouldn't one expect her to have gained a lot more understanding now, after living in the West for all these years? Or so I'd thought.

It might be helpful to reflect here on a historical case that bears some remarkable similarity: the so-called Times v. Sullivan case in the 1960s, on which the Supreme Court's decision "revolutionized libel law in America." Here's a description of the case from the US supreme court media website:

"Decided together with Abernathy v. Sullivan, this case concerns a full-page ad in the New York Times which alleged that the arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King's efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote. L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery city commissioner, filed a libel action against the newspaper and four black ministers who were listed as endorsers of the ad, claiming that the allegations against the Montgomery police defamed him personally. Under Alabama law, Sullivan did not have to prove that he had been harmed; and a defense claiming that the ad was truthful was unavailable since the ad contained factual errors. Sullivan won a $500,000 judgment."

At the time, the NY Times was having financial problems, and being charged with this astronomical amount of money put it in the danger of bankruptcy. The paper appealed to the Supreme Court, and "the Court believed it was important for the survival of democracy in the United States that the press be allowed to aggressively report on public matters without excessive fear of being sued for libel." [1] The charge was dismissed. Because of the Supreme Court's wise decision, today we still have the NY Times to read.

Note that this Court decision was made in 1964, and helped establish the precedence to protect the press from similar liability lawsuits. Now it is 45 years later. If Chai Ling had any idea about the meaning of First Amendment, or the meaning of a free press, would she have sued Long Bow? On the societal level, surely she doesn't wish American democracy go backward to what it was before 1964? On the personal level, did she ever worry about others' suspicions of her motives?

In any case, it is certainly another mistake Chai Ling is making, hurting both others and herself, but this time it can no longer be explained away by innocence. How on earth could a woman as smart as she is think she could re-glorify her name through such a lawsuit? From what I can see, Long Bow's on-line appeal has gained extensive support from American academics, the English media, and internet readers (including me), while the appeal written by Chai Ling's ex-husband in her name collected a few signatures hardly reaching beyond the circle of old comrades, some of whom managed to be vague. For example Wang Juntao says in a straddle-the-fence way that he's friends with both sides and he understands and supports both. Go figure.

I wonder if Chai Ling really doesn't see the reality that, while she has succeeded in financially hurting Long Bow, an accompanying consequence is a further deterioration of her own name. And, does anyone notice that her language against Long Bow sound awfully familiar? In 1989, the then-government of China named the student movement a "counter-revolutionary riot," one of the worst crimes at the time. Of course, no one (except some soldiers) believed it. Now Chai Ling calls Long Bow the Communist sympathizer, one of the most hated names in America. Does she really think people with their own eyes and minds would buy that accusation? As an example, this is how the New Yorker commented:

"For the record, to anyone with knowledge of the film, the notion that it is sympathetic to the Chinese government is laughable. But, whatever happens with the suit, it’s hard to imagine a more acute measure of how far the student movement has faded into memory."

In this way Chai Ling not only does disservice to herself but also to the overseas Chinese democracy movement, damage that her million-dollar pledge won’t repair.

But what makes a once brave democracy fighter sink so low as to use the same means of propaganda she had suffered under to attack her foes now? I'm really puzzled. This is the final stroke that manages to erase whatever sympathy I had for her. In the end, her loss might be bigger than Long Bow's. I'm not talking about money.

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[1] The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism by James L.Aucoin

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Who Knows Hummer? How about Tengzhong?

Yesterday, my sister Maple sent me an email from Shanghai,saying the news that a Sichuan private enterprise is purchasing Hummer sparked a huge reaction in China, even students in her art class kept commenting on it. "'America is finished,'said one. 'That [Sichuan] enterprise surely will produce a Hummer brand steam roller,' said another. et cetera. I don't know what Hummer's status is in the mind of Americans; in China it represents the life style of the highest-level bourgeoisie. It seems that, to car lovers, owning a Hummer is like owning the entire world."

I had seen the Hummer news, but it was my sister's email that got me really interested in the deal. Even though it is not a done one yet (it still awaits government approval, and the government doesn't sound happy about it), people in China seem to be very excited. One reason is that the Sichuan enterprise named Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co. is an "obscure China firm," as WSJ calls it (I couldn't read the complete article because I'm not a subscriber). Given the competitive attitude between Chinese and Americans, an obscure China firm dares to acquire a big American (though bankrupt) brand, it is kind of newsworthy. But what more is in it beyond emotion? Here are some things I found on the Chinese internet:

Where did Tengzhong get the money to purchase Hummer? China.com says part of it was from Morgan Stanley. Behind Tengzhong is the 12-year-old Huatong Investment Ltd., China.com says. In early 2008 Morgan Stanley helped Huatong to finance its IPO by purchasing under 20% of its stock, paying US$80 million and issuing $200 million in bonds; that's a total of $280 million.

The report seems to imply that the provincial government of Sichuan supports the deal, but not the central government: "A relevant government official disclosed that, a Sichuan province leader once orally mentioned the Hummer acquisition business to a relevant committee of the Party central, but got a rejection on the spot." The reasons? "The government encourages our enterprises to acquire or merge with foreign enterprises that make parts, but not enterprises that manufacture entire cars. This is based on the consideration of cost and future operation issues."

According to the report, Tengzhong will spend $1 billion on this project, of which 0.55 billion goes to Hummer, and the remaining 0.45 billion will be used in building a new assembly line in Chengdu.

Reactions on the internet are varied. Here are a few views:

From cd.qq.com: For a long time, China's automobile industry has been under constraints of Western countries' big brands. Now Tengzgong dares to acquire a big brand, no matter what the result, it shows private enterprises is are leading the revitalization of Chinese automobile industry.

Sina.com reruns a Chinanews.com report that says the registered capital of Tengzhong is only 300 million RMB (about US$ 44 million), and some people suspect this whole thing is hype.

A skeptical report from xinhua.net raises the question whether this is a two-man show played by Tengzhong and Hummer.

Nanfang Daily reports that a Sina.com poll shows over 50% out of 70,000 netizens think this a lose-money deal. Another report calls it "a snake swallowing an elephant."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Another Reader's Vertigo

Note: In response to the post "The Vertigo of Foreign-born Chinese," reader aliaeb left the following thought-provoking comment. I'm posting it in its own right because cultural identity is such an important issue, across cultures and worth further discussion. Xujun

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aliaeb said...

By now, this is an old discussion, but I've only just gotten to it. American politics and post-colonial orientalism set aside (these are topics I might not be very good at discussing), I find the issue of cultural/national identity an utterly confounding, endlessly engaging one. As the inconclusive questions posed at the end of Drifting Leaf's letter imply, there is no answer to the "who am I" of a migrating world citizen born of immigrants. Consider, for one, the excellent and inconclusive novels written by so many Chinese authors who now live abroad or in exile in Paris, Berlin, London and the United States (高行健,趙振開,馬建,哈金). These authors all explore issues of cultural identity, memory and loss, but none say anything affirmative with regard to these issues. I myself am an American with a very mixed European background (which is very typical, right?). I think I've failed, however, at fully identifying with any one cultural heritage, including that of American nationalism. I have studied Chinese language, history and culture for a quarter of my life now, and live abroad in Taiwan with no definite plans to return home. Additionally, my partner is from Hong Kong, and I feel very strongly inclined to start speaking Cantonese in addition to Mandarin. I worry, though, about who I will become. My partner doesn't celebrate any holidays, and I worry about my future children being bereft of either a Christmas or a Chinese New Year. If they are born in Hong Kong, will they be Chinese? Will I be called an expatriate or an immigrant? Are our Children destined to be even more confused than we are with regard to their identities? These are important questions to ask, as world citizens are growing ever more mobile, and our understandings of ourselves ever more complex. I apologize for leaving such a long comment so late in the game, but these are questions I ask myself every single day, and it was a relief and a strange satisfaction to read such a thoughtful letter by someone dealing with the same confusion.