Wednesday, August 26, 2009

China's One-Child Policy, Two?

A popular Chinese newspaper, Nanfang Daily, yesterday ran an interview with a renowned demographer, Professor Li Jianmin, about adjustments to China's population control policy. Professor Li suggests that – with an emphasis it is only his academic opinion – if either husband or wife is an only-child, the couple should be allowed to have two children. This should be feasible and still keep to China's strategic plan of maintaining an annual birth rate at 1.8%. Li says some cities have already begun to experiment this idea.

China has been allowing couples a second child if both parents are only-children.

There have also been worries over a descent in overall population quality, thus a suggestion from several years ago to allow anyone with a doctoral degree to have a second child. Prof. Li says this is unreasonable, because the right of birth should be equal between rich and poor, educated and uneducated.

Since its implementation in 1979, the so-called "one-child policy" has effectively slowed population growth in China, the most populous country in the world.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Calyx Review of "Apologoies"

Calyx, a very good literary magazine, just published an intelligent review by Sharon McGill for "Apologies Forthcoming" in their Summer Issue (Volume 25:2). The content is not on-line, but you can probably find a copy in a B&N bookstore or a library.

Here's an excerpt of the review:

        In "Watch the Thrill," one of the eight stories in Xujun Eberlein's debut collection, Apologies Forthcoming, a Chinese official explains his cruelty toward a young boy's father when he states, It's revolution, kiddo, not personal. Each of these tales, mostly set during and immediately after China's Cultural Revolution, explores the truth and the irony of this statement. Eberlein's characters discover that political motives are, in fact, not personal and yet their effects will be -- as the consequences of political action break apart families, turn neighbors into rivals, victims into victimizers. Growing up in Chongqing in the 1960s and '70s, Eberlein witnessed the Cultural Revolution firsthand, and many of these pieces encompass her childhood memories. However, Apologies Forthcoming shines not simply as a fictionalized account of China's recent past, but as a testament to Eberlein's narrative skill in transforming tales of distress about a specific time into universal explorations of loss, betrayal, and hope.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Radical Solution to Hearlth Care Reform in the Atlantic

The current issue of Atlantic Monthly has a very good article titled "How American Health Care Killed My Father." It does tell that story, and goes on to give a detailed analysis of the way the current system works and fails to work. The article also includes some radical, but common sense, suggestions. At their heart is the reconnection of the consumer with the cost of receiving health care. In short, health insurance would be more like automobile insurance than what we know today. An interesting read all around, congratulations to the Atlantic for publishing it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Health Care Rebate

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

This is not a particularly China related topic, though it does reflect on the public versus private view that is one of the big disconnects between China’s government and its Western critics. Now that China has started to try some sort of insurance system for its public health care, Chinese people may find themselves on the other side of that divide. Perhaps there are some lessons from the US experience they can apply.

To the point is the ongoing bickering, arguing and fighting about health care reform that is going on in Washington and around the country. To call it a debate would be elevating it above its current station. Since most the arguments seem to be recycled I have decided to call it a “rebate,” though anyone hoping to get something back is likely to be disappointed.

As I see it, there are three basic things at issue in health care: who has access to it; how much do we spend on it; and how well does it work. The crisis in health care that many people are pointing to is a result of the reality that many people do not have access, we spend a lot, and by objective public health measures the system does not work very well. So what do we do to fix it?

Clearly we give more people access, we spend less, and we get better results. Public policy is so straightforward.

Politicians, unfortunately, seem to have pretty short attention spans and it appears they have gotten themselves completely stuck on the issue of coverage and simply want to argue about how much that will or will not fail to decrease costs and ignore the final question altogether. Worse, hampered by narrow vision, reelection worries, special interest groups and lobbyists, the only viable solution for expanding coverage seems to be a new “insurance company.” Thus the debate on what it will do to costs.

What exactly is required to lower the cost of healthcare?

I have heard people say increase competition in the insurance industry. Bush 43 used to like to talk about getting rid of malpractice law suits. More thoughtful conversations do look at lifestyle, nutrition and the ratio of general practitioners to specialists. But I have never heard anyone say that we need to have fewer doctors.

This is what confuses me. If we are going to decrease the cost of health care, does not that mean exactly that – we need to lower the number of doctors, nurses, hospitals, researchers and (of course) insurance workers. If we really like to have lots and lots of these people around I guess we could just pay them less, but somehow I don’t think that will work. More people means more money, fewer people means less money.

For those of you who want to simply take it all out of corporate profits, there is a legitimate argument to be made there. The United States does, to some extent, subsidize the rest of the world in pharmaceuticals by paying much higher prices for prescription drugs than most of the rest of the world. But that, like malpractice costs and insurance inefficiencies, is not enough to turn the tide.

As a society we need to make some serious choices going forward. It would be great if everyone in America was a doctor. But where would we shop, and who would grow our food? We won’t be able to import that because, frankly, as good as the doctors are in America they are also expensive. People in other countries are very price conscious, and only the very richest of them will come to America for treatment.

Market forces will eventually take care of this, by making it very unattractive to be in the health care industry in America. When this happens it will be seen as a terrible thing and the politicians will try to reverse the trend. If the current thinking on Capitol Hill persists I expect we will see this day sooner rather than later.

We need to add price consciousness to health care to our list of imports from China and other developing nations. The current employer-based insurance schemes and the extensions of that scheme under discussion will not do this. Health care, like any service, can’t be provided in unlimited quantities. It has to be rationed, either by price or by another mechanism. Until everyone recognizes that, and we are willing to actually talk about the hard choices, there will be little fruitful discussion.

South China Morning Post: "Beyond Apologies"

Hong Kong based South China Morning Post published an interview with me in their Sunday book column. It is titled "Beyond Apologies," written by Ed Peters, who says, "Chinese-American authors such as Iris Chang and Amy Tan have made a significant contribution to factual and fictional literature, but few have a tale to tell as piquant as Xujun Eberlein's."

If you have problems with the link, here's a .jpg file my HK publisher sent me (thank you, Pete!):

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chongqing's Judicial Chief Shot off Horse

As soon as the news of Wen Qiang's arrest was officially verified three days ago, Chongqing's usually tardy newspapers reported it right away; you can almost hear the loud cheers between the lines in the dreary brief reporting. The guy had been the long-time police head of China's largest city, and a year ago was promoted to be the judicial bureau head.

(left: arrested judicial chief Wen Qiang, photo from usqiaobao.com)

Sina.com reports that the news was posted by someone on Sina early on the morning of August 7th (that's one day ahead of any official media outlet), and people distributed fliers on the streets to celebrate the arrest, some even lighting up firecrackers.

Posts on Chongqing's commercial web portal cqnews.net say that "actually Chongqing people all knew that the biggest boss of organized crime was Wen Qiang; it's just that nobody dared to say it." This echoes a local policeman's words that "I heard a lot of rumors about his ties with gangs as early as 1999" in Global Times's report. I myself have seen internet comments last year that said in Chongqing "police and criminals are one family", with Wen in charge of the police.

One would wonder why, then, only last July Wen was promoted to be the city's judicial bureau head, moving up from his previous position as the deputy police chief. Interesting enough, the man who replaced him at the police bureau last year, Wang Lijun, is the exact person who made Wen fall this year. Wang Lijun, now the police chief, had been hailed as a "fighting-underground hero" even before his transfer from his Liaoning post to Chongqing. "Someone counted that, during his 20 years as a policeman, he and his comrades have sent more than 800 criminals to court." I suspect that the coincidence between the two men's transfers and promotions was already part of an investigation scheme into Wen Qiang's crimes. It might have been a strategy to "leave someone at large to better apprehend him."

(right: new police head Wang Lijun, photo from http://news.sohu.com)

During my visit to Chongqing early this year, I frequently heard taxi drivers express their admiration for Wang Lijun, for his zero tolerance toward organized crime and his effective means in crushing it. "The powerful dragon can't outdo the snake in its old hunt," goes a Chinese adage. Apparently this one needs to be rewritten. In modern times, probably only an outside dragon can overwhelm a ferocious local snake.

The problem is that an outside dragon doesn't usually stay long. People are now worried that Wang Lijun will depart for a new position before the underground organizations are completely eradicated. I have heard the same worry expressed for Bo Xilai, Chongqing's Party Secretary and Wang Lijun's solid backing. After his sympathetic handling of the taxi strike last November, rumors spread that Bo would soon leave, though he's still there today.

Officials like Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai are often referred as "blue sky" (青天), an ancient concept referring to a just judge or upright magistrate. Unfortunately such individuals do not occur that frequently, in history or in modern times. A system, not just individual do-gooders, is needed to better protect citizens.

It is quite dramatic for a police chief to shoot a judicial chief off his horse. It certainly is another credit of Wang Lijun the "fighting-underground hero," but can the same be said for the justice system?

By the way, there was no underground crime in Mao's era, though also there was no shortage of collective poverty. Can the Chinese people ever get both wealth and public security?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Phurbu the Tibetan

by Maple Xu

(Note: Whether or not you agree with statements about Tibet and Tibetans cited in this post, please refrain from hostility. Personal attacks will be deleted. Readers who have followed Maple's travelogues before know by now that she hardly concerns herself with any political topic. She has always been "an apolitical person" as she puts it. She has simply written down what she saw and heard.
 
Maple wrote this piece long before the July 5th Xinjiang riot; I just didn't get the time to translate it sooner. In the process of reading and translating it, I recognized a major difference between the Tibetans and the Uyghurs: the Tibetans have a history of serfdom while the Uyghurs don't. This factor might well be playing a role in their different attitudes. – Xujun)

[in translation]
Gongbo'gyamda, Tibet (photo by Maple Xu)

Phurbu is a 28-year-old Tibetan tour guide. He never took us shopping, nor did he crow about local products like other tour guides who give extravagantly colorful but unfaithful descriptions. When some tourists asked where to buy legendary Tibetan treasures such as Tianshan snow lotus, saffron crocus, or thousand-year Dzi bead, Phurbu would say frankly, "I won't take you to Bar-skor [Lhasa's old-town shopping street] or private stores, because I can't be sure you'll get authentic goods. I don't want you to curse us Tibetans as swindlers after you go home." Instead he took us to the official department stores that promise to repay you ten-times for counterfeit goods.

A member of our tourist group – a smart ass Shanghaier – once half teased, "Is that because you'll get kickbacks here?" Phurbu answered with a smile, "Yes. The Tourism Bureau has a rule, when tourists shop in official department stores, their tour guide is entitled for 2.5% kickback. That is to say, if you buy 1000 yuan worth of things, I can get 25 yuan, enough to drink a cup of sweet tea. Uncle and aunt, how much do you plan to spend?" The "uncle and aunt" were embarrassed, and mumbled that they just wanted to buy some high-altitude Judas's ear fungus. Phurbu laughed: "Then you won't spend 100 yuan. Looks like I only get to drink a bottle of spring water. But I guarantee that you won't be buying anything fake here."

That afternoon, a young couple asked: "We heard Lhasa has a dance performance called 'Tanggula Wind.' Where can we buy tickets?" Phurbu said, "That's easy. Come with me." Another tourist said puzzled, "Why didn't you advertise it? You could get another kickback." Phurbu laughed again, "Ha-ha, thank you thank you. You are so considerate. The reason I didn't tell you about the dance was because our tour today ends around 6pm, then we'll have dinner. I worry it would be too laborious for all of you to catch the 7:30 performance. Don't forget tomorrow morning we have to get up at 6 am to go to Nyingchi. If you are overworked, your altitude sickness will get worse. The dance tickets are selling for 180 yuan each, and I would get some kickbacks if you all go, but that money will make me a bit uneasy."

These two incidents started my interest in knowing more about Phurbu. I asked him privately: "I was once an accountant in a travel agency, and know that kickbacks are the main income source for low-salary tour guides. This is also the characteristic of our country's tourism industry. If you really don't care about kickbacks, is your salary enough to live on?"

Phurbu looked at me with his clear, pure Tibetan eyes: "You are right, a tour guide's salary alone is not enough for my living. But I don't accept every tourist group. I only accept those groups that interest me, so I can have time to do my own things." He told me he had been preparing a business for three years.

It turned out he and a friend were going to start a unique "donkey-friend inn" aimed at services for backpack travelers, and he hoped to take them to places official travel agencies wouldn't touch, "the really beautiful, mysterious Tibetan places."

I said, "You are so smart, don't you think you'll have more opportunities and room to develop in the heartland instead of the relatively backward Tibet?"

So, when others were visiting a Tibetan style temple for the God of Fortune, Phurbu and I took the opportunity to sit down in a sweet-tea house and chat.

Phurbu had graduated from the tourism department of a university in Sichuan 5 years before, and then worked for a travel agency in Chengdu for two years as a tour guide to the Tibet area. He hated the industry culture that made obtaining kickbacks its only purpose. He was ashamed of his career and the job held no pleasure for him. That was why he eventually chose to return to Tibet.

"Being here makes a big difference," he said with pride. His hint: the money he made in Tibet was cleaner than that he made in the heartland. It's not okay if it's only money, and it's definitely not okay if there's no money. He wanted to combine his personal interest with his career, and that was how the idea of "donkey-friend inn" came to life. The inn was nearly finished now.

A sudden voice interrupted us: "Could you take me to see your inn?" A thirty-ish man from our group appeared beside us, who knew when. He said he was from Shanghai, and ran a chain motel business. He was attracted by Phurbu's idea and interested in a joint venture. I politely left the two alone.
~
The next day, on the bus to Nyingchi, at first Phurbu stood in the middle and talked excitedly about the scenery along the route. He even sang a couple of Tibetan folk songs, trying to lift everyone's spirit. Unfortunately most of the tourists were numb and dazed, short of oxygen. Seeing no reaction to his effort, Phurbu muttered, "Fine, get on the bus and sleep, get off the bus and pee, get to the site and take photos, get home having learned nothing."

He came to sit next to me and said, "What can we chat about today?"
"You seem to have a super surplus of energy," I teased.
"I just like to talk, to communicate with people. My entire motley knowledge has been collected from talking to all sorts of people."
"Then could I ask you a sensitive question: is it true that Tibetans all want to follow the Dalai Lama to strive for Tibetan independence?"

Actually, I'm most apolitical. But since our arrival at Lhasa, the fully armed soldiers everywhere, the checkpoints on highest alert, and the locals' vigilant and cold looks, all incited my curiosity. The riots had been more than a year ago, was it really necessary to still be so tense? Wasn't this a bit of overkill? Were the Tibetans frightened and forced to obey the government?

Phurbu answered my question without any hesitation, and emphasized that most Tibetans would think the same as him.

He said more than 80% of Tibetans advocate the CCP. The reason was simple: it was the CCP that turned the serfs into free men. This sounded like a CPPCC (政协) member's official speech, but it was true, he said.

He said including his father's generation, all his family members were pure serfs. Tibet's serfdom was very brutal and savage; serfs did not have any rights or the least bit of dignity. In holiday parties the nobles could kill serfs as they pleased, and use the serfs' viscera for dishes, their bones and skin for religious utensils. Phurbu's grandfather and father eye-witnessed such things.

Serf owners did all the atrocious things in the name of Buddha. Serfs used to believe they were born to suffer, and their owners were sent by Buddha to redeem their souls by tormenting their bodies. They believed the more suffering in the current life, the more happiness in the next life. Praying was the only thing they lived for.

All this changed after liberation. No need to mention other things, just the quarterly distribution of food and clothing that had been happening for several decades were enough to please the Tibetans. "If these are the CCP's sugar-coated bullets," Phurbu joked, "then they shot us comfortably." He even expressed worry that the government's abundant supply would encourage laziness among some young Tibetans.

Phurbu then talked about how the PLA sent food and medical supplies to north Tibet's high mountains during the snow-sealed winter every year, and how people there worshiped the PLA as much as Buddha.

As such, Phurbu said, Tibetan people became deeply suspicious of the benefits of independence. People's chief concern was, with independence, would the new ruler treat them as good as the CCP? Or would the Dalai Lama bring back the serfdom system?

This was why, Phurbu said, during the 3/14 riot last year the participants were not common Tibetans but men sent by the Dalai with a few local noblemen, plus some bought-over thugs. He said if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn't have believed what they had done. Those men, all dressed in lama robes but displaying nothing humanistic or religious, slashed whoever they ran into – no mercy even for children – and burned whatever houses were in their path. That scene of hell brought Phurbu a sudden doubt about Tibetan Buddhism passed down generation after generation. If those men represented Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama, Phurbu questioned, is Buddhism a religion or a political tool?

Even long after the riot, the locals still shuddered at the thought of it, so the fully armed soldiers on the streets actually gave them a feeling of security, Phurbu said.

Phurbu also disapproved of the way the government handled the riots. He believed the government likely knew about the riots from the very beginning, but intentionally waited without any action until the killing and burning escalated to a large scale. Only then did it jump in to clean up the mess with military force, so as to not give international opinion a chance to blame China for its lack of human rights.

Phurbu had a friend he grew up together with. Because his father was an officer in the Tibet military region, that young man was quite supercilious. During the riots, the friend claimed publicly that the government made a fuss over a trifle, and the whole event was a frame-up. Then one day the friend just disappeared. Soon after his father also disappeared. Phurbu was sympathetic to his friend, but also thought the friend's words had gone too far.
~
Our last stop was the ancient-cypress park in Nyingchi. The park has over a hundred thousand-year-old cypresses.
The cypress park in Nyingchi (photo by Maple Xu)

Here and there in the tree shadows were a dozen or so elementary students, looking to be seven or eight. They were either kneeling at a stone bench writing homework, or reciting from textbooks in crude Mandarin. The tourists chatted with them and praised their diligence in studying. A while later, the Tibetan children asked in a sincere tone, "Uncles and aunts, do you have a pen? Would you like to give me a pen?"
The tourists were taken off guard. They searched their own pockets, but only two people had pens with them. The rest of us felt apologetic: the children just wanted pens to do their homework, it would be a shame not to satisfy their small request. So, one after another, people took out their money, one yuan, two yuan, five, ten. They told the children to go buy a pen and study well. The kids accepted the money, and politely thanked us with a bow.

In the entire time, Phurbu did not utter a word. He watched the whole thing with a stern face.
Tibetan students in the cypress park (photo by Maple Xu)

I saw another seven- or eight-year-old boy was riding a broken bike circling on an open spot. Seeing me approaching him, his sun-reddened face beamed. He shouted, "Be careful, my bike does not have brake!"

"How come you are not doing homework like the others?" I asked.
"I finished a long time ago," he replied proudly.
"What's your name?"
"Phurbu."

Both the big Phurbu and I laughed. Next, our tour guide asked the little Phurbu a surprising question: "You didn't beg for money, did you?"

The little Phurbu answered quietly, "No."

The big Phurbu sighed; for the first time I saw a helpless expression on his always cheerful face.

"You mean that was their trick to beg for money?" I asked.

He nodded, "Always."

I felt lost. The little Phurbu suddenly ran up to a hill. On top of the hill he began to sing a popular song,

"The Road to Heaven." The big Phurbu joined the singing, his thick voice and the boy's childish thin one in perfect harmony.

When they finished singing, the tour guide Phurbu shouted, "Good boy, Phurbu!"

People clapped. A tourist said, "Why did the boy run so far away to sing? Otherwise we could pay him a bit of money."

The big Phurbu again shouted, "Good boy, Phurbu!"

My eyes went moist for no reason. I remembered once when I asked Phurbu how he positions himself in the world, he replied:

"A Tibetan."