Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gulong Yu--Last stop

I'm staying in Xiamen on my way home--speaking at a school, visiting the wonderful Chanenson/Levine family--and got to spend a few days on Gulong Yu. It's warmer than Nanjing (where it's been snowing) and has beaches, great seafood and no vehicles other than golf carts that take tourists around. There was a large foreign community here by the 1880s and the lanes have some beautiful villas. Some have been restored; like most of China, there's construction (or reconstruction) everywhere. But here on the southern edge of the island, it's peaceful and quiet.

Blogging on the edge

For my final Journalism Ethics class, we discussed the ethics of blogging. I thought this would be particularly important since most of my students get their news from blogs. China Daily and Xinhua are better than they were 20 years ago, but they are still official government organs.
We started by discussing ways to tell if blogs are accurate and reliable--does the blogger cite sources, dates, names? do other blogs/sources support this information? has the blogger been reliable in the past? are the writer's biases and reporting methods transparent?
Then I projected some blogs from global voices online I had read recently--about the wealth of children of party officials (2932 of 3220 billionaires in China are children of senior officials and much of their money is made illegally), about corruption in the Nanjing housing administration and a detailed story about a protester who was detained and sent to a mental institution (see below).
My students knew about most of the stories and weren't surprised by any of this. The information genie is out of the bottle. But how will people respond when they get continual confirmation that democracy protesters are being arrested, government officials are corrupt, unsafe food and environmental pollution are killing people, etc.? (This is not to say that the problems in China are worse than other places--see Bush, George W.--but now information is much more easily available here.)
My hope, I said, is that the information can help them make China better, rather than cause them to lose hope and become cynical.
The story below is rather lengthy but typical of some of the good blog reporting I've discovered (global voices translates blogs from around the world).

China: Protestors and petitioners penned up into madhouse

Monday, December 8th, 2008 @ 09:06 UTC
by Bob Chen

“Years later, the entire humanity will be astonished at what happens today!!!!!!!!!”
This is a comment people left after a news story. It is a story about petitioning, protest and madhouse. Reading the story, I am almost drowned by a sense of desperation infused in what Mr. Sun has gone through all these years, but also very much touched by Mr. Shi’s courage to expose such a scandal to public. I know, this would be a story worth record, and translation.
In China, it’s a long tradition that people wronged by their hometown officials would trek to Beijing to appeal for justice. It is called petitioning, a mild way of protest. As mild as it is, however, no local government involved would easily let the petitioner go, and interruption, detain, threat are never unusual. And now, a more civilized way is employed, that is, asylum, or, madhouse. That’s where the story started.
Xintai Town, Shangdong.
Mr. Sun-fawu, 57, got off the car and looked around for his companion he was to meet. Yet no one was there. All in a sudden, a microbus rushed to him and stopped, 3 people coming off and closing him in. One of them was identified as An-shizhi, Sun recalled, who is the director of the Petitioning Office (the official agency handles complaints) in the town.
“what are doing?”
“to find a job in Beijing”
“Looking for a job? No, you are to petition. You are not let go!”
Two men came up, snatched away the cellphone Sun was to use for police-calling, and pushed him into the microbus.
Sun’s nightmare started. The place he was sent to is exactly the City Asylum, where the mentally disordered stay. The government men left him there.
Sun yelled to the doctor coming to him, “I am not lunatic! I am just going to petition!”
The shout was heard by many “patients” there, including Mr. Shi, a close friend to Sun later.
The doctor says, “I don’t care whether you are ill. You are sent by the town government, and I’ll treat you as of psychosis.”
What he later went through was that:
“I had all my limbs tied to the bed legs, and head wrapped up by a mask.” Sun heard some one saying “pouring the medicine quickly”, and his mouth was forced to open. Mandible clutched, the pills ran into his throat. At 7 pm, Dr. Zhu gave Sun a shot, and he then lost all his consciousness.
During his days there, Zhu has thought to escape, though he claimed time over time again he was normal. He pleaded the dean. But the answer was as cold as the patient room, that “only those sent you here sign an agreement, you are allowed to go”. And a “suggestion” followed, “ask your family to find the government.
But how to? Sun asked himself, with no phone with him.
Sun’s grief
Sun’s grief dates back to several years ago, when the land in his village sunk so much that it was no more arable due to the thriving mining at the place. Since 1988, the mine owners have compensated the affected villagers for a few times.
According to the criteria, Sun’s family could get over 40 thousand. But as Sun and some other villagers said, over 300 households in the village got no compensation at all.
But the village officials insisted the fund has been distributed. Since 2001, villagers voted Sun as one of their delegates, to complain to the town government. The city inspection group, however, alleged that the fund has indeed been allocated after investigation. The villagers defied, sending more complaints and inquiry of further probe.
Three days later, 1, Oct, at night, over 10 people broke into Sun’s home when he was not there, and hacked down Sun’s son, who got married only 5 days ago, to be seriously injured. Sun’s wife, Zhang-xuefang recalled, those people yelled “We’ll kill out your family if you keep on petitioning.”
Sun didn’t stop. He haunted around town, city, and provincial Petitioning Offices, and even to as far as Beijing. In 2004, he was detained for 14 days, the prosecution being “disrupting social order”. In 2005, he was sentenced to prison, again, but for over 1 year this time.
Then in 2007, a new weapon was put in use. He was put in the asylum.
“Every day I took pills and injection.” Sun was sensitive to medicine. “I felt dizzy, and can’t stand up.”
He stayed there for 3 months, 5 days. Only did he pledged that no more petitioning would he committed was he released.
In 2008, Oct, the story at the beginning of the article happened. This has been his second time to be a “mad man”.
A secret recorder
Mr. Shi, 84, has his own secret mission. Up till now, he has recorded 18 petitioners penned up into the hospital.
He used to go to Beijng to complain the negligence of duty of the local government. In 2006, he was sent by Tianbao government (another one) to the same hospital.
He was called to go out later, but he refused. He required an explanation of such a treatment, and holds that if there is none, he would stay.
No explanation was given, and he stayed. In the 2 years 5 months he spent there, he has been collecting evidence about the petitioners contained in the madhouse.
Sun made a lot of record, writing them on paper slips, sometimes even on used pill boxes. He said, all this was secret, because nurses didn’t allow the “petitioner patients” to talk. The diary and papers were hidden under quilts.
One of his diaries writes:
“some patients kept beating me up, as long as I quarreled with doctors and nurses. After they were gone, the patients would come up and hit me, clutched my neck. They must have been ordered to do so by the doctors.”
Since the second day in the asylum, he was forced to take pills. He would hide the pill down the tongue, and spit them after the nurses turned away. It was soon found out, however. And then, nurses would inspect their tongues every single time. Shi and another patient both said so.
This is the end of the news story. It was released by the well-known Beijing-based paper New Beijing on 8, Dec, and very soon, it has caught the attention of the Chinese blogsphere. The comment at the beginning gained as many as 10000 support clicks on, and what we see is a gloomy picture of a muzzled world by methods as ridiculous as you can expect. How long has this happened? Would this keep on going if it was not revealed? And we have enough reason to doubt how many more remain undiscovered.
And we are more than shocked. The life in madhouse is expected to be so horrible, that every word, every pleading, every complaint you yelled out would be considered a mad word, and no one would trust you. That's why those petitioners are more than admirable.
Or, the entire society has already been such a madhouse? And finally, will we lose our sense of judgment, that we ourselves would doubt “are we mad”? Is this what we are hoped to be?

Friday, January 2, 2009

My Karaoke Debut

After our final exam in Journalism Ethics, the students invited me to join them for a party. At a karaoke club. I relented and joined in, sang a few Beatles songs (above singing "Hey Jude" with XuXu) and "Satisfaction" (the machine had the--ugh--Britney lyrics but I did my best Jagger imitation anyway). Great fun, great students.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Another (remarkable) profile and a class picture

Last day of class yesterday. I gave the students pens as gifts and thanked them. They have been my eyes and ears to understanding China. I know so much more. And so little. Here's one last profile that I like a lot:

---’s story: living in the city is the most important.

It is 9 o’clock in the morning on Pingshi Street in Nanjing. --- has just finished her job as a Chinese style breakfast seller, standing in the street for nearly three hours.. It is in deep winter now, and her cotton quilted coat is too old to resist the cold weather. She can’t help shivering the moment she stops moving. Since breakfast time is over, --- begins to pack up the unsold food into her tricycle, which is both her vehicle and her shop. Her red and bloated fingers are still agile enough to do all the packing. After she packs up, she wraps a thick scarf closely about her head and climbs onto the big tricycle to ride home.
It is 13 years since --- left Anhui Province and came to Nanjing.
--- was born in a small village in the north of Anhui, which now is famous for its beautiful countryside. Her parents are farmers who grow tea leaves, like most of the farmers in the village. When --- was very young, she began to help her parents pick the leaves.
“People usually think it’s hard for a girl to do farm work when she is very young,” --- says. “However, I didn’t feel anything uncomfortable then since other children help their parents do this too.”
When she was 8 years old, her parents sent her to a local rural primary school. “My Chinese teacher was nice and offered me his own books to read. I enjoyed reading but my school work wasn’t good enough.” In a rural school, only few top students can further their study in a university. --- wasn’t one of them, and she left school after she graduated from a local middle school.
“I don’t feel sorry for it,” she says. “I knew clearly I wasn’t going to be one of the top students no matter how hard I worked.” She lived at home for about half a year as a jobless teenager and then decided to look for opportunities in the city. She and two other young girls came to Nanjing by train in the spring of 1995.
“The train station then wasn’t as big and beautiful as it is now. but it was as crowded as it is today,”--- says.
There are still tens of thousands of farmers pouring into cities every day. According to government statistics, there are nearly 200 million migrant laborers now working in the cities.
--- and her two friends, with help from an acquaintance, quickly found jobs in a privately owned factory producing drygoods in a suburb of Nanjing. She lived with three other girls in a dormitory owned by the factory and the factory provided them with lunch and supper. Her first month’s salary was 600 yuan.
“I went to downtown and bought new clothes for myself. It was alive, clean, and beautiful, totally different than my home” --- admits that she was deeply attracted by this strange place then. “I had never seen so many beautiful clothes before.”
However, --- didn’t get many chances to visit downtown because of her hard work. She worked about 10 hours a day, six days a week. “I felt tired and missed the beautiful clothes a lot which I know I can’t afford.” One of her roommates started to wear more and more beautiful clothes, which no doubt were beyond her purchasing power. “She makes the same salary as us but her ‘boyfriend’ was rich.” The “boyfriend” --- mentioned is a married man who has taken this girl as his mistress. That was common then and even now. Beautiful poor girls always make money much easily than average-looking girls.
--- was not bad-looking when she was 20, as her photo shows, but she had no luck. Her first boy friend was a temporary worker in her factory who is also from a rural place. When --- realized that she would still be a farmer and a farmer’s wife if she married him, she broke up with this young man without hesitation. “I make little money in the suburb of the city, but I would like to stay in the city rather than be back to my hometown, a quiet but boring village,” --- says. “City life is interesting and beautiful even though I can not enjoy it now.I hope my child will grow up in the city, knowing how big and wonderful this world is.”
Ten years ago, --- was introduced to an old woman who was looking for a proper wife for her 30-year-old son. The old woman and her son lived on Pingshi Street, an old street in the inner city. They lived in an apartment in a small single-story house, no bigger than 40 square meters with little furniture in it. The young man was a blue collar worker and his mother had no work. Few city girls would like to marry him and be a hostess in such a small apartment. --- met with the young man in his apartment for first time. “He was shy and didn’t talk too much, but I think he’s a nice guy.I know I will get a permanent urban residence certificate after I marry him and that’s important to me.”
They married in 1998.Her dowry was only 5000 yuan which she deposited over three years. Her parents came to the city on the wedding day and went back home by train that night since there was no room for them to stay in her small house. Her factory was too far from her new house so she quit her job and looked for some temporary work close by.
--- was working as waiter in a small restaurant when she found herself pregnant in 2002. It was not the first time she got pregnant since she married. “In my home village, it is natural for young couple to have their own baby when the wife gets pregnant. But you know, raising a child in the city is rather difficult. I love children but my husband and I were not ready for a baby, so we chose to abort the first baby. By 2002, we were still poor, but I think maybe it’s the time. I was 27 and my husband was 35 then, we are no longer young.”
Her baby was born in winter of 2002. It was a healthy boy. --- lost her job in the restaurant and stayed at home to look after her baby until 2005, when her boy was 3 years old. Her husband’s salary was too little for this four-person family. As a thirty-year-old woman with no professional skills, --- found it was too difficult to find a job near her house. She decided to start a small business--a very small business. She bought a second-hand tricycle with 200 yuan and modified it into a mobile shop. She sells some simple food for breakfast to working people who have no time to cook for themselves. --- has to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to prepare the food. This small business brings her family some income, about 2000 yuan a month, almost the same salary her husband earns at his factory.
“I know clearly that my life now is difficult, but it is in the city. Most people in the city have to try their best to survive, just as I did when I came to Nanjing in 1995. Now I’ve got my own family here: a healthy baby and a hard working husband. Maybe I’ll lead an easier life if I go back to my home village, but I will always miss the vitality and beauty of city. Now I’m living in the city and that’s the most important.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Final assignments

I’ve asked students to write profiles as the final assignment for my writing class. Several students are writing about college graduates who can’t find jobs or are getting paid less than factory workers.
One writes:
“From 2001 to 2005, the number of college graduates in China has grown rapidly but the employment ratio has dropped.... It is estimated that raising a child from cradle to college costs 400,000 RMB while the average starting salary of the graduates is 1549 RMB per month. Students with master’s degrees earn an average of 2674 per month and those with doctorates earn an average of 2917. Some people suggest it is better for parents to spend their money on pension insurance than on their children.”

There is tremendous pressure on children, particularly now that most families have only one child, to succeed in school and earn enough money to support their parents, since few of them have pensions or health care. But the economic slowdown here is making it increasingly difficult to find jobs.

Another student profiled a migrant worker and concluded with this anecdote:
“It was time for lunch and I invited ---- to join me, but he refused. “My clothes are so dirty. If we have lunch together, you will be laughed at by others,”--- said shyly. “There is no choice as a worker.”
“Never mind, “ I said, “Nobody will do so.” He still disagreed. When I proposed that I go buy fast food so we can have lunch on the construction site together, he refused my offer. “Whether your family is rich or not, your money comes from your parents as a student,” he said.” I have earned money by myself on earth, so I should pay for the lunch.” He spoke to me like a parent, although he is three years younger than I. Finally, I had to give up my plan for us to have lunch together.
When we left the construction site and walked through the campus, it was very crowded, as usual. ---- looked uncomfortable, and walked carefully so that he wouldn’t knock into the students. “Walking on campus, I feel particularly self-conscious,” he said..” He seemed embarrassed..
“It does not matter,” I said. “You will open your own company, won’t you? At that time, college students may be working for you.” I smiled. ---- scratched his head, and laughed. The smile spread on his face, bright and warm.

Others are writing about programs for handicapped children, such as a treatment center for autism and a school for deaf-mute children. Another story in progress is about “fake” journalists, people who make a living as reporters even though they are not licensed by the government. Some are quite successful at breaking important stories, like illegal coal mining operations, yet at the same time are willing to take bribes to make money and to keep stories out of the news, as some “real” journalists do as well. (One student told me last week that executives of Sanlu, the company that sold milk tainted with melamine, offered a bribe to the owners of China’s most popular search engine to delete all links to stories about the scandal.)