Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Week 12

Week Twelve

Saturday May 3

We called the boys back in Boston and all is well there. Jeremy was planning a day trip to New York to see the dreaded Yankees. Rory was looking into summer internships. Over the course of the next few hours the view outside our window went from the usual gray, milky smog to a completely pitch black sky by 10 a.m. We had all the lights on and wondered what the heck was going on. Very weird. Many times in China, I have thought of the book Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s novel about life under the Soviets, but never more so than on this dark morning. By 10:30, it started to pour, harder than it has rained in Beijing the entire time we’ve been here, and then slowly it grew brighter. By the end of the day, we had sunshine and a cool breeze.

I spent most of the day doing laundry, downloading photos from the trip, catching up on email and online news, and finishing last week’s blog. I had not had a computer all week so it was a long process. Stephen spent the day practicing his Chinese. It amazes me that he is so into this. He has several online lessons and a few books and together he’s determined to master at least basic Chinese. This may turn into a family competition, to see who can learn the most. I am more than willing to concede defeat.

After dinner we called my mother and we all sang her Happy Birthday in Chinese: shang ri quai le. Stephen also checked in with his mother, and learned that his father is doing well in rehab after breaking his hip last week. He should be home in a few days. All in all an uneventful, but necessary down day.

Sunday May 4

We headed into the Temple of Heaven Park. Stephen had never been and I had been there in the freezing winter of 1998 and scorching summer of 2005, but never been there on a nice day. After yesterday’s storm, it was turning out to be a lovely day outside.( The China Daily today says there have been 84 “blue sky” days in the first four months of 2008…..which sky were they looking at???). The park is vast, but not much activity. I thought we’d see more kites and Frisbees, but this seemed more solemn. But the peonies, roses and wisteria were all in bloom, so it was pleasant. We went from there to the Pearl Market across the street and bought a few more gifts. Stephen patiently waited while I haggled. Rui Pei Pei Pearls is not what it used to be – more expensive and more perturbed bored salespeople. We then ventured to the toy market next door, where Stephen and Katie were about to buy a Nintendo DS for 700 quai until they got down to the real price (which included games), that was more than 1000. No go.

We took a cab home and I noticed several Chinese flags hanging out dorm windows of a nearby university. This is the first overtly nationalistic symbol I’ve seen. I wonder if the dorms at Renmin are similarly adorned –I see only one at this end of our campus.

I am reading The Bookseller of Kabul and for all my complaints about life in China, this is a paradise compared to Afghanistan. I wonder how my friend Sarah Chayes has managed to stay there so long. A better woman than I.

Monday May 5

Head into my office for a full day of work. I’m prepping for this week’s classes, plus two guest lectures in Renmin colleagues’ classes on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, plus I’ve agreed to give a lecture on Chinese adoptees at Nanjing University next week.

The research for the adoption lecture is tricky to find. All my books and resources on this topic are back in the States and online sources are often blocked blogs. But I send out a slew of emails to adoption aficionados and get a fair number of positive responses, with leads to good information. Several years ago, I read Kay Johnson’s book Wanting A Daughter, Needing A Son and remember the highlights. The piece that is hard for me to get my head around is her research that indicated that 80+% of adoptees have sisters still in China. I am haunted by this. Somehow, knowing there are birthparents I can deal with, but siblings seems harder to grasp. I know Katie is curious about this too. I am torn between my desire for her to know more about her past and fear and confusion about what we would do if we “found” some relation. The prospect of finding some biological relative are extremely slim and I don’t think “family” is defined by biology, but still, I think it would be good to fill in as many of the blanks on Katie’s origins as possible.


I return to my colleague “Judy’s” class to give her students feedback on US journalism practices. The students have done a content analysis of several US publications (NY Times, Time magazine, Washington Post) and are looking for evidence of anti-Chinese bias. One student found the Post’s coverage of pre-Olympic food issues to be mostly balanced and sensitive to Chinese culture, but she took exception to two passages. In one, the lead is (paraphrasing here) “The Chinese are concerned about food safety after several recent incidents of tainted food ..examples 1,2,3….BUT, the IOC is confident food will be safe for the Olympic Games.” She felt the lead should have started with “the IOC is confident…” and if the Post wanted to mention previous food issues it should have quoted specific sources, not just “the Chinese”. I disagreed, and found this to be very slim evidence to call “western media bias”. The same student also quarreled with another passage: (paraphrasing again) “Premier Wen Jiabao says inflation will stay under 4.6%. But outside economists say it will be much worse.” She says the outside economists need to be named…the Post is deliberately trying to undercut the credibility of Wen’s statement. I argued that if she can find an economist who thinks the economy is doing fine, let me know. But with oil prices skyrocketing and food prices doubling, I think it is fair to say that most economists think inflation will continue to rise.

Another student looked at the NYTimes editorials over the past seven years and found 11 on China, 9 of which had to do with China’s human rights violations, one on pollution and one on security. He felt that emphasis on human rights was presenting a skewed image of China. I didn’t disagree with that, but I did ask him if he was aware of China’s human rights abuses. He said he knew of two journalists who were jailed, but otherwise, could offer no other examples. I suggested that he read the Times news pages and other western sources on this issue to round out his knowledge on this. I also asked how the Chinese government gets feedback on whether policies are working or not, if there is no independent reporting of how things are going. They told me about leican, internal newspapers produced by journalists and academics that are circulated only to the upper echelons of the Party. They also told me there is a similar leican at the Renmin student newspaper. Students report back secretly to the administration about what students and faculty are doing/saying without the students or faculty knowing they are being reported on…Apparently there was a very independent, critical student newspaper here a few years ago, but the Renmin administration shut it down because they didn’t like the heat.

Then the discussion devolved into Tibet again. And one student informed me that Tibetans only bathe three times a year. When I scoffed at this, saying that must be an urban legend, he and the other students assured me that this was the case. Now I really need to go to Tibet to find out the truth of what is going on there. Bathroom journalism!

I am very curious what the students’ final papers will look like and I request that they send them to me. If I get any, I will include them in the blog later.

What has been encouraging is the reporting done by Chinese papers on both the child labor scandal in Guangdong and the enterovirus deaths in Anhui. In both cases the newspapers scolded local officials for not finding out about the labor conditions themselves and in the Anhui case, not reporting on the disease sooner. So at least occasionally, there can be criticism of local officials when they drop the ball. The China Daily reported on the Guangdong child labor situation, but said they could only document one confirmed case of a child being locked into a factory job against his will. The Guangdong paper that broke the story said as many as 1000 kids were “sold” as virtual slaves to this factory.

The Hong Kong papers have also managed to keep a great deal of autonomy. Maybe, slowly, the notion of an independent press will spread north, Hong Kong, Guangdong today, Beijing tomorrow??

I go to my afternoon undergrad class and I am a bit disappointed on the stories they have written. Most are fluffy features, taking video and copy right off websites. I give a lecture on plagiarism and then stress that original reporting, digging for facts/truth/depth, is what journalism is about, not being a stenographer and regurgitating facts supplied from PR folks. They need to remember to ask WHY something is happening, not just tell me it happened. I hope their next two assignments are stronger. I would like to post those on the blog in the future as well.

After class, grad student Michael interviews me for a travel story in the China Daily. I reluctantly agree to help him, even though the China Daily is my least favorite publication. I will be in next week’s edition, complete with photos. Check it out!

Later, Eve stops by. She has been contacted by five Yiyang adoptive families asking her to get information or take photos for them. So hopefully she’ll have a little business next time she returns home.


Today I give a guest lecture in Li Qingsi’s class. He is a fellow I met at a luncheon of Fulbright alumni when we first arrived in February. He teaches International Relations here. The students were armed with examples of what in their view was negative coverage of China by western media. I asked them if they had also assessed the coverage of George Bush – I am sure that coverage would have been negative through their lens, and I explained that being a critical check on governments and institutions is the purpose of western journalism. Western journalists are not there to be cheerleaders for the party line. Anything that is not glowing boosterism ala China Daily, is seen as an attack on China. One student asked why Americans had such negative views of China (he had some American poll data that said between 48-58% of Americans had a negative view of China over the past few years). I said the history in the 20th century, from civil war, to communist takeover, to cultural revolution, to Tiananmen 1989 (this was the first time I had mentioned 1989 publicly in China), had left a negative view on the part of the older generation. He quickly jumped in and said that America had its own case of killing students at Kent State. I politely said that I was fully aware of all of the ills of America, and that I was not here to defend the USA. But I reminded him that he had asked why Americans had a negative view of China. I also privately bristled at him equating Kent State with Tiananmen. Kent State, in my recollection, was prompted by trigger-happy National Guardsmen, acting on their own or with confusing instructions from superiors, killing four student protestors. Tiananmen 1989 was a decision directed by the highest leadership in China to shoot and roll tanks over hundreds, perhaps thousands of students in the dark of night. In America, the Kent State shootings were investigated publicly. In Tiananmen, the whole event is brushed under the rug and not mentioned in any history books. Any website mentioning it is blocked.

I am slowly beginning to realize how effective the Chinese government has been in developing a whole generation of Chinese who unwaveringly support them. Lulled by a booming economy and an educational system that discourages critical thinking and reinforces the Chinese history of oppression at the hand of westerners (not their own government’s repression), most of the next generation of Chinese is not looking for western style freedoms. Any criticism from outsiders is viewed as racist or imperialist, anyone who criticizes from inside is seen as unpatriotic or a traitor. The brilliant public relations strategy, to turn the news about the Tibet crackdown, into a story about westerners (media) once again ganging up on China, was a stroke of genius. Of course there are exceptions to this and many of my students and other Chinese I meet and speak with privately can see the government propaganda for what it is and are able to have a more nuanced view of the west. But there is a well organized mass sentiment that the west is out to get China. There is a thin-skinned defensiveness that has really surprised me.

After this lecture I head to my afternoon class where we discuss ethical issues of what images, stills or video, are OK to publish, and what crosses the line. The same three students engage in discussion, and the rest of the class remains mute.

Before I leave my office, I finally take the time to listen to the interview I gave to BU Today, the Boston University news website. (LINK) I am blown away by the volume and the ferociousness of the responses. More evidence that no criticism of China is tolerated, even among a vocal group of Chinese living at BU.

I spent three hours on line or on the phone last night working out the logistics for the next four days. Katie goes to the city of Tianjin by train tomorrow with her class to see another school’s Exhibition. She needs to be picked up early in the a.m. and retrieved later in the afternoon. So I need to find someone who can translate that information to Shen Shifu.(call Michael). Shen Shifu needs some clarification (text message Eve). Friday, Katie has a track meet at another private school out in the far eastern part of the city and we need to arrange late pick up and we need a babysitter (email Eve). Stephen and I want to go see Madame Butterfly at the National Theater, but need a translator to order the tickets and arrange delivery (email Celine back and forth 3 times). And Stephen and I need to hire a driver t take us to the furniture village on Sunday (text message Simon). I also need to work out daycare and travel for Katie when I go to Nanjng and Guangzhou (Celine is unavailable). Every interaction is complicated and time-consuming….and especially so when the internet is only connected sporadically. For the past several nights it goes off at 10pm and doesn’t kick in again until after 9am. And it shuts off for no apparent reason several times during the rest of the day.


Katie is up early for her field trip to Tianjin, a city about an hour away by train. I had been following reports of the deaths in Anhui Province from the hand, foot and mouth enterovirus that has killed 26 children. What I hadn’t realized until I read this morning’s paper, was that 1400 cases have been reported in Beijing, many of them in the district where Katie goes to school. So now I am shoving bacterial wipes into Katie’s backpack, and berating her to keep her hands out of her mouth and wash her hands obsessively. I don’t want to scare her, but this disease, even if it isn’t always fatal, can lead to meningitis and encephalitis. And Katie is pretty lackadaisical about what she puts into her mouth.

We saw on the web that the Olympic torch had made it to the top of Mt. Everest. I turned on the TV for the first time since we’ve been here, and watched re-runs of the morning’s ascent (with commentary in Chinese). It was quite spectacular. As a former TV producer, I was marveling at the number and variety of camera angles that they were able get and transmit from such an inhospitable peak. It was an ambitious undertaking and I’m glad it was a success. The whole production was layered with this very dramatic music, but it actually seemed appropriate to the drama of the ascent.

I had lunch with Li Qingsi, the international relations guy whose class I guest lectured to yesterday. His specialty is US-China relations and he had just returned from a conference in New Mexico, somewhere near the El Paso, TX border, where he spoke for only 16 minutes. A long way to go for a short speech! He was pretty upbeat about the direction China is heading. His brother remains on the family farm, and now pays NO taxes, as well as receives a stipend of (not sure I’ve got this number right) 24RMB ($3.50) a month to continue farming. Li says farmers have never had it so good. He also says as long as economic growth continues at 10% a year, he doesn’t see the Chinese clamoring for more political reforms. Everyone is doing better economically and that is all that matters. He also boasted of the new high speed railroad that will go between Shanghai and Beijing. He said the difference between China and India, is that because India is a democracy, they would take forever to approve such a massive project, but here, in China, they just DO IT. I asked what happens to all the folks who will be displaced to build this project and he dismissed that concern. They will be compensated for their land and then unemployed. And undoubtedly, the jobs created to build the rail will benefit many more than will be hurt by this project.

Katie gets home late afternoon from Tianjin and reports that the city stinks, but the train ride there and back was fun…..but no, they do not sing baby songs on the train.

I spent the remainder of the day and late into the evening on the power point for the adoption lecture I will give in Nanjing. I am really enjoying all the research and gathering all this data in one place. On schedule, the internet dies around 10pm. Stephen sarcastically suggests that this will trigger the real big uproar in China. “Forget human rights, forget pollution and poverty….if you take away people’s internet, they will revolt!” And Stephen will be leading the charge!!

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