Ten Documentaries on China

China from the InsideI’m a documentary lover; given a choice between watching a movie, a TV program (drama or comedy) or a documentary, I will almost always choose the documentary. There are numerous documentaries about China floating around out there so I thought I’d highlight some of my favorites, some of which I use in training/orientation courses for folks headed to China. Others I like just because they are interesting. At any rate, they will all help you understand China better.


1.  The Genius that Was China (4 parts) (PBS) (1986)

This four part series, which originally aired on the program Nova, examines the scientific and technological dominance of China in ancient times, and explores reasons for China’s decline in the 19th century. I remember watching this when it was broadcast in 1990, and loved it because it addressed so many questions that I had accumulated in my first years of working in China. It’s interesting to watch it now because at the time no one really knew where China was headed. (Parts 1-3 are on YouTube)

2.  A Century of Revolution (3 parts) (PBS) (1987)

If you want to get a handle on what the 20th century looked like in China, this is the series. It begins with the Xinghai Revolution in 1911, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, and goes right up through the Cultural Revolution.

The product description from Amazon:

China: A Century of Revolution is a six-hour tour de force journey through the country’s most tumultuous period. First televised on PBS, this award-winning documentary series presents an astonishingly candid view of a once-secret nation with rare archival footage, insightful historical commentary and stunning eyewitness accounts from citizens who struggled through China’s most decisive century. China in Revolution charts the pivotal years from the birth of the new republic to the establishment of the PRC, through foreign invasions, civil war and a bloody battle for power between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. The Mao Years examines the turbulent era of Mao’s attempts to forge a “new China” from the war-ravaged and exhausted nation. Born Under the Red Flag showcases China’s unlikely transformation into an extraordinary hybrid of communist-centralized politics with an ever-expanding free market economy. Monumental in scope, China: A Century of Revolution is critical viewing for anyone interested in this increasingly powerful and globally influential country.

3.  China from the Inside (4 parts) (PBS)

This is one a number of documentary series about China that was produced in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They give an excellent glimpse into some of the myriad issues and social challenges facing China. And yes, they all still apply!

The product description from Amazon:

China from the Inside is a series of four documentaries that survey China through Chinese eyes to see how history has shaped them, and where the present is taking them. Episodes include Power and the People, deals with the governance of China, The Women, talks about the past and future for Chinese women, Shifting Nature, looks at China’s environmental challenges, and Freedom, explores China’s conflict between personal freedom and governance.

The documentary website is here.

4.  China Rising (4 parts) (CBC and The New York Times) (2007)

This pre-Olympics series was produced by the CBC, and in some ways dovetails nicely with the PBS series mentioned above. The writing is exceptional!

The description from the series website:

China. The scene of the most extraordinary economic, social, and political transformation of our time. But it is also a nation struggling with an enormous population, a strained environment, and unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity. Four documentary films portray the triumphs and disappointments of remarkable individuals caught up in an epic story.

The episodes are also available on YouTube.

5.  Young and Restless in China (PBS)

This film follows the lives of 9 Chinese young people (urban and rural) over the course of four years as they try to find their way in a changing society.

From the official description:

“These young Chinese are Westernized, savvy about today’s interconnected world, ambitious — and often torn between their culture and their aspirations. Set to an original soundtrack of Chinese rock and hop-hop music, this provocative film presents an in-depth look at what it means to be young and Chinese today.”

6.  The Cross: Jesus in China (4 parts) (China Soul) (2001)

Produced by Pastor Yuan Zhiming (former filmmaker in China), this series was one of the first to give a first-hand account of the explosion of Christianity in China.

The Amazon Description:

This documentary, The Cross: Jesus in China, portrays the little known history of a remarkable people; it is the turbulent 50 year history of Chinese Christians on screen! For the first time, the history of Christianity in China, especially within the House-Church movement, is given in an honest and comprehensive account. The film answers the question raised by many people outside China: how did the number of Chinese Christians increase from 700,000 in 1949 to approximately 70 million today despite communist control? Using live footage and interviews, the film captures the true stories of many people and seeks to answer the most common questions: how does the Chinese government deal with Chinese Christians and vice-versa? How have Chinese Christians developed, survived and grown? What kind of people are they and what influence have they had and will they have on Chinese society?

7.  Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure (4 parts ) BBC)

The description on YouTube:

China – the superpower the world fears, but few really know. Ken Hom, the godfather of Chinese cuisine, and Ching-He Huang, leading chef of the contemporary generation, together undertake an epic 3000-mile culinary adventure across China – not only to reveal its food, but its people, history, culture and soul.

8.  Education Education: Why Poverty (Steps International)

This is a slightly depressing look at education in modern day China.

Description on YouTube:

In ancient times in China, education was the only way out of poverty — in recent times it has been the best way. China’s economic boom and talk of the merits of hard work have created an expectation that to study is to escape poverty. But these days China’s higher education system only leads to jobs for a few, educating a new generation to unemployment and despair.

9.  Please Vote for Me (Independent Lens)

This is one of my favorites – part “Lord of the Flies,” part Cultural Revolution!

The description on Amazon:

Two males and a female vie for office, indulging in low blows and spin, character assassination and gestures of goodwill, all the while gauging their standing with voters. The setting is not the Democratic presidential campaign, but a third-grade class at an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China. “Please Vote For Me”, which is on the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences documentary feature shortlist, packs its fleet hour with keen observations. Chronicling a public school’s first open elections – at stake is the position of class monitor – filmmaker Weijun Chen has crafted a witty, engaging macro-lens view of human nature, China’s one-child policy and the democratic electoral process as the ultimate exercise in marketing.

10.  High Tech, Low Life

This film examines how modern media technology in the hands of citizens is challenging the government monopoly on information.

Description from the documentary website:

High Tech, Low Life follows the journey of two of China’s first citizen reporters as they travel the country – chronicling underreported news and social issues stories. Armed with laptops, cell phones, and digital cameras they develop skills as independent one-man news stations while learning to navigate China’s evolving censorship regulations and avoiding the risk of political persecution.

This film is available on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

So that’s my list. What China documentaries would you recommend?

Note: This post was originally published at ChinaSource.


Chinese Dreaming


For the past few months I have had the song “California Dreaming’” stuck in my head. I blame Chinese president Xi Jinping and his propagation of the notion of a  “Chinese Dream.”

It has become a feature of political culture in China that each new leader puts forth a slogan that he hopes will define his “administration.” When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979 he launched the “Four Modernizations,” a campaign designed to jolt China out of the chaos and economic stagnation following the Cultural Revolution by embarking on modernization programs in industry, agriculture, science and technology, and the military. The slogan “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” came into vogue a bit later, and was trickier to nail down. When I would ask my Chinese friends back then what in the world it meant, they would reply, “Oh, it means capitalism, but we’re still not comfortable with that word.”

Jiang Zemin came up with the “Theory of the Three Represents,” which supposedly indicated that the Party was to represent not just the interests of the peasants and workers, but also of the “advanced and social productive forces,” “the progressive course of China’s advanced culture,” and “the fundamental interests of the majority.” I say ‘supposedly’ because I don’t think anyone ever had a clue what it meant. When I would ask my Chinese friends what in the world it meant, they would just roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders and say, “who knows?” After Jiang Zemin stepped down from his position as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the phrase completely disappeared from public discourse, although he did manage to get the phrase enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. Mention it now and people just laugh.

Hu Jintao came to power in 2002 promising to build a “harmonious society,” and thus did the word HARMONY slowly work its way into all political and social discourse. The railway system even got into the act, naming the new high speed trains that now zip about the country “China Harmony Rail.” After ten years, the novelty wore off, however, and people in China (both local and foreign) are just sick of the word ‘harmony’ and all it’s variations. “Harmonize” has also become a synonym censorship, as in “my blog post was harmonized.”

Now Xi Jinping has become the leader of China and the slogan he has put forth is the “Chinese Dream.” Earlier this month The Economist published a special report about it, even suggesting that the slogan may have been borrowed from Thomas Friedman (a scary thought).

The Asia Society recently asked Evan Osnos, the Beijing-based correspondent for The New Yorker about the meaning of this “Chinese Dream.” Specifically, they asked for help in understanding what it is, who can attain it, and the obstacles for turning the dream into reality.

Here is a video clip of Osnos’ reply to the questions.

In sum, he makes these points:

1. It is the first slogan that makes sense.

2. It is an attempt to give individuals opportunities to keep moving forward.

3. It is about wealth creation and continuing China’s rise.

4. It is about humility in governing by acknowledging corruption and streamlining the bureaucracy

5. It is about national pride.

6. It is the first time that Chinese citizens are acknowledged as having similar interests American citizens.

7. The biggest challenge is that “the political system has run out of its ability to accommodate the incredible diversity of expectations and aspirations that Chinese people have today.”

Hmmm…. change the wording of that last point slightly, and you have a pretty accurate description of the situation regarding the church: “the religious regulatory system has run out of its ability to accommodate the incredible diversity of expectations and aspirations that Chinese Christians have today.”

Will the “Chinese Dream” also be able to accommodate the expectations and aspirations of China’s religious believers? Only time will tell.

Oh, and if you are working in China and have any dealings with officials, now is a good time to revise your banquet speeches and toasts by removing references to harmonious relationships and replacing them with references to dreams.


Further reading on the “Chinese Dream:”

Chasing the Chinese Dream (The Economist)

Xi Jinping and the Chinese Dream (The Economist)

A Nebulous Slogan (The Economist)

The Chinese Dream (Caixin Online)


Image source: nipic.com


Becoming Normal

Living cross-cultural living means living with a nearly constant barrage of surprises. Particularly for those of us who have been abroad for a long time, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve got the place figured out, that we know what’s up and what’s down, what’s in and what’s out. Sometimes we even seem to know what to expect and what not to expect.

When those thoughts creep in, beware…  something is likely to come out of left field and remind us that we are still pretty clueless about all the little things that go on in the society around us. The unexpected may throw us for a loop, causing frustration, or even anger. More often than not, however, if we are paying attention they can be positive experiences which open windows, allowing us to see that the society which we so poorly understand, and which we sometimes think barely functions, is, in fact rather “normal."  At least for a few minutes, then, we might have the feeling of being an insider instead of the outsider that we in reality always are.

An experience I had while still living in Changchun, Jilin in the 1990’s bears this out. As I was in my kitchen one afternoon making supper (that's definitely NOT normal), I heard a knock at the door. Like most Chinese apartment buildings, this one had a security door, so someone knocking at my door in itself was a bit unusual. Normally someone visiting me would ‘buzz’ me from the outside and I would (after identifying them) open the outside door for them via a magic button. Ignoring a simple rule of common sense like looking through the peep hole and asking who was out there, I just opened the door, assuming it was one of American colleagues who lived on the fourth floor.

I was wrong! When I opened the door, there stood a rather smallish young woman, dressed in a funny grey robe and hat.

In such a situation, I suspect that the last thing on earth this woman expected to see on the other side of the door was a slightly oversized foreign woman with yellow hair and fair skin, and upon seeing said woman, she would most likely either freeze, say excuse me and move on, or if she were scared enough, maybe even scream! After all, if one is Chinese, one expects the door to be answered by a Chinese, not a foreigner! Not this lady, though. She was a picture of poise, and as if my presence were the most normal thing in the world, smilingly launched into some kind of speech, talking a mile a minute.

Keep in mind that at this point I had lived in China for 10 years, and had been working on my Chinese language skills for 8 of those—but at that moment I could not understand a word this sweet lady (should I say girl?) was saying. NOT ONE WORD! I could tell this was not going to be a positive language experience. Either she was simply talking too fast (possible), was speaking some obscure dialect (unlikely), or was using such formalized speech that included ONLY vocabulary I’d never studied (probable).

My first response was to simply tell her that I didn’t understand, hoping that she would take pity on me, excuse herself, and leave quietly. But she was on a mission, so when I told her I didn’t understand, she just smiled, showed me her card (with a photo and the ubiquitous red stamp), and started her speech all over again. “I still don’t understand”, I pleaded, but to no avail.

I realized that my only hope of understanding her was to get her away from her prepared speech and using more colloquial language. “Just what is it that you want me to do?” I asked, this time going for the more direct approach.

Sighing, but without breaking her sweet smile, she plunged in again. It was still the speech, still formal, but this time I caught what seemed to me to be three essential words: “temple”, “donate money”, and “repairs”.

AHAH! Suddenly her attire made sense. She was a young nun from a Buddhist temple, going door-to-door collecting donations for temple repairs! Wanting to be sure of my conclusion, I asked her if that was who she was and what she was doing. “Yes!”

Now we were both smiling, feeling very pleased with our success. She showed me her notebook filled with names of my neighbors who had promised donations (a little peer pressure never hurts). I told her that I was a Christian, and therefore preferred to donate my money to the church. “Oh, but Buddhism and Christianity are almost the same,” she replied. I assured her that they weren’t and that I still preferred to donate my money to the church. “I’m sorry.” One more smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and she was on her way up the stairs.

I call this a “normalizing” event, and the normalizing came in two forms: One was in seeing a way  this society has for people to make charitable donations, even to religious entities. The other was in being treated like everyone else in the building. I got no special treatment, positive or negative, because I was a foreigner. At least for a brief time, I was a resident, a member of the speech community, and the same expectations were being placed on me as were being placed on my neighbors.

I went back into the kitchen smiling.


I’m Off to Fix Something

Yesterday morning I rode my bike to the office, which was a good thing because the street in front of the school where the office is located was a parking lot. A big bus and a big truck were face to face, completely surrounded by parked cars and cars trying to get around the parked cars.Some drivers were honking their horns (the ultimate exercise in futility in a situation such as this) and others looked like they were just going to settle in for the day.

“That’s funny,” I thought to myself. “It’s not Friday afternoon. Why is the street like this on a Wednesday morning?” Because I was on a bike, I just weaved my way down the street. When I entered the campus I discovered the reason for the traffic jam — there was a school program to celebrate Children’s Day (June 1), which meant parents in attendance, which meant chaos on the street.

Normally this traffic jam appears every Friday afternoon when the parents come to pick up their kids from the boarding school to take them home for the weekend. As long as I have been living and working in that neighborhood (since 1998, to be precise), this street has turned into a parking lot on Friday afternoon. One year it even provided me with an important cultural lesson.

While visiting some fellow Americans at the foreign student dormitory at a university campus in China’s Northeast, we were admiring the great view of the campus from the giant window of a 6th floor room.  We could see the sports field, the swimming pool, a small lake, and hundreds of students going hither and yon on the campus.  In the course of the conversation, we spotted someone walking near the lake and all agreed that said person was a foreigner. We wondered how it was that, even at 6 floors up and across campus, it was possible to make that distinction. We were too far away to see skin color or hair color or clothing styles, but we all agreed that this person was not only a foreigner, but was most likely an American.

A discussion ensued as to how and why this was possible.  Finally, one of my colleagues hit the nail on the head.  “It’s the way an American walks,” she said.  “The walk says one of two things:  ‘I own this place.’ or ‘I’m off to fix something.’”  We all laughed in agreement, instinctively knowing the truth of what she said.

Sometimes Americans overseas are like 3 year olds who drive everyone in the room bonkers by asking a never-ending series of “why” questions.  In most cases, what we are really asking is “why is it like this?”  And what that really means is “It’s not like this at home, so it shouldn’t be like this here.” I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be asking ‘why’ questions; on the contrary, I’m a firm believer in them.  They demonstrate a desire and willingness to learn.  But I think it’s important to make a distinction between two different motivations for incessantly asking “why”.

One motivation is the desire for understanding. Why is the traffic so chaotic (at least by my standards)?  Asking the “why is it like this question” may reveal the fact that until fifteen years ago, private cars were banned in China, and there were almost no taxis.  That means that many of the drivers of those ubiquitous taxis and Mercedes Benz’s are rookie drivers,  none of whom grew up riding in cars.  So the traffic patterns of cars are merely extensions of the traffic patterns of bicycling, which are much more fluid and situational.  I still may be terrified when careening through traffic on the third ring road, but it sort of makes sense.

The other motivation for asking the “why is it like this?” question is a desire to fix whatever it is that is being questioned.  The question gives definition to a problem.  And once a problem is defined, then it can be fixed.  This chaos is fixable, thinks the American. Put in one-way streets.  Put in left-turn lanes.  Institute strict fines for breaking the rules. Put up stop signs. The list goes on and on and on.

Shortly after the conversation about the propensity for Americans to want to fix things,  I was discussing this issue with my Chinese professor. I was describing to him the scene outside the school. I told him how, every Friday afternoon when the parents come to pick up their children, the mother of all traffic jams forms as the drivers of Cadillacs, Benz’s, Buicks, and BMW’s all jockey for position, trying to be the ones to get their car closest to the gate.  Everything else in the neighborhood comes to a stop.

The question I put to my professor was why the school or the local police, or someone couldn’t come up with a way to prevent the weekly traffic jam. Since they know its’ going to happen every Friday, it seemed to me to be a problem that would be easily fixed.

His response sent light bulbs popping  off in my head.  First of all, he pointed out to me that the school probably didn’t do anything because it wasn’t their responsibility.  The traffic jam was on the street, not on the school grounds.

I then pressed him as to why the local “paichusuo” (police station) didn’t do something, and he said that they didn’t view it as a problem either, or at least not their problem. The local police stations handle neighborhood registrations and and deal with petty crime and other activities that affect social stability. To them, as is the case with everyone else, the traffic jam is simply a weekly natural occurrence that will, within 2 or 3 hours, take care of itself. I was the only one who was viewing it as a problem to be fixed!

The following Friday, I stepped out of the gate to watch the traffic jam, this time viewing it through a different lens. I realized that not only was no one bothered by it; in fact, for the migrant workers who worked in the shops that lined the streets, it was a weekly source of entertainment, a weekly happening! Everyone was out, many with grandparents and kids in tow, watching the rich people and their cars. By supper time, it was all over and everyone went back to their regularly scheduled activities.

In their book, “American Cultural Patterns,” Stewart and Bennet discuss this American tendency to “see events as problems to be solved, based on their concepts of an underlying rational order in the world and of themselves as individual agents of action.”  Americans see problems and solutions as “basic ingredients of reality.”  It’s just the way life is.

But it’s not necessarily the way life is for many other cultures.  In cultures (like China) that are predisposed to adapt rather than change, accepting things as they are (chaotic as that may be) is the first tendency.  What a westerner calls a problem may be viewed simply as a twist of fate.  In some languages, the word, “problem” is synonymous with “confusion”, which is defined as “a condition that is best addressed by stopping whatever one is doing and waiting.”  Stewart and Bennet point out that attempts to solve the problem may be interpreted as contributing to the confusion.

This tendency towards fixing (be it personal or societal) can often be a source of cultural clashes when we are sojourning abroad. We look around and see so much that we don’t understand and the “why” questions start bubbling to the surface. When they do, it’s good to check ourselves to see if the questions are being motivated by the desire to fix what we perceive as being broken, or if they are  motivated by a genuine desire to learn how the society is organized and the thinking patterns that lie behind it.

Well, that’s all for now…..I’m off to fix something!

(Warmly welcome to the folks coming over from TGC. Feel free to look around and subscribe to receive this blog by RSS reader or email.)

That Was Last Week

This week has seen an outburst of anti-foreign ranting on the internet in China. Recent events seem to have formed a "perfect storm" for this kind of thing: China and the Philippines are in a spat over an island in the South China Sea; video clips of a Brit molesting a Chinese woman on the street and of a Russian cellist being rude to a woman on a train have gone viral; and the city's very public campaign to "clean up" illegal foreigners is asking Chinese to call a hot-line to report suspicious behavior on the part of foreigners.

Some local websites are getting in on the act, urging netizens have their camera phones ever at the ready to film misbehaving foreigners. A famous CCTV anchor even chimed in on his microblog declaring his hope that all the 'foreign scum' would be kicked out. Ouch!

I've seen quite a few of these outbursts come and go in my nearly three decades here.  They are no fun, but they do (so far) tend to blow over.

The diciest outbreak I experienced was in 1999, following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, which killed 3 Chinese journalists. I remember waking up that Saturday morning and listening to the news  (listening to VOA and the BBC on short-wave radio was our main source of news back then), and thinking "oh no…..this isn't going to be good….."

By the afternoon an angry crowd "had formed" in front of the US embassy throwing rocks and hurling paint at the building.  I say "had formed" because the crowds were made up of students who were being transported  to the embassy on buses provided by their schools. This went on all weekend, and the embassy sent out emails to Americans warning us to stay off the streets.

Later in the week a colleague and I ventured to the Starbucks in the Friendship store (which was down the street from the US embassy at the time) to see for ourselves what was going on, and sat all morning watching as students showed up to the checkpoint in the street, signed their names, picked up a rock from the desk, then went marching off to the embassy.

It was also very disconcerting to see red banners suddenly appear all over town with "Death to the Foreign Devils" written all over them.  "Is is suddenly the 1960s?", I wondered;  I told a driver friend of mine that the signs made me feel very uncomfortable.  "Oh don't worry he said," they're not referring to you. You're not a foreign devil.  You are a foreign friend." That was nice to hear but didn't offer me too much reassurance since I wondered how someone on the street with a brick in his hand would be able to immediately make that distinction.  I told the driver that the signs hurt my feelings. He looked at me funny.

The following weekend, the government went on TV (no text messaging yet) and told the students that the best way to show their patriotism was to go back to class and focus on their studies.  Just like that, it was over.

A week after that I and a colleague were in the Liu Li Chang area of Beijing doing some shopping.  As we were trying to catch a cab at the end of the day, a man with a three-wheeled rickshaw came over and asked us if we would like a ride.  We told him that we lived too far away. Then the conversation proceeded something like this:

Him:  Wah!  You speak really good Chinese.  Where are your from ?

Me:  (not wanting to tell him we were Americans) I would rather not tell you.

Him.  Why not?

Me:  Because if I tell you then you will stop being nice and friendly to us.

Him:  Why would I do that?

Me:  Because we are Americans!

Him: (slapping his leg and laughing out loud)  AIYA!!!!  THAT WAS LAST WEEK!!

My hunch (and hope) is that, like previous such outbursts, this too shall pass.  I am also fairly sure that as soon as many netizens finish posting their anti-foreign rants, they will head on over to KFC or MacDonalds or Starbucks to finish working on their visa applications to go abroad.

And I, as an outsider trying to live well where I don't belong, will take this as a reminder that everything I do is seen or noticed (even if it's not filmed) and seek to live my life accordingly.


A Grassy Knoll

I have lately been going through old articles and essays that I wrote before the advent of blogging, and thought it would be fun to revive them (well, at least some of them) by posting them here. The essay below was written in 1998, while I was still living in Changchun, in Jilin Province, and before grass was a common sight in China.

China is a grassless land.  For many foreigners who come here, the grassless-ness is one of the things that strikes us first and hardest (after the crowds, mind you).  We look in vain for the familiar blades, but where we think we should find grass (in front of buildings, along sidewalks, on sports fields, or in parks) we only see dirt–hard packed dirt, that looks as though it has been there for thousands of years, which of course it has.  And when the wind blows, the dirt is picked up and flung to another location; into buildings, into nostrils, and up into the air to be carried along and dumped on the next town or province or out in the countryside.

Why is China a grassless land?  Is it because the land is so tired after having been tilled for 5000 years, and just can’t take the extra energy to grow grass?  Is it because the land needs to feed 1.2 billion people (1/5 of the world’s population), and can’t be wasted on something so frivolous as grass?  Is it because some despot (imperial or Marxist) once issued a decree that all the grass should be destroyed? Is it because Chinese people don’t like grass–or perhaps don’t know what it is or what it should look like?

I live in a city that has a very interesting park attached to a reservoir which was built by the Japanese occupying forces in the 1930’s.  By Chinese standards, it’s a nice park, with boats for rent, amusement park-type rides, and a huge tract of woods intertwined with paths for walking and cycling.  But even here, one is still struck by the absence of grass.  In the woods there are only tall weeds.  Along the lake, there is only pavement.

Yet, right in the middle of the woods, in a large clearing, there is a grassy knoll.  It’s a huge field, and if one didn’t look too closely they might feel as though they were in any city in the world, not a grassless Chinese city.  Yet, there is something strangely odd about this field of grass.  There are no children running and playing, no football games being played, no kites being flown, no lovers planning their futures.  On this field of grass there is not a soul, because this field of grass is ringed with barbed wire. Occasionally people wander up to the fence and look at the grass, but curiously no one crosses the fence or even seems to be too interested in this grassy knoll.

Every afternoon my teammate and I go biking in the park, and every afternoon we find ourselves at the barbed wire, staring longingly at the grass, for we are from a land of grass.  We wonder why the field is there. We wonder why there is a fence around it.  And we wonder if the people even know its there, much less care that it is inaccessible to them.  But this is China, where so many of the rights and privileges of life that we take for granted remain inaccessible.  It probably doesn’t strike them as odd that there is a barbed wire fence around a field of grass.  Grass is meant to be fenced in.  It is what a leader has decreed, and that is that.

The grassy knoll generates conflicting emotions in me.  Delight, because there IS a place I can go in this Manchurian city to see grass and soak up the calmness that the color green evokes.  My fellow biker and I always stop for a moment to enjoy the grass, even from the other side of a fence.   But it also makes me sad, because most people in the city probably have no idea it is there, and may never experience the joys of grass.  To them it will always be something on the other side of a barbed wire fence, something that has no relevance in their lives, because China is a grassless land.

Postscript: China is no longer the grassless land that it was when I wrote that. Most cities have benefited from a decade-long “beautify and greenify” campaign so that now where there once were dirt fields there are now beautiful parks.  And the parks have grass in them and they are not surrounded by barbed wire fences. They are accessible to the people, and that is a good thing.

(Photos of People’s Park –what else? — in Shanghai)





Crackdown of the Month – Illegal Foreigners

Beijing_police_visa_check_crackdownThe Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) has just launched a 100-day campaign to "clean out" all the foreigners who are living and working in town illegally. I must admit I'm not thrilled with the phrasing of their announcement. It seems to conjur up competing images in my head — one of hapless underground English teachers being rounded up and deposited at the purgatory that is Capital Airport Terminal 3; the other of public health officials showing up at the doors of illegal foreigners handing out boxes of laxatives.

To be fair, different English language media outlets have translated the phrase in question as "clean out," "clean up," and "clamp down."

Never mind….if there are foreigners in town illegally (and there must be, otherwise why the need for the crackdown?), they aim to find them. In fact, they have even set up a hotline where local residents can call to report 'suspicous foreigners' in their neighborhoods!

For those of you who've been around for awhile, particulary in the run-up to the Olympics, this will be a familiar drill.  Been there, done that!

When the 100 days are over, this crackdown will wane, and there will be something new that needs the government's attention…and PRESTO–we'll have a new crackdown-of-the-month!

Here are previous crackdowns I've written about:

It's a Dog's Life, or Should I say, Death

Crackdown on English

Who's Minding the Crackdown?

Your Turn, Shanghai. Good Lucky!

(image source: The Beijinger)




New Weibo Posting Rules? Been There, Done That

The local blogosphere was abuzz this week with the news that Sina Weibo, China's main micro-blogging site had posted a 'user contract' (a list of rules, really) that their microblog users must adhere to.

I read through them (you can read them here in English), and just chuckled because it's essentially a re-hash (but with some updated langauge to include social media) of a document that I remember signing when I registered for my very first internet/email account in Changchun, back in 1996.

The internet was new back then (having just been invented by Al Gore), and in order to access this new-fangled thing I had to ride my bike downtown to the Post and Telecommunications Office to sign up. This meant filling out lots of papers and leaving them with a copy of my passport.

I also had to read and sign the 'terms of use' document, which is essentially what this new Weibo contract is ( but maybe a bit more indirect), as I remember Item #1 on the list was simply, "You may not use the internet to harm China."

Nice to have that settled.

Regarding all of this hullabaloo, I tend to agree with this post at a blog called Tea Leaf Nation: 5 Reasons that Sina's New User Contract will Have No Impact.

Well said indeed.