Happy Birthday, China


China may be an ancient civilization, but today (October 1), it celebrated its 64th birthday. It was on this day in 1949 that Chairman Mao stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) and declared the founding of The People’s Republic of China.


The holiday is called National Day, and it marks the beginning of what has come to be  known as “Golden Week.” Basically, the entire nation has a 7 day holiday. The logic behind the holiday is not so everyone can spend a week basking in the glories of Communism, but so they can spend money.




At the end of the week, the government will announce how much money was pumped into the economy. No doubt it will be a glorious amount.

Here are some past posts I’ve written on (or about) China’s National Day:

Chinese Freeways are Finally Free…Sort of… (2012)

A Mountain of People, an Ocean of People (2011)

National Day, 1984 (2011)

It’s Last Tuesday, or Next Thursday, or Something (2009)

The Parade in 3:42 Minutes (2009)

China Nearing 60 (2009)

Happy Birthday, China (2008)

The Holiday is Over (2005)

Happy Birthday, China (2005)


Photos: Xinhua and China.org.cn


Lu Lingzi’s Dream

llzOn April 15, 2 home-made bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring dozens. One of those killed was 23-year old Lu Lingzi, a graduate student at Boston University. She and her friend were waiting near the finish line when the bombs exploded.

Lu Lingzi was living the dream of practically every student that every English teacher in China has had in his or her class. We know them well: the young man who wants to earn an MBA and make is millions; the young woman who wants to become a scientist and discover the cure for cancer.

Each student comes to us, the foreign teacher, to tell us their dreams. We reluctantly offer encouragement, knowing that a few will make it, but that most won’t. It is hard to know how to respond when a young man from a village announces his intention to study at Harvard. We cannot fathom the drive and determination it takes — took – to get out of the village, nor the drive it will take to get escape the Chinese educational system.

Her death hit hard in China, not simply because she was a compatriot who was killed in a foreign land, but because of the dream that her life (and now death) represented.

On April 22, Boston University held a memorial service for Lu Lingzi. Here is a section of the eulogy that her father gave:  (please click the link to read it in its entirety)

An ancient Chinese saying says, Every child is actually a little Buddha that helps their parents mature and grow up. Even though we brought up Lingzi, and yet today while reflecting on her short twenty-four-year life, we as parents admire and appreciate her kindness, courage, and her yearning for a beautiful life!

Lingzi, you are simply the best!

Just shortly before we came here, your former teachers, classmates, as well as strangers on the website back at home, all spontaneously gathered in the Shenyang Central Square one evening. They lit candles, and held a ceremony in your memory. Your elementary home-room teacher wrote, “May you remain as jolly as a little elf in the heavenly garden!” 

Hu Was the Leader of China. Now Xi Is.

Two weeks ago, the Communist Party of China (CPC) completed it’s 18th National Congress, at which a new set of leaders was appointed. The nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) that sits at the apex of Party power and thus effectively rules the country was reduced to 7 members, and all but 2 of the out-going members were replaced (their terms were up).

Hu Jintao, the man who had been the General Secretary of the CPC for the last ten years stepped down. The man ‘elected’ to take his place was Xi Jinping (pronounced She Jeenping).

As you can imagine, this has spawned something of a cottage industry in pun-making.

A recent post on the website Foreign Policycompiled a list of bad-pun headlines they hope never to see:

1. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea: “Xi’s Gotta Have It.”

2. A profile of his teenage years: “Xi was only 16.”

3. His second visit to Iowa: “There Xi Goes Again.”

4. His portrayal in Chinese state media: “Isn’t Xi Lovely?” (Or “Xi Will Be Loved.”)

5. A Chinese Gorbachev: “Xi Change.”

6. Bizarre policy choices: “Xi Moves in Mysterious Ways.”

7. A definitive chronicle of his speeches: “That’s What Xi Said.”

8. His meeting with Henry Kissinger: “The Old Man and the Xi.”

9. On a conflict with the current head of the disciplinary committee: “He Said Xi Said.”

10. His stylish sartorial choices: “Ain’t Nothing But a Xi Thing.”

My contribution to the madness is the title of this post.

How about you? What are your favorite “Xi” puns?


For further reading on Mr. Xi:

Xi Jinping: the ‘big personality’ taking charge in China (The Guardian)

China’s incoming first lady a challenge for the image makers (Los Angeles Times)

What China’s seven rulers mean for its 80 million Christians (Christianity Today)

Image source: Wikipedia


Flooding in Beijing — What Does it Mean?

Beijing was hit with a terrible rainstorm over the weekend, leaving 37 dead.  From the pictures that have been posted online, it seems that much of the city was turned into a big lake because the storm sewers were not up to the task of handling the 7 inches of rain that fell in the space of 20 hours.


To understand the scope of the damage, it’s important to know a bit about the geography of Beijing.

Beijing is a municipal district under the direct control of the central government; it does not belong to any province. It comprises 15 districts, 5 of which are considered ‘urban’ and 9 ‘rural.’ The entire municipality is the size of Kuwait, with the urban districts only comprising a small percentage of the land area, as you can see in this map.


News reports indicate that much of the death and destruction took place in the Fangshan District, which received 18 inched of rain during the storm. The term ‘suburban’ has been used by some to describe this district, but that conjures up certain images (at least to outsiders) of middle class wealth.

In fact, Fangshan is predominantly rural and mountainous, and also quite poor. Except for a few newly built satellite towns, most of the communities are remote mountain villages.  That this area would experience severe flash flooding in a deluge is not surprising.

I have friends who work in some of these communities, and I’m hoping and praying that they are alright.

Here are some links to more articles and pictures:

Floods in Beijing — in Pictures (The Guardian)

Death and Destruction in 20 Hours (China Daily)

Beijing Underwater (Foreign Policy)

The Smoke is Nothing New

A big story in the news in China this week was a yellow haze that enveloped the central city of Wuhan. A couple of netizens went online and suggested that it was the result of a chlorine leak, which stirred up the masses, which forced the government to declare that there was no leak; the cause of the smoke was farmers burning off old stalks in their fields.

Then they arrested the rumor-mongers.

Since then there has been much debate about the plausibility of the haze being the result of smoke, with netizens (Chinese and foreign) wondering why this would suddenly be a new phenomenon, given the fact that peasants burn their fields every year.

Well, it isn’t new.

In the early 2000’s Beijing even had the word “smoke” as a category for the weather forcast.  I wrote about it in a post to this blog in November of 2005:

Tonight as I was riding home on my bicycle, I noticed the air smelled of smoke.  When I got home I checked the Yahoo! weather for Beijing (I need to know how many layers of clothes to wear tomorrow), and, under “current conditions,” it said, simply, SMOKE.  This is the only city I know of where SMOKE is one of the possible descriptors used for the weather report.  It’s not uncommon to get SMOKE this time of year because all across the North China Plains, peasants are burning the fields after the harvest.  I’ve been in rural areas of Shandong this time of year where it was so thick you could barely see across the street.

But here’s a thought….in a society where 70% of the males smoke, does anyone really notice?

Cough, cough.

Nobody fussed. Nobody started rumors. We just donned our masks or stayed indoors.

Peasants burning their fields and whole cities being enveloped by the resulting smoke is nothing new in China.

What is new is an internet environment that allows millions to go online and fuss.

[Image Source: The Raw Story]

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.


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)




“This Ambiguity Cannot be Criticized” (updated)

Last week, the Chinese government refused to extend the press credentials of a very intrepid American journalist who has covered China for Al Jazeera English for the past 5 years.  With her visa about to expire, she left Beijing on Monday.

As you can imagine, the local foreign press corps are quite upset and in various briefings and press conferences in town laslt week, they tried to get answers from the government spokespeople as to why she had been given the boot.

No information was forthcoming.

On Thursday, a commentator writing in the English language Global Times, tried to defend the government's actions, even though it was obvious that he also didn't have a clue why it had happened.

In the process he wrote what may very well go down in the annals of time as the world's greatest political utterance:

"China didn't give a specific reason for expelling this reporter. This ambiguity cannot be criticized."


I love it!

As a follow-up, the reporter wrote a farewell letter: Goodbye to  China, Country of Contradictions. It is worth a read.

(Note….if you were here earlier and found the link to be broken, try again.  It should work now. Thanks to SH for alerting me.)


The Three Ambiguities

Embracing Madness

Still Crazy After All These Years