Changing China

Giant on the move

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Development and discrimination in Tibet

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    By Emma Graham-Harrison
    Beijing has poured money into Tibet over decades of trying to bring the restive region to heel, raising average wages, restoring cultural treasures like the Potala Palace, even paying a monthly stipend to monks who hold  government permits.     Local officials are sensible about this munificence and grateful for the help in running one of China’s poorest regions.     “The support of the government is the reason for Tibet’s development. Without their backing….Tibet could not be its the current position,” Tsering, vice chairman of the regional government, told reporters on a recent officially sponsored trip. Tsering, like many Tibetans, uses only one name.     The sentiments of ordinary Tibetans are more complicated. Many of them resent the political baggage that comes with the funds and the influx of Han Chinese who have followed.     There is little question that life has improved materially for many over the last 50 years, particularly in rural areas where scholars say the harshness of farming life has also kept outsiders away, helping to preserve traditional culture.
 
    “Life is better now. Every day is like our old New Year,” said 55 year-old Gelek, a farmer who speaks only Tibetan and greeted a foreign visitor the old-fashioned way, by sticking out his tongue.
 
    He says he makes cash from vegetables grown for sale in Lhasa, has moved into a new house, and eats meat far more often than as a young man.
 
    But frustrated urbanites face discrimination and often see jobs that are created with cash from Beijing going to Han Chinese competitors.
 
    “They are very lovable as a people, but they are not really motivated about work,” said one senior Han Chinese intellectual working in Lhasa who works with several Tibetans but shares prejudices common among many outsiders.
 
    “They start (a project) and then they go off for a drink and sometimes you call, and call and they don’t even answer.”     Many monks and nuns, whose numbers and religious activities are constrained by the government, also resent a ban on expressing their devotion to the man they still revere as spiritual leader — the exiled Dalai Lama, who has been denounced by Beijing as a scheming separatist.     The Dalai Lama denies this accusation, saying he seeks only genuine autonomy within China, not a separate nation. Many Tibetans also appear more interested in religious and cultural freedoms than independence.      But on their right to those freedoms most Tibetans agree. Few have time for Beijing’s ubiquitous assertion that Tibet has always been a part of China, which even led to a dispute over the Chinese version of a Tintin comic book — published as “Tintin in China’s Tibet” instead of just a straight translation of the English title “Tintin in Tibet”.     “They treat us like a child and think they can deceive us. But we know Tibet was once an independent country,” said a monk called Jigme in Tongren, an ethnic Tibetan part of neighbouring Qinghai province.
 
Photo Credit: Sixty-eight-year-old Tibetan farmer Danzeng Basa adjusts his solar-powered kettle outside his recently built house in a small village outside Lhasa, Feb. 12, 2009. REUTERS/Emma Graham-Harrison
   

from Left field:

Ice cold in Heilongjiang

 

Last week I went up to Harbin to check out the Winter University Games, which the city is hoping will act as a springboard to a bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

It was pretty chilly at the wonderfully kitsch Ice and Snow Festival, highlights of which you can see above, but up in the mountains the Alpine skiiers were taping up their faces to protect themselves from a wind chill factor of minus 30 degrees Celcius. 

from Environment Forum:

‘Borrowing’ water, Chinese style

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"The south has plenty of water and the north lacks it, so if possible why not borrow some?" China's revolutionary communist leader Mao Zedong said in 1952.

That probably seemed a great idea at the time.

But it is causing pollution as well as discontent among farmers facing forced resettlement to make way for a mammoth construction to help the parched north -- the South-to-North Transfer Project. Much of the system, of dams, canals and tunnels, is due for completion in 2013-14.

Talking the same language

    By Ben Blanchard and Ralph Jennings
    What’s in a word? A great deal if you are Chinese or Taiwanese. Despite unprecedented detente in recent months, China and Taiwan sometimes seem as far apart as ever when it comes to language.
    Take, for example, the vexed question of the wording of a future political solution between the two sides.
    China claims Taiwan as its own, and views it as a rebel province to be reeled in, by force if necessary. Beijing says Taiwan has been China’s “since days of old”, and it is only because defeated Nationalist forces fled there at the end of a civil war in 1949, and managed to hold off the Communists, that the island is still run separately. 
    China says it wants “reunification”, to bring back together that which was once whole.
    But for many in Taiwan, that’s the wrong word. They would rather term it “unification”, saying that China, or at least the Communist Party, has never run Taiwan and has no legitimate claim over the island. Hence there is nothing to “reunite”.
    Trouble is, in Chinese the word “tongyi” can be translated as either “reunification” or “unification”. That makes writing about the issue in English tricky for reporters who seek to stay neutral.
    The politics of language go deeper, though. Taiwan, along with Hong Kong, Macau and many in the overseas Chinese world, use the traditional Chinese script, rather than the simplified version used in China and introduced by the Communists.
    Some in Taiwan call their traditional script “correct font,” implying that China uses the wrong words.
    The official spoken language, Mandarin Chinese, is largely the same on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, but Taiwanese often eject a mouthful at foreigners who speak in mainland-inflected Mandarin.
    Likewise, mainland Chinese may laugh at foreigners who speak Taiwan-accented Mandarin when in China.
    Taiwanese also love throwing in English and Japanese words when speaking Mandarin, which does not happen much on the mainland.
     Taiwan is proud, too, of its non-Mandarin linguistic heritage. Taiwanese, also known as Hokkien, as made a big comeback since being supressed by the Nationalists and is now widely used in politics, on the television and in pop songs.
    Written Taiwanese, using Chinese characters, is all but impossible for someone who only speaks Mandarin to understand, though they can guess at the gist of it.
    Taiwanese is also spoken in China, in the southern part of Fujian province, the origin centuries ago for many ethnic Chinese people in Taiwan, and is generally called Hokkien. In China though, use of  okkien in public life gets little official backing.
    So while China and Taiwan may talk about moving closer together, they might not always be talking the same language.

A Tibetan slap on the bum

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By Emma Graham-Harrison

I was trying to take photos of pilgrims near the Potala Palace in Lhasa, with my government minders telling me to hurry up (we had a neighbourhood committee to visit) and the pilgrims looking uncomfortable as I snapped away at their devotions.

Suddenly a smiling old woman, dressed like she had stepped out of an engraving of 19th century Tibet, hobbled up behind me and gave me a resounding smack on the bum.

The war that changed China

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Thirty years ago today, China invaded its one-time Communist ally Vietnam to “teach it a lesson”, to the delight of Beijing’s newfound friend, Uncle Sam, which was still smarting from having lost its own Vietnam War.
 
The attack came on the heels of Washington switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and a closed-door meeting between China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Washington.
 
Three decades on, it remains unclear just how much Deng told Carter about the incursion and whether Washington offered any assistance such as satellite imagery of Vietnamese troops and military bases.
 
Until the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department declassify minutes of the meeting, the world will not know for sure whether the United States offered to back China in the event the Soviet Union rushed to Vietnam’s rescue.
 
Now the great wheel of history has turned again, and 30 years on, the United States is seeking China’s help in applying pressure on another Communist neighbour, North Korea.
 
China’s foray into Vietnam was brief yet in some ways disastrous. Its troops suffered terribly against the battle-hardened Vietnamese who were fighting on their home soil.
 
But there is no arguing that the invasion was a watershed event that smoothed the way for China to mend fences with the West.  American investors, tourists and students flocked to China.  Western and Japanese aid and loans flowed in, while trade and investment mushroomed, helping to transform the world’s most populous nation from an economic backwater into an export powerhouse and the world’s third-biggest economy.
 
In an apparent quid pro quo, China abandoned its longstanding policy of “liberating” Taiwan and offered “peaceful reunification” in an overture to the self-ruled island it has claimed as its own since their split in 1949 amid civil war.
 
Also in 1979, Deng invited Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit, prompting the latter to renounce advocacy of Tibetan independence, beseech CIA-armed and -trained Tibetan guerrillas to end their struggle and send his older brother to China on fact-finding trips.
 
The United States softened its criticism of human rights abuse in China, including the imprisonment of dissident Wei Jingsheng for challenging Deng at the height of the Democracy Wall movement.
 
American Sinologist David Shambaugh described as a “marriage of convenience” the teaming up of the United States and China to curb Soviet expansionism.
(http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/01/06/opinion/edshambaugh.php)
 
On a lighter note, American culture invaded China. Many Chinese traded their Mao suits for jeans or business suits and dined at McDonald’s and KFC outlets. Hollywood movies and rock ‘n’ roll — once considered decadent by China’s ideologues — swept many Chinese off their feet.
 
The honeymoon abruptly ended on June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops crushed student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. China slipped into diplomatic isolation in the face of U.S. sanctions.
 
China broke out of isolation and forced the United States to deal with it after menacing Taiwan with war games in the run-up to the island’s first direct presidential elections in 1996. Bilateral relations see-sawed in the ensuing years, hitting low points when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter over Chinese airspace.
 
Fast forward to February 2009. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits on Friday, she will be dealing with a richer, more confident and assertive China.  Again, but now in peacetime, it will be a China that needs the United States as much as the United States needs China.
 
The United States needs China to help rein in a nuclear North Korea and help nurse the global economy back to health. But China’s abrupt slowdown in growth and exports shows that it remains yoked to U.S. fortunes.

Photo Credit: A Vietnamese border guard stands next to a border marker between China’s Guangxi and Vietnam’s Lang Son provinces on Jan. 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kham

Farmer Wu’s 32 “children”

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By Maxim Duncan

A great aspect of our work is the opportunity it offers to meet characters, those colourful personalities who break out of the usual routines and patterns. 

One such character is Wu Yulu, a farmer on the outskirts of Beijing who has dedicated his life to building robots mostly from scrap. He has taken on a huge debt, been sprayed with battery acid and risked his marriage in the process.

Karaoke Blues

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Has the fat lady sung in China?

Karaoke is much maligned in most of the West and much loved in most of China.

After years in Beijing, I’ve become perhaps too fond of all-night singing sessions in the city’s karaoke palaces, where you can rent a room for two or 20 friends to croon along to tens of thousands of Chinese numbers and an eclectic English selection that ranges from old hymns to Amy Winehouse.

For as long as I’ve lived here, singing on a Saturday night meant reserving a room, arriving on time (more than 10 minutes late and you lose your room) and then waiting around for at least half an hour for the previous group to tear themselves away from the mics and for the cleaners to do a quick mop-up.

Snapshots of a China in flux

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Not so many weeks ago, selecting a name for this newly rechristened blog would have been a snap.

The ideas came pouring in, with variations centered on the rising might of China’s economic powerhouse, fresh from memories of Beijing’s triumphant hosting of the Olympic Games and following years of double-digit economic growth that have made China the world’s third-largest economy after the United States and Japan.

Follow that, London!

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A victory celebration

Sebastian Coe says London is undaunted at having to follow Beijing when it hosts the next Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2012.

“It’s a massive responsibility,” the chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games told a news conference on the eve of the closing ceremony of the Paralympics.

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