Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kids with Large Tools in Ningxia, China

A bus ride (not random) to another city and an eventful arrival means I have little time (and energy) for a post today. However, I will share two photos of kids in Zhongwei, Ningxia with large tools.

little boy holding a shovel in Zhongwei, Ningxia, China

The boy above was helping his father with construction work at a temple. I would have used quotes for "helping" but later I saw him bringing bricks to his father. I did not have the impression the father was truly making use of child labor, though. The boy appeared to just want to lend a hand. He showed some surprising strength when he decided it would be grand to throw the bricks instead of carry them. Fortunately, his father has quick reflexes.

little girl holding a large inflatable hammer in Zhongwei, Ningxia, China

The girl above had just finished her homework. Her mother and father have a restaurant on a food street. She had a lot of fun practicing her English with me and kept things entertaining during a good dinner. In case you are wondering, I did not feel the wrath of her inflatable hammer.

If you find a deep meaning in my experiences with the two kids please let me know. Otherwise, this is all for now.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lives Remembered

photos of deceased people at the Kun Ian Temple in Macau

Over a month ago I stood here in Macau's Kun Iam Temple transfixed by all the faces from the past. I wondered about their lives--so many different stories I would never know.

Later that same day, I came across a similar scene at the Cemetery of Saint Michael the Archangel.

final resting places, some with photos, at the Cemetery of Saint Michael the Archangel in Macau

And again I thought about all of the lives and wondered what could be learned to help answer the question "What is life?"

I then slowly walked around looking at a variety of gravestones--some with a mix of Eastern and Western styles. One gravestone especially caught my eye.

graves at the Cemetery of Saint Michael the Archangel in Macau

DIED IN MACAU 2-8-1968



A man who was not ethnically Chinese, but China had been the place of his birth and death. I wondered what stories he could have told. What brought his family to Shanghai? Why and when did he leave? What brought him to Macau? What did he experience in China during a time when it underwent immense changes and challenges?

My inability to find any answers leads me to ponder the phrase "Gone but not forgotten". What does it mean to be remembered? Why would it matter? How long will the gravestone last?

These experiences and questions come to my mind now due to the recent death of someone I knew. A man who began his life in the U.S. but found his end in Shanghai, a place where he discovered much that he enjoyed. Just days ago we were discussing the great variety of people that can be found in China.

I know more about him than the man who died in Macau. Yet as is highlighted by what others are now sharing online in a new form of an old ritual, I am sure there remains so much more I could learn. I am also sure that two men who had different journeys have something in common. They both impacted me and others. And I know the resulting changes are a form of remembrance, no matter what happens to their stories.

flowers on the ground outside the Kun Ian Temple in Macau
Outside the Kun Iam Temple

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Feeding Pigeons in Yinchuan

Posting an ordinary photo of ordinary people feeding some ordinary pigeons in Yinchuan, Ningxia feels proper at the moment.

two children and an older woman feeding pigeons

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ambiguity and Assumptions About Reporting in China

The Chinese government recently denied a visa for foreign correspondent Melissa Chan thereby making it not possible for her to continue delivering eye-opening reports in China. Mark MacKinnon explained why it mattered, Evan Osnos argued it was a sign that "China is moving backwards", Isaac Stone Fish suggested Chan's ethnicity and nationality played a role, William Moss observed that the "Chinese government has never been comfortable with an adversarial media", and Patrick Chovanec provided a list of Chan's work while describing her visa refusal as "China’s version of the Pulitzer Prize".

Official reasons for the visa denial have been hard to obtain as seen in an excerpt from a daily briefing by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Spokesman Hong Lei did not clarify the "relevant Chinese laws and regulations" other than to say in a "relevant" statement:
I think our policies and laws regarding foreign journalists is very clear. In your work and exchanges with us we have briefed you on relevant Chinese laws and regulations which is also the basis for your work in China. With regard to relevant issue I think relevant media and journalists are clear about that.
From the relevant information I have seen, relevant journalists would still like some relevant clarification about the relevant rules. I would say that is relevant.

In the apparent quest to explain the "relevant issue", Shan Renping on The Global Times wrote an article that has already received the attention of James Fallows and others. It has inspired me to share my own thoughts. Below, I will provide excerpts of the article followed by my questions and comments.
In the past 14 years, there has been a lot of friction between China and other countries.
Yes, I look back wistfully to those frictionless days before 1998.
... Chinese officials acknowledge that it only makes things worse for a country's image if they take a confrontational position with foreign journalists.
What piece would be complete without ironic foreshadowing?
China didn't give a specific reason for expelling the reporter. This ambiguity cannot be criticized.
Pure gold. I suppose it stands to follow that the article itself cannot be criticized. Therefore, what I am writing here could not be criticism. Excellent, I would not want to upset anyone.
According to foreign journalist sources here in Beijing, Melissa Chan holds an aggressive political stance.
Which is...?
According to foreign reports, she has a tense relationship with the management authorities of foreign correspondents. She has produced some programs which are intolerable for China.
Which are...?

Oh, I see. Being ambiguous to justify someone else's ambiguity is unambiguously effective.
Interfering with foreign media's reporting is a retrograde act, and it is simply impossible to do.
After interfering has been described as "impossible to do", it will now be argued why an act of interference was justified.
However, foreign journalists in China must abide by journalistic ethics. They have their values and reporting angles, but the bottom line is that they should not turn facts upside down.
Like this: "˙sɹǝʇɹodǝɹ uƃıǝɹoɟ ɥʇıʍ sǝɹǝɟɹǝʇuı ʇuǝɯuɹǝʌoƃ ǝsǝuıɥɔ ǝɥʇ"? Or should I flip the text instead of rotating it? The ambiguity in the suggestion leaves me uncertain.
The scale of opinion expressed in the media, especially the Internet, has greatly expanded these last few years. The Chinese government's ability to accept criticism is greater than ever.
A clarification of "accept" would sure be interesting.
We don't want to see any confrontations between the Chinese government and foreign journalists here in China.
Not sure I agree. It depends on what is meant by "confrontations". But I would agree that an absence of hostile intent would be good.
Local authorities are more willing to cooperate with them, while foreign media should take an objective and balanced view toward the country.
I wonder what "less willing to cooperate" would look like for the local authorities in Linyi.
Foreign media should reflect on China's complexity, which is well-known to almost all foreigners in China. However, some media are only keen to show the wickedness of China to the world.
So a concern that foreigners will view China as "wicked" leads to an action that likely only increases any perception of "wickedness". This would not be the first time that a desire to avoid humiliation in foreign eyes has backfired in China.
According to some Chinese people who work or used to work in foreign media bureaus, it is common practice for some foreign journalists to just piece together materials based on their presuppositions when reporting on China.
Of course, The Global Times has high standards about piecing together materials. After all, I could never imagine someone saying, "they selected quotes from an interview, grossly modified my words on a key point, then made it look like my article". Oh, someone did. Well, at least The Global Times apologized after they were caught.
If a foreign reporter cannot stay in China, we can only assume that he or she has done something cross the line.
Which is...? Oh yes, ambiguity + assumptions = inarguable fact.

I have nothing more to say other than that I hope the conditions in China for foreign correspondents and Chinese journalists will improve. Among the numerous benefits of a free press will be more respect for China in the eyes of the rest of the world. This will in turn ensure more awareness of the many positive sides of China. But at the moment, even this example would be a less foolish display of interfering with people who want to report the truth--good or bad.

Added note: See Melissa Chan's new article "Goodbye to China, country of contradictions".

Added note 2: Removed a few superfluous sentences for clarity.

Added note 3: After the earlier link became nonfunctional, updated the link to the Global Times article.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Musical Experience in Beijing: Menuhin, Wieniawski, and Lee

Last month Beijing had the honor of hosting the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition. The competition describes itself as "the world's leading international competition for young violinists" and includes two age groups: "Juniors" who are under the age of 16 and "Seniors" who are 16 to 21 years old. Americans won first prize in both groups and had three prize winners in total. South Korea also had three prize winners and China had two.

I did not become aware of the competition until a friend who was a conservatory classmate of mine and is now a professional musician positively commented on a video recording of a performance. Especially since this friend rarely shares recordings, I was rather curious. It only took a few notes by the junior group 2nd prize winner for me to be captivated. The performance is not just technically impressive, but surprisingly musical for one so young. I am sure a lot of practice was involved, but you cannot play like that without an excellent ear and a lot of spirit. I could go on, but performances are better listened to than described.

Below is Soo-Been Lee from South Korea ripping up Wieniawski's "Variations on an Original Theme in A Major" like I never imagined possible for an 11 year old. I recommend listening even if you do not care about the performers young age:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fake Stuffed Toys Influencing Technology Usage in China

During my several trips to Guangzhou in Guangdong province I have visited a number of large buildings full of small wholesale stores. The immense variety of what is sold makes it easy to believe that many of the world's products are manufactured in Guangzhou and other nearby cities. Such stores offer an opportunity to gain knowledge relevant to the design of various technologies. To provide a small taste of what I have found I will share an example of a single store. It highlights some important issues and at the end of the post I will allude to an intriguing question it raises about lands far from China.

The store's owner, who I will give the fictitious name "Jia", sells stuffed toys and other stuffed products based on animated characters. Her customers sell the items they buy in bulk to retailers or sometimes directly to consumers. Jia has an advantage running her business due to a close connection with the factory where the items are manufactured--her long-term boyfriend is a manager there.

There is an Internet-connected computer in the store that plays a critical role in taking orders from the customers, but not in the way one might first guess. Although some of Jia's customers may sell their merchandise online using services such as Taobao, Jia's store has no formal online presence itself.

person on the phone and sitting at a computer in a small wholesale store in Guangzhou, Guangdong
Jia takes a call from a customer.

Some of the reasons why Jia has a computer yet no online store became clearer to me after I asked Jia, "Are your products genuine?"*

She replied, "Kind of."

One may think that whether something is genuine or not is a simple yes or no proposition. But fake products in China have a wide range of quality. Jia's "kind of" reply reflects that although her products are not genuine, she believes they are equal in quality and practically indistinguishable from genuine products.

stuffed toys of Japanese cartoon characters in a wholesale store in Guangzhou, Guangdong
The stuffed products include many Japanese animated characters found in video games, television or movies.

What Jia sells is significantly cheaper than genuine products yet more expensive than lower quality fakes. Furthermore, her customers are fully aware they are not buying genuine products. To be sure they are getting their money's worth and a product meeting their needs, they desire to visit the store to examine the products firsthand. While in the store, many customers photograph whatever they may buy. Later, they can send their photos to ensure the accuracy of any orders which they may place via email, instant messaging, or telephone.

There are other factors at play, but this example provides a window into how fake products can influence a business's and its customers' use of technology. Had Jia been selling genuine products or low quality fakes the situation may have been different. As it stands though, Jia's customers are motivated to visit the store, take photographs, and later send them via the Internet. And Jia is motivated to use a computer to communicate with customers but is far less motivated to set up a formal online presence for her store.

Understanding not just how people use technology but the deeper reasons for why they use it the way they do is critical to designing useful and desirable technologies. Although Jia's business is just a single example, it can provide inspiration for new ideas that would not have been conceived otherwise. By combining it with other examples or with findings from different forms of research, compelling evidence may be found of needs impacting a great number of people--both in China and elsewhere.

Research such as this never fails to fascinate me. As I have mentioned before, sometimes such research is conducted to answer specific questions, but it is also valuable for discovering important new questions. In fact, I left Jia's store with a new question that pertains to issues beyond just technology. After all, Jia was not always sure (or willing to say) what happens to her fake stuffed toys after she sells them--especially those she delivers to her good customers in Australia and the U.S.

*Yes, this is a leading question**. I had reasons to believe it was appropriate for my purposes (especially since I wanted to know whether Jia would be forthcoming in answering such a direct question). I believe some of its value in this case is indicated by Jia's atypical response.

**A "leading question" is a question that is asked in a manner that may bias the reply. Especially in research, avoiding their use can be very important, though they can have value at times if used appropriately. I hope to more fully discuss this issue in a later post someday.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Unlike a Chinese Engineer I was not Questioned For Photographing a Stopped Vehicle

James Fallows recently wrote about a Chinese-citizen engineer who during a work trip to the U.S. took a picture of a bus stopped on a road. If you have not already, please read the post "Annals of the Security State: China vs. America Department" before continuing further. It explains why the photograph was taken and what the ensuing events say about America's "security consciousness". It also sets the stage for what follows here.

The post by Fallows resonated with me for two general reasons.

One, I had a quick reaction to the photo taken by the Chinese engineer. Although many Americans may be puzzled as to why someone would feel compelled to take such a photo, after more than 5 years in China the reasons seemed obvious to me. In fact, they are similar to the reasons why one day in Macau, China I took this photo:

truck stopped to let an older woman cross a street in Macau

It shows a man who had very suddenly stopped his truck to allow a woman to cross the street even though he could have zoomed by without likely hitting her or have honked his horn to dissuade her from crossing. That the truck driver did not chose one of the latter options greatly surprised me since they would be typical in many places elsewhere in China. Yes, it appears there may be a traffic signal which I did not notice at the time. The point remains that prior to living in China, what I perceived at this crosswalk would not have surprised me or caught my attention. And like looking at the photo shared by Fallows, it felt surreal to find unusualness in something that was once so ordinary.

The second reason the post resonated with me is that like the Chinese-engineer I too have been questioned by police after taking some photos in all innocence. I will share that story another time, but it lead to the eye-opening discussion described in the post I wrote last year: "Detained in China: My Chance to Hear a Policeman's Views on Revolution and More". But I do want to say one thing about it now. Even after that experience in China, I can still believe I face fewer potential problems as an obvious foreigner in China taking the types of photos that I do than I would if I were in the U.S. and "looked suspiciously like a foreigner". Even in my current incarnation I wonder if I would have more problems in the U.S. Like Fallows, I am concerned about the "photograph-pathology that has emerged in the United States".

I can appreciate why the Chinese engineer was so fascinated by the scene at the stopped school bus. And although I think some aspects of driving behavior in China may not be best described as disorderly but instead as having a different type of order from what can be observed in the U.S., I am glad the truck driver seen above stopped for the older woman. And I am also glad he did not feel the need to call the police even though he may have been baffled by my choice of scenes to photograph.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bo Xilai's Image and Police Platforms in Chongqing

Although the case of Chongqing's former party chief Bo Xilai has been overshadowed in Western media by recents events surrounding Chen Guangcheng, it remains an important issue in China. Xujun Eberlein, a writer who grew up in Chongqing, in a recent post discusses the views of a group of people who were impacted by many of Bo Xilai's actions--Chongqing's residents. She also describes how their various perspectives have lead to different interpretations of recent events. For example:
Bo’s supporters and dissenters all believe their side is in the majority, and each side uses very different logic when interpreting the charges against Bo and his wife. Four out of five taxi drivers I spoke to, for example, said they didn’t believe that Gu Kailai had murdered Neil Heywood or that Bo was corrupt and hiding money overseas. “Think about it,” one driver said in a teaching tone. “Gu Kailai is a very smart lawyer, wouldn’t she know the consequences of murder? Bo Xilai’s interest is in politics, would he care about a few bucks? It is just that simple!” Their interpretation is that all the charges are made-up excuses to bring Bo down because Bo is more capable than Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping. The dissenters, on the other hand, believe Bo is completely capable of murder because he has no regard for the life of someone standing in his way. Curiously, regardless of their stance on the Bo affair, most of those I spoke to suspected that Wang Lijun’s entry into the US consulate was part of a plot to bring Bo down.
I would be interested to learn more about why there was general agreement about the purpose of Wang Lijun's visit to the U.S. consulate. I wonder whether Bo's supporters and dissenters shared similar motivations for their belief.

But there are always more questions to ask, and Eberlein presents a far more nuanced account than most others. In addition to adding important context to the Bo case, the post provides a hint of the challenges in answering "What do Chinese people think?" or even "What do Chongqing people think?". I find Eberlein's account fascinating and have nothing more to say at the moment other than to recommend reading the full post which can be found here.

However, I do have something to say regarding one of the "leftovers" from the Bo era which Eberlein describes in another post. During a recent trip to Chongqing she noticed some well-equipped police platforms:
Each of these modern-equipped platforms cost 5 million Yuan, according to sources. And there is one at every big intersection in the city. To Bo Xilai's supporters, this is what makes them feel safer. Bo's dissenters, however, say this unnecessarily high-expense contributes to the city's huge fiscal deficit. A local journalist said that, in the summer, the platform's air conditioning runs fully 24 hours a day in the open air. Chongqing is notoriously hot. "Think how much electricity it wastes!" He said.

The disgrace of Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun makes the police platforms a difficult issue to deal with: Get rid of them? People who are used to them will protest. Keep them? maintenance cost is very high.
I am wary of providing suggestions for Chongqing's government, but in this case I have a "creative" idea to share that I have not yet seen anyone else suggest: Chongqing should partner with Coca-Cola. Last year in Kunming, Yunnan province I discovered that the police not only had a far less expensive version of Chongqing's police platforms, but they had appeared to have even found a sponsor for them. From my post "Coca-Cola and the Chinese Police", here is one of the police tents I saw in Kunming:

Coca-Cola sponsored police tent in Kunming, Yunnan

Coca-Cola may be more than happy to form a similar partnership in Chongqing. And if free cold drinks were provided like at a Coca-Cola tent I visited in Shanghai, people may be more accepting of shutting down the wasteful air conditioners. Between the money brought in through the sponsorship and the reduced costs on air conditioning (keeping the drinks chilled would surely cost less), the worries about adding to the city's deficit would be eliminated.

Though, I do see a potential problem--the color of Coca-Cola's brand. I doubt Chongqing needs any more "red culture" at the moment. Maybe Coca-Cola could promote Sprite instead.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Has the U.S. Government Been Naive in the Chen Guangcheng Case?

Since my previous post, the Chen Guangcheng case had continued to develop. Most importantly, he has communicated to numerous people including reporters Louisa Lim, Melinda Liu, Steven Jiang and others that he now wants to leave China and is seeking U.S. assistance.

One of the issues concerning me is that some have questioned why the U.S. would believe China would keep its side to the agreement made with Chen. For example, Charlie Custer, editor of ChinaGeeks, tweeted:
Regardless of how this ends, needs to be a serious discussion in US State Dept of why the hell they would believe CN assurances on CGC.
And with some additional qualifications (which are of course more difficult to capture in a tweet) Peter Foster for The Telegraph wrote: is hard to know whether the US State Department was being naive or cynical by accepting assurances that Chen would be allowed to settle down in peace with his family and study law unmolested...

However, some of the language coming from the US State Department suggested they really believed they had a "deal" that would enable Chen to remain in China. If so, they must have taken leave of their senses, and to listen to senior State Department officials involved in negotiations, perhaps they had.
Although it remains possible a major blunder has been made, I am not at all convinced the U.S. has acted unwisely or been duped. I will focus on two of the reasons I feel this way.

One, there is reason for the U.S. to give China the benefit of the doubt publicly and in the recent negotiations, whatever officials may think privately. Especially with China's role in the world so quickly changing and China seeking to increase its influence, it could be an especially opportune time for the U.S. to provide China the chance in a unique case to show it can be trusted in such a situation. If China does break the agreement then the U.S. has reasons for other approaches in the future. But if the U.S. had fully applied a belief that it must openly question China's intentions or insist on stronger oversight measures not only may have China responded in a less preferable manner in Chen's case, but an opportunity for important future gains may have been lost.

In addition to the stakes for the relationship between the U.S. and China, there is a second issue in considering whether the U.S. should be seen as foolish. Even if the U.S. had significant questions about the agreement, the decision to leave the embassy was ultimately Chen's, and there are reasons to believe he was willing to accept a less than perfect offer. At the time, Chen expressed a strong desire to stay in China and very much wanted to be reunited with his family. Also, Chen has said that he felt unfairly pressured. China's statement that they would return his wife to Shandong province if he did not leave the embassy could be perceived as a veiled threat to harm her. On the side... some have criticized U.S. officials for their refusal to characterize this as a threat, but their decision seems reasonable. If the U.S. publicly stated otherwise it would likely only anger China and create the potential that Chen would face increased difficulties. Once Chen was in China's hands, the U.S. needed to do everything possible to put the best face on matters to improve the chances for a positive resolution.

Certainly, as time passes more will be learned to better judge recent actions. But at this point, I believe some of the reasons the U.S. has been criticized could be indicative of prudent actions. Actions taken to best facilitate Chen Guangcheng's own choice in a difficult situation and to provide the best chance for improving broader conditions in the future.

Added note: As I am about to publish I see that James Fallows has recently also questioned whether it can be assumed U.S. officials have made significant mistakes. I have only skimmed his post at this point, but it appears to raise other issues, including that the U.S. had "an incredibly weak hand". I will read it and the cited material more closely. My only comment at this point is that I am encouraged to see others are urging caution in judging recent U.S. actions. You can find the post by Fallows here: More on Chen Guangcheng: The Limits of Outside Power.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Labor Day in Yinchuan, China

The status of Chen Guangcheng remains unclear at the moment. It feels somewhat surreal, but I will continue with this post of photos.

The Labor Day holiday in China occurred on May 1. A day off for many, it is also a heavier day of work for others as many people shop, eat out, relax at a park, and so on. Here is a photo of Nanmen Square that provides a hint of the large number of people who were out and about (or working) in Yinchuan, Ningxia that day:

Nanmen Square in Yinchuan China

The difference in the crowd size is obvious in comparison to an earlier photo of Nanmen Square. Beginning with a photo of the drum tower that provided the above scene, here are some other photos showing some close up scenes in Nanmen Square:

drum tower at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

three men sitting at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

two boys at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

several people standing and talking at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

selling toys and other items for kids at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

woman sitting at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

Busy sidewalk at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

little kid urinating on Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

older women at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

family sitting and squatting at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

police truck at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

many people drinking under tents at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

man handing a canned drink to a little girl at Nanmen Square in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

An Overview of the Chen Guangcheng Story

The Bo Xilai story I wrote about yesterday is not the only important and Hollywood-like news in China at the moment. Civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng has also been the center of an also incredible but very different story. Especially since events have recently taken a significant turn, I will share some recent pieces that I have found to helpful in understanding them.

Chen Guangcheng previously led efforts to expose forced abortions and sterilizations occurring in Shandong province. After serving four years in prison for questionable reasons, he had been held in his home since 2010. In addition to there being no apparent legal merits for Chen's home detention, the scope of the efforts were striking. Tania Branigan in The Guardian describes them in her article "Chen Guangcheng: how China tried to lock down a blind man":
The campaign to keep Chen Guangcheng locked away from the world — defeated at least temporarily by his escape — has been as remarkable in its pettiness as it has been comprehensive in scope. A massive security operation has swamped the small village of Dongshigu. Scores of thugs armed with surveillance cameras, floodlights and phone-jamming technology have watched an ailing blind man, his wife, frail mother and small daughter round the clock. Relatives and neighbours who have tried to help have faced retribution. Supporters who have attempted to visit have been beaten, detained and pelted with stones.

But beyond the lockdown lies a grindingly intrusive exercise of power. At times, according to human rights groups, seven or eight men have been stationed inside the family compound. Steel shutters bar the windows of the home. Chen's elderly mother has been harassed when working in the fields. Guards escort his six-year-old daughter to school and have confiscated her toys.
Amazingly, despite the large amount of security and Chen being blind, he recently evaded his captors. David Eimer's article "Dissident Chen Guangcheng 'chased by undercover Chinese agents' as he fled to US Embassy" in The Telgraph describes Chen's escape:
"Chen told me he had prepared for the 'prison break' for at least two months. He knew the patrolling routines of the guards by heart, before climbing over the wall around his house on Sunday night," said Mr Hu.

"He injured his leg when he landed and it took him 20 hours to make his way around eight roadblocks. He told me he fell over at least 200 times, before he got picked up on Monday and driven to Beijing."

It is believed that He Peirong, a long-time friend, drove Mr Chen to Beijing, where he spent three sleepless nights before making his break to the US embassy. Ms He was later detained at her home in Nanjing, in eastern Jiangsu Province. Mr Chen's brother and nephew were also arrested, raising speculation that they played a part in his escape.
That Chen had sought the safety of the U.S. Embassy was particularly notable since Wang Lijun, once very close to Bo Xilai, had not long ago fled for his own reasons to the U.S. Consultate in Chengdu. However, the comparisons between Wang and Chen are few. Wang is reportedly connected to acts of torture. Chen is connected to acts of protecting people's rights.

With Chen at the U.S. Embassy, significant hurdles faced the U.S. and Chinese governments to resolve the issue. Some expected that Chen would eventually be granted asylum in the U.S. despite the complications involved. But there were also reports that Chen desired to stay in China. Chen made some of his hopes clear in a 15 minute video addressing Premier Wen Jiabo. A version with English subtitles was produced by CHINAaid:

Today, in a key development Chen left the protection of the U.S. Embassy. On the way to a hospital with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, Chen requested to speak to The Washington Post, possibly due to its early coverage of his efforts (thanks to Gady Epstein for noting this connection). The Washington Post's Keith Richburg and Jia Lynn Yang describe the current situation in their article "Chen Guangcheng leaves U.S. embassy after assurances he will be treated humanely, U.S. says":
Accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, Chen went to Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing and was apparently taken to the VIP clinic, which was blocked off from reporters by hospital security guards and plainclothes police. U.S. officials said Chen, a self-taught lawyer, was to be reunited with his family at the hospital...

U.S. officials said Chen made clear from the beginning that he did not want to leave China, and that he wanted his stay in the embassy to be temporary. He did not seek asylum. His priority was reuniting with his wife, two children and other family members. He has a son who he has not seen in about two years.

The Chinese government agreed that Chen would be treated humanely, moved from his village to a safe place, reunited with his family and allowed to enroll in a university, the officials said. “We understand there are no remaining legal issues . . . and that he will be treated as any other student in China,” said a senior official.

They also said Chinese authorities agreed to investigate the “extralegal” activities of the local authorities in Chen’s hometown, who have allowed armed men to effectively confine Chen to his farmhouse in Shandong province, preventing celebrities, journalists and others who tried to visit him from entering.
The story remains fluid but assuming the above it will be critical to see how China will carry out its side of the agreement. For example, what assurances are there that Chen will not be later subjected to trumped-up charges to justify detaining him again?

Like the Bo Xilai case, there is also much to say about how the story was reported in China and the heavy (and sometimes amazingly quick) censorship of online discussion. But again, I think the above is enough to digest for one post. I highly recommend reading all of the mentioned articles and viewing the video. I have provided some more details on my Twitter account, primarily through retweeting some of what has caught my eye. As I look now, a variety of details about today's events continue to evolve.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Making Sense of the Bo Xilai Story

The downfall of Chongqing's former party chief Bo Xilai and the allegations that his wife Gu Kailai was responsible for the death of British businessman Neil Heywood is a story fit for Hollywood and of immense significance in China. I refrained from writing anything about it since I saw little I could add to what had already been written. But I will share some of the recent pieces I have found either useful for understanding the evolving story or simply eye-opening.

The article "China's Bo Xilai affair: where the case stands" by Peter Ford on The Christian Science Monitor provides an overview of what is known at the moment:
Heywood's death and the Bo couple's detention are two of the few indisputable facts in a murky affair whose political ramifications are magnified by Bo's importance: Until scandal overtook him, he was a contender for one of the top nine jobs in the ruling Communist Party. It is clear to anyone familiar with the way Chinese politics works that Bo's enemies have used and amplified the scandal to bring him down.

Almost everything else about the case is speculation based on unidentified sources whose motives in recounting the case's details are unclear. The police have said nothing, and the absence of reliable information has left the field clear for a welter of dramatic rumors, spreading like wildfire on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, ranging from the type of poison used to kill Heywood to an impending military coup.

The case began to crack open Feb. 7, when photographs appeared on Weibo (China's version of Twitter) showing an unusual congregation of police outside the US Consulate in Chengdu, 170 miles from Chongqing. Two days later, another blogger posted the passenger manifest of a flight from Chengdu to Beijing showing that Bo's right-hand man, Wang Lijun, had taken that flight in the company of a vice minister of security.

Mr. Wang, it transpired, had fled to the US consulate, apparently seeking asylum, but left of his own accord when he was sure that regional police loyal to Bo wouldn't take him into custody.

Wang was almost certainly not going to be given asylum by the United States. He had been the chief of police in Chongqing during Bo's noisy antimafia campaign, which critics and victims complained had relied heavily on torture. But before handing himself over to the Chinese security chief and disappearing into an interrogation room somewhere, Wang showed US diplomats a police file suggesting that Ms. Gu had been involved in Heywood's murder.
As mentioned by Ford, there is much about the case that is only speculation. Hannah Beech on Time in her post "The Bo Xilai Rumor Mill: Is There a Method Behind the Wild Speculation?" (H/T Gady Epstein) shares some of the challenges in piecing together the truth. For example:
While reporting this week’s TIME’s magazine story about Bo, I talked within a 24-hour period to five Chinese (academics, advisers and state-linked journalists) with access to the halls of power in Beijing. Three of them compared Bo to Hitler, each saying that Bo was manipulating a naive populace just like the German dictator once did. I would have believed one person coming up with a Hitler analogy on his own. But three? Then two of the five gave the exact same convoluted explanation of how Bo’s transgressions were worse than that of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair. I pushed one of the experts, and it became clear he didn’t really know much about the Lewinsky scandal at all. Later that day, a Chinese journalist told me that the media publication he worked for had received an internal notice comparing Bo’s actions to that of Clinton. While his media organization did not run any editorial comparing Bo and Clinton, I was the recipient of this talking point from two different people.
Regardless, more details continue to be reported. Today I saw what has to be one of the most bizarre in the Reuter's article "Exclusive: Bo's wife dressed as Chinese army general after Heywood death: source" by Chris Buckley (H/T Ray Kwong for the link and appropriate adjective):
A few days after Heywood was killed in Chongqing, southwest China in November, Gu strode into a meeting of police officials wearing a military uniform and gave a rambling speech in which she told the startled officials that she was on a mission to protect the city's police chief, Wang Lijun, the source said.

"First she said that she was under secret orders from the Ministry of Public Security to effectively protect Comrade Wang Lijun's personal safety in Chongqing," said the source, adding that she wore a green People's Liberation Army (PLA) uniform with a major-general's insignia and bristling with decorations.

"It was a mess," he said of Gu's speech, which circulated among some police and officials. "I reached the conclusion that she would be trouble."

It was not clear to those present why Gu, who had never served in the military, had put on a PLA uniform or what she was trying to convey with her vow to protect Wang, the source said. The incident, on or about November 20, left the officials even more bewildered about her mental state, he added.
Despite having a deep background in cognitive neuroscience, without more details I will restrain myself from any commentary on this report.

Later, I will share in a similar fashion some pieces about how the story is being reported in China and the heavy censorship of related online discussion. For now, I recommend reading the above pieces which provide enough to digest for one post. Or movie.