It was Queen E, but could have been St. E

For all its splendors, travel often brings a misadventure or two. Count the many hours Donna and I spent in a pair of Chinese hospitals overnight last night among those. By turns disturbing and enlightening, the experience was almost Dickensian.

Donna did something bad to her lower back on the treadmill during a regular Sunday morning workout. Her pain settled in by midday and, by midnight, was excruciating. She was in such distress, in fact, that after half a sleepless day in bed, she groaned at about 1 a.m. Monday that she had to go to the ER.

The medical saga then began. First, the staffers at the Sheraton Kowloon were marvelous. Three folks showed up at our room door with a wheelchair, helped Donna into a taxi and gave us a sheet bearing the name and address of the first hospital, St. Teresa’s, a private hospital they recommended.

Off we went. Unfortunately, many Hong Kongers had similar ideas in the middle of the night. Donna was  20th in line to see a single general practitioner on duty. After checking in at 1:27 a.m., Donna was wheeled in to see him sometime after 3 a.m. In between, she was left to writhe on a bed in a ward of about a dozen beds, next to a fellow who, like her, moaned a lot.

The nurses, to be sure, were kind. They provided an icepack, albeit an unrefrigerated one, when I asked. But they couldn’t break the queue, not even for someone in obvious intense pain. It turned out, too, that St. Teresa’s did not have an ER, but only an outpatient clinic along with its 1,000-plus beds, and thus the single GP and long line.

The GP never laid his hands on Donna. Nor did he visit her at her bed. Instead, his exam consisted of asking her questions after they wheeled her into a tiny room to talk with him. He ordered up an X-ray, which, happily but mysteriously, showed nothing unusual. The whole time, he (like most of the others med staff) wore a surgical mask, apparently in fear of the flu outbreak now filling wards in the city. Altogether, this was not reassuring. Visions of MRSA clouded my thoughts.

The GP ordered up an injection for Donna and the nurses complied. After the shot did nothing and I complained, he ordered up a second injection, which also did nothing. Then, he prescribed oral meds, including a muscle relaxant, sending me off to the pharmacy area of the hospital to collect them. These meds did only a bit better than nothing, making Donna at least drowsy, even if still in agony. We feared a kidney stone or some other internal problem, but neither we nor the doc had a clue.

By the way, the first task on entering the hospital and before getting the meds was for me to pay up at a glass-walled counter (like the kind at paycheck-loan places). I paid the equivalent of $174 for the hospital services and a like amount for three drugs. That was astoundingly low by American standards, of course. Still, it was unsettling to be required to pay first, making me wonder what would happen if we didn’t have the money (they took American Express). There have been stories in China of people cast out into the street for lack of funds (though not at public hospitals, as I recall).

At about 4 a.m., it was clear Donna wasn’t improving, even as no one still had any idea what was wrong with her. The staff urged that she visit Queen Elizabeth Hospital, a public hospital that had an ER. An ambulance showed up, after a discomfiting wait, and took us on a leisurely ride through the city to QEH. The driver saw no need to use his lights or siren, and stopped dutifully at every red light, despite Donna’s anguish.

Soon, at QEH, we found the Chinese version of St. Elsewhere. It was jammed with people sitting in a waiting area in dire need of remodeling. The inner treatment area was filled with nearly a dozen folks on gurneys, in various states of distress. Donna joined this queue, with her gurney lined up along the others in the center of the floor, and, again, we waited.  Eventually, she was wheeled into a tiny exam area behind a curtain, and she got a proper exam from a doc who seemed altogether overworked.

Indeed, later I chatted with one of the ER admitting guys, who told me it’s tough for the public hospitals to keep docs. The hospitals routinely see dozens of patients each night and the docs work nonstop through their shifts. They also likely don’t make much money, since the charge for hospital services this time – again, in advance, was about $183. The docs soon burn out and go private, he said. There were no old docs there.

After ordering up a second set of X-rays and processing blood and urine tests, the kindly doc we dealt with found nothing obviously wrong. It was all still a painful mystery. But, by 8 a.m. or so – after a few hours of more writhing – the docs decided that Donna should be admitted for observation and a chance to see a specialist. I signed the papers, even though no one could say when the specialist would stop by. The ER docs also couldn’t give her anything more for pain beyond the meds that seemed to be barely better than Tylenol because the ER didn’t dispense such drugs; only the specialist upstairs had access to them.

Problem was, the admitting staff couldn’t find room in a ward for Donna. The ward was jammed, so we waited until after 9 a.m. By then, we both had had enough — over eight hours of misery was plenty. Toughing it out at the hotel until we could find a private doc seemed better than laying unattended in an ER, waiting for a room and never being sure when a promised specialist would appear. We signed the papers, acknowledging our discharge against medical advice, were counseled by a doc on what to do should something go awry, and we found our way to a taxi.

Soon, as Donna lay uncomfortably in the hotel bed, I did a little Internet work and turned up a chiropractor’s office near our hotel. We went, found a wonderful group of guys, educated in Canada and in the U.S., who examined Donna properly, determined the problem and began therapy. She apparently had compressed a couple discs in her back on the 15-hour flight to Hong Kong and then worsened the problem by running. The swelling caused the intense pain.

The private practice was well-equipped and comfy, in a sleek downtown  office building above an Esprit shop. Still, the cost was reasonable: the equivalent of $178. Donna will get at least two more such sessions before we leave.

The bottom line: treatment in Hong Kong, unlike the U.S., won’t bankrupt a patient. The docs seem capable, but overworked and, maybe, a bit incurious about their patients’ mystery illnesses. And, at least in the general hospitals, the queuing is heartless at best. That leaves the hard-pressed docs and nurses to take a workaday approach that leaves patients ill-informed, seemingly ignored and feeling beset by griefs beyond their ailments.

It’s not fun to get sick anywhere, but, sadly, there are better places to do so. Happily, Donna is on the mend now. And she’s looking forward to heading home Saturday.

For Chinese students, history is personal

“I have a sister who is eleven years older than I. Actually, I heard from my mother that I should have another sister who is just one year old than I. I asked my parents and grandparents a lot times about where did she go or did she die. From my mother’s mood, I guess she didn’t die but she was abandoned by my parents. Why? Because at that time, my family was so poor to afford three children, and boys mean more than girls to a family which I completely disagree with. Thus, I have never seen her in my life. I wish she would live better than I and we could meet each other again. I am looking for her, I hope I can find her.”

Their stories, like China’s history for the last three generations (and longer), are remarkable. Some are heartbreaking. Others are heartwarming. Still others, like those of many of my students in Nebraska, are surprisingly upbeat. The variety in their life stories – again, as is also true of my students in Nebraska – is stunning.

My students in a summer course at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics shared their brief autobiographies as an initial assignment. I assign the task to get a sense of their writing skills and to get to know them a bit. I ask where they hope their studies will take them and what they want to get out of the course. As in Nebraska, I find a blend of young-adult idealism, hopefulness and candor in their work.

Some of their stories are extraordinary, though, and they open a window onto China’s recent history:

“All of the members in my entire family are born in Shanghai, and my grand grandparents and grandparents, they came through the Cultural Revolution, which is also mentioned in the yesterday’s Ted video. During that ten years, it seems like nobody need to work, according to what my grandfather have told me, and the national economy backed off. National income lost about 500 billion yuan, according to the online statistics, and people’s living standards and personal education has been destroyed. While my grandparents suffered a lot because of the chaos in the upper politics, my parents and I have already got the great benefit from the reform and opening policy. All of us are well-educated and have more working opportunities than ever no matter how fierce the competition is in today’s job market. Those who are about the similar ages as me, which are also called millennials professionally, actually enjoy the fruits that the great development in China has brought us.”

Their tales also shed light on China’s present and future:

“I was born in a little village in Zhejiang province. My mother and my father are all local residents in this village, but they came to Shanghai to set up their own business when I was about two … My mother and my father are retailers selling glasses in Shanghai. Their business is successful now. They have expanded their business to eight chain stores now which was unimaginable at the beginning of the business, because my grandfather and grandmother are all farmers with little income and they had little money for the business when they first came to Shanghai, a city full of opportunities and attractiveness to them at that time.

‘My parents lived a tough life at the beginning of their business. My father was once time cheated by his fellow-villager when his business just started to improve, who suddenly disappeared with all my father’s savings… I really admire them for setting up their own business so successfully…. But things aren’t going well these years. The industry has been going downhill since the rise of E-business in Chinese. One of the chain stores has been shut down because it wasn’t able to earn profit. I was asked to help at the day the store was shut down .The store was decorated beautifully and it cost a lot, but at that day they had to be moved out of that store … My parents told me that it was harder and harder to run a business nowadays…. They plan to shrink their business and end it when they retire. This arises my interest in business and economics, and that is why I chose to enter Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.”

Some come from very modest backgrounds, as the children of farmers:

“I know how many people in China are still in poor today, cause I know how many people are still struggling for a better life. Chinese people, especially the farmers, are trying their best to fight against corruption of the government, discrimination of the citizen, destruction of the bad weather, low price of agricultural products, low pay in the factories, the inequality of education.

“There are too many things we need to do, and I want to contribute to the positive changes of my family, my homeland, and my country. I got much help from the society, and I want to do something helpful to society, that’s where my worth lies… I want to get a wider vision. I want to know more about the world I used to hate business as I think that it is just a chase for money, but now I think that only through business can our people get wealthy, so I want to know more about the business world, what’s it like, how does it work, how can we work in the process and make people get wealth through the process.”

Others, hailing from comfortable backgrounds, expect to do even better than their parents in life:

“I come from a well-off family. My father is a salesperson who lacks high-level education but is pretty experienced in marketing in the environmental protection industry. I am very proud of him and he is my hero who built up from nothing and made every effort to offer the best to my family. My mother is the woman who stands at the back of him. She works more than a housewife would do and takes good care of both my father and me. Since I was little, I have travelled a lot with my parents around the country partly thanks to the requirement of my father’s job. In the rest of my life, I would love to walk farther, enjoy more beautiful sceneries and accompany my parents to travel all over the world with the gratitude they brought to me in my childhood. To be a better one, man needs to experience more.”

Their powerful stories make me want to serve them better as a teacher, even of a short-term course. If I can provide some insights into economics and business, I may give them something that helps them long after their school days end. Such is my hope and ambition anyway.

 

Free speech in China — an impossible dream?

tienanmentank-395No one really knows how many people died, were permanently hurt or lost their livelihoods 24 years ago today in Tiananmen Square. The government may have records on the casualties, believed to total more than 155 killed and 65 wounded, but it hasn’t made them public. Indeed, Chinese history books barely acknowledge the event, known in China simply as June Fourth. Sadly, few Chinese have seen the iconic AP photo of the lone man standing up to tanks in Beijing.

This extraordinary moment in recent Chinese history, though, echoes among those aware of the events at the time, both in the West and in China. Rising expectations for democracy and such freedoms as the right to free expression thrust hundreds of students into the streets on June 3 and 4. The country had thrown off the stultifying yoke of Maoism, had embraced the liberating force of capitalism and seemed to be on a road toward wider choice in everything from consumer goods to politics.

And then, of course, the road came to a dead end with tanks, bullets and tears in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The sprawling area of monuments, museums and government offices, which today draws thousands of Chinese and Western tourists, became synonymous with oppression.

It’s hard for us in the West to grasp how disillusioning this massacre must have been for the Chinese. First, many of the pro-democracy demonstrators killed were students at the nation’s top universities; these were the best and brightest in a Confucian system that ranks intellectuals high in the pecking order. I’m sure they were students much like the bright and eager young people I taught at Tsinghua University in the fall of 2011, innocent idealists who love their country and want only to make it better. Thus, their interest in journalism.

More important, the June Fourth protesters couldn’t have been more precious to their families. Because of China’s one-child policy, these students – some still in their teens – each carried the weighty hopes and aspirations of parents and grandparents on their shoulders. Little could be more alienating or tragic for those families, who today still bear the burden of grief and fury.

Ding Zilin, 2010
Ding Zilin, 2010
”Since my son died in 1989, there’s nothing more that can scare me,” Ding Zilin, a retired professor whose 17-year-old, Jiang Jielian, was killed on the night of June 3, told the New York Times in 1999. ”I do what I choose to do according to my own conscience.”

Ding, a retired professor of philosophy at People’s University who had once been a loyal Communist Party member, led a drive then to open a criminal investigation into the events of June Fourth. It went nowhere. Ding, who had attempted suicide repeatedly after the death of her son, wound up leading bereaved parents who have continued to demand the right to mourn their children in public and to end persecution of June Fourth victims. In response, she and her husband, former People’s University Aesthetics Institute head Jiang Peikun, have been constantly harassed. Ding’s nomination for the Nobel Prize in 2003 must have been a major embarrassment for Party leaders.

Since the massacre, some at the demonstrations or — like Ding — related to demonstrators have endured house arrests, loss of work and ongoing medical problems. Qi Zhiyong, a construction worker who went to the demonstrations out of curiosity, not activism, lost a leg, his occupation and any good feelings he had toward the Party, as the Washington Post reported. The paper reported that Zhang Lin, who organized protests in 1989 in Anhui Province, has spent much of the last 20 years under house arrest or in jail, as an advocate for labor rights and democracy. Some protesters who went on to have good careers now stay quiet about their youthful activism, fearing retribution.

Chinese leaders crushed the Tiananmen demonstrations nearly a quarter-century ago out of fear that they could trigger nationwide uprisings. Since then, however, riots, protests and mass incidents have only grown, with some 180,000 in 2010 alone, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Instability, driven by economic grievances or dissatisfaction with corruption, has worsened and is a major source of worry for the government. Chinese leaders today are desperate to manage societal transformation – which includes everything from urbanization to economic growth — while keeping a lid on the discontent and maintaining Party control.

Xi Jinping and other new leaders of China are walking a narrow and treacherous path. As economic expansion slows, disparities in wealth grow and upheaval from the migrations of millions to crowded cities worsens, they will surely find it increasingly difficult to keep order. That challenge to preserve order may underlay recent directives barring discussion of such topics as freedom of the press in universities and concerns in some Party quarters about too much Westernization.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
Peter Arnett
Peter Arnett

The Party’s worries have hit home for some distinguished Western journalists recently. Peter Herford and Peter Arnett, longtime Asia hands who have taught for years at Shantou University’s journalism school, were just pink-slipped. Ostensibly, this is because they passed a mandatory retirement age of 70 for foreigners teaching in China. Herford, however, finds this puzzling because each of them passed that milestone about eight years ago.

Far less momentously, the government’s worries also hit home for me. In the last few weeks, I wanted to survey Chinese journalism students about freedom of expression and censorship, as well as the biases they see in both Western and Chinese media. I scuttled the project, however, after colleagues in China warned that the students’ answers, even in an anonymous Web-based study, might be tracked by state monitors. The survey wasn’t worth putting the students at risk.

tiananmen_square_original_t_shirts-ra2e852c4ad79491598dbbf9530e70006_va6lr_512Chinese leaders seem to have learned the wrong lessons from June Fourth. Suppressing speech is like clamping a lid on a pot of boiling water. As the heat grows, the chances of an explosion just grow with it. No doubt, the leaders worry that the more apt comparison is to the Arab Spring, and they are determined to avoid similar tumult. Not heeding – or even hearing — the demands and discontents of the people, however, seems like a losing strategy for a government. Certainly, plenty of Chinese dynastic leaders up to Empress Dowager Longyu, ousted in 1912, learned that the hard way.

Suppressing the history of June Fourth, barring free speech and banning even discussion of a free press, won’t keep Chinese people from learning about these things. Even keeping June Fourth off the Internet in China won’t do the trick. Do leaders really not think the 190,000 Chinese now studying in the U.S. won’t hear about it? What of those studying elsewhere, including in Hong Kong or other parts of Asia? Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragic event. An even brighter spotlight will be shone on the massacre then. Facing up to that dark history in the coming year might be a far better approach than tightening the lid on that bubbling pot even more.

One artist reflects on another: Klayman and Ai Weiwei

Sometimes, the world seems astonishingly smaller and filled with more wonder than one can imagine. Take the case of filmmaker Alison Klayman, whose documentary about a famous dissident Chinese artist, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” debuts July 27 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C

Alison’s film has garnered a ton of praise. It won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, was an official selection of the Berlin International Film Festival and was an opening night film at the Hotdocs Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “The Chinese art-star emerges as a stirring symbol of antiauthoritarianism – and also as the kind of magnetic, irreverent prankster you’d want to dine with, not to mention follow on Twitter,” the Village Voice said. “Ai Weiwei is captivating on camera, and the film makes the case that there is really no separation between the artist and his work,” crowed Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Chinese activist Ai Weiwei combines the chutzpah of Michael Moore, the antic iconoclasm of Duchamp, and the humility of Gandhi,” observed the Boston Phoenix. “Let’s hope Klayman gets to make a sequel,” added The Guardian of London, giving Alison’s work four stars.

There are many more paeans to her work. Details and a trailer are available here. There’s also a Facebook page for the film here.

Much to the consternation of Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei continues to generate attention. The Wall Street Journal just this morning ran a piece about his battle with authorities over a $2.4 million tax bill. Once celebrated for his work on the Bird’s Nest for the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Ai has riled Chinese officials with persistent criticisms. He was detained without charges for nearly three months in 2011, and state media reported he confessed to tax-evasion, though he has challenged the tax case at every turn. He set up a website, fakecase.com, to chronicle his battle.

So what does Ai Weiwei have to do with the world getting smaller and more wonderful? Well, this is personal. Last fall, a short time after I arrived in Beijing to teach journalism for the semester, I chanced upon a group that held weekly services, Kehillat Beijing (cleverly named website: sinogogue.org). On my second Friday night service, who should walk in but Alison Klayman, who I hadn’t seen for an absurdly long time. Alison, dear reader, has been a good friend of my eldest daughter, Becky, for about 16 years, since both girls were 12 years old and we lived in the Philly area.

In a coincidence no fiction editor would let an author get away with, Alison had rushed to services from the airport, bags in tow. She had long before become a fan of the delightful Jewish group — a havurah for expats and visitors — while living and working in Beijing. She happened to be back in the city for some final work on the Ai Weiwei movie. Needless to say, we had a fine time catching up over a rather nice, western-style dinner that followed services.

So, count me among those eager to see the film. I can’t make the NYC premiere, but will catch it here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where it will be shown at the Ross from Sept. 7-13. It will be a highlight of the fall.

Ying Chan discusses budding Chinese journalists

The Columbia Journalism Review online ran a Q&A I did with Yuen Ying Chan, one of the foremost journalism educators in China. By turns steely and gentle, smart and tough, she was a delight to talk with. It was a privilege meeting her.

After 23 years working in New York City journalism, including a seven-year stint at the New York Daily News that netted her a Polk Award, Yuen Ying Chan returned to her native Hong Kong. There, in 1999, she founded the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and as its director began turning undergrads and grad students into working journalists through Asia. Soon after that, she turned to mainland China, where she set up the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University, which now serves some 640 undergrads. Chan spoke about journalism and journalism education in Hong Kong and China with Joseph Weber, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who recently taught in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University, under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists.

One impression I have about China is that students don’t ask, ‘Why?’

It’s rote learning. It’s endemic. They don’t challenge authority. They are taught to listen, to follow. So that’s part of the culture, the system. It’s the worst of Confucianism, plus Communism—the authoritarian respect for authority and not challenging authority. Students in mainland China schools cram in too many courses. They have had top-down teaching—the antithesis of critical thinking—for 12 to 14 years before we get them.

Are schools of journalism on the mainland changing that, by inculcating critical thinking?

In Shantou we do. Students are very outspoken. We were able to host a lesbian activist, Helen Zia, for a week. She’s a civil-rights activist and a former executive editor of Ms. Magazine. We had an open debate on lesbianism, where Zia showed a film about relationships and talked about her own marriage. The room was packed. Shantou is different. We try to teach journalism the way it should be taught.

Which is how?

Which is critical thinking, seeking truth from facts, challenging authority, discipline, good reporting and writing. We do it. It’s not easy.

Do you get official pressure?

It’s not so much official pressure, but more the Chinese bureaucracy. In Shantou we can get away with more. It’s a public university but it’s funded two-thirds by Li Ka-shing [a wealthy Hong Kong businessman]. It’s almost like a privately funded public university.

What about the rest of journalism education on the mainland, in terms of promoting critical inquiry?

It’s very uneven. At Shantou, we have students doing investigative reporting.

What are the limits in investigative reporting?

You can’t talk about Tibet; there’s no exposing the Politburo or their sons’ and daughters’ business interests; no discussion of June 4 [1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre]; no Taiwan; no Xinjiang protests [a 2009 uprising in a region in western China]—those are drop deads. And then you have room to navigate. The space is opened and closed. There are no set rules, but there is a system of censorship in place, and also self-censorship. For instance, the rebellion in the village of Wukan [an anti-corruption protest that began last year] is all over the news in Hong Kong. It’s censored on the mainland but Wukan was all over the weibo, China’s miniblogs. That was despite government efforts to censor. Reporting the Bo scandal has been banned in Chinese papers. But students can climb the so called Great China Firewall to access international websites. I can read students cynical comments in their own weibo. This is a generation of digital natives who are savvy with using information to get the information they want.

I’ve been surprised at how much the China Daily discusses pollution, which is a great embarrassment.

They have to compete for the market. There’s a tension between the market forces and the forces of authoritarianism. But it’s not just China Daily. Environmental stories, such as pollution, are on the official agenda.

What are the differences in your approach in Shantou in mainland China and here in Hong Kong on the issue of censorship?

Most of the students [in Shantou] will work in the [mainland China media] system. If they work in the system, they will have to know the rules and the boundaries. We teach them that they need to equip themselves as much as possible to push the limits. You need to be good. The better you are, the better you can deal with the limits. We try to let them know where there are limits. It’s very challenging. China is in transition. It’s full of good stories and for them to report and write about that, that’s their job. The challenge is to deal with reality, not to succumb to it, and the keep the North Star, the values of journalism. We try to do that.

There seems to be more life left in print here than in the US.

We are facing the same digital transformation. Students have to understand digital. But in a country of 1.3 billion with a long newspaper-reading tradition, even a tiny percentage of newspaper readers can sustain print longer than it can in smaller countries.

What are the prospects for your students?

It’s an exciting time to be in journalism in Asia now. Our students go into internships all over the world. They go into international and local media, Chinese- and English-language. They also get internships in media companies across Asia and around the world. Many internships grow into jobs.

What kind of work do your students do?

They do grassroots reporting on community issues. You know the scandal about overcrowded school buses? They went to do a story on school buses in Shantou. They found a 19-seat bus that was packed with 46 students. It’s on the website. Isn’t that a good story? They did another story on a flood in the city. It speaks a lot about municipal management. They do profiles. They do multimedia. That’s why they are getting jobs.

As for investigative work, when I taught a course on “enterprise reporting” at Shantou, students investigated the e-waste dump nearby that was killing the river in the area. Students worked in teams and do a lot of shoe-leather reporting up and down the polluted water. Their article was published in a leading daily in Beijing. This year, students reported on stories such as the plight of the children of migrant farmers or overloaded schools buses in the area.

Chinese students go into journalism with a lot of idealism ad a strong sense of mission. They want to speak up for people and to fix the problems in society.

Christmas in Beijing — Bah, Humbug!

Isn’t there an ancient myth about an oracle that reflects different images of the same event to different viewers? Celebrations of Christmas seem like that to me, especially after watching the buildup to the holiday in China.

China, of course, has little history to make Dec. 25 any more than just another day. For modern China, where atheism is a requirement for Communist Party membership, celebrating Christmas is odd, to say the least. Mao would spin wildly in his grave at the idea. And Buddhists, who practice the dominant religion in the country, would have little use for marking a foreign god’s birthday. And yet, the Chinese have rushed to embrace the day – though in their own peculiarly non-religious way. They see in it what they want to see, just as many Americans do.

Celebrations of the day abound in China, at least in the cities. It’s a big day for young people, especially, who wish one another Merry Christmas. Some, particularly lovers, give each other presents. One of my teacher’s aides at Tsinghua, a bright young man going through the grueling yearlong process of applying for membership in the Party, was fretting over what to get his girlfriend, for instance. (Let’s not tell his Party sponsor about that). And Wei Wei, a delightful grad student, just sent me an electronic Christmas card on the Tencent system, a Chinese email system.

It’s a bit of a mystery, this adoption of the holiday. Certainly, it’s understandable why the department stores in Beijing would deck themselves out for the day. Like American retailers, they’ve found that carols on the PA systems, twinkling lights and images of Santa, reindeer and decorated evergreens help drive people to buy. It’s a retail holiday in the States, too, of course. There’s a buck (or a yuan) to be made. Plus, in Beijing, there are Westerners to cater to.

But there’s more to it in China. The Chinese seem to see Christmas as part of what it means to be like the West. They have a manic drive under way to teach English to all school kids. They have taken to capitalism in ways that would stun Adam Smith and are worrying demagogic American politicians. Some 120,000 Chinese are studying at American universities, including my own school, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where we are forging exchange alliances with Chinese schools.

China is going through a headlong love affair with all things foreign, a feeling of being smitten that is almost adolescent in its passion. A saying in the country holds that the moon shines brighter on foreign lands, and the American moon in particular has the Chinese in full swoon. Indeed, Beijing, Shanghai, and even inland cities such as Xi’an, along with British-dominated Hong Kong warm to anything American. Just look at the proliferation of outlets for Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, not to mention American-branded clothes and other products (even counterfeit ones). Steve Jobs was mourned in ways no Politburo member could expect to be (counterfeit copies of the new biography graced peddler’s carts seemingly in minutes after it was issued; I got one for the equivalent of $3).

The odd thing, of course, is that it’s Christmas without Christ. The imagery gracing the stores – which, you can be sure, is Party-approved or at least not opposed – is all about Santa Claus, trees and reindeer. One does not see crucifixes, crèches or pictures of Jesus (not that there are many of these in American malls either). A friend says her nine-year-old daughter has been practicing to sing in a school Christmas pageant, though there won’t be any religious elements in it (I’m not sure how many non-religious songs there are beyond Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman. But, even if Silent Night is on the list, the religious words would be sung without any divine intent).

Many of my non-religious friends in the U.S. take the same tack, of course. Even some Jews have Christmas trees (“Hanukkah Bushes”), arguing that such pagan-derived symbols are part of the non-religious character the holiday has taken on. It’s just a cultural thing, they say, and what’s wrong with giving presents and offering one another good wishes? Then, of course, there’s the idea that no occasion for a party ought to be passed up.

Still, there’s something shallow about the Chinese celebration of the holiday. It has a hollow ring. Along with stripping out the religious elements, the Chinese have no traditional basis for the day, nothing that links it to anything Chinese. Far more important, of course, are the Chinese New Year and other holidays where it seems the whole nation is on trains and planes to get home. Those days, far older than anything we have in the West, are all about the warmth of family.

For now, Christmas in China still is no home-and-hearth holiday. People work on the day. Schools remain in session, at least when the date falls on a weekday. And present-giving hasn’t become the potentially bankrupting affair that it is for so many American parents. Oddly, perhaps, that’s heartening. Sure, it’s funny to see pictures of smiling, white-bearded, red-nosed St. Nick (of course, one wonders if the Coca-Cola-fostered image has anything to do with the saint). But, Scrooge-like as it may sound, there’s something pathetic about it. China has plenty of traditions to mark, after all, and many have been around longer than the couple thousand thousand years Westerners have been marking the mid-winter holiday.

Idealism: a global phenomenon

Idealism knows few national boundaries.

Students at Tsinghua University and other schools in China would see eye-to-eye (better, heart-to-heart) with many in the U.S. on this. A 22-year-old grad student of mine in Beijing showed this in spades in a recent English-language speech competition. Her outrage at injustice, her sympathy for those in distress, and her hopes for change could make her a soulmate of my 23-year-old daughter back in Chicago. Continents, oceans or economic and political systems seem not to separate them intellectually.

My student – call her “Blossom” – took on Apple Computer, a company hugely popular in China. She faulted its reliance on Chinese suppliers whose working conditions have been linked to suicides, workplace fatalities and illness-inducing toxic chemicals. Her anger at conditions she branded “inhumane” was palpable and she was unsparing in her criticism, saying Apple had failed in its social responsibilities. She also took aim at fellow Chinese, bemoaning the idea that contestants at speaking competitions, blind to problems, have routinely extolled Steve Jobs for how he “thought differently and changed the world.”

“Blossom” went further. She faulted globalization, pointing her young finger at big companies and consumers alike. “Multinationals choose suppliers with the cheapest labor and the highest efficiency, regardless of their safety standard,” she argued. “Customers care about the ink of ‘designed in Cupertino’ or the Silicon Valley, instead of the words right below it, ‘Made in China.’ Globalization institutionalizes global ignorance.”

And she called for change. Supplier information – accidents, suicides, etc. – should be made public, she argued. Invoking Justice Brandeis’ contention that sunlight is the best disinfectant, she argued, “the multinationals would be embarrassed and therefore [would pressure] the supplier to change.” Policing by government and NGO advocacy groups should be encouraged. And, she added, “As consumers, every one of us can do our bit: keep watch for suspect brands and refuse to consume immoral products.” Indeed, “Blossom” argued that every iPhone should come with a photo of its assembler. “That could serve as a reminder that an actual, living, breathing person used their own hands to help make this product. Let’s give the cold technology a human face. We will all be better off for it.”

In fairness, I must note that Apple does seem troubled by its subcontractors. It applies a code of conduct to suppliers, audits their behavior and says worker protections and factory conditions have improved at many facilities throughout its supply base. Problems, however, persist, according to reports by the company itself, as relayed by the Telegraph. Underage workers, excessive hours and other problems evade even Apple’s efforts to drive change — something that may reflect different cultural attitudes among nations, as well varying levels of economic development. Remember that capitalism is still young in China, poverty is rampant, and it took the West decades to outlaw the practices that trouble Westerners and “Blossom” alike.

Nonetheless, I’m blown away by how like my youngest child this young Chinese woman is. Reared in a country whose values seem so foreign, “Blossom” brings a kind heart and a keen eye to the world she sees around her – just like my Abi. My daughter now works to help homeless people in Chicago get back into the social system. She supported Occupy Chicago. Her criticisms of global capitalism – which we often argue about — throb with an idealist’s heart just as big as “Blossom’s.”

As globalization grows and such young people take on bigger roles in the system in coming years, I expect they will bear the torch for change. I hope they do so, whether they work within or outside multinationals. While we graybeards may quibble with some of their arguments and solutions, their passions for justice and decency should inspire us all. Over time, life may cool the fires they now burn with — but I’m in no hurry to see that happen. And I hope the Ab and “Blossom” someday can meet to see how much more unites them than divides them.

Pollution: China’s towering challenge

2:30 p.m., Beijing
Almost no country can do big things as well as China can. It rebuilt a sprawling section of Beijing to make room for the Olympics a few years ago. It has created a subway system in the city that has few peers. Its bullet trains have narrowed vast distances between cities whose stunning architecture is almost certainly the most advanced on the globe. It is building a vast system for moving water from the lush south to the dry north, a nation-spanning effort that residents of the U.S. Southwest could only marvel at.

So why can’t Beijing do something about pollution? We’re not talking about a little whiff of smoke every now and then. No, the city’s air is so bad that popular wisdom here says the numerical scale for measuring it had to be expanded. On many days, the poisons are so bad that the U.S. Embassy warns people to stay indoors with windows closed. The embassy provides a Twitter feed to measure air quality hourly, and was embarrassed a while ago when the term “crazy bad” went out on the feed by mistake. The air that day was 20 times as bad as the guideline provided by the World Health Organization.

People here buy household air purifiers and sophisticated masks. Without protection, one hardly wants to go out – you can feel the weight of the bad air deep in your lungs. Teary eyes, runny noses and scratchy throats are the norm. Wholly enervating.

No escape
What’s more, the pollution sullies the air far from downtown. One can drive an hour and an half north, going into the mountains, and still not escape the eye-stinging smog. Early afternoons look like dusk on bad days, with no hint of a sun up beyond the foul, dense mist. Friends compare it to a sci-fi movie set in a world where ecological disaster blotted out the light. It’s common to see people wearing surgical masks – some fancy, colored types — on the roads of the city.

Troublingly, it’s not as if China can’t cut down on the smog. For big events, such as the Olympics — and, probably, the recent Beijing Marathon — authorities can shut down the factories and power plants. Routinely, they limit driving by alternating odd and even license plates to try to contain road-choking traffic and, incidentally perhaps, limit foul emissions. Officials supposedly seed the clouds in normally dry Beijing at times to clear the air. And certainly there are clear, nice days, when the sky is blue and the sun brilliant — just too few of them.

Deadly fashion statement
Indeed, it’s ironic that China sees the growth of green energy around the world as a great business opportunity. It plans to be a global powerhouse in the production of devices and technology to serve the needs of the world’s businesses for ecologically sound production techniques.

And yet, China continues to depend for much of its energy on coal. Wagons haul the stuff around for people to buy for cooking. Much of the country’s electricity comes from coal, and one doubts that this is the so-called clean coal of the West. Certainly, if coal accounts for much of Beijing’s visibly awful smog, it is anything but clean. Fossil fuels, in general, drive this economy, just as they do that of the U.S., windmills aside.

China’s leaders are smart people. As they permit the pollution to ravage their people – creating God knows what amount of disease now and in the future – they must have made some sort of cost-benefit calculation. They must have weighed the costs of their headlong rush to modernize against the environmental harm their policies are causing, and judged that public health (and comfort) can be sacrificed. As they’ve let millions of cars take the place of millions of bicycles in just the last decade or so, they must have calculated that their people feel the tradeoff is worth it – wealth for health.

She's no surgeon
Then again, one has to wonder whether it’s been all that conscious and deliberate. The astounding growth of the last couple decades has brought many discomforts – inflation, widening inequality in income, the destruction of ground-level life in neighborhoods formed by low-profile warrens known as hutongs in favor of endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks. Much of the change has been good, of course, and the use of market forces to accomplish it is testimony to how powerful such forces can be. And it may be that pollution – certainly an unintended consequence – has come along as just another unpleasant byproduct. Controlling it may now just seem too difficult, with too many people committed to keep the steamroller growth going at any cost.

A friend from Japan says Chinese leaders are trying to address the issue. They have been in consultation with Japanese scientists and experts who wrestled down much of their pollution problem years ago. They’d like to rein in the problem here in China and do so even as they keep growing their economy.

But one wonders how far off the solution will be. Sadly, I’m reminded of the Lyndon LaRouche folks back in the U.S. They used to argue that the drive to control pollution, especially efforts to halt it in the Third World, was part of some bizarre conspiracy to keep poor countries poor. That was nonsense, of course. And certainly there’s no conspiracy now within developing countries to foster pollution. Still, tolerating the poisonous air is a choice. And for many of today’s Chinese – young and old – that choice will prove to be a deadly one.

China’s censors stanch the corrosion of morality

"If You Are The One"
In the West, pundits wring their hands over the unsavory fare that airs on TV nightly. Ordinary folks watch the three or four shows weekly that we can abide and we sigh about how much better Bonanza and the Beav were. But in China, the government goes further – forcefully moving to curb programs about dating, talent contests, marital problems and reality shows.

Such programming, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television said, is “overly entertaining and of low taste,” China Daily reported this week. So, each of China’s 34 satellite channels are being limited to two such shows per week. State-approved news programs will largely take their place.

I, for one, applaud this move. There’s no doubt that the morals of young Chinese are being compromised by such products as “If You Are The One,” a dating show where girls wear, migosh, short skirts. In the wake of such broadcasts, girls now are wearing such skirts on the streets! Then there’s the corrosive effect of “Super Girl,” a knockoff of American Idol that fosters the myth that ordinary folks have talent. Let’s stop feeding such fantasies. Thank goodness that the show, which drew 400 million viewers even as officials branded it “vulgar,” “manipulative” and “poison for our youth,” was cancelled last month.

As China Daily described them, many such programs are “simple reproductions of popular ones.” Miming popular shows? Horrors! That kind of thing may suit the U.S., but not China. Further, according to the paper, “some tried to attract audiences through low-taste contents such as gossip and exposure of privacy.” Leave that sort of thing to Entertainment Tonight, I say. Sagely, the state’s TV watchdog agency observed that such things are a waste of resources and “also bad for improving the quality of TV programs.”

“Too many entertainment programs, broadcast during prime hours, will hold TV channels back from exercising their full duties. The media is not only to entertain people but also to inform and educate them, the [SARFT agency] statement said,” China Daily added, all under the headline “Entertainment cutback for better quality.”

"Supergirl"
It’s about time somebody made that case. China needs more broadcasts about the annual rice harvest. Give viewers more about heroic workers marching off daily to produce iPads and iPhones. Tell them more about the 50-year-old project to divert water from the south to the north. Run more documentaries about Japanese aggression 75 years ago.

Even better, take a page from CCTV 24, the English-language channel of the state broadcasting service. Air more talking heads, commercials for distant provinces and fashion, fashion and more fashion, along with occasional bits about Occupy Wall Street, riots in Greece and shooting in Libya. That’s the kind of thing the public needs.

And, while we’re at it, something should be done about those pesky Western journalists. For one thing, they irresponsibly linked the prudent changes ordered for TV to an alleged crackdown on social media, especially a couple Twitter-like services used by more than 200 million Chinese each. Ignoring the reality that highbrow culture and correct opinions are what the Chinese need now, The New York Times reported critically about right-thinking calls for swift censorship.

The Irish Times was even worse. It quoted bloggers – bloggers! – saying most inharmonious things. “This is not a restriction on entertainment, it’s a new cultural revolution,” carped blogger Susaikeniao. Another, clearly in need of re-education, wrote, “How can a government say it represents you if it wants to control how many times a day you watch entertainment on TV?” And Susaikeniao added that “instability” could follow “because people focus on current affairs by watching CCTV, they … follow its way of thinking and are controlled on its tracks.”

The Beav was better
Western journalists insensibly connected the moves to upgrade entertainment and quash rumor-mongering to alleged nervousness about Arab Spring Twittering and disclosures about “official malfeasance.” The New York Times cited blog posts, with photos, of a Yunnan Province city official’s sex orgy. I bet that the guy had been watching too many episodes of “If You Are The One.”

I’m reminded of the days when Ed Sullivan chastely refused to show Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, when married couples slept in separate beds on TV-sitcoms and when actors had to keep one foot on the floor in bedroom scenes. If only we had such rules again in the West. No doubt, there would be less teen pregnancy, fewer divorces and more church-going. Perhaps even a balanced budget and less unemployment. Oh, and longer skirts, too.

Occupy Beijing?

"Absolutely support the American people’s great ‘Occupy Wall Street revolution’’ - ChinaHush.com
The Occupy Wall Street movement is fascinating people in China. The media here — at least the English-language outlets — have been filled with coverage ever since the movement started gathering steam. My students at Tsinghua, too, seem intrigued, if puzzled, by the whole business.

For some, the idea of people taking to the streets all across America to question capitalism, the Wall Street power structure and the Man, in general, may confirm a Chinese idea that the U.S., in historic decline, is rife with instability and confusion. Babel on the other side of the planet, perhaps, and a far cry from stability-loving China. The heavy coverage may also serve to reassure the Chinese about their health and continuing growth, as the one big economy still perking along.

CCTV, Channel 24, the English-language arm of the state broadcasting service, has aired repeated broadcasts about the marches. Correspondents on the ground in NYC have interviewed demonstrators. A group there sporting a Communist banner got some short play, unsurprisingly. And CCTV even dedicated a big chunk of a regular debate and discussion program called Dialogue to the demos, linking the protests to marches and occasional violence in Europe and Greece, and thus painting a worrisome picture of chaos outside the comfortably safe borders of China.

It would be wrong, however, to look on the coverage as a heavy-handed bid to soothe Chinese about the superiority of their system. For one thing, the talking heads on Dialogue – an American prof from the New School in NYC, a German from the Imperial College in London and a Chinese international-relations scholar from Tsinghua University in Beijing – made it clear that the dynamics of the Eurodemos and the U.S. affairs are quite different. For another, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the demonstrators have yet to cohere around a single agenda beyond their furor at lingering high unemployment.

Washington Post
Moreover, some of the discussion has been surprisingly astute. For instance, one of the folks argued that things would be a lot worse if not for the bank bailout that protesters have pilloried Obama over. And that was the Chinese fellow from Tsinghua! The Chinese academics, particularly those who have studied in the West, are a sharp bunch, not to be underestimated. Certainly, they aren’t faulting capitalism as a concept; they just want to do better at it than the West.

Still, the subheads that the producers at CCTV dropped in under the speakers were, well, entertaining. Things such as “problems within the capitalist system” and “rich get richer, poor get poorer.”

As for my students, they have been mystified and entertained. One, who studied for a while in Florida, maintained that the demonstrations suggest that the U.S. has a serious problem. Another, however, said he found the business amusing, noting it’s the kind of thing that would never happen in China. Certainly, the government here would never permit the raft of videos on the Net agitating for the movement, as has happened in the U.S. He said he was once tasked by his media employer to cover a demo here and police broke it up before he could get there. That sort of thing is just not done in China.

There has been much discussion, too, about how the demos seem to be a left-wing response to the Tea Party. That idea has come up on TV and was suggested by an American visitor, an economist, who was kind enough to visit my class in business and economic reporting this week. He thought it perfectly natural for young people, especially, to do this sort of thing in the U.S.

RedState
If the Chinese media have paid so much attention because the demos offer comfort that the Chinese system is superior, the editors may be making a mistake. It’s possible that some Chinese see the demos not as a signs of decay but rather as evidence of a robust democracy debating its future in civil, at times carnival-like, ways. What’s more, China has big and growing problems with income inequality, soaring housing prices and food-price inflation – all of which could indeed put Chinese into the streets, if they had the right to do that. My students recently have been reporting on major unemployment and underemployment issues among millions of college graduates, as well as among impoverished migrants from the countryside.

Indeed, there was a supportive demonstration in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan Province. The website, ChinaHush.com, reported that the news was removed from a lot of Chinese mainstream media sites but continues to pop up on various Internet forums.

Might the Chinese follow the coverage of the U.S. and get a touch envious? Is the freedom to speak one’s mind, to make one’s grievances known, an appealing thing? Is influencing your country’s politics – proving that the right wing isn’t the only game in town – so bad?