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.

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.

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 looks outward and upward — but for how long?

As I sat entranced by Tchaikovsky performed by Russia’s Gergiev and Mariinsky Orchestra at Beijing’s sprawling and ultramodern National Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, I was struck again by the country’s stark contrasts. By the thousands, people here delight in orchestras, dance troupes and theater companies from across the world. Demonstrating its scientific prowess, China just last week launched a rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 lab module into orbit, a step toward a manned space station. And, economically, China’s robust growth is making the rest of the world pale.

And yet, China is also a place where indoor plumbing is a dream for squatters and the poor who live in ramshackle houses, including some still scattered about the Tsinghua University campus. For all its openness to people and companies from around the world, the country still shuts out such powerful communication tools as Facebook and Twitter and muzzles its own knockoffs of such social networks. And university graduates who go to work for foreign companies in their offices here – whether media such as Bloomberg News or global manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble – can’t get needed Beijing residency permits, crucial papers that give them to right to do everything from buy cars to send their kids to public schools.

I suppose such contrasts – and contradictions – are nothing new here. Emperors and empresses lived in opulence so lavish that long canals were built to let them travel in comfort between palaces (this weekend, we visited one such canal linking the Summer Palace with a central Beijing spot). At the same time, peasants starved in the countryside. More recently, as a middle class has surged into prominence, residents in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have been able to snap up spacious gated-community apartments, cars and other amenities they could scarcely imagine when they were young. Flashy shopping malls, many stocked with pricey western goods, fill architecturally fascinating towers that have risen by the hundreds in the last decade in Beijing. And yet, some of the poor in rural areas attend schools with cinderblocks for seats, no books and no real hope for the future.

Economists measure disparities in income in societies, and China’s ranking is surprising. While the U.S. looks worse, at 39th place in terms of distribution, thanks to all those zillionaires President Obama wants to tax, China isn’t far behind, at 52nd place. This ranking, the Gini index, is based on fairly old data (from 2007 in China’s case), and I suspect the measure will worsen when newer numbers come in. But already it suggests that China’s flood of new wealth hasn’t lifted all boats. Indeed, China’s leaders are so concerned about disparities that they have banned certain words in advertising – “supreme,” “high class” and “luxury,” for instance – apparently believing that such terms only spawn dangerous envy.

As for its ambivalent dealings with the West, China has long alternated between periods of openness and times of circling the wagons. Its leaders have adopted Western ways only to shrug them off. They have shut the borders when they felt the contacts were hurting them. These days, China is pushing its promising youngsters to learn English – teaching it from the earliest years – and facilities from the subway here to signs on school buildings, in stores and on major locations boast English. I am teaching in the Global Business Journalism program, an example of China’s openness, as Western journalists teach their techniques to Chinese graduate students. This sort of openness would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.

Like any developing economy, China’s system has a long way to go. It has come remarkably far since it set out on the once-reviled capitalist road in the early 1980s. Even as it pushes ahead technologically – as symbolized by Tiangong-1, its gleaming towers in Beijing and the bullet trains that zip around the country – it will continue to grapple with problems spawned by income inequality. Growing – and sharing — the wealth, and opening the doors more to the outside are unlikely to proceed evenly. The march forward may be marked by occasional steps backward – as with the government’s attitude toward Facebook. But, unlike earlier times when China’s leaders sought to close the country off from the rest of the world, it may be that such insularity proves impossible in a globally integrated economy. For hundreds of millions of Chinese, the open door will lead to a dazzling future.

An American in Beijing

Each morning, I hop on my bike and trundle over to the journalism school at Tsinghua University. The ride takes me a bit over a mile through what may be the prettiest campus in the world. Streets lined with tall trees, dazzling colorful gardens, striking sculpture and stunning modern buildings that loom hard by hovel-like worker quarters and sleek dorms. Depending on the time, I may be joined by hundreds of other cyclists, mostly students rolling along silently to class. For an American, it’s an alternate universe.

Like much that I’ve experienced in my two weeks in China so far, my daily routine here is by turns delightful, intimidating and fascinating. When the sky is blue and the sun shines, little could be more intoxicating. When it’s smoggy and my chest feels heavy in the haze that sits just a few hundred feet away, it’s something else – LA in the fifties an LA native here told me. The tai chi practitioners doing their meditative ballet in a garden spot near a pagoda-like park building are hypnotic. So, too, is the guy playing a Chinese flute in the trees nearby. But spending 90 minutes in a bank trying to make a deposit is anything but charming – and neither is the bank guard striding up and down with a menacing baton (and this is at the center of campus!). And showers when the hot water goes out are, well, bracing.

Then there’s the food. So far, I’ve eaten fish that has stared back at me (mackerel, actually) while avoiding donkey meat and black fungus (a mushroom, I’m told), and I’ve downed lots of odd vegetables (who knew cabbage could be spiced so well that it’s actually good?) For an omnivore, this would be a delight. They put lots of everything in everything, and there have been a few things I’ve downed that I haven’t quite been sure of. For my picky tastes, it’s a challenge – though I have found much pizza, Progresso and Campbell’s soup and the sugariest cereals around at the grocery store. My teeth would not survive a year of this stuff.

It’s an adventure getting around this city of 17 million or so souls. The broad boulevards lined with towering glass-and-steel office buildings and condo complexes here do have red lights at the intersections, but they seem only advisory, especially to the hordes on bikes. It’s a wonder that there aren’t injured cyclists and furious motorists everywhere, since it’s a battle royal everywhere on the crowded roads. Yet somehow the natives are comfortable with it; everywhere, girls sit sidesaddle on specially built seats behind their pedaling boyfriends, How they stay on, looking quite contented, is a mystery to me.

Communicating with people has been surprisingly easy, though. Somehow, the shopkeepers know how much to charge me and I know how much to pay. I know now how to order hot black tea – “hong cha” – and I can understand when they say “here” or “to go.” Pointing works just fine for the pastries at Starbucks, a haunt of expats since it has free Internet and pricey tastes of home. I have even managed in the Subway sandwich shop to get tuna subs with the fixings I like. And moving about town on the real subway here – an ultramodern graffiti-free system – is easy, since it sports lots of English, including in the announcements of stops. The only problem is that the crowds would make a New Yorker feel claustrophobic. And the scents are, well, unusual.

Beijing is cosmopolitan in a way that no other place is, I think. It seems like a city eager to open itself to the world. Lots of expats. Lots of shops, including very pricey ones, that cater to them. Apple is huge here and Adidas has a big shop. There’s a high-rise mall loaded with such places. Grocery stores here stock goods familiar to westerners (though the Wal-Mart here is like no other I’ve seen, with shouting butchers and fishmongers hawking their wares, which are spread out on counters in the multistory store). A honcho with Wal-Mart China, a friendly former U.S. Foreign Service guy I’ve spent a little time with, told me the outfit is designed to serve the local markets and I did have to look elsewhere for food I wanted. Still, there is Pizza Hut (nearly fine dining here, with long queues to get in) and French bakeries.

I am looking forward to getting a better handle on this place, which can be overwhelming at times. My students – probably the most diligent and eager I have ever encountered – will teach me a lot about it. I am keen to see the journalism they produce. And I’m thrilled about the prospect of seeing more of this at-times magical place. Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace – all await me once the students go on a nine-day holiday in early October. Already, students are lining up for precious railroad tickets home. The trains will be jammed and, I hope, I may have the Beijing sights to myself and just a few zillion others.

Eastward ho! China beckons

The Chinese embassy has made it official now. My visa for a semester-long teaching gig at Tsinghua University in Beijing just popped in the front door. So it looks like a year’s preparation will pay off with a nearly four-month stay beginning Sept. 8.

I’m stoked.

The program, organized by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., and backed by my Dean, Gary Kebbel, and the far-sighted folks in the administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is thrilling. I get to teach two classes to budding Chinese journalists, grad students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. They are keen to learn about business and economic coverage and about multi-media journalism.

For my part, I get to learn first-hand about the world’s second-biggest economy as it pushes even further into the global limelight. It will prove to be a fascinating, if paradoxical place, I expect. A “developing country” that is nearly 4,000 years old. The U.S.’s biggest creditor and yet a place with one of the lowest per capita incomes on the planet. A planned economy that seems to work, mostly anyway.

The university I’ll teach in is commonly ranked among the top three in the country. China’s current president, Hu Jintao, studied and taught at the 100-year-old school. Its journalism college, however, dates back to just 2002, as this technologically minded university — sometimes called the MIT of China — is still developing its humanities offerings. The ICFJ, led by China hand and former BusinessWeek colleague Joyce Barnathan, has been involved there since just 2007. I’m told the students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication will include some of the brightest kids in China, the likely leaders in their organizations in the future. I’m hoping they will challenge me as much as I challenge them and that, in my small way, I can make some lasting impact that will affect they way they see – and influence – the world.

It’s a daunting prospect. Will they behave like American students – in good and bad ways? Will they question and argue, for instance (probably not, I’m told, since deference to the teacher is a Chinese cultural trait)? Can I teach them about the cut and thrust of good journalism? Will they understand American-style journalism at all, or have a wholly different notion of the mission of media? Just think about how much some major pubs in China get quoted here as, more or less, the voice of officialdom.

Then there are the personal issues. Will the government particularly care what I have to say in the classroom or on the Net? Will it pay attention in either place? There are so many academic visitors to China from the U.S. nowadays that keeping track could be impossible and pointless for folks in official ranks. The Chinese want what we have to offer, especially in areas such as business and economic journalism. They think it a crucial skill as their business communities grow and globalize, and they’re right about that.

I’m going, however, as much as a student as I am a teacher. I’ve always felt that missionaries were fundamentally arrogant, assuming that they were bringing the truth to the ignorant masses. I’m a bit contemptuous – though usually more amused — when they knock at my door. So I’ll pack a sense of humility along with my syllabi. Yes, I can teach my young charges some useful skills – just as I do back home in Nebraska – but I expect I’ll learn far more from them and their country. China, after all, does have a few years on us in the U.S. as a civilization.

I plan to keep a blog of my experiences. This opportunity will vastly enrich me as a teacher, not to mention how much it could broaden my worldview. The three-week trip colleague Bruce Thorson and I took to Kazakhstan with eight students last year was good preparation. It gave me a sense of how people in a developing place look on us in the West, and on how they look on life in general. I expect to get more than a glimmer of that in the coming semester and look forward to sharing that both here and in classes to come.

Stay tuned. Should be one heckuva trip.