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Geoffrey York's Blog On China Issues

Geoffrey York, a graduate of Carleton University, has been a Globe and Mail reporter since 1981. He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994. He was the Moscow bureau chief from 1994 to 2002. He has been the Beijing bureau chief since 2002. He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1991 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Palestinian Territories. He is the author of three books, including two books on aboriginal issues in Canada. He has received several journalistic awards, including nominations for the National Newspaper Awards.
The Globe and Mail

Spy Games in Beijing

BEIJING - People often ask me if my telephone in Beijing is bugged by the security agencies. They have a mental image of the old Cold War days of clicking phones and mysterious voices that interrupt your conversation.

Whenever people ask this, I usually give this answer: it's clear that the Chinese authorities can wiretap anyone in the country, and they often do. But the human resources to do so - the hundreds of thousands of spies who would need to speak perfect idiomatic English to understand the conversations of every foreigner in China - probably don't exist in China. And anyone with such perfect English could probably find a much better paying job at a multinational corporation.

More importantly, why would anyone bother to tap my telephone? Anything that I learn about China is usually accessible a day later on the Globe's website when my story is published. I don't keep any secrets.

But I've had to rethink my theory during the Olympics and Paralympics, a time when China's security paranoia has run rampant. For the first time in years, it's become quite obvious that the authorities are monitoring my phone. I've heard similar evidence from other foreign journalists here too.

Before the Olympics, I never had any problems with my Beijing cellphone. It was quick and efficient.

But when the security crackdown was launched, the simple act of making a call on my cellphone became an exercise in frustration.

First, the calls are clearly being routed to a different system. When I dial a number, I have to wait 30 seconds before the call begins to dial.

The biggest frustration, however, is what happens during the conversation. Almost every phone call - after several minutes of conversation - is abruptly disconnected. The call is terminated and I have to redial.

This had never happened before the Olympics. But it's been happening to many other journalists since the start of the Olympic period.

Just to be absolutely certain of the cause, I bought a new cellphone and put my SIM card inside the new phone. It made no difference. The same problem continued.

Unfortunately we are still in the official Olympic period until Sept. 20, according to Chinese regulations. My cellphone is continuing to be disconnected with disturbing regularity.

I can only hope that the authorities relax their grip on our telephones when the Olympic period has ended.

How to survive in Beijing

Despite a brief period of welcome for foreigners during the Olympics, it's been an unhappy year for many outsiders in China.

First there was the nastiness of the Tibet protests, with Chinese patriots accusing foreigners of encouraging "splittism" in Tibet. There were death threats against foreign journalists, an anti-French campaign and an anti-CNN campaign.

And then there was the Olympic security crackdown, which booted out thousands of foreigners who could not satisfy the tighter visa rules.

Overall, the number of foreign visitors to Beijing dropped by 9.2 per cent in the first seven months of this year. That's a pretty dramatic reversal of the visitor flows, after years of increasing tourism to Beijing.

The visa crackdown was a weird one. It meant that China was keeping out foreign investors who were a big source of jobs and investment in many regions of the country. Many foreigners were ordered to satisfy China's strange notion of "educational qualifications" for their jobs. If a bureaucrat decreed that their university degrees were inadequate for the job they were holding, the foreigners were kicked out of China – never mind if their employers were perfectly happy with their work.

Freelance journalists and editors were another group that suffered discrimination under these odd new rules. Many have been forced to leave. Others had to adopt the guise of "consultants" or "planners" rather than journalists.

Here's one example of the bizarre contortions required for survival in China's media industry. At an English-language city-life magazine in Beijing, all of the job titles on the masthead have suddenly changed, and weird new titles have been created for all of the foreign journalists – apparently in a bid to comply with new bureaucratic rules.

The Managing Editor is now called "Editorial Planning Manager." The Deputy Managing Editor is now the "Deputy Editorial Planning Manager."

The Art Editor is now the "Art Editorial Planner", while the Dining Editor is now the "Dining Editorial Planner."

You begin to detect the pattern. The senior staff writer has become, naturally, the "Senior Staff Content Planner." The regular staff writer is now the "Assistant Stage and Cinema Editorial Planner."

And the Visual Editor, of course, now has the title of "Visual Planning."

No journalists here. No journalist visas required. Everyone is just a "planner" or a "manager."

The articles in the magazine, I suppose, are not written, but merely "planned" and "managed." If that's what Beijing wants, that's what it gets.

Olympic Reflections

HONG KONG – The Olympics ended a week ago, but China is unwilling to let it go. Chinese state television is still replaying Olympic events, showing Chinese victories again and again. Chinese medalists are touring Hong Kong and Macau, trying to drum up further patriotism among the masses.

China clearly sees the Olympics as a pivotal moment in its history – the moment when the world was forced to recognize China's power and talent. Of course the world has watched China's rapid rise for many years now, and had no need of the Olympics to confirm the obvious. Perhaps the Beijing Games were more important as a psychological reassurance to the Chinese themselves, who often seem insecure about the world's perception of their state.

Anyway, as long as China continues to obsess over the Olympics, it's not too late for me to add a few more reflections on the subject. Here are a few stray observations and unanswered questions, inspired by the events of the past few weeks, for readers who might be still interested:

• The ticket scalpers at the Olympics were an incredible phenomenon. Anyone who walked to the Bird's Nest stadium in the final days of the Olympics was besieged by an army of scalpers, crowding the sidewalks and selling tickets for huge profits. Oddly enough, the police mostly ignored the scalpers (aside from a handful of arrests, intended as a deterrent but largely ignored by everyone).  I found it especially amusing to see the scalpers aggressively hawking tickets in front of large official signs that proclaimed the illegality of scalping. Some of the touts were foreigners, but most were Chinese. Any attempt to ban scalping in China is probably doomed to failure, given the entrepreneurial talents and pragmatism of the Chinese people. When money is there to be made, they can usually find a way to do it.

• I've become intrigued by the burgeoning career of Zhang Zhilei, the Chinese champion boxer in the super-heavyweight division – the glamour division of boxing, and the division with the greatest prospects for post-Olympic fame and fortune. After watching the 265-pound fighter demolishing his opening-round opponent with clinical brutality at the Olympics, I wondered if we were witnessing China's next super-sized celebrity, a potential rival to Yao Ming. I wrote about "the iron-fisted prince" (as the Chinese call him) in our weekend edition a couple weeks ago, but here is an update: Mr. Zhang swept through the rest of his bouts, unbeaten until he was finally stopped by the world champion, Roberto Cammarelle of Italy, in the gold-medal fight. He ended up with a silver medal, part of a remarkable Chinese surge in boxing. Two other Chinese boxers won gold medals at the Beijing Games – the first boxing golds in China's history. With the legendary boxing promoter Don King now focused on the commercial opportunities in China, we might even see Mr. Zhang turning professional and becoming a world heavyweight champion some day.

• After praising China's ability to move 90,000 people from the Bird's Nest stadium to the closest subway in a matter of minutes, I should in fairness also tell you that it was much slower getting into the stadium than getting out. You won't have heard much about this from the media, because journalists had special passes to allow them to bypass the long spectator queues. But I entered the Bird's Nest one evening on an ordinary ticket and it took almost an hour to get through all the queues. The problem is that each spectator had to be individually checked with metal-detecting wands – even after passing through a metal-detecting gate. It's the same scrutiny that you receive at airport security gates these days. Imagine if Toronto's airport had 300 jumbo jets all departing from the airport at precisely 7 pm, and each jet had 300 passengers who needed to be wanded individually. A lot of people would miss their flights, right? Same thing in Beijing – many people missed events at the Bird's Nest because the queues were so long. Was it excessive? Of course China had to be careful about terrorism, but the individual wanding of each spectator seemed a bit much.

• Many of China's security measures at the Olympics seemed to be symbolic threats, aimed at sending a strong warning message, rather than having any practical purpose. Why did China park an armoured vehicle outside the main Olympic Press Centre? Why did police walk through the crowd at Ditan Park last Sunday, taking photos of every citizen who was watching the closing ceremony on giant outdoor screens? Ditan Park is an ordinary park, not an Olympic venue, and nothing except the large television screens had any connection to the Olympics. Why did the police need to photograph everyone at the park?

• Did it matter if Boris Johnson failed to button his jacket when he walked into the closing ceremony? The Mayor of London, host of the 2012 Olympics, was sharply criticized by Chinese bloggers, who accused him of disrespect. They said he failed to match the seriousness of China's leaders, who kept their jackets carefully buttoned at the ceremony. It was an odd complaint, given that Beijingers are normally among the most casual dressers in the world. But at formal political events, China's politicians always dress identically in flawless suits and ties. Since he was on Chinese soil, should Mr. Johnson have imitated his Chinese colleagues? Or was he right to portray the 2012 host city as a more relaxed city, less bound by rules and formality than China's leadership elite?

Post-script on the lip-synching controversy

This image received on August 12, 2008, taken from television on August 11 shows seven-year-old Yang Peiyi during an interview in Beijing. Yang who has a chubby face and uneven teeth sung the patriotic song


When scandal erupted over the lip-synching girl at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, some people defended the Chinese government by saying that the two girls were quite happy and didn't mind the fakery.

That justification has now been demolished by the teacher of the girl who was shunted aside at the opening ceremony. In a sad footnote to the lip-synching controversy, the teacher has given a poignant account of the girl's crushed feelings when Chinese state television celebrated the more attractive girl who had mimed the song.

You'll remember the original controversy. The ceremony's organizers, including a senior Politburo leader, decided that the patriotic song "Ode to the Motherland" should be sung by the girl with the best voice, a seven-year-old girl named Yang Peiyi. But they also decided that this angelic voice should be matched up with a girl who had a "flawless" image.

The seven-year-old singer was deemed to be flawed, perhaps because her face was slightly chubby and her teeth were uneven. So in the opening ceremony, with a massive television audience around the world, her singing was mimed by a cute pigtailed 9-year-old girl, Lin Miaoke, who apparently was considered to be "flawless" in appearance.

When the deception was revealed and the controversy erupted, the Chinese media insisted that the two girls were quite content and "satisfied" with the switcheroo. But now comes evidence to the contrary.

Yang Peiyi's teacher, who has a blog on the Chinese Internet, described how the girl had become "hurt and depressed" when she saw how China was glorifying the fake singer and ignoring the real singer.

A few days after the opening ceremony, the young singer had come across a Chinese television show that celebrated Lin Miaoke and two other girls who had appeared in the opening ceremony. Yang Peiyi remembered the three girls as her playmates from the rehearsals before the opening ceremony. "Excited, she was sitting there, watching the television on tenterhooks, without a move, with an expectation that the anchorwoman or those playmates would mention her role in the performance," wrote the teacher, Wang Liping, in her blog.

But throughout the entire television show, nobody bothered to mention that Yang Peiyi was the singer. Instead the miming girl was the star of the show, treated as an up-and-coming sensation.

"Watching this, a disappointed look spread across Peiyi's face," the teacher wrote in her blog.
"She waited until the program ended, the advertisements ended and the next program started, in a daze, and went to bed without a word. The next morning her family found a line of deep teeth marks on her little arm."

How to move the masses

Bird's nest

BEIJING – People are already beginning to conclude that these are the best-organized Olympics in history, and I tend to agree.

For the ordinary fan who is trying to get in and out of stadiums and other Olympic venues across the city, the Beijing Games have been an impressively smooth operation, with efficient queues, smart transportation, and squadrons of cheerful Chinese volunteers helping to make it even more pleasant.

Most impressive of all, in my opinion, is China's astonishing ability to get 90,000 people out of the Bird's Nest stadium and into a single subway station in a matter of minutes.

In most other countries where I have worked, this would have major disaster potential. In Moscow, where I lived for seven years, the Russian authorities would call out the mounted police and the heavily armed SWAT team to ensure that nobody would die in the crush of fans walking from soccer stadiums to subway stations after a big match.
In Beijing, somehow the government has figured out the exact optimal size of stairways and entrance gates to ensure that 90,000 people can walk from the Bird's Nest into the closest subway station with minimal delays and without any deaths or injuries from crushing or falling.
Based on my experience in other countries, I was expecting a nightmare when I left the Bird's Nest with two friends on my first visit to the iconic stadium. A mass of humanity was surging down the stairs to the subway station. The crowd was overwhelming.
Yet somehow we reached the subway platform within a few minutes, jumped on a quick-arriving subway train, and reached our destination much faster than I expected.
Whatever else can be said about China's Olympic control fetish, it certainly pays dividends for the masses of ordinary spectators.

Sacrifices for China

When you talk to ordinary Chinese people, you find overwhelming support for the Beijing Olympics, and excitement about the results. But you also discover that many ordinary people have made big sacrifices for the Olympics – without even having a choice in the matter.

I'm not talking about the dissidents, the activists, the petitioners and the ethnic minorities and others who were arrested or evicted from Beijing. They are probably not the biggest fans of the Olympics any more.

I'm talking about the ordinary workers, farmers and small-business people who have lost a significant chunk of their modest income as a result of the Olympics. This is not a trivial matter for them – they are not wealthy people, and even a small loss of income is painful to them. Yet most of them still loyally support the Olympics. Or at least they are careful not to complain too much.

Mr. Wang, a 52-year-old coal miner from Yunnan province in southwestern China, has lost a third of his income this summer because his coal mine was shut down for the Olympics. "They told us that we had to shut down the mine because a coal disaster during the Olympics would have a very bad impact on China's image in the world," he said.

Instead of sitting idle in Yunnan, he and his wife traveled to Beijing to take a look at the Olympic stadiums and absorb a little of the Olympic atmosphere.
"I have no complaint about the lost income," he said. "I think the Olympics means a lot to China. It means that China is becoming stronger. I'm happy to see it."

Mr. Wu, a 34-year-old migrant worker, is one of the few migrants who stayed in Beijing after the city's construction sites were shut down for the Olympics last month. He normally works on contacts to finish the interior of new apartments, but the price of his materials has skyrocketed because of the closure of many factories around Beijing in the pre-Olympic environmental cleanup.

"All of our contracts were suspended since the end of July because of the shortage of materials and the high costs," he said. "We're not even allowed to enter some apartment compounds because of Olympic security measures. So we won't have any income in August, which is normally one of our busiest months."

Some workers complained about the shutdown, but Mr. Wu says he doesn't mind the loss of income. "China spent so much time and effort to hold these Olympics," he said. "I'll just think of this month as a break, and I'll take a rest. I don't have any Olympic tickets, but I'd like to watch it on television with my family."

Many street vendors, who normally peddle fruit or grilled meat on the streets of Beijing, have been ordered to halt their businesses during the Olympics. But some of them don't object to their enforced unemployment. "The Olympics show that China is becoming stronger," one hawker said. "To be the Olympic host is a glory for every Chinese person."

Just outside the Olympic Green, two farmers from the outskirts of Beijing were eating their lunch on the sidewalk as they gazed at the Olympic stadiums in the distance. Mr. Zhao, 67, and his wife Mrs. Li, 65, grow watermelons on their farm in the southern suburbs of the city. But the Olympic security crackdown has made it impossible for farmers to drive into Beijing to sell their produce.

"Because of the Olympics, we weren't allowed to truck our watermelons into the city to sell them," Mr. Zhao said. "So we had to leave them in the fields, and they went rotten. We've lost at least 100,000 yuan (about $15,000) this summer – about a quarter of our income."

Sloganeering for Success

Geoffrey York, 13/08/08 at 5:18 PM EDT

BEIJING – If you're wondering how China's athletes have managed to win so many gold medals so fast, you might consider how much pressure they face from their coaches and state officials.

It's just one of the many reasons for their success, but it must be a factor. Everyone in China is pushing them to be the best in the world, to bring glory to the country in its Olympic year.

Consider, for example, the official slogans at their training sessions. Here are some of the slogans printed on the walls of the Chinese training camps, as collected on the China Digital Times website:

From the training camp of the Chinese weightlifting team: "The motherland is above everything; strike for gold in the Olympics; lift up the world; hold up hope; stay away from steroids."

From the training camp of the Chinese shooting team: "Die in the fight for the gold, instead of surviving just for the sake of participation."

From the training camp of the Chinese gymnastics team: "Leaders put pressure, subordinates put pressure. Pressure each other. Pressure oneself. There will be no breakthrough if one does not take the hardest hardship; there will be no champion if one does not go through the ultimate pressure."


A night to remember


BEIJING – Chinese hospitality is always marvelously warm, even when it is marred slightly by a power failure and a police raid.

I spent Friday night with a wonderful Chinese family, sitting with them in their living room and watching the television broadcast of the opening ceremonies. The idea was to see the Olympics through the eyes of a middle-class family, one of the hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese families who were glued to the television for China's moment of glory in the world spotlight.

It was a beautiful evening, and poignant in its way, especially when the family sang along with great emotion to the patriotic songs on the television broadcast. Even the electricity failure and the visit by the security agents could not dampen the mood.

I must say that I disagree with my friend Christie Blatchford, who questions the sincerity of the Chinese fans and volunteers. The vast majority of ordinary Chinese are absolutely delighted to welcome foreigners to Beijing, and most are quite willing to make small sacrifices to ensure the success of the Olympics. (Apart from the dissidents and minorities who were jailed or evicted from the city, of course.)

Zhang Qinping and his family are a perfect example of the enthusiasm of the "laobaixing" – the Old Hundred Names, the ordinary people. They were thrilled to have a foreign guest in their home during the Olympics. They had carefully prepared a table full of fruit snacks and soft drinks for me. They even gave me a plastic folder with the names and photos of every family member, to help me keep them straight.

Then, of course, the building was suddenly hit by a power blackout. The system was overloaded because everyone in their six-story apartment block had switched on their televisions at the same time to watch the opening ceremony. Apparently it happened at a number of places around Beijing on Friday night.

My hosts were embarrassed, but we moved down the block to their daughter's small one-room apartment, where they watched the ceremonies while perched on the marital bed. (That's the photo that appeared in Saturday's Globe.)

Mr. Zhang, meanwhile, was frantically phoning the city's emergency number to report the electricity failure. He made the mistake of mentioning that a foreign reporter was his guest for the evening. Within minutes, the police were phoning him with great interest in the foreigner.

When the power was restored, we moved back to Mr. Zhang's apartment. He and his wife, Xie Yufang, are music teachers who play a traditional Chinese instrument called the "hulusi", which is made from bamboo pipes and a gourd. They gave me an impromptu concert and told me about their music club. (I'm attaching photos of the concert and the family as they watched the opening ceremonies.)

Eventually the police paid us a visit. A uniformed police officer, accompanied by a plainclothes man, came into the apartment and insisted on inspecting all of my documents, including my passport and my Olympic accreditation. They made careful note of my home address and my document numbers and phoned their superiors to inform them of everything.

But after 15 minutes or so, the police left us alone and we went back to watching the opening ceremonies. On balance, it was a wonderful evening.

China's brave bloggers

BEIJING – A fascinating study of China's media has found that its bloggers are much more liberated and pluralistic than the mainstream Chinese media.

The analysis, by U.S. professor Ashley Esarey, found that 61 per cent of Chinese blogs were critical of governments, corporations, celebrities or social trends. By contrast, only 19 per cent of Chinese newspapers contained any criticism of anything.

The same study found that 36 per cent of Chinese blogs were pluralistic (containing two or more opposing viewpoints) while only 5 per cent of Chinese newspapers were pluralistic. And a mere 4 per cent of blogs contained national propaganda, compared to 21 per cent of newspapers.

The Olympics are a good example. While the state media are afraid to criticize any aspect of Beijing's Olympic extravaganza, the bloggers are energetically debating the Olympics, with many bloggers willing to complain about the negative side of it. Their comments are far more honest and balanced than the monolithic praise that emanates from the state media.

One Chinese blogger, who calls himself "A Lonely Talker," says the Olympic security measures are excessive. "To make the citizens of the whole country nervous – that is not very pleasant," he wrote.

The blogger, who lives in Hebei province, said the security measures are making everyone "highly nervous and scared" – even if they live far away from Beijing. "Even remote villages are being required to have personnel on guard 24 hours a day," he wrote.

"The most ridiculous part is that the government banned all crowds from gathering. Even various training programs have been stopped. The reason is to prevent terrorists from making trouble in crowded gathering places. The national television course university entrance exam has also been cancelled. All testing papers that were already in place at the testing locations have been sealed and have to be guarded day and night."

Another Chinese blogger, calling himself "Speaking Against Injustice," said he is feeling more and more "distanced" from the Olympics. He said the government is "sacrificing the common people's interests" to pay for an "image project." And he criticized the government for spending extravagant sums on the Olympics without any accountability.

"Spending without answering the people's questions is our country's characteristic," he wrote in his blog. "Once the business is elevated to a ‘political height,' then there's absolutely no tolerance for any doubt by any individual or organization. If a Chinese has some doubt, then he or she will be trashed as a ‘dissident' who runs tremendous risk; if a foreigner has questions, then he or she will be labeled as part of an ‘anti-China conspiracy group,' ready to be grilled by flaming ‘nationalist sentiments.'"

The Smog Returns

BEIJING – After several days of remarkably blue skies and clear visibility, Beijing was back to its normal smog and haze today.

Oddly enough, the Beijing authorities insisted that it was a "Blue Sky Day."

By their own official measurements, the air quality was adequate – even though the visibility was so poor that entire buildings seemed to disappear into the murk from just a few hundred metres away.
Independent tests by the BBC found that the level of particulate matter in the air of Beijing was 292 micrograms today. That's almost six times the recommended target of the World Health Organization, and almost triple the "blue sky" maximum by Beijing's more lenient standards.

The heavy smog rolled into Beijing despite a host of harsh measures, including factory closures and drastic traffic rules that took half of the city's 3.3 million cars off the road.

There is growing evidence, in fact, that China's official environmental numbers cannot be trusted. The actual level of air pollution in Beijing is worse than what China promised, and worse than China's official claims.

In its latest issue, Science magazine has an interesting investigation of China's attempts to "shift the goalpost" on its anti-pollution promises. In 2001, when it won the right to hold the Olympics, China promised that four major pollutants in Beijing's air would be reduced to WHO target levels by 2008. Three years later, China quietly decided that two of these four pollutants – particulate matter and ozone – would not have to meet the WHO standards. Instead it set new goals that would be easier for Beijing to meet.

The article in Science says Beijing has reduced the level of two pollutants – sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Both are now within WHO limits, and China deserves credit for this. But in the meantime, China has actually raised its limit for ozone, and it continues to have problems in limiting particulate matter.

Another investigation, published in the June issue of a journal called Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, found that the actual levels of ozone and particulate matter in Beijing's air during two months of last summer were 33 to 50 per cent higher than what Beijing claimed.

If you believe the official measurements, Beijing's air quality has gradually improved over the past few years. But an article in the Far Eastern Economic Review suggests that the official count of "Blue Sky Days" is a "misinformation campaign." It notes the huge number of days when the pollution index is officially listed as 96 to 100 (marginally good enough to be a "Blue Sky Day") and it suggests that the numbers were manipulated to keep them under the limit of 100.
Another problem is that China does not even bother to do any regular monitoring of ozone and small particulate matter – two of the worst pollutants in Beijing's air.
The only good news on this front was the announcement today that China will begin monitoring those two pollutants next year. A senior Chinese official said the monitoring next year "would lead to measures to deal with them."

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