Saturday, May 7, 2011

Freedom of Religion in China

Regrettably, I have not been to Mass since I arrived here three months ago. I work on Sunday and I have not made a great effort, given my pre-conceived notions of how it might earn me a ticket home or worse. I am not comfortable with attending the services of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, despite my concomitant discomfort with much of the Roman hierarchy.

It seems that dialogue and embracing the religious spirit espoused by China's religious community are essential at this juncture. A total prohibition on communication between the Chinese Catholic clergy and the Vatican seems the most egregious of the accusations leveled by the Commission in the report referenced below. The Great Leap Backward seems to be the biggest thing standing in the way of smoother sailing for the US and China. I pray that we can find common cause.

China Daily reports:

BEIJING -- China's religious community on Friday rejected a US commission report accusing China of religious freedom violations, saying its "finger-pointing" practice and "irresponsible remarks" are not in conformity with a religious spirit.

The section with regard to China included in the report is "strongly subjective, full of prejudices, and not true to reality", according to a written consensus released after a joint meeting of the secretary-generals from China's five major religious groups -- Buddhists, Taoists, Islam, Catholics and Protestants.

In an annual report on religious freedom released on April 28, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission, attacked China, saying it found violations of religious freedom in the country.

"What has been described about China in the report is entirely different from what we have observed and experienced," the consensus said.


This is the summary of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom:

FINDINGS: Unregistered religious groups or those deemed by the Chinese government to threaten national security or social harmony continue to face severe restrictions, although the government tolerates some religious activity within approved organizations. Religious freedom conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims remain particularly acute as the government broadened its efforts to discredit and imprison religious leaders, control the selection of clergy, ban religious gatherings, and control the distribution of religious literature by members of these groups. The government also detained over five hundred unregistered Protestants in the past year and stepped up efforts to destroy churches and close illegal meeting points. Dozens of unregistered Catholic clergy remain in detention, in home confinement, or have disappeared. Falun Gong adherents continue to be targeted by extralegal security forces and tortured and mistreated in detention. The Chinese government also continues to harass, detain, intimidate, disbar, and forcibly disappear attorneys who defend the Falun Gong, Tibetans, Uighurs, and unregistered Protestants. Because of these systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, USCIRF recommends in 2011 that China again be designated as a country of particular concern., or CPC. The State Department has designated China as a CPC since 1999.

Religious communities continue to grow rapidly in China. Hundreds of millions of Chinese manifest their belief openly. Senior-level government officials, including President Hu Jintao, have praised the positive role of religious communities and articulated a desire for religious groups to promote economic and social development.. There are reports that the government is considering legalizing charitable activities of recognized religious organizations. These are positive steps that could lead to greater accommodation of religious activity sanctioned by the government. At the same time, the government praises religious groups who resist foreign infiltration,. supports extralegal security forces to suppress the activities of so-called cult organizations, actively harasses, imprisons, tortures, and disappears advocates for greater religious freedom, destroys unregistered religious venues, and severely restricts online access to religious information and the authority of religious communities to choose their own leadership and parents to teach their children religion.

PRIORITY RECOMMENDATIONS: Religious freedom encompasses many issues in U.S.-China
relations, including the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the well-being of ethnic minorities. Promoting religious freedom in China is a vital U.S. interest that can positively affect the United Statese future security, economic, and political relations with China. As part of Chinaes CPC designation, USCIRF urges the Secretary of State to impose a new sanction targeting officials or state agencies that perpetuate religious freedom abuses or provinces where religious freedom conditions are most egregious. In addition, USCIRF recommends that the U.S. raise religious freedom concerns in multilateral fora where the United States and China are members, coordinate potential sources of leverage within the U.S. government and with allies to build a consistent human rights diplomacy with China, develop and distribute proven technologies to counter Internet censorship, raise religious freedom and negotiate binding human rights agreements at the U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue, and integrate human rights concerns, consistently and openly, into the entire structure of U.S.-China bilateral relations. Additional recommendations for U.S. policy towards China can be found at the end of this chapter. (pages 124-40)

The section on Catholics begins on page 128.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shanghai: A Modern City

The airport in Shanghai is tremendous, but I arrived late and it was vacant which struck me as an amusing way to chronicle the journey. The rest of my weekend in this megalopolis was chock full of humanity. This was a very misleading entrance to a city that swarms with people, especially on a holiday weekend. (May 1 is a big deal around here; some of my colleagues have eight or nine days off.)

I proceeded to my CouchSurfer's home where I found that she works in communications for International Paper. We had only the beginning of a good conversation about paper versus pixels. She was incredibly generous and had another chatty (conversation-starved) American sleeping on the floor. Unable to house a third person, she had referred Irina from Romania to another CouchSurfer, but suggested that the two of us pair up for a fun weekend of adventures. That is exactly what I did.

This photograph is more interesting inverted.
In the morning, I left Pudong by subway and headed to People's Square. I waited at a Starbucks where I was approached for a picture (this is very common) by a young Chinese man from Harbin who was in the city for holiday and to get a passport to Singapore so that he could take an exam there later this year. Soon, Irina showed up and the three of us set off. Probably put-off by the price of admission ($35 yuan for the regular and special exhibit), he abandoned us at the door of the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which another Shanghaier and CouchSurfer had marked as a "must-see."

Inside the museum, by far the most amazing thing is the scaled model of the whole city of Shanghai. The skyline of this city rivals any other city I have ever visited and The Bund is one of the most gorgeous, urban environments I have ever witnessed. Following are some images from the museum and from The Bund by day and by night. Irina and I paid 30 RMB for a double-decker bus tour that was worth every penny.

The Oriental Pearl Tower

The TCM Museum
On the following morning, I decided to abandon plans with Irina for a shopping trip (prices on clothes are said to be cheap in Shanghai while the food is expensive). I was going to go to Qi Pu Lu (nicknamed Cheapo Lu), but decided instead to go to the Traditional Chinese Medicine Museum by myself, where I lingered for a couple hours and talked a young woman who was studying acupuncture at the Visitor's Desk to give me a tour. As it was the holiday, the gift shop (does anybody need some snake or ginseng?) and the English audio tours were unavailable.

Pictures were not permitted inside the museum, but she and her fellow medical student allowed me to snap a panorama of the third floor's extensive collection of herbal, animal, and mineral samples. It was like Noah's Ark combined with the Arnold Arboretum and the Colorado School of Mines. There were hedgehogs and tiny deer and their antlers and gall bladders from ungulates, armadillos, horns from water buffalo and turtles (live and mounted). There was ginseng and plants few have ever seen. There were geodes and stones that get ground into a dust, too.

In the afternoon, I met Irina and her host, Fiona, for a lunch at YuYuan Gardens. YuYuan Gardens is a charming delight and was filled with amazing architecture and dragons.

A small fraction of the humanity--many foreigners--visible from our restaurant's second-story window. Those on the bridge were on their way to the inner-sanctum (the non-commercial part) of YuYuan Gardens.

Finished lotus leaves which wrapped sticky rice and a sesame ball stuffed made of lotus paste with a poppy-seed filling. The purple scoop is sweet potato. I also had a long kebab-skewer with a fish on it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some People and Things in Beijing

A policeman takes a rest in Ritan Park- The Temple of the Sun.

An older gentleman, also in Ritan, flies a kite that looked like a bluebird soaring over the city.

Artist at work in Ritan Park.

A better look at the work in progress.

A group of "pensioners" singing and playing the erhu in Ritan Park.

The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, which may also be called a "southern fiddle"

Some stonemasons at work repairing a sidewalk.

This looks like it was put here at about the time that Hasbro came out with its first CHIPS model.

Soldiers marching on Saturday morning around noon in front of the new National Museum of China, which was an impregnable fortress and must be left for next time.

Men cleaning a building.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Aye, Way, Way Out of Control

One of the readers here asked me about Ai WeiWei. Truth be told, he is much more famous outside of China where people read the Time-100. Most people here are unaware of the controversy.

It is true that China has, over the last few months, increased its arrests and indictments of people who use their pen and/or tongue to inspire dissent or reform. 

It is true that the recent decision to cancel the Documentary Film Festival is also an outgrowth of the chilling on what we, in the United States, see as the freedom of assembly and, more generally, freedom of speech. China is at a crossroads and there are those who think that some in the Party are not smart enough to see the graffiti on the wall, but I trust that they collectively know some further opening and reform is needed so that Chinese people can thrive in the kind of creative environment which leading world powers must maintain if they wish to rise to the top. Ambition, not morality will cause the forces on the National Communist Party's leadership to eventually (and I think soon) re-think the way that they restrict communications and the transfer of information. You are already beginning to see micro-blogs from certain ministries.

In my opinion,  Huntsman was right to speak out. There are large protests in Hong Kong about this and even a few reports that WeiWei is being tortured to get a confession. Who knows?

I suppose comparisons are odious, especially when made between a military person charged with defending the country and an artist whose raison d'etre is to challenge the system. Nevertheless, I cannot help but ask, "What is happening to Bradley Manning?"

In this season of Easter, maybe the best thing to say is, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Three Cups of Bitter Truth

There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful. 
-Theodore Roosevelt

I distributed to a large number of my mentors and former board members a stinging, brutal treatise of muckraking by famed author Jon Krakauer. It is called Three Cups of Deceit.  It deals with a just-as-famous author and humanitarian, Greg Mortenson, who was the author of Three Cups of Tea. I have been thinking a lot about this indictment over the last week, because, quite coincidentally, I am totally absorbed in the gripping Mortenson memoir-cum-novel.

The hot water for this beautiful cup of tea was dispensed from a copper spout no less than a meter in length at a restaurant on my street, Longli Lu. The taste, if you can believe it, matched the exquisite beauty. 2011 (c) Alexander Lee  
One obvious response to this falderal is to say that Gandhi beat his wife and Martin Luther King, Jr., plagiarized, but, like these men, Mortenson has done some great work, even if it is not all that he claims and even if it is more symbolic than real at times.

A second obvious response is to say that Krakauer has done a great service by exposing the duplicity of and mismanagement by the Central Asia Institute's raison d'être, Greg himself; however, any such observation is quickly tempered by the obvious conclusion that Krakauer let his information bake for a long time and the rage that could lead somebody to undertake a project such as Three Cups of Deceit is palpable and rather concerning.

This is certainly more than Lloyd Bentsen exclaiming, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." It is not an ad hominem attack, but one that takes Teddy's charge--"[remember] that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful"--and metes it out less with a rake and more with a sledgehammer. 

For me, TR's admonition is missing an important extra caveat. The truthful attack upon a person's character and flaws is not useful inasmuch as it serves only to discredit a scoundrel, it must also lead to societal soul-searching and reform. It is not, for instance, sufficient to say that Mortenson should never manage another nonprofit unless he gets adequate training and demonstrates contrition on par with the gravity of his errors. We must also ask: How do we avoid creating more monsters like Mortenson? What is broken with the way that we run nonprofits? Why do people, who succumb to some of the temptations that Greg has, buckle? What inexorable pressure is there upon those of us who are considered prophetic or pioneering to keep upping the ante?

Some of these questions certainly arose for people who watched The Social Network (2010). Did the twins with the original idea (an arguable point itself, which I hope my reader will concede for sake of this discussion) deserve the credit for Facebook or was it the masterful nerd who executed their idea to the tune of several billion dollars?

I would really be interested in hearing some of your thoughts on this unfolding human drama. I am less interested in the question of loyalties or, whom do you sympathize/empathize with most?  I am much more interested in the questions of reform that this story begs us to consider.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Traffic in China

One of our blog's readers asked about traffic. She asked whether I have read Peter Hessler's book, Country Driving. I have not, but I did read River Town, where he also talks extensively about the driving habits of the Chinese. The horn is still an essential part of driving here and does, as my reader indicates, seem to be hooked, if not literally, to the gear shift.

Your fellow reader asked, "Do they still have those terra cotta police statues along highways?" Not in Changchun. I have not seen any in Beijing, either, which is the last place you would expect them anyway. On the other hand, I heard about somebody in Beijing who is making as much in a week as I make in a month by filming traffic infractions for the authorities and submitting the video footage so that the offenders get nabbed. It reminds me of the old story about the fellow in America who was sent a photograph of his license plate and a ticket so, in turn, he sent the police a photograph of a check. They sent him a photograph of handcuffs.

The big traffic story in China right now is about a driver who stabbed to death a bicyclist whom he hit accidentally with his car. One of China's top forensic psychologists claims that the boy who did this was maybe abused at home--pushed too hard, perhaps, by his Tiger Mom. There is no question that this one psychotic outburst has taken on out-sized importance, but it is largely because of class issues that are underscored by this story.

The rule of law is something that top officials claim to want and the outcome of this sad tale will certainly show if there is a double-standard. Last week, I asked one of my colleagues, "How do you like the new 'rule of law' pedetrian barriers on Tongzhi Jie." It was a bitter, sarcastic question. For my first week, I was terrified of crossing the street when the light was green and tried to stick to the cross-walks and major intersections where pedestrians congregate. Now, though, I have come to enjoy the freedom of crossing when and where I want to. That came to an end last week when the City of Changchun through up two-foot tall fences down the dividing lines of the major thoroughfare in my neighborhood--Tongzhi Jie (or Comrade Street). It is forcing people to the cross-walks and it is only a matter of time before the old men posing as policemen start speaking to those of us (shhh!) who still dart out and hurdle the barriers, impatient for the interminable light to change. (The traffic lights, by the way, count down to zero in green and then count down to zero in red before the cars are given a green light again. That is the one area where the Chinese traffic control seems more advanced than most American urban areas.)

A Chinese person asked me where I found out the rumor that a cab driver who hits a Westerner in a car is likely to back-up and "finish the job" because it is cheaper to pay for a funeral than medical bills. She said that a Chinese person was obviously too loose with her tongue, "That is the only way a lao wai (informal word for foreigner) could know about this." I have not checked this on, but I suspect that this is the sort of thing that has happened a couple times and is the stuff of urban legend. I have absolutely no intention of testing the theory, regardless of how cavalier I may sound about crossing the street.

I have heard horror stories about people getting hit and thrown into the air, but have not personally witnessed any pedestrians being hit.  I wrote earlier about a very peasant-like fellow who kicked a crate into the road nonchalantly and when he leaned over to pick it up nearly got decapitated by a very surprised and subsequently very angry taxi driver. The idiot just smiled and laughed in much the same way I chuckled after being nearly hit by lightning in 1996. It was the "I am so lucky to be alive that Somebody must be smiling upon me" kind of laugh. I feel this way to a lesser degree almost every time I make it safely to the other side of a street.

There was a story (worth reading!) not too long ago about a man who was driving two bumper-cars down the road. He did not get a reprimand because there was nothing technically illegal! You see huge trucks--much, much longer than the 56' that we are accustomed to seeing in the US. You see lots of things that would barely qualify as vehicles loaded to the gills with fifty foot lengths of rebar dashing across intersections without so much as a bandana waving from the back. You see cyclists with circus-tent high, wobbly loads of recycled cardboard. There are plenty of cars and even more motorcycles and motorized bike carts that disregard one-way streets and dart up the side. I have yet to see a head-on collision as a result!

I really don't know much about car rental processes, because I do not plan to drive EVER AGAIN. Driver's tests are improving and so are drunk driving laws. My experience with maps is limited to Changchun and Beijing where, in the former, you can obtain a lovely, easy-to-use English-language map at the Shangri-la Hotel. In Beijing, good maps are sold for 5RMB as soon as you get off the train or even on the subway. It is a world class subway system--due in part to the Olympics being there a couple years ago.

On the good news front, clunkers are getting kicked to the curb. License plates ending with 3 have to be off the road on the 3, 13, and 23; those ending in 4, on the 4th, 14th, and 23. Sucks if you get a 1, because then it is 31, 1, 11 and 21 from what I understand.

If you Google "China and traffic," you get mostly stories about the freaky 10-day, 60-mile traffic jam that took place last year.

At last, let me mention that in many places, sidewalks are the provenance of cars not pedestrians. They are parked so tightly against the buildings in some places and so close next to each other that you are forced to make your way past them by veering out on to the street.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Open Forum

There are over 390 people who receive this blog in their Inbox. Some of you might have a vague interest in me and my personal journey, but I suspect that most of you want to know about China from the insider's perspective. Today, I am turning this over to you. Write your questions on the blog or send them to me. I am happy to blog about any topic that interests you.

Big in the news this week: a truck full of dogs headed for a slaughterhouse in my city was saved by animal rights' activists. You want to know about dogs in China? Tell me...

I am headed to Beijing again this weekend for a series of meetings. Excited to return to that amazing city again.