The only way to ride was by rail. The flight to my destination in the southeast would have taken fewer than three hours and cost about $200 one-way for an economy seat, higher than usual because of the surging costs of oil. The train took 32 hours, but a ticket in the second-class berth, “hard sleeper”, cost around $60. So for a third of the price I traveled thirteen times as slow.

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Mean Streets

Chinese law in action can be about as manic as baseball umpired with a moving strike zone. Advantage: offense. Porous, under-regulated markets generally play into the pockets of the players as well as local authorities, be it through taxes, bribes or gate fees.

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Chinese Stability: Yin and Yang

In the context of holy war with America, many Chinese see Osama Bin Laden as a cult figure. In the context of his alleged collaborations with top Uighur extremists, he’s read as just another bad guy.

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Drive and Pay: Chinese Traffic Law

Chinese police forces count on traffic tickets to fund their largesse. Hidden cameras ensure that the proceeds will keep on growing. But electronic enforcement also makes corruption a trickier gambit. Which is why these little games are played..

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The Making of Martyr Gao

Like the young lawyer Gandhi, he had journeyed far and wide in China, defending Christians, AIDS activists and other lawyers, peasants fighting rigged elections and illegal land seizures, and practitioners of the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong…. Chen Guangcheng, the blind “barefoot lawyer” who exposed how officials in his home county were illegally forcing abortions and sterilizations on thousands of women, was sentenced to more than four years for instigating a peasant disturbance that he played little role in, according to his many lawyers.

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The Flat World Hits A Speed Bump

“The World is Flat” was scheduled to hit bookshelves in Chinese earlier this summer. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s best-seller appeared sure to top sales in China, too. The English-language original, a globetrotting account of the impact of globalization, already had sold several thousand copies via state book importers and online vendors. So, at a major national book fair, Friedman’s Chinese publishers set up a flashy booth to display the translation. They had posters plugging the rollout.

But, to the curiosity of distributors at the show, their promotion was missing one thing, according to a publishing industry source: the book itself.

“The World Is Flat”

Turns out the world’s not that flat, after all. Not flat enough for Friedman in China, anyway. Today, it appears that the PRC edition of his tome will finally appear this fall but in late June, when I called up the Chinese publishing house, Hunan Science and Technology Press in Changsha, the phone was transferred twice before I reaching an Editorial Director Lin (he wouldn’t provide his full name). I related to him the above tale, which I’d originally heard from a publishing industry source in Beijing. “You’re quite well-informed,” he replied. The publishing house had to push back their scheduled release date on short notice, he said, in order to make “additional revisions”.

Why the extra edits? I asked. “The quality could not be ensured,” answered Lin, somewhat nebulously. He stressed that the ongoing revisions were standard procedure for their translations. But he also acknowledged the delay was unscheduled and the publication date was indefinite. When pressed for details about what was wrong with the quality, he said portions were not “in accordance national conditions”. In China, we in the foreign press corps sometimes take that opaque usage to indicate Beijing’s standards of what is politically kosher.

Lin also conceded: “I fear some portions will have to be cut.”

Publishing industry censors wanted significant passages stricken from the translation, according to what another book industry source in Beijing, a foreigner, had heard from a top Chinese executive with a major book distributor – “not the type to spread rumors,” she said. She was not clear about what in Friedman’s discourse might not meet “national conditions”. Revisions were going to have to be “negotiated,” she said. Friedman’s agents, International Creative Management, which negotiated the rights to publish the book in China, say things are on-track. “All I can tell you at present is that it’s publishing at the end of this month or the very beginning of next month,” said an ICM spokeswoman “It has not been postponed indefinitely.”

How much is altered remains to be seen, though. It is routine for state publishing houses or their industry minders routinely sanitize foreign titles for the Chinese market, especially high-profile books like Friedman’s. So as with many cases where Western ideas meet Sino realpolitick, it’s hard to ascertain exactly what or who may be behind the editorial changes to The World is Flat. But regardless of the outcome – the book indeed may appear – the hesitation and delay speak to a feisty new mood being felt in certain Chinese circles these days. Sensitivity to globalization has become nearly as potent a political force as globalization itself.

This is not to say that Friedman’s wrong about his basic thesis: Outsourcing and Internet access are “leveling the playing field” somewhat for societies like India and China to enter and move up the U.S.-led capitalist world order; and yes, there are major geopolitical implications. But China’s entry into this flatter world is causing a lot of atmospheric friction, more, perhaps, than Friedman originally imagined. As old doors are being opened, new obstacles are going up.

To say that’s because China’s still under Communist rule is gross oversimplification. It’s because unlike anytime since perhaps the tumultuous interregnum of the 1910’s and 1920’s, people in government, business, the media, and the intelligentsia are having to come terms with the anti-imperialist challenge of the modern Chinese nation: how do they enter the (free) world on their own terms – not America’s, not Walmart’s, not Tom Friedman’s? As my industry source speculated: “This move [censors putting the brakes on the book] is saying, ‘We don’t want China to become like everywhere else. China will always be different economically, politically and socially.’”

That attitude is being asserted in myriad ways, sometimes for the better but just as often for the worse. For the first time ever last week, Walmart agreed to unionize nationally, of all places, here in China – where unions essentially serve to protect to the Communist Party, not the proletariat. But how about the way MSN, Yahoo and Google are marching in lockstep with the Chinese cyber-censorship regime? Or the way one of China’s most outspoken bloggers faked the shutdown of his blog, then turned on Reuters News Agency for mistakenly flagging it censorship? And how about those English teachers from the States and Britain being worked to death – in one case perhaps literally – by Chinese universities? The Associated Press calls it a “new twist on globalization”.

Here’s an old twist: China’s political establishment is turning lefty pink all over again. The current Communist Party leadership, with its old-school emphasis on helping workers and peasants and soldiers, has become highly vulnerable to the voice of leftist intellectual and cadre community – both the conservative Old Left and the more progressive New Left. To an alarming degree, global corporations and Western political systems are the rhetorical bait they’re invoking to prod senior policymakers.

A good example occurred during the course of heated debate over a proposed law aimed at better protecting private property leases. The legislation was originally due to be enacted at the annual parliamentary session in March, though it satisfied few on the free-market Right or in government. But it was a few economists on the Left who managed to delay it a year, by deploying Marxist ideology against China’s corrupt business culture and privatization of state assets at low prices.

You might think it a little late for that old-school argument. But after a single Peking University professor of the Old Left penned an open letter to that effect, the draft law was plunged into controversy. “Why have we reached a deadlock?” asked Gao Shangquan, head of think tank who hosted a secret conference of leading liberal scholars on the eve of the session. One reason, answered Gao, was the mud-slinging from the Left, he said. “There are some who believe a conspiracy of neo-liberals planted by the American CIA are guiding reform, because they hope for a peaceful evolution.”

The World Is Flat suggests nothing of the sort. So the question remains: What parts of the book could be so offensive to the Chinese? To the Western reader, at least, Friedman is far more disparaging of the United States than China. He’s far more worried about American competitiveness than Chinese.

Down in Changsha, Director Lin could offer no specifics as to what would need to go or why. The problem, he suspected, was less a matter of the content about China than Friedman’s “style of expressing it.”

There is a certain Uncle Tom-like quality to the depiction of China in “The World Is Flat”. Describing a Japanese firm outsourcing work to tens of thousands of willing Chinese in Dalian, one of Japan’s former wartime outposts, Friedman quips: “…Chinese doing computer drawings for Japanese homes, nearly seventy years after a rapacious Japanese army occupied China, razing many homes in the process. Maybe there is hope for this flat world…” One can imagine a Chinese reader taking this cheeky tone the wrong way.

But then Friedman follows up with a highly flattering interview of the Dalian mayor, Xia Deren, about the changes taking shape. “’It is like building a building,’” says Xia. “’Today, the U.S., you are the designers, the architects, and the developing countries are the bricklayers for the buildings. But one day I hope we will be the architects.’”

A few years after Friedman’s visit, one wonders if someone in China is trying to nail home that very point.

Editor’s Note: Spot-on writers have been critical of Friedman’s flat-world thesis in the past.

Arab, Jew and Chinese


It’s not typed on my resume currently. But were I applying for a job with a Chinese employer, I might consider adding it. Seriously. Right at the top of the page, where young Chinese grads customarily note their ethnic background, whether Han, Hui, Hakka or one of the 50-odd other official minorities, anyway. Tell them you’re a youtai ren (Jew), and it’s a bit like dropping casual mention of your M.B.A. from Harvard.
Jews, from what many well-educated Chinese have heard, are smart, well-off, and in proportion to their numbers, highly influential in international politics, media and business. Yes, their knowledge of the youtai ren is often limited to those “stereotypes”, as we call them. But it’s best not to take this penchant for profiling too personally, insofar as, until recently, few Chinese really grasped our concept of stereotypes, or the political incorrectness we attach to them. Chinese have never made much pretense of color-blindness.

And so the knowing masses of the Middle Kingdom, who over the millennia leading up to the humiliations that began with the Opium Wars rated themselves and their achievements unrivalled, have in recent decades developed a special affinity for that tiny minority of people who call themselves “chosen”. The Confucian and Judaic traditions, educated Chinese are often quick to note, share certain priorities: education, family, a zest for debate, and a spirit of entrepreneurship. Some older Chinese fondly recall how during the Holocaust, when the whole world closed its ports to Jews fleeing Hitler, Shanghai took in an estimated 50,000. In several cities on the eastern seaboard today, China’s best-travelled merchants hold competing claims to the moniker “Jews of the East”. Speaking before a crowd of 100 at my nuptials a few years ago, my father-in-law, who’s Chinese, could not contain his pride in my heritage. “Jonathan, as you all know, is a Jew,” he kvelled. “And Einstein was a Jew,” he added. “And Oppenheimer was a Jew,” he went on. “And my wife and I, as Communist Party members, also have a Jewish ancestor – Marx!”

So does that mythic status of Jews in China translate into sympathy for Israel? Not necessarily. With respect to the current conflict with Hezbollah, the answer would increasingly seem to be “no.” Particularly after a Chinese observer with the UN was felled by an Israeli bomb which the U.N. Security Council did not condemn. A day afterward, a long litany of Israel-bashing by readers at the popular Chinese news portal,, read like this: today:

“I recommend that China send arms to Lebanon via a third country, like Iran.”

“What is Israel? Before World War II, was there such a country as Israel? All of the land in the current nation of Israel was seized from Arab countries?”

“If Lebanon doesn’t resist as a nation, why are groups formed among the populus called terrorists?”

And in response to a letter home by a journalist from the Global Times, a hawkish tabloid published by the Communist Party flagship People’s Daily, the 50,000-plus messages posted included this one:

“The Chinese people have a new enemy – Israel.”

Of course, such venom reflects the extreme patriotic impulses that take over when the loss of Chinese lives bring a faraway conflict home. One anonymous commentator blamed it on the “angry youths” who often dominate opinion on China’s electronic bulletin boards.
Until last week, in fact, popular opinion was not nearly so one-sided. The state media airwaves and news wires, trained to take the anti-imperialist diplomatic cues of the Chinese government, concentrated on the ugliness of the fighting and the suffering of Lebanese and Palestinians, but without strong partisanship or opinions on how resolve the issue. And an early sampling of the reaction to daily dispatches suggests that the Chinese actually leaned, more than the country’s leadership, toward Israel. “Israel is the epitome of righteousness. Long live the people of Israel,” read one message repeated over and again. Others wrote soliloquies on Israel’s commitment to save the lives of just a few soldiers, or remembered the aid Israel provided after the Tangshan earthquake of 1976.

Interestingly, people have plenty of news to form informed opinions, more than ever. Much of the original Chinese-language news comes straight off the Xinhua news agency, but certain press and Web outlets can get away with translating local news reports or even using their own correspondents. Censors are considerably more relaxed than they are, say, when it comes to the North Korean nuke issue, since Beijing is not directly involved in the Middle East conflict and has little direct role to play outside of the United Nations Security Council. China’s government shares an Cold War-era bond with the Arab world and an old pang for the Palestinian plight, dating to Arafat’s visits with Mao. But it has bolstered ties with Israel too. While it pipes in oil from Iran and sells Tehran military technology, it also deals in all sorts Israeli tech, from dairy to ordinance. Only U.S. opposition prevents it from buying Israeli arms. In contrast to the hardcore Marxist days, current Chinese diplomacy with its emphasis on non-intervention, is chiefly a defense of its economic interests. To do business with everybody and ensure its energy security, all China really wants here is to end the violence.

Hence the multimedia melodrama, which appears bound to become at least a low-fi repeat of coverage of second Gulf War in Iraq (a breakthrough in Chinese central television history). Beijing was outwardly opposed to that war, and turned it into a kind of win-win on propaganda. The media got a chance to run the footage of everyone from CNN to al-Arabya, and for officialdom, the propaganda effect was supposed to be cathartic. Here it is too. Chinese are made to witness for themselves the gory ravages of war – mostly on the Lebanese side of the border, mind you – so that they’ll support the government’s catch-all policy objective: peace and stability.

But do they? Certain Chinese pundits are grappling more critically with the question of how long-term peace can be achieved. Last week in The Beijing News, Zhou Qing’an, a Tsinghua journalism doctorate and frequent writer on international affairs for that newspaper, made the underappreciated point this is an epic conflict pitting Israel against much of the Arab world, particularly Iran and Syria (China’s allies). “In a land that has lost the hope of peace,” he asked, “who can keep watch at night? Who can jot down a friendly, peaceful stroke in the history of the Middle East?”

Of their many contentious views, one that does enjoy broad-based support is that the people of Lebanon should decide their own fate. That much is clear from the featured blog on’s. Eyeonlebanon is a first-hand diary written by the wife of a Chinese doctor working in Lebanon. Her impressions are emotionally raw, analytically sharp yet ultimately, quite well-balanced. Over the weekend of July 22, for instance, she noted that Lebanese people want the same concessions out of Hezbollah as does Israel. “From the Lebanese government down to the common people, everyone dares to despise at Hezbollah but dares not speak out.” Hezbollah, she continued, pays no electricity or water bills to the Lebanese government, is better armed than the Lebanese army, and threatens Lebanese officials. “Thus a lot of Lebanese people very much support the present war. They call it ‘scraping off a sarcoma’.” But then she describes why the Lebanese cannot act on this impulse – just the opposite. She quotes a Lebanese soldier: “’Israel, first you say the Lebanese army should not fight back, and then you come and hit us!’” On July 26, when Lebanese president announced the country’s army would mobilize in the event of an Israeli ground invasion, Eyeonlebanon termed it a political “show”.

The next day, her compatriots online erupted over the death of a countryman. And her blog was understandably silent.