Friday 20 May 2011

China wearily ignores end of world

As a Christian, though not the shiny-eyed, shouty-scary sort, I just had to get online when a friend emailed me to point out that tomorrow, if I hadn’t already realized, is the date set for the Rapture, if only to see what the Chinese have to say about the whole thing before it’s too late...
For those of you without a detailed knowledge of the nonsense which in the more conservative parts of the US passes for theology, the Rapture is understood to be the day on which all Good Believers are taken up to heaven by God while all The Bad People (i.e., anybody who doesn’t share your particular wacky brand of Biblical scholarship) are left below to fight it out. Then there’s meant to be a bit of a wait (of varying length - see above on wacky brands), after which a kingdom of Jesus’ direct rule (with varying details - see above on wackiness) is ushered in. 
An imminently-to-be-ashen-faced Californian broadcaster named Harold Camping has calculated from clues in the Bible (see also The Bible Code for similar lunacy) that Saturday, May 21st 2011 will see the Rapture, handily forgetting that he also predicted that the same thing would happen in 1994. IMHO, this kind of ignorant, literalist rubbish makes a suitable mockery of the blinkered and reductionist thinking which certain strains of American Protestant thought are all too prone to; but at the same time it makes all of Christianity a target by association. I don’t set the vaguest store by the idea of the Rapture, and neither does anybody in my local congregation. I don’t find anything Biblical in the idea, which has fear and hatred seething just below its surface and no trace of the love which should be central to any kind of Christianity. But that’s just me.
So, I had a peek at what the Chinese wangyou made of all this, and the truth is - not a lot. The cult of the Rapture, spread in the US by garbage like the Left Behind series, hasn’t found the same apocalyptic foothold. A search for tomorrow’s date and the Chinese for Rapture (被提, or ‘the being taken up’) reveals a number of mostly world-weary and cynical teenagers and just a few US-inspired evangelicals. Typical exchanges read:
“Only Christians qualify for the Rapture - you pathetic heathens are dreaming!!”
“Has whoever started this thread got an itchy arse?”
I know, I know - and I can’t fathom what that means either, but it’s typical of the mental stuff I trawl through to try to understand what’s going on in China. Elsewhere, the Christian Times website was dismissive of Camping’s claims, pointing out that they’re highly selective and scarcely even bother to mention Jesus, instead banging on about eternal damnation and judgment, and what on earth kind of twisted message is that?

Wednesday 18 May 2011

China not reeling from child sex-abuse scandal...

I found an article in China News today which strikes an interesting counterpoint to social norms here in the UK. I won’t be reproducing the picture which accompanied the article, for legal reasons which will become obvious...
The story concerns a kindergarten in Dongwan, not far from Guangzhou, where the reporter watched as a couple of dozen children aged between 3 and 6 played  outside under the supervision of their teachers. To the reporter, the most striking - and to me, as a pretty average Westerner, somewhat disquieting - aspect of the scene was that the boys were mostly totally unclothed, the girls only slightly more modestly dressed. “Quite a few local residents were watching from beyond the railings,” writes the reporter, “while some took pictures on their mobile phones.”  One family head was said to have reservations over whether having both sexes running about together naked was a good idea, and also wondered whether being unclothed and having water fights in what was a chilly wind was healthy. The head teacher responded to this by saying that the children were having a PE lesson, and that going naked was in effect sunbathing, which is good for their skeletal development and helps to ward off contagious viral diseases such as hand, foot and mouth (of which there have been several fatal outbreaks in China in recent years).
While the teachers were quite blase about the whole thing, some of the residents were less sanguine: “These kind of influences aren’t all that good. Yes, they’re all little kids, but the bigger ones are going on seven, and to have them running about naked, playing chase together, can’t be good for their development.” One mother of a two-year-old girl was of the opinion that it was “really quite indecent,” as she covered her daughter’s eyes and added: “my little treasure mustn’t watch!” Another onlooker, afraid her grandson would catch cold, was trying to get him to wrap up.
When interviewed by the reporter, the head of the kindergarten explained that going outside naked to get the benefit of the sunshine was part of their curriculum, adding that “it’s very popular overseas.” She recognized that the girls had to have a modicum of clothing for the sake of decency, but was happy with the boys being totally unclothed. If parents were unhappy, they could ask for their child to be excused.
Another point that came up after a little bit of investigative reporting was that many kindergartens in the city didn’t provide separate toilets for boys and girls, to the disquiet of parents, and that the inevitable observations had led to some embarrassing “mummy, why...?”-style questions.
The reporter interviewed a professional psychological consultant, who was of the opinion that it was better to give even young children like these an idea of sexual differences, so as to avoid confusion over gender identities later in life, rather than lumping them all in together with no apparent differentiation. 
China does in fact have basic national regulations on toilet provision in kindergartens, with a requirement that boys are provided with urinals and girls with traditional squat-down toilets, but there’s no law to say that the two need be in separate rooms. Guangdong province, though, goes further and requires that boys and girls be separated. Other cities, such as Nanjing and Kunming, have instituted regulations requiring that new-build schools have to provide separate toilets.
But what about the elephant in the room? The one aspect of the story which I think is very telling is that there’s not even a hint that letting children run around stark b*llock naked in full view of the local adults is in any way asking for accusations of child abuse and paedophilia. The thought of allowing adults to take snaps of bare children over the railings has become so loaded that it’s positively chilling from a twenty-first-century Western viewpoint. But the professional child-development experts interviewed for the original piece in the Guangzhou Daily don’t allude to it in any way. After a full twenty minutes of pondering why this might be, a couple of thoughts spring to mind.
China doesn’t have the equivalent of the UK’s red-top morale-outrage banner headline, whipping up widespread fears of child abductors on every street-corner. I can’t recall ever coming across a story in the Chinese media that would fall under the category of ‘child sex abuse’ or ‘child sexual abduction’, and after a quick check on the Chinese version of Wikipedia (no research expense spared here) it seems that there are no pages corresponding to either of these broad categories.
This, of course, isn’t to say that there are no child abusers in China. Far from it. I’ve seen horrific examples of children forced to beg, bawling their eyes out, with what will be awful consequences for their mental health later in life (if they have a later in life...), or being dragged around by adults who are clearly incapable of looking after them. There are countless examples in the Chinese press of children being abducted to work as slaves, beaten by parents, forced into prostitution and so on, but the UK’s standard model of the stranger at the school gates isn’t something I’ve come across. Maybe there are simply too many awful things happening to children in China already for people to worry about bogeymen. 

Sunday 15 May 2011

China outshines UK for media freedom

As outraged as anybody else by the idea that rich adulterers can claim that a right to family and private life allows them to have affairs and yet prevent anybody, anywhere in the world, from mentioning it, I decided to see what the Chinese internet - not known for bowing and scraping to English court rulings - had to say. Were the famously unfree Chinese openly discussing the sexual exploits of a premier-league footballer whom we in the Free World aren’t allowed to name? And what about the other less well-known celebs?
I started by googling, in English, for ‘Billy Jones’ (the pseudonym of whomever claims to have tweeted the names of super-injunctors), ‘Twitter’ and ‘super injunction’, which instantly gave me a google cache list of the named individuals (the original pages wouldn’t open, but whether this is because Twitter had removed them or because of high traffic I don’t know). 
Then, armed with the Chinese names of the footballer from his Mandarin- and Cantonese-language Wikipedia pages (Premier League is very popular in China, and Man U especially so), I searched a Chinese search engine for the name plus 超级禁制令, i.e., ‘super injunction’. There were hundreds of direct hits of users discussing this and earlier extra-marital affairs of the footballer. 
When it came to the other people named by Billy Jones, the Chinese were distinctly less interested, though. Even the uproariously spurious Khan-Clarkson snogfest scarcely made a ripple on the other side of the Great Firewall, since nobody in China knows or cares who either is. The other injunctors, a handful of B-list TV celebs, don’t appear to have made the slightest impression on Chinese netizens. Wangyou, it seems, are utterly uninterested in the idea of outing sickening hypocrisy per se, and more interested in what to them is minor gossip about a footballer who’s a household name - Jie Si - and a hero to hundreds of millions in China. 

Thursday 5 May 2011

A rare canal time-capsule found in Liaocheng

After the discovery of a perfectly preserved Ming-dynasty woman in a grave in Jiangsu a while back I posted the first account from the archaeologists concerned. This time, even though the story’s far more relevant to my travel-writing, I managed to miss it for four months after it broke in China...
Not that a surprisingly well preserved stone-built lock from the old Grand Canal is going anywhere soon. In August of last year, with work going on to prepare the ground for the South-North Water Transfer Project which in a few years’ time will carry water from the Yangtze to Tianjin, partly along the route of the Grand Canal, a stone flash-lock was uncovered in the city of Liaocheng 聊城. Before the Grand Canal became disused in its Shandong section around a century ago, Liaocheng was one of its major inland ports. The canal’s sudden disappearance from the landscape left its structures decaying but otherwise intact, unlike further south where widening and modernisation in the twentieth century destroyed what remained of the original fabric. Liaocheng alone is said to have a dozen more buried lock sites waiting to be investigated.

The photo gives an impression of quite how enormous and expertly constructed the locks on the Grand Canal were, with a mouth more than 6m wide and a total depth of 7.5m. The stones were beautifully finished, and held in place by swallowtail-shaped iron ingots set into their joint faces. The vertical grooves into which slotted the wooden boards forming the weir of the flash-lock (according to written records it was first built in 1471 and rebuilt in 1758) are clearly visible. Thousands of pottery, jade and metal artefacts, dropped no doubt from barges passing the lock, were discovered during the excavation, which took four months.
With the South-North Water Transfer Project due for completion in 2013 (don’t hold your breath), the lock is set to be renovated as part of the route. The plan seems to be to preserve the lock alongside a new, wider channel that will have the capacity to carry the anticipated volumes of water north without putting strain on the fabric of the lock itself. There are plans to restore the wharves associated with the lock, and to turn the whole area into a visitor attraction.  
The whole story, with more photos, is in Chinese on the Shandong News Net website. 

Wednesday 4 May 2011

And the winners of the May Fourth Youth Medal are...

It’s May 4th again, anniversary of the eponymous uprising of China’s young turks against the humiliatingly unfair terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and so the Communist Youth League (in association, of course, with the All-China Youth Federation) has announced the recipients of China’s 15th Annual May Fourth Youth Medal (pictured below).
The Communist Youth League 共青团, whose antecedents date back almost to the original May Fourth Movement in 1919, has long been a springboard for the Communist Party’s top-flight leaders - President Hu Jintao himself was First Secretary during the mid-1980s - and the leadership has a close hand in the choice of recipients. The fact that the medal is a recent innovation, tapping into and directing China’s youthful energy, is significant.
While the May Fourth Youth Medal is ostensibly awarded to people who’ve embodied the spirit of patriotic etc etc, selflessly served the blah blah, and been courageously innovative in yaddah yaddah, it’s interesting to see just how this year’s winners are not just a carefully crafted representation of ethnicity and gender but also an aspirational list of the fields which China’s highly technocratic leadership (President Hu, for example, is an engineer by training) wants to see more of.
Of the 25 medal-winners, seven are female (not ideal, but better than many international awards) and five are from some of China’s largest or politically more sensitive ethnic minorities - the Hui and the Uighurs (both Muslim), the Tibetan Qiang, the Mongols and the Manchu. The more intriguing choices are...
A senior engineer in the State Cryptography Administration (control of the internet domestically and cyber-warfare overseas spring to mind) and the assistant head of a PSB criminal investigation unit in Shanghai (where six policemen were recently murdered by a man who’d been beaten up by their colleagues). In military terms, we have a captain in the People’s Armed Police in Xinjiang (which violently put down what amounted to an attempt to overthrow Chinese rule not long ago), the captain of an optical surveying unit of the PLA, and the commander of a PLA guided-missile battalion.
Then there’s a primary-school teacher in Guizhou (one of China’s very poorest provinces, where education for many rural children is a real problem), and a Tibetan-minority businessman who lost his family in the 2008 Beichuan earthquake.

In the science and industry corner we have a researcher into electrical discharge, an assistant-director of the National Flight Testing Research Institute and an aluminium-alloy worker at a Tangshan carriageworks (aircraft, railways and metallurgy being boom industries in China), a quality tester at a textiles mill in Ningbo (Zhejiang produces textiles for world markets, and quality control has long been an issue for foreign buyers), and the head of Harbin Industrial University Intelligent Control and Systems Research Institute. As for the arts, always a popular choice in a country that emphasizes such signifiers of ethnic pride, we have a performer at the Beijing Dance Academy and the Mongol vice-president of the Inner Mongolian Opera
After such an aspirational wish-list of achievements and ideas, it seems almost patronising to the restive Muslim natives of Xinjiang, then, that the only Uighur on the list is a farmer from a village outside Korla. Still, better than nothing...