Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fakin' It

"What did you think of the story in our section by Xiao Xing?" a reporter asked me. I drew an immediate blank. To my eternal shame and mortification after four years in China I still have the recall ability of a wilting house plant when it comes to remembering most Chinese names unless they have an "English name" attached to them. (One of the first tests C gave me after we'd more or less become an item was one day to casually ask me if I knew what her Chinese name was. Heh. I kinda mumbled a reply that sufficed, yet did not immediately inspire her confidence in my undying devotion and long-term memory capabilties.)

"Uh...which story?" I asked, still flailing for a clue or cue. "It was by me," he said. I was still somewhat clueless as I couldn't remember his byline but now remembered one of his stories I'd edited. I waited for the punchline.

"Xiao Xing is not my name," he finally said, smiling.

"Er, yeah. Right," I said. "Anyway, it was a good job. Solid, flowed well, was easy to edit. No jargon. " I was honest there. He's one of our best reporters and is a second generation staffer. His father, now retired, was a chief editor.

"So, why the fake byline?" I asked. "You guys can do that?"

He's also modest and said he'd used a pseudonym because the story had been generated by a press release. "It was a rubbish story," he said. It wasn't apparent from the content, at least to me, and it had even had some less-than-positive things to say about an industry issue on his beat. Overall it was quite balanced, informative and not the usual sycophantic lick job some editors and reporters here regard as "journalism."

I told him I didn't think it was rubbish at all and said I didn't think a fake byline was needed. "You want to see a rubbish story?" I asked. "Look at this on page one."

It was a report about an issue here that's troubling many foreign barbarians. The Chinese government has cracked down on its visa regulations, essentially making business and tourist visas much more difficult and expensive to obtain. I have a half dozen friends or acquaintances currently in limbo wondering if they're still going to be here in the next month or two. Some have been working in China for several years and none can be remotely described as a "security risk."

The rubbish story I referred him to quoted a high level govt wanker at length as saying that the visa policy has not changed an iota. His quotes were completely unchallenged and whoever wrote it had essentially served as a stenographer. No foreigners were quoted, though a vague reference was made to the American Chamber of Commerce-Hong Kong's "allegations" that the policy has indeed changed and it's a problem.

"It's lies!" I said, beginning to froth a little. "Complete garbage."

He read it without comment and then laughed. "This reporter also knows it is rubbish," he said. "Look. This is a fake byline too."

Shore 'nuff. Same surname: Xiao, though the given name was different than what my friend had used. Then he explained the code to me. "Xiao" means young but it is essentially also the equivalent of America's "John (or Jane) Doe." He said reporters who feel they're reporting crapola will often use "Xiao-whatever" for stories they're not exactly thrilled to be writing or even feel are dishonest. It's not exactly a fullblown protest, but it's a statement nonetheless.

"We are not new to this," he said. "You know, my father's generation did it also and the press was much more controlled then. My father told me they used a term that means 'boring' for the same reasons."

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Sound of Silence
The Chinese government declared 3 days of official mourning, which included 3 minutes of silence across the nation today (Monday) beginning at 2.28pm - the time the quake began last week. Drivers were asked to to honk their horns at the same time and disaster sirens were also scheduled to wail, which I feared would jar the solemn mood and wouldn't sound too much different than a routine Beijing traffic jam .Nine people in our department stood before two TV sets ticking down the time towards the moment and silent footage of the disaster.

Out a window I could see construction workers in blue jump suits and yellow hard hats standing across the street atop office buildings, most also with hands folded and heads bowed. The horns began howling, while the sirens keened above them and it was as if the entire country was suddenly weeping simultaneously. Two female coworkers dabbed their eyes and I also began choking up.

Three minutes later it ended. True silence for a seconds except for sniffles and the televisions, then the jackhammers, saws and drills at the construction sites began their barrage again.

"So sad, too sad," one reporter whispered, a little embarrassed at her tears.

"It's okay." I said. "Everyone is sad."

Like the US post-911 much of China's Netizens have been trying to find meaning in what it is being called the worst year in the country's history - though none mention the famines in the late '50s or the Cultural Revolution years.

But with the crippling snowstorms of January, unrest in Tibet followed by what they perceive as international insults and humiliations as the "sacred flame" of the Olympic torch made its journey outside the Middle Kingdom, a horrific train crash and now the earthquake, and the Internet is abuzz with material that is familiar in its own way to those who've pondered the coincidences of JFK's and Lincoln's assassinations ("Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln; both had vice presidents from southern states named Johnson..."); the cryptic BS of a fake Nostradamus couplet foretelling the collapse of the Twin Towers, or the "holy cross" or "eagle" or "Satan" seen in smoke or cloud formations etc.

Here it's about numbers: add up the dates of the snowstorm (1-25), the Tibet riots (3-14) and earthquake (5-12) individually and you get "8" - normally an unusually auspicious number for Chinese and the reason the Olympics will kick off on 8-8-08 and why it costs more to get a phone number with multiple 8's.
The five tooth-achingly cute cartoon character Olympic mascots called "Fuwa" - sort of more exotic, colorful Smurfs - are also now seen by some to be harbingers of China's recent miseries. Representing a fish, panda, swallow, Tibetan antelope and Olympic flame those seeking significance in coincidence see the panda as an earthquake warning, as the ravaged area is also home to China's endangered giant panda population; the Tibetan antelope ... well, you can figure that out; ditto for the Olympic flame; the swallow is seen as emblematic for the "kite city" of Weifang in Shandong province where China experienced a deadly train crash last month.
The remaining one is a fish symbol or "water," which online doomsayers suggest could indicate pending horror in the Yangtze River.

Some Taiwan TV stations are also blaming the fengshui of Beijing's new "Bird Nest" Olympic stadium saying it has "interrupted the pulse" of a giant dragon said to lie beneath the country. And there are sincere efforts, saccharine - glurge, really - ways of finding some online comfort, like this poem which C translated for me and is choking people up throughout the country.

For the children of Wenchuan who have died in the earthquake

Hurry child, grab mommy's hands

Child, tightly grab mommy's hand

The way to heaven is too dark and mommy's afraid you'll hit your head

Hurry, tightly grab mommy's hands, let mom go with you

Mommy, I'm scared that the road to heaven is too dark

I can't see your hands since the fallen walls stole the sunshine away

I will never again see your loving gaze

Child, you can go to the road ahead

You will have no sadness, no endless homework, or your father's scolding

You must remember daddy's face and mine

In the next life we will walk together again

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

All Shook Up/I'm Still Standing

Lots of e-mail traffic lately about the recent China quake in Sichuan province, all from US pals wondering if I'm okay. I was in the mighty China Daily office in Beijing on MSN chat with C when she told me about it late Monday morning from her non-news related Shenzhen workplace. Meanwhile, in a major Chinese media nerve center, my coworkers were seemingly oblivious to it for about another hour until someone switched on a TV.

Reports that it was felt in Beijing were puzzling to me, until I realized that "Beijing" covers an area - urban and rural - of several hundred klicks. But, no, the earth did not move for me in Beijing and I guess it won't until C is able to get here. Unlike Burma where the aid is at best trickling in due to the xenophobia and paranoia of the country's military junta, China has responded openly and seemingly as best it can. Premier Wen Jiabao who has become China's go-to guy when it comes to showing up at disasters to publicly console victims and urge calm (several years ago he also was photographed and filmed "bravely" shaking hands with an HIV-postive Chinese citizen) has been busy being quoted as telling injured children that "Be brave, Grandfather Wen Jiabao is here" etc.

Yesterday the foreigners at China Daily got an in-house e-mail and paper memo about a "Memorial service" and aid donation opportunity in our lobby. We straggled down at 4.45 as we'd been asked to and found organizers still nailing up enormous blowups of our front pages for the last two days: "The day the earth moved" and "Race against time" in front of an oversized red metal donation box. Some went outside in the rain to smoke under overhangs and others milled about in the lobby waiting for something to happen. I'd imagined maybe some candles and at least a moment of silence and a speech of some sort followed by the opportunity to quietly slip some yuan into the box.

No candles, no moment of silence, no moving speech. Instead we were shepherded in front of the box to form a line as photogs gathered facing us. Then the China Daily honchos were photographed smiling and pushing 100 yuan bills (about $6) into the box. Next came the foreign staff, a bit embarrassed at the photo op. I slipped 100 in and later joked that I wondered how much of the cash would wind up in the Sichuan province officials' "Karaoeke, Massage and Maotai Relief Fund."

"Be careful what you say," one Chinese colleague said, laughing a little. "Because you will be on the front page tomorrow. They will want to show how China Daily foreigners care about Chinese people."
Well, it wasn't page one, but page six with the caption: "Staff from China Daily make donations yesterday. The newspaper collected 200,000 yuan." My boss was thrilled. I guess I'd made my section look good. Another coworker told me it was auspicious that I had worn a red shirt to do this, but noted a little gravely that the background behind me was black - a symbol in official Chinese govt photos that the person is no longer in favor.

I messaged C, who said she had also been photographed giving money at her workplace for a Chinese language paper in Shenzhen. A nice coincidence and while she looks a little stiff in her pic, she's easier on the eyes.

Monday, May 12, 2008

I'm picky about my T-shirts and one I favor is black with a small green stencil-like profile of Godzilla grabbing a jet which I found at a Hong Kong rock festival about three years ago. It carries no message or real significance, I'm just a Godzilla fan, so much so that I was thrilled many years ago when my son named our cat Godzilla, or 'Zilla kitty.

China has no T-shirt culture. Few if any wear T-shirts signifying any band or social message they favor, mostly it's just knock off designer logos, Chinglish ("History is trouble disease," "Herpes Later," "My best bear is business fashion Rambo") or naive fashion crimes like the Hong Kong grandmother in a pink number with a cartoon cat saying "Lick My Pussy!", or the 9-year-old girl in one of my early Shenzen English summer camp classes who showed up one morning with a bright orange shirt with black lettering. It was a reproduction of a briefly great record label in the late 70s, early 80s called Stiff and sported their slogan: "If it's not Stiff, it's not worth a fuck." I explained that while I was a Stiff label fan, this wasn't probably what she or her parents wanted to her be wearing if they understood it and she was told to either sling her backpack around her front for the day or go home and change. She chose the latter.

But while I can wear T-shirts of Johnny Cash flipping the bird and draw no response, Godzilla is mostly good for questions here. A coworker, about 6 months pregnant with a U2 "Boy" t-shirt stretched over her belly asked me recently: "Why is the lizard eating a plane on your shirt?"

"It's Godzilla," I said. "A Japanese movie monster very popular in Japan and the US. You don't know Godzilla?" Silly question. I already knew 99.7% of mainland Chinese are Godzilla deficient.

"Why do you like him?" she asked.

"He's an icon," I said. "A bad guy, a good guy, all powerful. Like Elvis, sort of. You know Elvis? The King Cat?" (King Cat is the Chinese term for Elvis)

"The King Cat is a lizard monster?"

"No, no...Godzilla is Japanese. A movie monster, a giant dinosaur from an atomic accident. My son loved him. I guess you could say he's a symbol of Japanese aggression, maybe." This is territory Chinese are sadly very familiar, even those like her with no first hand knowledge.

"I hate Japan," she said flatly. I decided to change the subject. "But you're a U2 fan? Cool Irish rock band. Very, very famous. I'll give you some of their music if you want? The singer is a big Dali La..., never mind ... But see? U-2. Named after an American spy plane?" I said pointing at the band name. "It's from an old album of theirs called Boy."

She gestured at the picture, a black and white portrait of a very young blond boy.

"I like the picture," she said. "And the T-shirt is comfortable even if it is advertising an American spy plane."

Friday, May 2, 2008

La Marseillaise

I've no strong feelings - cheese-eating surrender monkeys, Freedom fries or not - regarding the French, but just as in the post-911 hooplah in the USA they've become villified temporarily in China. In some ways it's very familiar. In 2005 another foreign target, the Japanese, were the targets of government sanctioned protests due to a flap over Japanese school history textbooks (distributed to about 1 or less of percent) of the schools involved, according to Japanese sources) that glossed over or simply denied the Rape of Nanjing; as if China doesn't gloss over it's own history, 20th century or earlier (didja know that Tibet and Taiwan have eternally been part of China, Didja know that Tienammen Square June 6 never really happened except as a distortion of foreign media? Etc etc...)

But the pending Olympics have China squirming. The exalted "sacred flame" (as State media in an officially aetheist republic refers repeately to the Olympic torch) relay around the world has meant a loss of face where freedom of expression and publicly rude behavior are legal.

France has taken the brunt of the outrage after a spunky Chinese monoplegic Disabled Olymics female wheelchair fencer defended the torch against a Tibet protester and Paris gave the Dali Lama honorary citizenship. The xenophopic nationalist mix has also extended to a "ban CNN" movement(available only at high end hotels and non-Chinese residences) after one of its trash talk commentators, Jack Cafferty, upped his ratings and CNN's in general for outbursts calling Beijing "goons and thugs". So with not lot of places or opportunities for young Chineso vent at anytime, foreigners they only have an abstract sixth-hand concept of are always a safe target.

Thus, a national boycott of Carrefour and France in general has been called for, beginming April 15 and peaking May 1-5. Early May not so conicidentally also coincides historically with early 20th century Chinese uprisings over foreign devils, Asian and caucasion alike.

Amd after covering anti-Japanese protests a couple years ago in Shenzhen during early April (the bottom pic is from that, PLA soldiers keeping order and standing in as frames for C) where I watched impassioned Chinese youth calling their pals on Japanese-made cell phones to urge them to boycott Japanese products and taking pictures with their Japanese cameras and video to document their pattriotism as Shenzhen cops rode security on Hondas, I had to wonder ...

Talking to C and others I've met who were thrilled to be excused from classes in 1999 to protest a US attack on a Chinese embassy in Belgrade I had to wonder some more. C says she and her clasmates were simply happy to get out of the day, donned their govt issued headbands and hoisted the premade "USA die" banners and signs but had no target in their college town except a McDonalds where they normally loved ot eat if they had enough money. Nonetheless, they stood outside Evil Mickey D's and shouted at hapless fellow Chinese who worked and/or ate at the local representation of US imperialsm.

Meanwhile, a Chinese guy I know told me a very similar story about his college town and the demonstrations, except they had no McDonalds or KFC at the time on which to vent their outrage.

"So, we if we saw someone drinking a Coca Cola we would shout, 'Throw down that Coca Cola!'" he told me. "It was silly. But very nice to be out of school for the day."

The largest French target in China is the French version of Wal-Mart, Carrefour, which I'd never been in until coming to Beijing. I've gone twice since arriving, both times during boycotts that began on April 15.

I'd lost the written directions for a taxi and had to ask another coworker who initially stalled out of concern for my safety. "They will beat you!" she said.

"No, I don't think so," I replied. "Oh, and in the address can you write, "Please take me to Carrefour because I want to buy food for the Dali Lama?" She laughed nervously. "You are only joking, maybe?" I assured I was and thanked her for the simple "Carrefour" address, instead.

Bottom line, god bless the French. The cheese, bread, wine and produce selections are top notch and currently, thanks to blind Chinese nationalism, my local Carrefour was decidedly less crowded and, according to other foreign barbarian interlopers who have been there in pre-antiFranco hysteria times, checkout lines decidely shorter. Today the cops had even blocked off direct vehicle access to mine to keep (non-existent) protestors out and inside at the wine and liquor area a young Chinese woman repping for a French wine brand urged me to buy a bottle of Chantelle Des Vins sauvignon blanc. I'm normally a boring California wine red guy but I'd just seen Sidweays for the second time on a pirate Chinese dvd and was feeling frisky.

"You pronounce that well," I said. "Sauvignon blanc.' Better than me. I'll take two. Vive la France! Please now can you direct me to the frozen Freedom fries aisle?!