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Hong Kong and the censors' scissors

Hkhandover I’m back in Beijing watching the live television coverage this morning of the ceremonies marking the decade since Britain handed back Hong Kong to China.

It’s quite a spectacle, replete with helicopter flyovers, marching bands, a ceremonial flag raising, and a parade of boats along Hong Kong harbor.

What has caught my attention, though, is the difference in television coverage. I am flipping between three television channels, the Chinese language CCTV 4, the English language CCTV 9 (both controlled by Beijing) and CNN.

The two mainland channels have emphasized several things, noting how China has left Hong Kong largely alone under its “one country, two systems” policy. They’ve also focused on Hong Kong’s continued economic vibrancy.

Their commentators are focusing on the need for social harmony and stability in Hong Kong, a theme picked up by President Hu Jintao, who is speaking on TV now as part of the ceremonies, suggesting that the former colony should be patient in its moves toward direct elections.

“Its democracy is growing in an orderly way,” Hu just said.

Earlier, I was tuned in to CNN. The anchor was standing on a rooftop in Kowloon interviewing Joseph Cheng, a political scientist, when BLEEP! The screen went black. As usual when CNN touched on a touchy topic for Beijing like democracy, the Chinese censors went to work, inking out CNN on the mainland.

That alone says a lot about the continued stark differences between Hong Kong and the mainland. It is not infrequent that I’ll be watching CNN or the BBC and the screen will go blank when a China story comes on.

My neighbor in the building where our office is in Beijing, a Canadian, occasionally pops in to complain about his copy of the International Herald Tribune that he buys at the Friendship Store across the street. Sometimes entire pages have been cut out. Invariably, they are pages with articles or editorials that China's censors find embarrassing to the country. So they get out the scissors.

Item: As of last week, this blog and all other blogs on the www.typepad.com website are blocked in China. Why? It's impossible to say. But China is nervous about relaxing its grip on the flow of information too much as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing approach. So leaders squeeze with one hand, even as they lighten up the pressure with the other.

The next Yao Ming

Yijianlian Will he be as big a star as Yao Ming? That the question NBA fans, and particularly fans of the Milwaukee Bucks, want to know.

For only the second time in history, a National Basketball Association team has picked a Chinese player in the first round of the draft. He is Yi Jianlian, a 6-foot-11 power forward who has the makings of a star.

I've seen Yi play, at least in Version 1.0, and he was quick, graceful and with a great corner shot. Now Yi is bulked up at a solid 238 pounds, Version 2.0, and like every basketball fan in China, I'm keeping an eye on him.

Yi didn't really want to play in Milwaukee, even for buckets of money. He preferred to play in a city with a big Asian-American population. So we'll wait to see where he lands before actually donning a uniform.

Yi (pronounced EE) was in Los Angeles for the past three months, where he declined to let the Bucks see him in a private workout, a move some said was to discourage Milwaukee from picking him. Yi's agent, Dan Fegan, only let seven teams see Yi, among them the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns.

Like Yao, the 7-foot-6 star center of the Houston Rockets, Yi has a really friendly temperament that I think will serve him well in the NBA.

So who are the real winners in the deal? First off, the NBA itself, which has big dreams for China, where it earns royalties for television rights and hopes to cull many more stars in the future. The sneaker companies (Nike has Yi on a six-year contract) also salivate at selling more shoes in China.

As Time Magazine notes, when the Houston Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks next play, with Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian squaring off on the court, the match will probably be the most watched game in history, with half of China's 1.3 billion people tuned in.

Toyota takes over, but no worries

Remember back in the late 1980s when it seemed Japan was going to take over the world?

Japanese investors snatched up Rockefeller Center in New York City in 1989. It seemed that yen-toting buyers were also about to make off with half of Hollywood.

Well, the takeover never occurred. Japan suffered economic recessions that lasted into this decade. And U.S. fears of the Japanese juggernaut subsided with the recessions.

But it wasn’t just the downturn that caused the fears to ebb. Japanese companies went to the U.S. and invested heavily. Call it the Toyota factor, and it came up in broad strokes in two different talks today, one by retired Admiral Bobby R. Inman, the former U.S. director of the National Security Agency, who spoke at noon at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. The other was in a personal interview with Yukio Satoh, Japan’s former ambassador to the United Nations.

“Toyota made more cars in the U.S. last year than they did in Japan,” Inman noted, adding that the steady increase in investment helped ease worries about Japan’s strength.

Satoh, a veteran retired diplomat, said heavy Japanese investment in the United States has become a stabilizing element in U.S.-Japanese relations.

“The Japanese automobile industry has become an American automobile industry while keeping its own name,” Satoh said.

Fast forward to today. China has become the new bogeyman. Remember that Unocal debacle? That was in 2005 when China’s CNOOC offshore oil company bid $18.5 billion for the California oil producer. The Chinese company eventually backed down.

But Chinese companies won’t be held back forever. They’ll be making purchases in the United States before long, probably big ones.

The question is: If they succeed, will we ever say that those investments were a stabilizing force in U.S.-China relations? If Japan is any precedent, maybe the answer is yes.

Unsafe at 40 mph

Chinese-made automobiles are getting better. But are they safe? Judge for yourself. Click on this blog to see photos and video of what happened when a Brilliance automobile went through a recent crash test in Germany.

It is not pretty.

The Brilliance BS6 sedan was hoping to enter the European market this year as a premium-style sedan. But the 40 mph crash test left damage on the automobile that the blogger described as catastrophic.

Most Europeans now won’t be caught, er, dead in one of these vehicles.

Back in 2005, China’s Jiangling Motors tried to market its Landwind SUV in Europe. But sales evaporated after the SUV failed this kind of crash test miserably.

Will China’s auto industry some day produce a safe and reliable vehicle for export? Yes. Are they ready now? No.

Leaping before an onrushing train

Japantrain We were headed today for an appointment when the public address system in the Tokyo subway station blared: “There’s been an accident.” Expect delays.

“It was a suicide,” the researcher in McClatchy’s Tokyo bureau told me.

Jumping in front of trains is epidemic in Tokyo. Indeed, suicide of any sort is out of hand here. Japan has far more than double the number of suicides of the United States. Nearly 100 people a day kill themselves. Last year, suicide took 32,155 Japanese. Only Russia has a higher suicide rate.

Many do not go quietly in their homes by swallowing a bunch of pills.

One of Tokyo’s subway lines, Chuo, has had so many jumpers that local English-language papers refer to “Chuicide” as shorthand for leaping in front of a train. Other stations have installed big mirrors so potential suicides would have to look at themselves as they leap, potentially deterring them.

I can’t say I understand the train-jumping phenomenon in Tokyo, where I’ll be all of this week on temporary assignment. Maybe I’m displaying cultural ignorance, but my impression is that most Japanese do not like to inconvenience others. It would a loss of face. But inconvenience is precisely what train leapers cause, both to the city at large and their own families.

Train leaping can snarl a subway line badly. News reports say usually 20 or so trains get backed up for every leaper, as workers scurry to clean up.

And get this: The bereaved family essentially is dunned for the lost revenue caused when commuters stream to other lines. A Mainichi Shimbun news report from last year said the average “delay fee” to the family is around $850,000, although the rail lines only go after the money if there is a sizable insurance payout.   

Waltzing into a conflict

If school kids are required to dance together, will they forsake their studies? Or worse, might they fall in love?

Students_dancing_2 Those questions have actually gotten some attention in China lately. And someone at the apex of Chinese politics is apparently acutely interested in the matter.

Earlier this month, Education Ministry officials said all elementary and middle school students in China would be required to practice the waltz and other ballroom dances daily starting in September.

Dancing is not only good exercise, they said, but can also cultivate students’ ability to appreciate the arts, the bureaucrats said.

The plan has generated acute public interest _ not all of it positive.

Students_dancing_1 Many parents fretted that waltzing would make their children fall in love early, and take valuable time away from studying.

Commentators raised doubts whether the goal of promoting health and taste for the arts could be achieved in rural schools with few teachers and fewer playgrounds. Children are also likely to grow bored with rote repetition of the same dances day after day, they added.

Education officials have backed down. They say students will be encouraged to dance, but not forced to do so.

Why the sudden interest in dancing? We hear that President Hu Jintao was once the leader of the dancing club at Tsinghua University, and thinks dancing should be promoted across the country.

If only this could happen at home

A mysterious thing has happened in Beijing in the past few weeks. Most of the city’s billboards have been whitewashed or torn down.

This is no small thing. The city has huge construction projects, and many of them have high walls that serve as billboards. No more. All white.

It’s quite a shock. After all, this is a country awash in commercialism. Nearly every elevator waiting area has a TV screen with constant advertisements. Get in a taxi in some Chinese cities and a mini TV screen airs ads constantly.

I’ve been holed up in my office most of the week writing. But I got out and about today, and I found it extraordinary. I asked my office assistant to locate the first report she could find about the rationale for what is happening. She found this in the China Times of June 6:

“The Beijing Municipal government is undertaking a campaign to clear out all the outdoor billboards on the city's main roads, dismantling those already set up by private companies. The work was started last year, when companies were asked to dismantle illegal billboards themselves. Since this April, employees of the city's administration started to tear down the remaining ones by force. It took them a whole week to dismantle an 86-meter-long, seven-meter-high billboard on the Third Ring Road, the biggest one in Beijing.”

It’s as if an all-powerful queen reigned here and suddenly snapped her fingers: Make all the billboards disappear!

In this case, the queen is the Communist Party. When it issues an edict, things happen.

Detente at the primary school

My daughter came home last night talking about a fourth grade classmate at the Chinese elementary school she attends. The student is having problems keeping up in math. Her parents don’t provide her a tutor and she’s now in danger of being held back a year.

The school our daughter attends is for families where at least one parent holds a foreign passport. I asked our daughter where the girl was from, thinking she was a foreigner.

She struggled a bit and said, “You know where that big embassy is near the school?” Then she said the Chinese name, “Chao Xian.” North Korea! So the girl lives in the embassy compound? Yup, she said.

Curious, I asked a few more questions. The girl has a Chinese name, which I forget, but also goes by the English name Jane. She often brings a spicy mushroom dish to school. Other kids like it and pester her to share.

Every day after school, she walks straight to her home inside the embassy compound, an enormous place just north of Ritan Park on Beijing’s east side.

I asked our daughter if she ever wanted to invite Jane to our house, as she regularly does with other classmates. “Yes, but Jane says she can’t give out her phone number,” she replied, knowing that we’d want to speak to the parents before arranging such a visit.

Paving the road to Mt. Everest

Img_2008 You may have seen the news: China plans to build a highway to Mt. Everest in the Himalayas.

This is highly curious. Mountaineers are a rugged breed. Those climbing Everest even more so. Does this road mean China wants more tourists to go to the base camp?

That was one of the questions in my head when I went this morning to hear the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qiangba Puncog, offer his first press conference in Beijing.

Here is what he said to my question:

“A number of tourists have come to visit Mt. Everest in the past several years, and many of them are from overseas, as you probably know. They like mountain climbing. But they complain about the bad road conditions, or the lack of security facilities. It's their hope to improve the road conditions. Therefore we are building the road in order to facilitate visitors to Mt. Everest. On the hand, it is not feasible to build hotels there due to the high altitude of the place, which is more than 5,000 meters above sea level. Ordinary people can hardly spend a night there whereas climbers have their own tents and other well-prepared equipment. They will not stay in hotels. So even though I don't rule out the possibility of building hotels there in future, we don't have plans to build them at present.”

So I still don’t get it. The Tibetan chairman didn't mention what some media have said: that China wants to facilitate the way for torchbearers who will be taking the Olympic flame up to the top of Everest in the days before the Summer Games next year. After the rigors of the mountain, I'm not sure a gravel road will seem like much of an obstacle to them.

So is China spending the equivalent of $19.7 million so that a trickle of tourists have a more pleasant journey to Base Camp? And it doesn’t plan any facility for them to spend the night?

Base Camp, at 17,000 plus feet above sea level, is about a three-hour drive from the nearest sizable town, Tingri. Click here to see a short video I took while at Base Camp in mid-April.

A paved road through fragile high-mountain terrain is likely to draw a lot more tourists. Already, some people outside China are reacting negatively. The honorary head of India’s mountaineering association called it “a preposterous idea. These are very fragile and eco-sensitive areas. Someone might call it developing the region, but it will end up destroying the area.”

Is Asian region safe from terror?

Every year, the East-West Center in Honolulu calls together analysts from around Asia and other parts of the world to discuss the security situation in the Asia Pacific region.

They’ve just released results from the latest survey, and guess what? A “clear majority” of the analysts think the U.S.-led war on terror has actually increased or spread the danger of terrorism in the Asian region.

Only one faction of analysts didn’t agree with that assessment: U.S. analysts.

As a corollary to the view that America may be making matters worse, many security analysts don’t want Washington to act unilaterally but prefer “U.N. coordination and authorization of international military responses” to terrorism.

“A large majority believes that any future military responses to terrorism should be authorized by the United Nations,” says a press release from the center, a think tank.

The report says that respondents across the region “agree strongly that organized international terrorist networks pose an active or serious threat to their country. South Asian analysts are the most worried and those from Oceania the least so…”

So who are these analysts? I can’t answer that. No names are given in the report. Anonymity is offered to get a better feel for the thinking of top regional security analysts. The report says they come from around Asia, Oceania, Europe and North America.

I’ve actually met a few people who take part in this annual exercise. My impression is that they are often retired senior military officers or civilians retired from senior posts in defense ministries or intelligence agencies.

Also of interest in the report: One of the long-term uncertainties for Asia-Pacific stability is whether the United States will consider China’s rise as a threat. A growing number of analysts believe that will be the U.S. posture.

Of course, there are dissenters. Where from? You guessed it: the United States.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Tom

"China Rises" is written by Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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