Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Terrible pollution in Beijing for the second time this month.

Beijing is once again blanketed in a thick coat of pollution today. Although the city’s air quality has always been atrocious, this last month has been particularly bad. The Chinese press reported today that during the whole of January Beijing has only enjoyed five days free of what they call 雾霾 (wùmái), which literally means “fog and haze”, but is understood to refer to smog caused by pollution.

A few weeks ago, on the weekend of the 12-13th of January, air pollution indexes in Beijing (and many other regions of China) reached unheard of new heights, pushing the authorities to suggest that children and the elderly stay indoors. It was so bad that I actually developed a slight sore throat, which I think was a result of the pollution. Many others had similar complaints. Visibility was low, and quite a few people claimed there was a kind of burning smell in the air, although I must admit that I didn’t notice it myself. (Below, the view from my window on the 13th of January).

A few days later some welcome snow seemed to have improved matters by washing away some of the foul air, but since yesterday air pollution levels have skyrocketed again. The main impact this has on my life is that I have to walk to work instead of cycling, so as to avoid breathing in more of the polluted air than necessary. More people than usual are wearing little surgical masks on the street, but I don’t as I am aware that they are fairly useless in keeping the pollutants out of your lungs.

Fortunately I will be leaving Beijing on Friday and going home for a two week holiday. That is, as long as my flight isn’t cancelled because of the low visibility, something which happened to sixty flights yesterday. Meanwhile, I can take comfort from the knowledge that British cities used to be just as bad during the Industrial revolution, as the Chinese government's ideologues love reminding you.

The Chinese press claimed today that the Beijing authorities are taking drastic temporary measures to lessen the pollution, including suspending the activities of 103 polluting factories around the city and of construction sites which produce dust. It is clear however that structural economic changes would be needed to address the underlying issue, and it is dubious that there is the political will to implement them.

Below is a photo of a “performance art” show put on by a group of artists in the city of Hefei, which has also been affected by the abnormal air pollution. The title of the show translates as “Resist the toxic smog. Make low carbon trips. Give me a clean world back.” Of course both the title of the show and the placards held up by the performers were sufficiently innocuous not to incur in the wrath of the authorities, neither blaming the government nor addressing it directly. 

(the slogans say "protect the world" and "resist the toxic smog, give me a clean world back")

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Han Han's blog post on censorship and the Southern Weekly affaire

A few days ago an almost unprecedented event took place in China: a demonstration in favour of freedom of the press. Hundreds of people gathered in Guangzhou in front of the headquarters of the Southern Weekly newspaper, to express support for its struggle against censorship.

Southern Weekly is well known to be China’s most open and independent newspaper, and it has often been on the receiving end of government pressure in the past. Last week, the newspaper’s employees wrote an open letter to the provincial propaganda department of Guangdong, demanding the resignation of one of its highest ranking officials. They accuse him of surreptitiously revising one of the newspaper’s editorials, and having it published without their consent. (Note that the “propaganda department” is called 宣传 or xuānchuánbù in Chinese. The word xuānchuán, although it can mean propaganda, doesn’t have the negative ring of the English term. It simply means disseminating information).

The editorial was originally entitled “China’s dream: the dream of constitutionalism”, and urged the government to respect the country’s constitution of 1982. After its revision, the title was changed to “We are closer than even before to our dreams”. The editorial’s original position had been altered to make it appear heavily pro-government, and the revised edition also contained various factual and typographical errors.

The newspaper's staff are now on strike, and the situation has quickly snowballed, with various intellectuals coming out in support of Southern Weekly all over China. Chinese internet sites have blocked related search-terms, and the Chinese media is of course mostly keeping quiet on the issue. The English edition of Global Times, which always tends to tackle sensitive topics from a pro-government angle, has come out with an editorial entitled “Freedom of the Press must serve society”. Characteristically, while remaining vague and avoiding the actual issue, it basically takes the line that freedom of the press “cannot go too far” and has to proceed at the same speed as “social transformation”.

The Chinese edition of the Global Times, on the other hand, has produced another editorial in which it claims that the entire story of the Southern Weekly article being altered is a fabrication, and defends the current censorship arrangements. Other newspapers have been forced to republish this editorial, although many have attempted to resist the order, and the Beijing newspaper Xinjing Bao’s publisher resigned in protest.

The anti-censorship demonstration in Guangzhou was confronted by a small group of counter-demonstrators who called the newspaper “a tool of US imperialism” and waved Chinese flags and banners of Chairman Mao. From the only photo I can find of them, they look like a rag-tag band of people who might well have been paid by the local authorities to stage their “counter-demonstration”.    

 What this whole story tells us, I think, is that in the world of Chinese media some people are fed up with the current level of censorship, and they are not afraid to say so out loud.

China’s most famous blogger, Hán Hán (韩寒), published a post on the issue on his Weibo page two days ago. You can find my translation below. The title is a reference to a well-known Southern Weekly headline, “there is always a power which makes us weep”. I was a bit unsure of the meaning in a few places, but I did my best to produce an accurate translation.

There is Always a Power.

Since my two Weibo posts have both been deleted, what am I to write?

When I was still a teenager, the Southern Weekly influenced me deeply, and it accompanied me throughout my youth. Later on I wrote a lot of articles, I also edited a magazine, and I came to really understand the meaning of “there is always a power which makes us weep”, and I understood that there is also a power which leaves us unsure of what to do. That power interferes with what you say, what you write, and what you do. Writers and reporters are all constrained by this power, and we can’t even see who holds it, let alone communicate with them, until you understand that what it does is cover you mouth and tell everyone you are happy.

You can have so-called freedoms, but only because they will punish you for it. No matter whether you’re engaged in literature, news or cinema, you have to expend a lot of energy in getting their authorization. If you want to discuss the regulations, they don’t even tell you clearly what the regulations are, so that every person is breaking the “regulations” at least to some extent. If you want to conform with their rules, you have to become them. We are always being careful of ourselves and each other, being fearful, and trying to find ways around it. They tear your clothes, throttle your throat, and at the same time they also convey the message that if you run faster or sing better, you are gaining glory for them in the world.  

We hardly have any world-class authors, film-directors, newspapers, magazines, films…. Of course, you could say that it is us, the professionals in these fields, who aren’t up to standard and are trying to shift responsibility; you could say that what is national is also global; you could ask why we have to go and cater to other people’s tastes; you could say Iran is much stricter than us, and also produces XXX; you could even say that our pandas are loved by children worldwide. Perhaps I’m not good enough, but at least I don’t accept that there are people who can wantonly delete me, change me and bind me. So this expression of public support isn’t just for the sake of a newspaper I love and of journalists who deserve respect, but its also for the sake of the other media and journalists who’ve found themselves in even worse circumstances with even more miserable results, and of course it is also for myself.

As a reader, the Southern Weekly has given me a lot. It empowers the powerless, and helps those less fortunate to move forwards, so now that it is itself powerless and unfortunate, let’s try and give it a bit of power, and accompany it as it continues moving ahead.

The post has not been deleted by Weibo, perhaps because of Han Han's popularity, and it has already received thousands of comments. When such a popular figure comes out so strongly against censorship on China's most popular blog, which has an audience of millions, it makes you think.

(In the picture, celebrity blogger Han Han)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Five good Chinese songs

In this post I am going to share some of my favourite Chinese songs with you.

I am doing this partly because I am aware of how few Westerners listen to any Chinese music, even ones who understand Chinese and live in China. To be fair, I can understand why this is. Much of modern Chinese music, especially the most popular stuff, consists of extremely commercial and sugary pop songs, lacking in personality, style and depth.
There is, however, some decent and meaningful Chinese music out there too. And I am not talking about ancient music or Chinese opera, which is very much an acquired taste. I am talking about modern rock and pop music. Below are five Chinese songs which I actually listen to regularly because I enjoy them.

1)  One night in 北京 (One night in Beijing) by 信乐团 (Xin Yue Tuan)

This is my favourite song by Xin Yue Tuan (also known as Shin in English), which has to be my favourite Chinese rock band. The band is in fact Taiwanese, and it distinguishes itself from the rest of the Chinese music scene because it plays loud, expressive and emotional rock music. The real soul of the band was the lead singer Su Jian Xin, whose powerful and wide ranging voice is a rarity in Chinese music. He unfortunately left the group in 2007.

This song, which is sung entirely in Chinese except for the “One night in Beijing” line, is actually a cover of a song by Taiwanese singer Bobby Chen. The cover version has now become more famous than the original, and it is extremely well known throughout China. The lyrics are actually quite mysterious, and it is not immediately clear what the song is supposed to mean. Although it is a modern rock song, the chorus is sung in a falsetto voice which parodies Beijing opera. You can find the lyrics and an English translation here.

2) 一无所有 (Nothing to my name) by 崔健 (Cui Jian)

This is the trademark song by Cui Jian, the only real rock star Mainland China has ever known. A Beijinger of Korean ancestry, Cui Jian became famous towards the end of the eighties. He was probably one of the first Chinese professional rock musicians. Like all good rock stars, he was also a rebel and an anti-establishment figure. It’s a pity that China’s music scene seems unable to produce such figures nowadays. Interestingly, his first band included a Hungarian and a Madagascan who worked in foreign embassies in Beijing.

Cui Jian songs were often covertly political, and sometimes parodied old government slogans. He became one of the icons of the protesting students in ’89, and appeared at the protests before they were broken up. After the crackdown he went into hiding for a while, but he was soon able to return to Beijing. His first tour was however stopped short by the authorities after he started performing his political song “a Piece of Red Cloth” with a red blindfold across his eyes. From then on he was prevented from playing in big venues for many years. State radio and television also wouldn’t broadcast his songs for quite a while. Although his music is now played without any fuss, one of his songs, called “the Last Bullet”, is so openly political that it is still banned nowadays.

The song I am introducing here is by far Cui Jian’s most well-known piece, which propelled him to stardom in 1986. The title is difficult to translate, but it is a chéngyǔ (a Chinese saying which usually consists of four characters) which basically means “not to have a penny to one’s name”. The lyrics seem to be addressed to a girl who is scorning the singer because he has no possessions. Many have seen it as actually addressing the Chinese government or Chinese society in the name of the restless youth of the time. Although most of Cui Jian’s music has aged rather badly in my view, this song really rocks. The video below is of a famous live version. For the original, click here. For the lyrics and their English translation, click here.

3) 睡在我上铺的兄弟 (Brother who slept on the bunk above me) by 老狼 Lao Lang, or Old Wolf

An old hit from 1994 by Beijing singer Lao Lang (meaning “Old Wolf”). The song is a nostalgic recollection of the singer’s university days, addressed to his old roommate (the “brother who slept in the bunk above”). It is particularly poignant in China, where for many people being an undergraduate student is their only moment of relaxation and freedom, which comes after they have spent their school days cramming like mad to pass the Gao Kao (end of high school examination), and before they graduate and have to face the pressure of working and fulfilling their family’s huge expectations.

4) 龙的传人 (descendants of the dragon) by 力宏 (Wang Leehom)

This piece by Chinese-American singer Wang Leehom is actually a cover version of the famous 1978 Taiwanese song written by Hou Dejian, and first sung by Li Jianfu. The original version is a patriotic ode to China, which expresses the singer's yearning for the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, even though he may never see them (something especially relevant in Taiwan). It also makes reference to China's defeat during the Opium Wars, and ends with an exhortation for the mighty dragon which is China to "open its eyes".

Wang Leehom's version dates from the year 2000. It turns the original ballad into a rap song, and modifies the content. Some English rap verses are added in the middle, where the singer talks about how his parents emigrated from Taiwan to the US. The final verses are also changed, and talk about the yearning of Chinese emigrants in other countries for the motherland. Curiously, Leehom is the second cousin of Li Jianfu, the original singer. To see the lyrics and their English translation, click here.

5) 天路 (Sky Road) by 韩红 (Hán Hóng)

This song talks about the historic railroad which the Chinese have built from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet. It's sung by Hán Hóng, a famous Chinese singer with a Tibetan mother and a Han father, who was born in Tibet. It is certainly a beautiful song, and very well known in China. At the same time, it is of course unashamedly patriotic and aims to glorify the Chinese authorities' efforts to develop Tibet. It also presents Tibet as the romantic land of mystery which the Chinese imagine it to be.