This week’s episode of “This American Life,” in which Rob Schmitz and Ira Glass carefully dismantle Mike Daisey’s testimony about conditions in Foxconn factories, so depressed me that afterward I felt as if I’d been thrown into a pot of melancholy and boiled over low heat. Hearing Daisey audibly wither under Glass’ questioning, trying to grope for justifications between long, awkward silences, it seemed to me that all this uncomfortableness could have been avoided by simply telling the truth.
We now know that Daisey fabricated certain details in his one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, for the noble purpose of keeping media attention on factory conditions in China. To this end he appeared on television programs, op-ed pages, and, yes, “This American Life.”
Let me say now that although I appreciate artistic license and understand the virtue of employing falsehoods in the service of a greater truth, lying to media outlets that stake their reputation on journalistic accuracy is crossing a line. Why didn’t Daisey just say that he was an artist and not a journalist when this all began? Did he think the reality of the Chinese manufacturing industry was not shocking enough to pique the American public interest?
China is a police state. Why? Because the police are paid more than the teachers—a definition straight from the mouth of V.I. Lenin and one of the few I wholeheartedly agree with. Blame my Trot father for that.
Even if you don’t agree that the above definition, you will surely agree that China’s police force and its bungling subsidiary, the chengguan, are an ever-present feature of life here. I have seen uniformed police and chengguan attending concerts, guarding swimming pools, and hanging around my community watching older residents play cards.
I have no clue how many plainclothes police officers I have encountered during my time here; the only ones who gave themselves away were a pair whom I saw bust two guys on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road back in 2004. They tazered the men, then beat them up on the ground, in full view of the crowds of shoppers. The only others I can say for sure I’ve spotted are the ones meandering around Tiananmen Square, dressed like a child’s drawing of a spy.
Bottom line, the Chinese police—sorry, the Public Security Bureau’s operatives—are everywhere.
This past summer, I vaguely remember watching an NBA TV special about undrafted players that touched on the now ubiquitous Jeremy Lin. At the time he seemed vastly less pitiable than the other aspiring pros featured—his Harvard degree guaranteed that he would not be banished to Slovakian league if he didn’t make it in the majors.
Lin has since become Linsanity, a subject for Saturday Night Live skits, or 林书豪 in your Tudou search. He is the current, brief king of New York City, whose Giants just won the Super Bowl and whose favorite basketball team features two high-paid All-Stars in Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Less than a year ago the Knicks made the splashy signing of Anthony on the belief that he would become king of NYC if able to deliver a championship after years of disappointment. Basketball remains the only big four sport (basketball, baseball, hockey, football) in which a major New York team has not won a title over the past twenty years.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the January 2012 issue of NewsChina.
It’s amazing how many near-death experiences can be squeezed into a two-hour stint within the confines of an elementary school in China. The most mundane, some might say instinctive, actions can have drastic consequences if not carried out correctly. Going down stairs, washing hands, walking across the room— all scenarios require elders to enforce China’s unwritten safety regulations, whether for the child in their own care, or a classmate in the care of another, less attentive ayi. Every movement of the child must be watched, and commented on, in order to ensure their survival. The extent to which these ayi hover over the children entrusted to them makes me wonder, are they more concerned with the child’s safety, or with simply appearing concerned?
“You’ve hurt me. Do you know I’ve already folded three, four hundred stars for you? My friend tried to introduce me to some guy but I refused. I didn’t realize it before but I like you. I like only you. Will you be my boyfriend? I cannot just be a normal friend to you anymore. Either accept me or I will leave.”
This was the first time to my knowledge I had ever hurt a girl, and it was an experience I was not quite ready to take responsibility for. The Chinese place great emphasis on grand gestures and confessions. To many girls, you are not officially in a relationship until you make the ultimate confession and ask her formally, “I like you. Will you be my girlfriend?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve already had sex, or if you’ve never said a word to each other. The act of confessing, the grand, sweeping scale of expressing your feelings which have been so deeply bottled up, is the only way to consolidate a relationship.
“The North Koreans are not a reasonable people,” Ms. Lee said at the beginning of our trip. It was less a warning than a statement of fact.
The bus tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone—the four-kilometer-wide ribbon of land that bisects the Korean Peninsula—left from downtown Seoul at eight in the morning but had begun raining long before. The travel agency was clear about the dress code: “No faded or torn jeans, sandals, leather pants, shorts, sleeveless shirts, sweatpants, slippers, or military-style clothing.”
Before this year, I didn’t get philanthropy. I knew it was important, and gave a moderate amount when disasters like the Sichuan earthquake struck, but still, it rarely felt better to give than to receive. However, it’s been a tumultuous year for charity in China and I don’t think anyone living here feels quite the same about giving as they did a year ago.
In September of last year, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett met with 50 wealthy entrepreneurs in the name of promoting philanthropy but in 2010 donations from the largest state-owned enterprises was only 2% of net income and the numbers for 2011 are likely to be worse for one simple reason: Guo Meimei.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the March 2012 issue of NewsChina. Before I came to China last year to start a graduate program, my former professor told me something. “In the United States, when you are in public, you are actually in a private space around other people in their own private [...]
As a China watcher, the most remarkable aspect about the recent death of North Korea’s hereditary Dear Leader is the level to which it has exposed the Chinese media’s divorce from reality. Last night before bedtime, a CCTV news anchor read out a complete list of branches of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Airforce, and all major government ministries, all of whom “stand in solidarity with our North Korean comrades.” Finally, as an afterthought, she mentioned that the Chinese people shared in the grief of North Koreans, and offered their condolences at the passing of their leader, and their support for his heir, a man qualified only in happening to be his predecessor’s son. How very socialist.
Two hours prior to the anchor’s emotively-worded but utterly deadpan performance (which, along with her tearfully hyperbolic North Korean counterpart, deserve Oscar nominations), I had been discussing humorous cat anecdotes with a few of the Chinese people at my local gym. One of them, coincidentally, was a CCTV presenter, who told us her cat had learned to move its feces from its litter tray and onto the kitchen floor, thereby incriminating her pet dog. My boyfriend joined in the discussion. That afternoon, he had stood up in his office to announce the death of Kim Jong-il, China’s great pal, the guy whom the CCP never gets tired of shielding, and was met with utter indifference. “I don’t care about him,” remarked his deskmate. “I’m busy.”
The salmon sashimi platter at Golden Jaguar is never full. Every time the employee behind the counter slides some on, customers swarm around and snatch them all up. Since they don’t know when they might get more, each diner grabs enough for her whole table. The sight reminds me of those Chinese temples with fish that try to jump over each other to snatch a morsel of food, or piranhas at feeding time. If you’re having trouble visualizing the situation, try this:
I was eating lunch at the restaurant with some friends when my roommate remarked that he saw a woman literally pick up the platter and scrape half of the salmon sashimi onto her plate. I decided to see this for myself.
Perhaps it was the furious way diners descended on the sashimi like ravens on a deer carcass, or perhaps it was because I had just finished Jonathan Watts’ fabulous but depressing book When One Billion Chinese Jump, about environmental crises in China and what they mean for the world, but I suddenly had a vision of the apocalypse.