Wenchuan Earthquake

May 12, 2008

Nature has not been good to Wenchuan: Last year there were some rock slides and now it was hit by the strongest earth quake that has hit China for more than 30 years. According to Xinhua the epicenter was some 90 kilometers northwest of Chengdu, Sichuan’s province capital, and Chinese news agency Xinhua has called the natural disaster “汶川地震” (Wenchuan earth quake).

Last year on my way from Jiuzhaigou to Chengdu I passed Wenchuan and Dujiangyan, those two cities largely effected by the quake. As a matter of fact, when taking the 12 hour bus ride from Jiuzhaigou to the provincial capital, I met a student from Wenchuan who was just coming back from Jiuzhai to Wenchuan as her college was closed before because it had been hit by a landslide. For some pictures taken after the quake, see here.

Street in northern Sichuan
Mountain roads making it difficult for rescue teams to enter the villages, soldiers are reported to advance on foot only.

I have just talked with a Chinese friend from Chengdu (who is studying in Germany now) and she said that it was hard to get a hold of their family since the cell phone network broke down due to too many phone calls. While everyone of her family in Chengdu was fine, she told me that nobody had heard from their relatives in Wenchuan yet. The problem the rescue teams are facing now are quite big: Many roads in this mountain area have been destroyed by falling rocks or landslides – and there is also heavy rain in some parts so that helicopters could not even check out the situation. And while there is no way in for the rescue teams – there is no way out of the area for those who live in the small villages. Because houses there often are self-made, they are not very solid and many could have elapsed during the quake.

A problem in Sichuan now might be that there are many people without housing, either because their homes were destroyed or because people are afraid of going back into their homes. On the pictures above one can see homeless people gathering on the streets or setting up temporary tents.

The quake was even perceivable in Beijing, some one thousand kilometers away. A friend of mine was in a job interview in the 15th floor of a high-rise during the quake and that that the building started shaking.

Foreign students banned from Beijing during Olympics?

April 18, 2008

China is not only making it hard for Chinese students to enjoy the Olympic games, there is also a yet not confirmed but widely circulated rumor that foreign students will be banned from Beijing, maybe even from China altogether, during the games.

Student Visa of the PR China
Student Visa of the PR China

As German newspapers like Die ZEIT and Süddeutsche Zeitung both report, there will be not student visas issued for July and August, a time where universities typically hold summer courses. In this time no regular classes will be held and students who only stay for one semester but according to the articles students who are going to continue their studies in the winter term need to leave for Beijing for games time. There are estimates that about 10,000 students would be affected by this measure.

And even if students do not need to stay over the holidays to proceed with their studies in Beijing afterwards, I think a lot of students like I myself would like to lengthen in China to watch the Olympics or feel its atmosphere if ons is in Beijing studying this or the coming winter term.

While the statement by a spokesperson of Peking University was quite clear, it nonetheless is not confirmed by the authorities yet. Robert Heuser of Cologne University assumed that the students are seen as potential troublemakers and are thus unwanted in the proximity of the games, he argued in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Difficulties in finding the truth about Tibet

March 20, 2008

The Tibetan protests have reached my little university town in Germany. Yesterday a Taiwan friend told me that there were some 30 or 40 people demonstrating to “free Tibet” and even had flags of the movement. The New York times runs an interesting article about “parallel worlds” that are now colliding. Han Chinese and Tibetans have lived side by side but a Han Chinese is quoted saying that “there’s been this hatred for a long time [and] sometimes you would even wonder how we had avoided open confrontation for so many years. This is a hatred that cannot be solved by arresting a few people.” State controlled media however suggest, that only a tiny minority of people (极少数人) are responsible for the disorder.

Children in Aba county
Tibetan children 2007 in Aba county (Sichuan) where riots have been reported, as well.

A Chinese friend of mine asked me to spread the following post on message boards. However, only when I was asked, I noticed this big difference on the Internet culture between China and Germany, since there are web sites like Tianya which basically don’t have an equivalent in Germany. I don’t know why it is like this but in China these forums are widely used to spread news on the Internet and make it available to many people. Sometimes this includes posts that are seen critical and will be deleted but there are ways around it, e.g. writing comments under a seemingly harmless article.

I am going to post the article here, as a voice that might not be heard in Germany too often. An own comment will be added below the post.

What is the truth?!!!
Since the turbulence of Tibet, almost all western medias think it is the fault of Chinese government who violates the rule of human rights. No matter what the truth is, it seems that it becomes a fashion to criticize China and if who will not do so, who is already out of the trend. However, as a native Chinese, I must speak out what I have seen and heard since I was a child.

The development of economical, cultural and social rights in Tibet from 1950s is so obvious that only blind person can’t see. The central and local government of China never discriminate Tibet people on the all kinds of human rights. Instead, Tibet people enjoy all kinds of support and privileges. Each year billions of RMB are constantly sent to Tibet as financial support without any refund. Each year thousands of youth go to Tibet as volunteers for promoting primary education. Every year series of public service and device are offered and developed by government.

As to the political and civil rights, the Tibet people, especially those common and low-status members of the Tibet society, are living in an golden era never showed up before. All Tibet people have the voting and voted rights to determine their representatives of government, have rights to determine all affairs of their lives, and have rights to monitor government, which, under the rule of Dalai Lama, could just be heard as a myth. In the duration of Dalai’s rule, Dalai was actually the dictator of the Tibet society. While poor Tibet people suffered from the worst lives, Dalai and high-classes Lamas lived a tremendous luxury and lechery lives. They even create systems and religions encourage people to scarify their eight years old daughter to Lama as Padmini, young girls would raped by Lama. We could easily find paragraphs in Lama’s doctrine as follows: disciples must scarify their sisters, wives or daughters to the Rinpoche. (see, Alex Wayman: The Buddhist Tantras, New York 1973). Let alone their personal rights, dignities and wealth. Will you still think the Tibet’s people live better under the rule of Dalai Lama than live in nowadays China?

Let’s come back to nowadays and see what really happen in recent days. There is no better word to describe this event than TERRORISM.
The days before, in the turbulence many citizens such as students, common staff, and some tourists including European and American encountered the life danger, the bus was burned, the peaceful life was broken, and the economic loss is uncountable. Why the adherents of Dalai Lama living there are so eager to destroy their own lives?! Or why NOW?

As far as I can see, this would be quite a representative view from exchange students. When I had a glance at a bulletin board where Chinese exchange students post comments, I noticed that the “Tibet problem” (西藏问题) is dominant. There are threads with a poem about Tibet as “China’s backbone” and its beauty and that one would be ready “to play military marches” for a possible war, while another page calls for a high vote for YouTube videos claiming to tell the truth about Tibet.

So far I have read a lot of comments and articles on the Internet and the more I read, the more complex it gets I think. When you just have a glance at the reports you will think that Chinese authorities are cracking down (more or less) peaceful demonstrations and the Chinese propaganda is not telling the truth – as always.

There is an interesting interview with the well known German sinologist Eberhard Sandschneider (should be available in English or German, as well, but I have only found a little excerpt at Xinhua yet). He reminds us to not only have this perspective but have a look in the mirror and to also take in consideration how Germany reacts on riots e.g. on May 1st in Berlin, even though he admits that this relation might not be fully suitable.

I think a problem outside China at the moment is that there is very little “clean” information from inside Tibet. The problem is “what is the truth”? As of now, there is only one (!) foreign correspondent in Lhasa, so the news about the status of Tibet are either from Xinhua or the Tibetan government in exile. I am sure, both are using this uncertainty and filter news to their own favor, but the Tibetans are doing a better job in getting their message into the mass medias in the West. This might be because people know that in the past Xinhua was not always telling the whole story and while the Dalai Lama and it followers have set up quite a big lobby group.

It is strange the only foreign journalist in Tibet writes about an “orgy of anti-Chinese rioting” not about the violence by police and army in the first paragraph of his report from Lhasa. However, he also reports about massive searches and arrests in the city. And if everything was fine, why does the Chinese government not allow foreign journalists to cover the events from Lhasa? China must know that such reaction will cause media to speculate that there is strong repression against Tibetans and the block of Youtube was not in favor of the reports either. Instead foreign journalists are reporting heavy armed military rolling into Tibet

Tibetan architecture in Jiuzhaigou, northern Sichuan
Tibetan architecture in Jiuzhaigou, northern Sichuan.

Olympic Games at Peking University

March 10, 2008

In August, the whole world will look at China, Olympia will be visible all over Beijing, but at some places probable more than others. Besides the Olympic park and the newly renovated tourist sites that will be filled with visitors, I think that universities will much be influenced by the games. Thousands of the volunteers are students, so the spirit of the games will be carried out to the universities.

There has been a fierce competition about becoming a volunteer, I know one student who was lucky enough and will be working at the Olympic village helping foreign journalists and VIPs to check in.

Beijing University - The new tabletennis gym
Students in front of the basketball court, the new table tennis court was constructed behind it.

Some competitions even are hold on university campuses, the table tennis competition for example will be held at Peking University. Therefore a new sports complex was set up last year, and I already started imagine how it would be to go to see the games after class… However, I think that the main problem would be to get tickets for the event. Since the ticket prices are fair for Chinese, there was a run for tickets and it seems that all events are sold out by now, so it is unlikely that students can attend the competition after class.

After all, there will be summer holidays in August, some students are planing to leave Beijing for their own good because they say that Beijing will definitely be over-crowded, others are being asked to leave for the games to have the dorms available for other people to sleep there. A friend of mine is graduating this year and is planning on attending a masters program at Peking University after the holidays. But since he won’t be enrolled during the summer months, he might be expelled from campus: “We won’t have a place to live after graduation, maybe I even have to leave Beijing. Very tragic.”

Shanghai Snowman

February 1, 2008

It’s travel time again in China because in just a few days there will be spring festival, the Chinese lunar new year. But this year there is no sign of spring – in contrast, it is still 隆寒 (winter at is coldest). While this would be usual for the northern parts of China, the cold weather now also affects that have been practically immune to snow in the past.

A few days ago I talked with a friend who is in Urumqi, Xinjiang at the moment, and temperatures are well below bearable: Even at daytime temperature is about 20 degrees Celsius below zero (-5 °F) and the wind is blowing.

I yesterday received an e-mail from a friend in Shanghai who told me that there has accumulated the most snow she has ever experienced in Shanghai – I could not believe that in Shanghai (about as far south as New Orleans or Marrakesh) there is that much snow. I was told that there was enough snow to not only cause traffic problems as at the walkways the snow was not shoveled away, but also enough to make a snowman. Furthermore, the snow did not melt away but it there was snow for three consecutive days.

Snow in Shanghai
Snowmen, err snowbear in Shanghai

One also has to consider that in southern China (typically south of Yangzi river) there is no heating in buildings. I remember last march when the central heating was cut in March and it was still cold outside – but that time there weren’t 4 inches (10 cm) of snow outside.

And even a minimum heating and electricity supply was not secured, due to transportation problems power plant were threatened by running out of coal. There is also a lot of direct or indirect damage caused by the bad weather: Infrastructure has been damaged, crops have been harmed and shortages have caused production stops e.g. in the auto industry. Besides this, the lack of transportation of goods has caused the prices to raise, especially food prices, although inflation is already at a relatively high level.

But more important than the economical aspects of this is the human side: Travel by train as well as by plain has been hit by the snow, in Guangzhou along some 500,000 travelers were stuck and caused an exceptional move by premier Wen Jiabao who apologized for the situation in pubic. However, some might decide to not go home for the after all, Xinhua reported that 60 percent of migrant workers in Guangdong decided stay instead of going home – this means they won’t see their family for a long time and since the “golden week” in May is not longer in effect, the opportunities for migrant workers to return home more limited.

According to the Chinese saying “spring snow foretells good harvest” (瑞雪兆丰年), so the year of the rat after all might be a good one!

Happy Chinese New Year!

聖誕節快樂! Christmas in China

December 26, 2007

I am not in China anymore, so I this is not a first-hand observation, the impression I got on Christmas in China is thus a result from e-mails that I received the past days. Of course this post will be not objective because it is based on few opinions mentioned in the mails and my interpretations.

Christmas is a relatively new holiday in China, so in contrast to the well established Chinese holidays it has few tradition and has become popular just in the past years after the opening of China and the growing exchange with foreign countries. The main holiday in winter still is Chinese new year (spring festival) in February.

So it seems that rather the young people are celebrating Christmas, some students do have some days off, while others don’t have much holidays. They are waiting for the upcoming longer winter vacations to visit their parents of do traveling. I was told that nowadays many people celebrate Christmas – a student from Taiwan wrote me that she very much cares about this holiday, maybe even more than traditional holidays which makes herself in her eyes a “strange Taiwanese”.

Many students admit that the business people are doing a lot of decoration so without them there would be much less Christmas atmosphere and Christmas after all is a “sales event”, there is a “a thick color of commercialization” in Christmas. However, the “sales event” is not seen too bad by a few students, because in the end, it is more than justified that after one year of labor one can treat oneself and others with some gifts. Still, some students got the feeling that there is a lack of Christmas atmosphere, Chinese themselves feel that “Christmas with Chinese characteristics” is not the same as in Western countries and not as authentic.

One withes friends “marry Christmas” – or 圣诞节快乐 (Shengdanjie Kuaile) in Chinese, and exchanges some small gifts. I learned that apples are popular gifts between students who cannot effort to buy more expensive gifts or don’t see Christmas that important that it is necessary to buy luxurious gifts because it is not such an important holiday. The apples are sold because the Chinese word for apple “pingguo” sound like “ping’an” – at least the sound of the first syllable matches. “Ping’an” means peace or peaceful, and that is quite a good Christmas blessing.

Apple with the Chinese character 福 (good fortune; blessing; happiness)
Apple with the Chinese character 福 (good fortune; blessing; happiness)

Although there are a lot of elements of Western Christmas in Chinese Christmas, there are some differences: Most students just want to have a nice time, being with friends, maybe do some traveling, but most stay home or at their university.

At the end I want to wish all readers happy holidays and a happy and prosperous new year.

Being checked on

December 16, 2007

As I recently was asked how I accessed my blog in China, I can at least say that it was not always easy to update it. Due to the Internet censorship it most of the time was not possible to directly write on my blog. The so-called “Great Firewall” sometimes made it impossible to add posts or to read the blog. There is a really good article about Google and the Internet in China overall, the best and most comprehensive one I have read so far. I was published in the New York times and its only downside is the length of about ten pages, so it takes some time to read.

Chinese flag in front of the Google headquarters in Beijing, China
Chinese flag in front of the Google headquarters in Beijing

Many web pages are permanently or temporarily blocked in mainland China, including websites that rank among the most popular in Europe or the US. For example it was impossible to access Wikipedia for most of the time. But one has to add that the firewall is a dynamic system operating with keywords and specific blocks so at certain periods of time it was possible to access pages that were blocked the day before. Besides that there seems to be a regional difference in the selection of the blocks. I can say so for my blog because that was probably the web page I was looking on a fairly regular basis.

To edit my blog I relied on a VPN provided by my university in Germany. With such a network one can easily circumvent the firewall since the traffic is redirected via Germany. While being on the road, however, this was not possible because to access it, I need some VPN software. I could have used a proxy server, but most of the time I mailed the content home and had my brother update the blog.

But the Internet is not the only place where there is a control of people: The Chinese “Hukou”-System (户口) is a powerful measure of control. Basically this system was introduced in the 1950s to control the flow of people and make a distinction between rural and urban residents. I am not going into the details, but this system makes it very hard for people from the countryside to move into the cities. I once saw police arguing with workers about their illegal status in Beijing. Once I got into a passport control by myself: I needed to show the passport and a certificate that I was a registered resident in Beijing. I was only able to present a photocopy of my passport so the police officer called the station and after they only after had checked my residence status they let me go.

One’s passport also needs to presented every now and then during travel: At each and every hostel one checks in, one has to present the passport and fill in a form. During my travel I was able to memorize the nine digit passport number – but I was not able to impress any Chinese with that because it just seems natural for them to know the number of their ID (身份证).