Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Difference the Straits Make

I have been keeping track of some differences that i have observed here and wanted to record them for your viewing pleasure and my personal research/analytical purposes.

1.) Language: this is one of the most obvious differences. traditional characters instead of simplified was something i knew i needed to be prepared for. but it is also important to note that the names for things are different as well. this is similar to the difference between, say, England and the US. most of the time this isn't a big issue. you just have to learn how to hold the two in tension. however, there are interesting little differences that tell you something about the development of the two areas. an example: the word for "netizen" in Taiwan (ROC) is wang you whereas in the PRC it is wang min. The word wang refers to the internet, you comes from the word for friend or friendly, whereas min is from the word for people (the same people in the People's Republic of China). It carries a bit more of that socialist/populist undertone.

2.)Hi-chews: i have had these candies in Korea and China, and the flavors in China were rather run of the mill. they have mango, melon, and strawberry yoghurt here. heck yes.

3.)Cramped Streets: now, there is nothing like the population ridiculousness in the mainland, but at least they built wider, broader streets. here, everthings is packed in tight. it looks much more like streets in Japan than anywhere in China. this is something i observed before (when i noticed that Gaoxiong, Dalian and Tokyo had similar feels around certain areas). this may be the influence from Japan, or just bad planning, but buses, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians are all packed closely together.

4.)Convenience: someone asked me the other day if i though it was more convenient to live here than in the mainland. i didn't actually have a good answer. certian things are far more convenient here: imported items are more abundant, much much less red tape, and things are much better organized and ordered. however, the plethora of small shops that crowd mainland streets aren't here. and i have yet to find a veggie market (i shop for fruits and veggies at the grocery store...which works), though there is a truck that drives around. and my apartment actually has only one or two restaurants within 10 minutes walking distance. that would be unheard of in the mainland. if that were so, there would be a guy with a cart. scratch that, six guys with carts.

5.)Bikes: no one here rides a bike for transportation. okay, that is a little bit of an exageration. only a little. there are thousands of motorbikes. but bikes are more of a recreational instrument than they are a means of transport. that means that the little bike repair stands also dont exist. in there stead are full-blown bike shops with bikes costing more than i am willing to pay in order to ride back and forth from school. take all the mainland bike riders and put them on mopeds - that is taiwanese traffic

6.)Recycling: Taiwan is green. WAY green. you recycle everything here. that is totally different from the mainland where you can't even try to recycle if you wanted to. not only do you need to recycle here, but everything is seperated out: food matter, different types of plastics, cardboard, paper, metals, glass, etc. it is the most nerveracking thing ever to take out the trash.

7.) Cost Ratios: there is, naturally, a difference in prices between Taiwan and the mainland. This is to be expected as Taiwan’s economy is more developed and the general level of wealth higher than that of the mainland. The difference in cost that most concerns me, however, is that between items within one country. Example: the cost of potatoes relative to milk relative to cereal in the mainland would be one ration, whereas here is it different. This initially was a little confusing (honestly, it confused me when I moved back to the states this summer) but actually makes sense on a lot of levels. One reason for the varying ratios is national regulations of imported products. In general, imported products here cost less then they do in the mainland. This is primarily because the economy here is more stable and the state doesn’t need to employ protectionist measures against foreign products. Taiwan has plenty of foodstuffs that beat foreign products off the shelves. Another reason is simply that there are Western foods that are produced domestically. I can get pasta made local for a ¼ of what I got it for in the mainland. The other big divergence is in the produce aisle. This is again linked to imports, but in another way. In the mainland, most of their produce are grown local. That and you just don’t get imported produce. Not that I remember. In Taiwan, they don’t grow in the same volume and variety and therefore certain things simply cost more based on their being imported or relative production costs. For example: the last three fruits I bought were apples (I think they were Galas), peaches, and plums. All of them were from California.

8.) Individual Meals: there is certainly no lack of individual meals in China, but they are by no means the norm. most restaurants serve family style, complete with lazy susan. That is not the case in Taiwan. Or, at least it isn’t the case where I live. The vast majority of restaurants serve individual meals that are actually rather well balanced. You get your main dish and a few sides (always veggies – counting tofu as a veggie…even though it is technically a bean…) on rice or noodles. Often they come in box – many people eat on the go here. The boxes are similar to the bento box type meal one would find in Japan (again, the Japanese influence). I have never seen anything like that in the mainland. If you get an individual meal it is either gai zhao fan (a dish on rice, which is a word they don’t even use here – they take out the zhao in Taiwan) or a bowl of noodles/wontons. Or streetside fried rice. Which is freakin awesome and I miss it terribly. I haven’t yet been to a restaurant with a family style meal, save the one trip to hot pot.

9.) Open Criticism: it is rather well known that there are certain things that one simply ought not say in certain company, certain situations, and certainly never on line where Yahoo or Skype will sell you out. However, anything goes in Taiwan. One of my first weeks in class, a teacher ranted about how corrupt and stupid the former President is (he is currently caught in a rather hilarious money laundering scandal). That was new for me. And there have been periodic rallies against the current President and his policies vis-à-vis China.

10.) Young Parents: Every day or so this happens to me. I am walking down some street and I see some girl and I think to myself, “self, she seems about your age.” And then her four year old comes running around the corner. There are far more of these young couples with children than I would ever have seen in the mainland. I guess this is related to two things: (1) because of the one child policy, families that can have children wait till they can best care for that one child. I mean, if you only get one shot (in theory) then you should be prepared. (2) Mainlanders, on average (and I am basing this mainly on the cities where I have lived…it may be different in rural regions) get married later. Most students I would talk to were almost certain they would wait till they were at least 30 before getting married. Some even would say as late as 35. This is based on their expectations concerning their prospects. At least, for the guys that is the case. Most Chinese men believe (and are likely correct in doing so) that they need a good job, apartment, and a car before they are a viable marriage prospect. Based on likely incomes out of college, this usually will average out to their reaching the age of 35 before accomplishing all these tasks. Taiwan simply doesn’t have this problem.

11.) Internal Tension: life here in Taiwan is quite a bit more relaxed than any place I lived in the mainland, save a few really chill coastal cities. People are a bit more friendly toward each other and generally more obliging. I have a few theories on why. There is a bit more of that ingrained respect for others that comes from Confucian and Buddhist belief systems, both of which are far more alive in Taiwan than in the mainland. Also, the reality of scarcity in the mainland always made things more tense. There are only so many seats, only so many people can get to the counter before lunch, etc. Additionally, the lack of certainty about the cost of things would always add a bit of that tension in the mainland. If you are a wai di ren (some one from outside the area) and especially if you a lao wai (a foreigner, non-Chinese – mostly white) you can be pretty sure you are getting jacked on the price of that jacket and those socks. Lastly, I think there is a lot to say for how deeply the Cultural Revolution damaged people’s trust of one another.

12.) External Tension: For myself, one of the hardest things to navigate while in the mainland was how to speak honestly about things in the mainland that concerned me without stepping on the toes of the person to whom I was speaking. Sometimes this was near impossible, especially if the listener was of the fen qing (angry youth) variety. Criticism was never taken lightly, and sadly (though in some ways inevitably) China bashing is rather rampant. Taiwan has been another experience. Things are rather orderly and people are at terms with themselves and their nation. I mean, I could point out that it is kind of weird that Taiwanese parliamentarians occasionally beat each other up, but they could point out that they have done a better job figuring out health care. Essentially, the point is that Taiwan has a self confidence in relation to the rest of the world. China’s relationship with the world is much more tortured. This is especially true in regards to the West and Japan. There is a lot of history behind this and many ways to explain it. I won’t go into that. Someone else will write that book (or, likely has…). The point though is that it is there.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nobel Prizes and the Chinese Lawyer

The Nobel Prize was just announced and was presented to former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. I, for one, am a little disappointed.

This year's presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize has stirred up quite the cloud of controversy. The prize, which in the last few years has gone to mostly humanitarian and politically neutral efforts (micro-finance, nuclear weapons monitoring, etc.), might make a significant splash. Many observers are putting their money on two Chinese legal rights activists, lawyers Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia. Gao has been missing since September 22nd 2007 - reportedly in detention and possibly undergoing torture - and Hu, Gao's friend and associate, was arrested and sentced just prior to the Beijing Olympics.

Stein Toennesson, the head of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, believes the two activists are likely front runners , especially now that the Beijing Olympics are over. Toennesson points out that the only Chinese to ever win the Peace Prize was the Dalai Lama, and he lives in exile. The Peace award has never been presented to another Chinese, let alone a dissident still in the country and in the grips of struggling against the state. The clamor has been such that China has issued a statement that they hoped the Nobel Peace Prize will reward what it called "the right person".

Gao and Hu both represent one of the most intriguing political movements in China. within the last few years, lawyers and rights activists have turned to testing the extent to which the law is applied and upheld in the mainland. Everything from property rights, the rights of religious organizations, and illegal land seizures have been pressed in the courts by a growing group of lawyers bent on beating into shape some semblence of a rule of law in China. Gao and Hu have been invovled with some of the most high profile cases. Though many of their cases meet with little success, as they are highly controversial and aim straight at the abuses of the ruling Communist Party, they have had a significantly growing role in the development of civil society in China.

However, Gao Zhisheng represents and especially interesting case. In 2005, the New York Times published and extensive article on Gao’s exploits, carrying a heavy sense of an imminent reaction by the state for his boldness in criticizing state policy. Calling him a political “gadfly”, the article outlines a boldness that treads that thin line between incomparable heroism and complete recklessness. But, as Gao puts it himself, "People across this country are awakening to their rights and seizing on the promise of the law," Mr. Gao says. "But you cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself." But such “flagrant dissidence” could only go on for so long.

He was arrested in August 2006 as part of a tightening of control on the expanding activism of “rights defense” lawyers. His was the most high profile of arrests meant to send a warning to rights lawyers throughout the country. A secretive trial followed, of which neither his family nor lawyer were informed. He received a rather light sentencing in December of that year, prompting suspicions that he had compromised with authorities. A subsequently publicized confession seemed to confirm these fears. Hu Jia, however, rallied to his defense, pointing out that the public discrediting was likely as much a part of the Communist government’s plan to diminish Gao’s influence as the arrest and conviction had been. A later phone call from Gao to Hu confirmed that the confession had been real but that it was made under extreme duress. In particular, Gao cited threats to his wife and children. Gao did put to rest fears that he had sold out colleagues and fellow right’s activists. New York Times reports on the aftermath noted that Gao had found the near house arrest conditions that he had been living under after his release had proven that he could not remain quite. This reemergence is likely the cause for his disappearance in September of 2007. He has not been heard from since, though rumors have been leaked that he is in detention and has experienced rather severe torture. Assassination and suicide attempts have also been alleged, but nothing is known about his whereabouts or condition.

Gao's case is interesting for another reason. Not only an active and outspoken lawyer, Gao is a Christian. He isn't the only one, as the growing lawyer-activist movement is disproportionately populated by such men. An early meeting between Christian activist and President George Bush showcased two such men - Wang Yi and Li Baiguang - and the third participant, write Yu Jie, has been an outspoken supporter of the push for rule of law. Wang Yi is not only a lawyer, but also pastors and well known church in Chengdu, where he is a law lecturer. Wang Yi was involved with originating a 2004 petition in defense of an internet essayist who had been arrested on subversion charges. The petition included signatures from 102 different well known lawyers, writers, professors, and political activists. He also recently was involved with bringing suit against the local Religious Affairs Bureau for their violation of constitutional rights for freedom of worship.

Gao Zhisheng, Wang Yi, and Yu Jie all represent an interesting emergence of Christian intellectuals into the mainstream of political and social reform in China. Though mostly adopting a critical tone, each of these activists are all working well within the bounds of wanting to see constructive change - not an overthrow of the government. This is particularly clear in the cases of Gao and Wang, whose legal work aims at a fulfillment of the rights already enshrined in China's national laws. Theirs is a hope for a progressing and growing China. With the growth of the church in China, it is inevitable that such figures will arise, just by nature of the statistical probability. But the question remains how such intellectuals can and will influence society and what legacy they will begin to construct. If one takes the examples of Wang and Gao, it seems that the Christian intellectual community has at least taken a firm first step.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Moon - China's Next Big Thing?

The big news in mainland Chinese news portals was the recent return of the Shenzhou 7, the Chinese spacecraft that carried a manned shuttle into orbit. One of the crew, Zhai Zhigang, became the first Chinese to space walk, exiting the ship for just shy of fifteen minutes. The effort was a ringing success, aside from disgruntled commercial air passengers who had flights grounded, without prior warning, before the lift-off and the comical mistake on the part of the Xinhua news agency who reported a successful launch, including detailed dialogue with the crew, before the ship had left the platform.

The Chinese space program is an interesting phenomenon. The rise of taikonauts to join the ranks of astronauts and cosmonauts is peculiar in a post-Cold War era where the advent of space tourism is on the up. Additionally, before this and earlier flights, cries directed at the reasonableness of such a program in a country that has no lack of needy programs. Zhang Hong in the Guardian puts it rather directly noting that “Since China started this programme, there's no sign that it will stop any time soon. The undisclosed cost of the Shenzhou programme, normally calculated into the military's expense, will keep rising in the foreseeable future without any practical benefits. This would likely spark dissatisfaction among lawmakers since China has many other areas hungry for capital, including the rebuilding of the earthquake-hit areas, the anti-poverty strategy in rural areas and the huge hole in the pension system.” But what Zhang Hong notes there at the beginning of his quote is perhaps the most important point. Manned flights and space walks are just the beginning, even according to Chinese space program authorities.

But the resounding question is why? There are two reasonable options: (1) a heightened competition with the United States in the global hegemony tug of war. Space represented and important front in the posturing of the Cold War, and there is plenty pointing to the possibility that China is doing a lot of posturing behind the smoke and mirrors of their claims to a “peaceful rise.” Among these would include the dramatic investment in their military and the not so subtle buddying up with authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. (2) the Chinese see this as a source of pride that will only add to their claim to be a world power of the highest sort and will put before the people yet another grand vision of national unity and collective accomplish for the glory of the motherland and the benefit of the future.

Personally, I am not sold on the first of these options. It is one better known to neo-conservative foreign policy types who are always looking for the next country trying to dislodge American pre-eminence. I in no way believe in the peacefulness or benevolence of the Chinese government, but the Communist Party leadership knows as well as anyone that they are joined at the hip with the US and cannot afford to directly confront them, nor do they have much reason to want to.

The second option is strangely compelling, especially given the timing of the launch. Late September puts us one month beyond the mother of all national unity events in China. The Olympic Games were a historical moment that overwhelmed the last seven years of Chinese political and social life. Much was sacrificed and sanctioned in the name of the harmonious society necessary for a successful games. Homes were torn down, money spent in absurd quantities, rights suspended, and lives co-opted all in the name of the Olympics. And the amazing thing was how the people bought this. It would not be overdoing it to say that the Hu Jintao leadership and his emphasis on a harmonious society were sincerely aided by the presence of the games and the “Olympic Spirit.” One need look no further than the riots in Tibet and the reaction in mainland China to realize the scope of its influence. Reactions were in no way turned to trying to explain why a whole minority group would so violently show their disapproval and rather were turned to a fierce defense of the pride of a nation coming under increasing scrutiny from abroad. The internet was flooded with anti-Western media content and one couldn’t speak a word otherwise without being branded a traitor. Newspaper editors who said otherwise were hounded out of their jobs and a Duke student was made famous when she came under attack from the wrath of the netizen mob.

Thus, it would be unexceptional for the Party to be seeking for a replacement for the Olympic spirit. It is conceivable that a moon landing could, in some smaller way, be the next source of nationalistic fervor. Without doubt, the Apollo program captured American imagination and sentiments in a way that could still bring a crumbling country together. Could Chinese leaders be hoping for a similar source of social cohesion? They have, historically, been nigh shameless in their use of symbols for nationalistic fervor, with Japan being an unfortunate recipient of much of that ire. Nationalism and ethnic unity have been vital to continued Party dominance. We just might be seeing the man behind the curtain trying to change the wizard’s face. And that, to answer Zhang Hong's question of whether China can afford such a program, as we saw with the spectacular Olympic spectacle, is always worth it.

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