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Society newlight on 14 Aug 2011

Rioting without a cause

Like in many other countries, people in China are fascinated and confused by the sudden riots on the street of London. My comments on the breakout of the violence have been translated into English by Global Voice (although they got my name wrong).

What directly led to these riots was that London police shot and killed the young black man, Mark Duggan. On Saturday, the parents of the deceased held a peaceful protest outside the doors of the Tottenham Hale police station, which by evening turned into incidents of smashing and looting. At the same time, police only formed a human blockade on the street to stop people from getting through, incapable of stopping the criminal activity taking place dozens of meters away. A shot of this played on television the entire night, inevitably encouraging others to join in the following day.
Police were not active in stopping the criminal activity; on one hand, police forces were weak, and on the other, indecisive. London’s police force currently has no-one leading it. Both the chief of police and the deputy chief for anti-terrorism resigned recently in the cellphone voicemail eavesdropping scandal, and the rest of the leadership are on summer vacation. At the same time, London’s mayor, the minister for home affairs, the deputy prime minister and the prime minister himself were also all overseas on summer holiday. There was no preparedness for a sudden incident such as this, and once it did break out, nobody unfortunately moved to deal with it quickly, instead people just hoped that the rioters would disperse by themselves.
The opposite happened, and riots began to spread by the second day. Police were caught off guard and fumbled around, leaving them even more incapable of dealing with the rioters, contributing to even more people taking part in the looting, and then the situation fell apart.
Given the nature of England’s political climate, riots such as this ought to be the strong suit of a conservative government, but the riots instead caught the current coalition government by surprise, and Cameron was a day late in returning to the country, something which has greatly affected his reputation. If he can’t put the riots down and quickly, I’m afraid Cameron won’t remain prime minister for much longer.

Media &Society newlight on 01 Aug 2011

The empire strikes back

Last week I wrote here that China’s twitter equivalent, Weiboc.om, won a small victory over the censors in reporting the high speed train crash at Wenzhou, Zhejiang. Many factors such as the location and time of the crash contributed to the fast-moving reporting from eyewitnesses and the slow response of the censors. In the process Weibo.com became the media of choice for eyewitnesses as well as journalists. One statistics says in the six and half hours after the train crash, over one million mini-posts related to the accident had been posted to Weibo.com. That’s over forty mini-posts every second.

The attention was quickly moved on to the rescue mission. The crash site is in a reasonably populated area, only about 4 kilometres outside the Wenzhou South train station. Besides rescue workers, local residents (many joined the initial rescue) and journalists reached the site fairly quickly. The fiasco of the rescue operation was on full view, live to many eyewitnesses and many many more Weibo users sitting in front of the screen waiting for latest update.

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Society newlight on 25 Jul 2011

A small victory for weibo

I learned in Saturday afternoon the news of a train crash in China’s Zhejiang province from weibo.com, China’s equivalent of Twitter. There are quite a few twitter copycats in China but Sina’s Weibo, literally means ‘min-blogging’ is the most influential one. It’s since became the primary source for me to follow the development.

Suddenly the crash became the most discussed subject, and weibo.com added a special section for the discussion of this accident. It does not escape censorship though. Many tweets have since been deleted ‘by the original poster’, so the site claims. But it helps that this happened in a Saturday evening when perhaps the censor’s response wasn’t fast enough. According to China Digital Times, a directive was indeed sent to various news organisations later, stopping them from reporting anything out of the official line. But it was too late to stop this accident became the hottest discussion on weibo.com.

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Society newlight on 30 Dec 2009

Don’t mention the war

One of the unexpected consequences of the sorry story of Akmal Shaikh’s execution is ‘Opium War’ suddenly being mentioned again in the British media. Judging from the posted comments, some seem very surprised to hear that the Chinese still remember the Opium War, which after all happened 170 years ago.

Well the victims’ memories tend to be longer. For many Chinese the Opium War was the turning point of China’s recent history, when a weak and inward looking empire started to crumble, facing a new kind of foreign aggression coming over the sea. Twice under the threat of British warships, China was forced to open ports, sanction opium trade, accept the cession of Hong Kong, and pay a huge indemnity. Many years of humiliation followed.

A few days ago, when the British government went public to ask Chinese government to save Akmal Shaikh’s life, I was worried that his fate had already been sealed. Chinese authorities, even if they were prepared to show clemency, won’t be able to do so in public. Not mention that this was a case that has little sympathy from Chinese public opinions. I don’t know what efforts being made by the British government to save Akmal Shaikh’s life, but going public would certainly push China into an unchangeable position.

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Society newlight on 07 Dec 2009

Climate change summit: Calling for leadership

Today 56 newspapers from 44 countries have published the same editorial (in 20 different languages) to encourage the delegations at Copenhagen summit to seal a deal to reduce global warming and act on climate change.

I’m proud of the fact that the paper I worked for is the initiator and the two newspapers I’m writing for are the participating Chinese newspapers.

To read the full editorial ‘Fourteen days to seal history’s judgement on this generation‘. Or if you prefer, in Chinese.

Now it’s up the world leaders to take some leadership and make difference in the next two weeks.

2009-12-07.Guardian front page editorial on climate change

Society newlight on 10 Oct 2009

Nobel Peace Vision Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee scored an own goal. Obama said he was ‘humbled’, I imagine deep down he was screaming “You guys are not helping!” Trying to “encourage” him, the Committee managed to turn a triumph into an embarrassment. The fact that Obama’s supporters felt it’s necessary to come out to defend him says a lot about this decision. On Guardian’s Comment is Free site, the natural congregating place for Obama’s international supporters, the online poll says 70% think it is far too early.

I’m afraid this just reinforces the perception that liberal European are dazzled by the Obama, in that they are so fed up with George W. Bush and willing to award the Nobel Prize for the ‘vision’. If this means to be an encouragement, would being a Nobel laureate help Obama to negotiate peace for middle-east for example? I think not. It won’t help Obama to pursue his domestic agenda either. Judging from the reaction on American media, it only farther polarizes his supporters and detractors. Prize for peace, what an irony.

Society newlight on 19 May 2009

One year on

It was about this time last year, when the news kept coming. The casualty number kept increasing, and there were still places not accessible to the rescuers, many of whom were ill-equipped soldiers and volunteers trying to get through the mountainous roads destroyed by landslide. The whole nation of China was in deep shock and mourning. It touched everyone. I remembered that when reading Tania Branigan’s report from Dujiangyan on the street, I struggled to contain my emotion. Then there was the great determination shown by the rescuers coming from all parts of the country and overseas to save as many lives as possible. And for us who were thousand miles away, all we could say was we must do something.

The Sichuan Earthquake Update‘s call for donation met with overwhelming response. People from all over the world approached us to give us support, send their donation, give their time, work as volunteers, donate their work for charity auction, and much more. Wendy Wu, CEO of Mother’s Bridge of Love, recently published the figures and plans for the distribution of the donation.

The news agenda have moved on. The earthquake may look remote and distant for most people who have matters closer to home to worry about. But in Sichuan, the reconstruction of the earthquake-hit area has only just begun. New schools are rising up, but the parents are still grieving their lost children. However, Out of ruins, people are rebuilding their life, and love has flourished.

I’ll keep the Sichuan Earthquake Update project going. Hopefully we will see more news about the rebuilding of homes and lives there.

Society newlight on 20 Mar 2009

The new “migrant tax” is degrading and unfair

It looks whenever the UK government wants to appear tough on immigration, it would announce some half-hearted measures to make the immigration process a bit more unpleasant. The points-based system is a great improvement. But then came the hiking of visa fees, changing the time required for permanent residency from four to five years and retrospectively applying it (hence the protest and law suit from those came with highly skilled migrant visa), and the mandatory English test etc. which all looked good as a headline but won’t change much in practice. The points-based system was meant to attract the most qualified migrants, yet it seems those additional measures keeping popping up are purely there to make the application process a little bit more annoying, time-consuming and expensive.

The new “migrant tax”, a £50 extra visa charge to non-EU migrants, is just one of them. The migrants have already paid whatever cost their application would incur directly. They have paid the visa fee. They bring spending money with them. In the case of international students, they will pay the full university tuition fee (ranging from £4,000 to £18,000 per year) as well. Once they are here, they will pay the living costs and pay tax if they work, and are not eligible to pub fund for some time in most cases. If this country takes them as part of the community, surely they should contribute, equally as the other members of the society, to the public services and infrastructures, through the tried and tested general taxation?

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Society newlight on 03 Mar 2009

The lost treasures

So the Chinese collector Cai Mingchao refused to pay the 28 million euro he bid for the two bronze heads at the Christie’s. Intentionally or not, this is an effective publicity stunt, forcing the story of disputed auctioning back to the news agenda. A point has been made again that no matter how legitimately Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé acquired and owned the sculptures, the fact remains that they are war plunders, looted from China’s imperial palace.

Incidently, the 8th Earl of Elgin, James Bruce, who ordered the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, where the bronze heads were looted from, is the son of the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who removed the marbles from Acropolis and shipped them to Britain. The Greek government, like Chinese government, is asking for the return of the national treasures.

A lot of cultural artifacts of China have been looted, stolen, smuggled out of China over the years. Most of Chinese won’t demand a blanket return of all the treasures. However, the arrogance of Pierre Bergé, who bizarrely linked the return of the sculptures with Tibet issue, and the insensitivity of the Christie’s, escalated the dispute. The two bronze heads, which may not worth the inflated 14 million euro price tag, are seen by many Chinese as a reminder of national humiliation. To put too much symbolism on to them may not be totally rational, but buying them back by the state, as suggested by the Times, doesn’t sound right. Some would justifiably feel being robbed twice.

Society newlight on 26 Jan 2009

Chinese New Year

So, here we are. If you like a pun, then Happy Niu Year! If you prefer irony, then good luck in the Year of Bull.

It looks even the noise from all the unauthorized firecrackers in China couldn’t make us not hearing the gloomy news. Guardian’s Tania Branigan did a video reporting piece from Beijing’s main railway station before the Chinese new year to interview the migrant workers, part of the great annual people movement. They were worried about whether they can get their job back when they come back to the city after the festival. At least this year they didn’t have to get stuck in the station for days like last year. A Chinese blogger, after went to the same station, suggested that this year the Chinese new year rush is actually much smoother than previous years. The suspicion is that many migrant workers had already left for home, being laid off at the end of last year.

The worry is always that when the migrant workers come back to the city after Chinese new year, and couldn’t find a job, what will happen? An often quoted figure is 8%, the GDP growth China must achieve to provide enough jobs for the labour market. The forecast for 2009 by various organizations seems all below that, thus the prediction of widely spread social unrest in China this year due to the mass unemployment. However in my opinion more social unrest there may be, but they are unlikely going to distablise the Chinese society in large scale. Chinese government do realize the seriousness of the economic downturn and high unemployment, and have been quick to disperse measures to stimulate economy and provide new jobs. There may be nothing imaginative in Chinese government’s approaches, but they do have the crucial ammunition – plenty of cash in hand.

Meanwhile the government also hope that establishing a civil society with more citizen participation may help to resolve some of the social issues. The year 2009 is called Civil Society Year Zero by the official media. That will be a constant struggle, and bound to be going forwards and backwards in unpredictable fashion. The detention of 08 Charter’s initiator Liu Xiaobo, harassment of its signatories, censoring influential websites including the recent closing down of bullog.cn are all seen as part of the government’s attempt to silence their critics. However the founder of bullog.cn, Luo Yonghao, is surprisingly optimistic about the website’s possible re-opening in the future. In no time a list of where to find the bullog.cn blogs from alternative places started to circulate around internet. And now a “ghetto version” (shanzai) of bullog.cn, operated by one of the famouse citizen journalist, Zola, is online. Willingly or not, the Chinese government are giving their critics space, and sometimes even use the online opinions to counter corrupted local officials. The critics themselves, while stressing they are not dissidents, have also learned to operate in this environment.

It’s safe to bet the Year of Ox won’t be a bull year. The road ahead is bumpy to say the least, but Chinese people have gone through time tougher than this.

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