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China Uncensored
From: David Farber <dave () farber net>
Date: Sun, 30 Apr 2006 20:31:07 -0400

Begin forwarded message:

From: Matt Murray <mattm () optonline net>
Date: April 30, 2006 8:25:27 PM EDT
To: Dave Farber <dave () farber net>
Subject: China Uncensored

Dear Prof. Farber,

One more for the weekend. My friends just returned from six weeks in China. They don't travel with tours, and instead book lodging, sight- seeing, and the like as they go. Normally they send a few emails during their travels about how they integrate with locals, etc. This email was the first time their travelogue was a bit more serious.

I asked and received permission to forward on to the IP list. As always, if you deem appropriate for resending.

All the best.

Matt Murray

MattM () optonline net

Friends -

Many of you have been asking us about our observations of the _real_ issues in China: free speech, human rights, and personal freedom. We must say that, for the first time in any of our travels, we were not 100% comfortable writing freely about these issues from within the country. So this message was written in Sanya in Southern China, but we are actually sending this message from the US, just after our return.

We have been much more isolated on this trip from real interaction and discussion. We have also been largely in cities and seen nothing of rural life (which we hear is 70% of the population). The isolation is also compounded by the language barrier, and a decided cultural reservedness that locals exhibit when dealing with outsiders. However, we have gotten a glimpse of these issues.

- The police have very strong control and presence in cities and on the street. Very (very) little deviation from the rules is tolerated - we were on a bus that had one more people than seats, and were promptly pulled over for violating an "everybody must sit" rule. Lots of paper exchange, and then they escorted the standing passenger back across a busy highway to the departure point of the bus to catch the next bus.

- Population density: there's a lot of people in China! (1,313,973,713 according to http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/ factbook/geos/ch.html). Imagine that the average public situation you experience - eating in a restaurant, driving, walking down the street - has five times more people than in the U.S. Personal space is cut to a sliver, and the noise level is proportionately higher.

- Technology: everywhere. Flat-panel TVs are on boats and busses and taxis and elevators. Most factory workers have cell phones (according to a guy from Atlanta who co-owns a stereo production factory). Everyone seems glued to the ever-present TVs, even in incredibly scenic places like West Lake in Suzhou and the Li River in Guilin.

- Prices: Cheap, but also incredibly variable. For a one-hour trip from our hotel to the really cool Tang Dynasty archeological site, we had a choice of paying $120 by taxi set up by our hotel (includes tea), $24 by metered taxi (no tea), $1.20 by city bus (bring your own tea - hot water is supplied!), and 60 cents by a private mini-bus. Actually the mini-bus driver "soaked" us rich-looking foreigners 60 cents, but charged work-type locals 12 cents and school kids one Yi Jiao (1.2 cents) for the same trip. So ... $120 to 1.2 cents is a factor of 10,000.

- Travel: We took every form of transportation there was, and it all "worked" (even though sometimes you have no idea what's going on.) You must (must) always have a piece of paper with your destination written in Chinese. Air travel, which was reputed to be problematic only a few years ago, appeared to us to be _way_ ahead of Western standards in terms of service. On flights over 2 hours, there are Tai Chi exercises led by the flight attendants. The most charming moment: when we hit a small bit of turbulence, the flight attendant got on and announced in Chinese and then English that "Captain Wang has over 10,000 hours of safe flying and he will take us safely to our destination today without problems".

- There is a massive program to control content on the Internet. We have dealt with the "Great Firewall of China", which routinely blocks access to web sites and email that might contain controversial content (like all of www.wikipedia.org, and my own www.ManifestSpirit.com). Strangely, from most locations in China, access to .hk (Hong Kong) web sites is re-routed to www.gov.cn. We have heard that this Great Firewall employs some 30 _thousand_Chinese.

- Computer viruses are rampant. They seem to be different from in the US, or at least those tracked by Symantec/Norton. We routinely disconnected our laptop immediately after transferring files and messages, and still had to deal with three havoc-wielding worms and viruses.

- The English language newspapers that we have access to are "relentlessly positive". After a few days it became obvious that they are carefully (or not-so carefully) crafted to provide a steady diet of what Westerners want to hear: that human rights issues are being address and violations being prosecuted, that intellectual property laws are being enforced for DVD piracy (a tough claim to make after a look at any shopping street in Shanghai), that the trade imbalance is being addressed, and that "business is good". It is strange and eerie to live for a time where your only news is positive propaganda.

- As is well publicized, there is no tolerance for public dissent. We have seen one street incident which apparently involved the display of a sign with a "dis-harmonious" message. The sign was quickly confiscated by the police. We think that if the people who posted the sign were not an old lady and a 4-year old child, they too would have been carted off. (There seems to be an exception to most rules for old ladies, who seem to relish in their apparent immunity to laws and social customs by pushing their way to the front of lines).

- We have seen a surprising number of violent encounters between people on the street. These are "bar room brawl" type incidents apparently between people who know each other - complete with punching and enraged screaming and people holding the two people back from each other. We have seen this between men, men and women, and between women. We feel in no personal danger in these incidents, but are left with an eerie feeling of pent-up hostility under the surface.

- Population control is a big issue here - big enough for one local to actually volunteer to tell us the rules: in the city, one child, period. In farming towns, one child, and if it is a girl then you can petition the local government to have a second child after 4 years.

- Knockoffs. They are everywhere. At least we assume that a Fendi for four dollars or a Rolex for nine can't be the real thing. Or are they? One Brit who does business here explained the protocol: Businesses who ship in raw materials (fabric, parts) for production in China will routinely send in a generous surplus and allow the factory to keep the production line running "to supply the local market". So these knockoffs appear indistinguishable from the "real thing" because they are from the same materials and assembly line as "legit" products in the West.

- Falon Gong. We asked once and got a well-rehearsed response from a tour guide: "They commit illegal and immoral acts such as suicide in public places. This is not acceptable here, so they have been outlawed. They are like your Ku Klux Klan".

- We got no direct insight into the Tibet issue, but did meet a British couple who had taken a side trip to Lhasa. The info is second hand, but their take was that the Tibetan culture is simply being eradicated - bulldozing of all old and historic buildings and replacing them with "modern" buildings, and simply displacing all the minority residents.

All of these facets of Chinese life seem to be known and accepted here as necessary for "continued stability and ongoing economic growth". At least that is the position of the government, which constantly warns of the dangers of "disrupting" the government with dissent. And economic growth seems to be exactly what most people want - the incredible economic leap forward that has provided people with a wildly better standard of living than 20 or 10 or even 5 years ago.

In the end, we did have one "real" interaction which was shocking, if only for it's candor. We met an upper-mid level Chinese manager who worked for a foreign company. It was at a hotel and we sort of "horned in on" (OK, crashed) their company sales party. Everyone was very well "lubricated" and after several more rounds of drinks with us, the manager spoke his mind: "So I was in New York in 1995 and I know how it is there. Here, Chinese are still not free to move about our country and there are many, many towns in the center of the country where people are not free to enter or leave. Chinese people do not like that and it will end, but it will take 20 years. Our most important concern is a stable country with no upset, and also a good job. But we must also be free to travel, to speak freely, but that will take time."

-- Clint and Vera

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