Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Qinhuangdao: Parks and Innovation

This is the fourth post in a series about a business trip I took to northeast Hebei province
Tangshan had heavy industries. Luanzhou had tourism. Qinhuangdao, the next city on our tour, had hi-tech parks.
Our government guides took us to two companies in Qinhuangdao’s Economy and Technology Development Park: Contec Medical Systems and Tianye Tolian Heavy Industry.
Contec is a medical equipment designer and manufacturer. From touch screen heart monitors and advanced ultrasound scanners to handheld ECG devices, Contec boasts a hi-tech arsenal of equipment for hospitals and clinics.
The company, founded in 1992, is one of many hi-tech enterprises enjoying preferential policies and a surge in sales as the city focuses on attracting private companies from home and abroad to boost the area’s profile as a center for hi-tech.
Inside Contec’s facilities, our group watched long production lines of people assemble medial equipment. There was a strong stench in the air, of plastics and paint and other things that probably aren’t good for your health (but don’t take my word, I’m not a doctor).
Aside from Contec, 103 hi-tech enterprises call the development park “home”. Multinationals, GE among them, from the United States, Japan and Korea have production facilities or R&D centers in the park.
Tianye Tolian Heavy Industry is also enjoying the perks of the development park. Tolian, which specializes in a special line of construction vehicles and machinery, has been the dominant player in bridge building in China, especially as the country enjoys a massive infrastructure construction boom.
Hi-tech parks like this are springing up all over China as the country gears itself toward domestic innovation. The country wants to rely less on foreign nations, which are already hesitant or unwilling to share their tech with China, and produce advanced products on their own to boost China’s image and credibility in the international community. Knocking off foreign products, China finally seems to be realizing, make not a world power with cultural and soft power influence.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Living Behind the Great Firewall

The photo is a typical screen I get when trying to access Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or any Western social media website in China

It seems cheap sneakers, iPads and iPhones, and a Christmas wish list of consumer goods won’t be China’s only exports arriving on America’s shores. Censorship and government meddling in a free and open Internet might be turning up, too.
In November, Congress began holding hearings on SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), a bill that will crack down on online intellectual property theft. Targeting “rogue websites” that host copyright infringing content – music, movies, books, software and the digital likes – the House bill, and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act, authorizes the Department of Justice to maintain a blacklist of block-worthy sites, most of which exist on servers outside America’s jurisdiction.
Despite the facade of pure and noble intents – combating the theft of U.S. property – the House bill provides broad and ambiguous definitions that will not only block online pirate havens but also cause innocent websites to get caught in SOPA’s nets. It will also make it easier for the government and entertainment industry to pressure Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like PenTelaData, to monitor individual user traffic.
Blacklisted Web domains. Government oversight. Widespread blocking. These are words and phrases typically reserved for the likes of despotic regimes — Cuba or Iran for example — where pervasive censorship is the norm.
As Time magazine puts it, SOPA will allow the government to eliminate alleged pirate sites by essentially “disappearing them,” or making them invisible or inaccessible on your web browser. “Disappearing,” unless you’re referring to a magic act, is another one of those word that should never be associated with the actions of democracies.
The Chinese government certainly isn’t shy about its censorship. Since China began opening up in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, the government has been engaged in a constant balancing act between openness and control, says Rebecca MacKinnon in her essay “Flatter World and Thicker Walls”. Deng likened the reform to opening a window for fresh air only to have a few “flies” (read, new ideas that run counter to the Party line) blow in.
To swat those flies in the modern age of the Internet, China has between 30,000 and 50,000 people involved with the Ministry of Public Security’s Golden Shield Project, commonly called the “Great Firewall of China,” according to Amnesty International. The project employs a variety of techniques to monitor the flow of traffic and control what sites are accessible to China’s close to 500 million Internet users.
From firsthand experience, dealing with the Great Firewall of China is certainly annoying but easily tolerable. If I want to chat with friends on Facebook, or check out a new YouTube video, or read blogs, or tweet, or retweet, or have full access to Gmail, or even view my hometown newspaper the Times News’ webpage (apparently its coverage is too sensitive and controversial for Chinese readers and has subsequently been blocked here), I just have to log into a subscription-based proxy service that allows me to circumvent China’s firewalls. I used that proxy to publish this post.

As inconvenient as access denial to certain websites gets, for the most part I’m indifferent towards the Chinese government’s Internet censoring and monitoring protocols, because that’s what I’ve come to expect of China. My expectations for America are higher.
Granted, SOPA doesn’t go to the same censorship extremes as China. It doesn’t even come close. The Chinese government is out to quash political comments on sensitive China-centric issues. SOPA is meant to protect American intellectual property from foreign online pirates. But the similarities are still there.
Aside from assigning blacklisting authority to the government, SOPA will require website operators to prove their sites aren’t being used for copyright infringement, the same “guilty until proven innocent” guidelines the Chinese government imposes on domestic social networking sites. The House bill also puts an unprecedented burden on ISPs to comb over all user traffic to find violators or face punishment themselves. Censoring could quickly turn into over-censoring as ISPs looking to avoid litigation block sites that aren’t hosting copyrighted material but share keywords or have user posted links with sites that do.
The necessity for stronger laws to clamp down on web-based piracy is definitely there, especially with Hollywood studios, record companies and publishing houses claiming $135 billion in annual loses from online theft. American intellectual property deserves protection, but perhaps not the way Congress is proposing, and certainly not if it emulates the kind of draconian tactics employed by China’s Internet censors.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Luanzhou: Manufacturing Culture

This is the third post in a series about a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

Like Tangshan, Luanzhou relies on its resource-guzzling heavy industries as its main economic driving force. Now, the city is trying to add a second pillar to support the local economy: cultural tourism.

Luanzhou’s efforts fall under the central government’s broader umbrella of streamlining cultural production in China. The Chinese government also wants “to improve Chinese citizens’ sense of identity and confidence in Chinese culture”, according to China’s CCTV.

The city is making the most of these efforts, combining it’s industrial advantages with its fledgling tourist industry. The centerpiece of Luanzhou’s tourist-boosting plan is a new ancient city park, a 133.3-hectare residential and commercial zone straddling the border of the modern city. Constructed in traditional, local architectural fashion, the city’s streets are lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and small shops. For a hefty fee, small courtyard flats can be rented or purchased, completing the feel of living in ancient times.

Costs and the necessity for better infrastructure (the roads were a little bumpy and unable to handle heavy traffic), the most obvious obstacle to Luanzhou’s ambition of becoming a tourist hotspot is its location. Stuck between Beijing and Qinhuangdao, Luanzhou can never hope to compete with the cultural and historic landmarks of the Chinese capital or the pristine beaches and relaxing atmosphere of the northern port city. For the time being, Luanzhou will focus on attracting urbanites in need of a relaxing break from city life.

Our group was given the special treatment while touring Luanzhou. At the ancient city park, a special evening show was performed, with fire dancers and people in costumes jumping about. Afterward, we were encouraged to take part in one of Luanzhou’s traditional dances (which was apparently video taped and shown on local TV stations). We were also shuttled outside of the city proper to Wanfeng Tower, a hilltop pagoda built in the 900s but partially destroyed in the earthquake of 1976. It was recently renovated to promote tourism.

As our guides and the other Party officials went on and on about tourism in Luanzhou, my interest turned to a large industrial facility at the base of the hill the pagoda was on. It was grossly out of place; a scar of modernity on an otherwise traditional and ancient landscape. It was also barely visible through the thin layer of smog hanging over the area, no doubt produced by the facility itself. My interpreter saw what I was looking at. He laughed. “This is what they were talking about before when they said ‘mixing industry and culture,’” he said. I laughed too. The facility, it turns out, was the largest iron mine in Asia. I think it’s safe to say the mine wouldn’t be closing anytime soon just to beautify the area as part of Luanzhou’s tourist revitalization plan.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Caofeidian: Emerald City by the Sea

This is the second post in a series about a recent business trip to Hebei province

China, now in the midst of an epic national construction boom, is building many things. It’s building forests of apartment towers. It’s building malls (many of which remain empty of shops and shoppers). It’s building an extensive system of highways and high-speed railways. It’s also building entire cities.

South of Tangshan, on the coast of the Bohai Sea, one of those cities is taking shape — or, more accurately, rising from the sea. Caofeidian is the Hebei provincial government’s wundercity.

Construction started in 2003 with a massive land reclamation project that extended the boundary of the coastline about 10 km into the sea. The city will be a marvel in green technology and a demonstration zone for China’s recycling economy — or so government officials told me. Before we got to see the actual city and harbor area, they showed our group — two other foreign experts and a few Chinese staffers from the magazine — a few models of Caofeidian. The city is going to be a jewel of Hebei’s Bohai Sea economic circle, a new port to ship out all the great things northeast China manufactures — heavy duty construction vehicles, advanced medical equipment and an assortment of low-tech consumer goods to name a few — to northeast Asia and the rest of the world. For the time being, Caofeidian mostly exists as a scale model with a Christmas-color array of red and green lights and small plastic buildings.

The city is still being built. Today it’s a ghost town of highrises and abandoned streets with the ubiquitous cranes on every corner. When it’s completed, the city will be home to about 1 million people, 400,000 of which will be workers in the city’s port and surrounding industrial facilities. Some of those facilities are already pumping out products.

The steel mills are particularly busy. Shougang Jingtang Iron and Steel officially opened its plant in Caofeidian in 2009 after moving its homebase out of Beijing municipality. Shougang is one of many heavy industries being relocated to coastal areas for financial and environmental reasons. Beijing and Tianjin, in an attempt to clean up the ever-present clouds of smog hanging over their cities, have ordered a number of heavy industries out of their municipalities. Shougang was one of those companies asked to leave.

When I talked with one of the company’s managers, he bragged about the steel plant’s efficiency. More than half of the plant’s energy was generated internally, from the steel making process. He also said Shougang’s new facility produced zero — that’s the numeral 0 — carbon emissions. Outside the facility, smokestacks belched large plumes of grey into the sky, but apparently these contributions to the atmosphere didn’t contain any CO2, just other pollutants that added to the seaside mist hovering over the city.

On paper, Caofeidian has the potential to be a true eco-city — a milestone in China’s “go green” efforts — like no other in the world. It also has the potential to sink into the sea. While a leader in manufacturing solar panels that would be applied in the city, many of China’s other green techs are still in their infancy. Application on a city-wide scale would be met with bugs and breakdowns.

More importantly, China’s green movement has taken a back seat to the country’s economic growth, which relies on outdated technologies and heavily polluting industrial practices. Despite the government rhetoric of embracing eco-friendly means of production, these means are currently incapable of driving the economy. Until the country develops and applies newer, cleaner and greener methods of production, Caofeidian and other emerald cities in the Bohai economic rim will exist only in fiction, or as scale models with flashing lights.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tangshan: The Phoenix City

This is the first post in a series on a recent business trip I took to northeast Hebei province

Tangshan, a two-hour drive east of Beijing in Hebei Province, is a city of industry. The site of China’s first coalmine, Tangshan is widely considered the cradle of modern industry in China, complete with snazzy factories and all the sky-tainting pollution that goes with it. I was there in late October on a business trip — a provincial government sponsored trip across the northeastern part of Hebei to see how great the province is and then write about it.

Tangshan was the first city on our tour de Hebei. Our first stop was Kailuan National Mine Park, the nation’s first mine. Replica buildings and a few rust-covered pieces of equipment tried desperately to mimic conditions back in the late 1800s when the mine first opened. I thought a few re-enactors would have added to their attempts to make the park seem authentic. A large statue with a few miners stood in the park’s center. It honored the hundreds of thousands of men who worked, and the many that were buried, underground to dig that black rock vital to industry from the ground and into Chinese factories.

But the coup de grace lies within the mine’s museum, where hall after hall hail China’s achievements in manipulating coal use. One claims that China was the first country to use coal, although not to fuel blast furnaces or industrial plants (which were imported from the West).

One of Tangshan’s more impressive sights, if only because of its backstory, is Nanhu Ecological Park. Prior to becoming the eco-haven it is, with 1,300 hectares dedicated to all things eco-friendly and green, the park was a massive compost pile. Following the earthquake in 1976, people in Tangshan needed a place to dump their trash. They dumped it at the site of a mine that collapsed in the quake — that site is today’s park. In the late 1990s, the local government stepped in, re-beautifying the area and turning it into a pristine ecological park with waters that rival the West Lake in Hangzhou and a variety of wild flora and fauna. Looking out across the lake from the peak of a man-made hill (but not made of trash) I was amazed with the view: the lake, the small islands, the prominence of the colors green and blue, and the nuclear power plant a few kilometers in the distance (look for it in the photo slideshow).

Industrial birthplace and nice new eco-park aside, Tangshan is more widely known as the epicenter of a massive earthquake that completely leveled the city in 1976. The city’s memorial park is a sobering reminder to nature’s destructiveness and unpredictability. A few toppled buildings and bare steel frames have been left untouched since the disaster. A long, marble wall stretching roughly the length of a football field — a solemn attempt to put the death toll of 240,000 into perspective — has the names of the victims etched onto its black, reflective surface. Inside a small museum, a model of the city shows the extent of the damage: a few buildings were left standing but the majority of the structures in Tangshan were turned to rubble. The recovery was swift. Within months, many of Tangshan’s industries were up and running again, causing many people to call it the Phoenix City: a miracle reborn from the ashes.

Today, Tangshan is again a center of industry, particularly in steel. According to the Sydney Morning Herald: “At current growth rates, if the city was a country, it would overtake the United States within two years to become the world’s third largest steel producing nation behind China and Japan.” That’s a lot of steel. But with China in the midst of a massive construction boom, the country’s insatiable need for steel is real. To fuel its blast furnaces, Tangshan relies exclusively on its coal mines to keep the fires burning. The result is pollution, and lots of it.

Government leaders boast about new green policies that will clean up the environment, but until they take these measures seriously — which likely result in the province’s industrial strength taking a hit — it seems the phoenix that rose from the ashes could lose its way as it soars higher into the smog.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Checkup with Doc Sun

Aside from the memorial, Nanjing has a number of less morose attractions. The Grand Canal, a major commercial waterway running from Beijing to Hangzhou, passes through the city, as does the great Yangtze River. There’s a few halls to the people’s heroes; and there’s a zoo.

But Nanjing’s major tourist draw – and the reason I was visiting -- is the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China. Sun was a major political figure in the earlier part of the twentieth century, pushing for reform in China. He was a revolutionary, and the Chinese like revolutionaries. In 1911 Sun helmed an uprising that overthrew China’s last monarchy and ushered in a Chinese republic.
The new nation’s capital was established in Nanjing.

The Republic of China was short lived, with warlordism, infighting between China’s Kuomintang (KMT) and Communists (CCP), and the Japanese invasion in the 1930s hampering any real democratic progress. The doctor died in 1925 before stability could be established in the country – the CCP achieved that in 1949 but left Sun’s vision out of their equation for a New China.

The memorial hall sat atop a hill, hundreds of steps leading to its peak. Inside was a large statue of Sun sitting Abe Lincoln-style, looking out over China. Sun’s marble coffin was in a separate room that was closed off.

As I left the memorial hall I too looked out over the landscape. Gentle hills, green forests and no signs of the city. It was peaceful – a bit too peaceful actually. I somehow felt that this had been done on purpose; that the communists had stuck Sun out here in the hills to hide him.

Sun helped establish a new China, but he was also the founder of the KMT, the political arch-nemesis of the CCP that fled to Taiwan after being defeated in a civil war in 1949. Today, CCP historical revisionists conveniently leave out or distort the fact that Sun embraced democracy -- and not the kind with Chinese characteristics – which exists in Taiwan but not the mainland.

So Sun gets stuck in the hills of Nanjing. Every so often -- for major political events like the centenary of the 1911 Revolution on October 10 – the Chinese government rolls out a giant portrait of the father of the nation in Tiananmen Square. But it doesn’t stay there for long, less the people start looking into what the dear doctor actually stood for.

Friday, November 11, 2011

When Good Men Do Nothing

The world for those of us who bleed blue and white has been turned upside down. No one could have predicted the nightmare of the last week that has befallen Penn State, that words like “honor”, “prestige” and “class” would be associated with “sex scandal” when thinking of Dear Old State. And those that could have foreseen this, that did see this, did nothing. 

For the Nittany Lion’s football coach Joe Paterno it means the end of a 46-year career of record wins and molding young men and women into honorable adults. For the university it means a reputation scarred by the horrifying story of Jerry Sandusky, a true monster who allegedly sexually assaulted eight boys over the course of 15 years, and the cover-up that followed. For alumni and fans it’s a gut-wrenching, hollow, disorienting feeling of lost faith and confusion, an endless query of hows and whys.

For the victims it means justice, but justice that should have been served much, much sooner. 

The horror engulfing Happy Valley shares a few parallels concerning moral obligations to one that recently unfolded in China, causing equal public outcry because people – good, decent people – stood idly by instead of preventing something terrible from happening.

On October 13, Wang Yue, a 2-year-old girl, was hit by a van and then run over by another on a narrow street in Foshan, south China’s Guangdong province.  Between the two hit and runs, 18 people walked past the girl lying on the street. Not one of them stopped to help. 

An old woman finally dragged the girl from the street and tried to find the child’s mother.

Wang eventually died of her wounds on October 21.

The death triggered a nationwide outcry about the lack of morality and trust in Chinese society. Why hadn’t at least one of the passersby tried to help the girl? 

Communist Party officials and Chinese netizens blame the negligence and apathy of the drivers and passersby on the country’s economic development -- the clash of traditional culture with money worshipping that seems to be possessing Chinese society as the people become more affluent. People care more about money and themselves than the well-being of others. Chinese educators have even proposed including courses on humanitarianism in school curriculums. Ultimately, it’s a social and legal issue more so than a moral one. 

Distrust of the government, especially as numerous food scandals, poor air quality and an uncontrollable housing market plague the country, is ubiquitous among Chinese. Trust issues have trickled from the top all the way down to affect the relationship and dynamics between people at the grassroots level.

Probably the main reason the Chinese are wary of extending a helping hand is the absence of laws that protect Good Samaritans, particularly from extortion by those they help. 

In 2006, an elderly woman in Nanjing, a city in east central China, successfully sued a man who had stopped to help her after she injured herself at a bus station. Despite inadequate evidence, the man was found guilty and ordered to pay $7,000 in compensation. 

Prior to young Wang’s death in October, an 88-year-old man died after falling outside a vegetable market in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei province. A crowd formed around the man but no one offered assistance.  By the time he was rushed to a hospital – after family members were informed of the accident – the man had suffocated from a massive nosebleed. 

In less extreme situations, I too have witnessed this bystander mentality. While sightseeing in Xi’an, central China, I stood petrified in front of a major tourist attraction as a man dragged a woman by her hair out of the queue, pushing her to the ground and yelling in her face. The rest of the people in line just stared. So did the security guards. 

When people in China are often punished, not rewarded, for doing good deeds, I can’t blame them for failing to intervene. I can’t say the same for the men at Penn State. 

Paterno and Penn State University President Graham Spanier sealed their fates in 2002 when they failed to take further action after learning about Sandusky’s atrocious deeds. Their ouster on November 9 is both unsurprising and necessary for the university to start pulling itself out of the hell it now finds itself in. 

As a proud Nittany Lion, I’m shocked that the Paterno era at Penn State is over and even more upset that it unraveled this way.  I’m livid with the media’s coverage of the scandal, how they’ve been fixated almost entirely on Paterno, vilifying the coach instead of focusing on the real culprit, Sandusky, and on Spanier’s role. But most of all I’m disgusted that men of integrity -- men whose hands I shook -- let us, the Penn State community, down. Men who stood by and did nothing while evil prevailed.

PHOTOS: I took these photos during Penn State's 2007 homecoming game against Wisconsin. I'd never been that close to Joe Paterno, and I was still pretty far away on the sideline but thrilled nonetheless to at least be standing at his level on the field. I had a press pass to Beaver Stadium that day and was exploring the back corridors and hallways. While heading to the press conference area, I opened a door and there stood JoePa. I stepped aside, holding the door and giving him the "after you" arm swing. He just chuckled, thanked me and walked slowly through. I was surprised that he was alone -- I'd expected an entourage of coaches or football players -- but then again it was his "house". It's one of my fondest memories of Paterno, one I take pride in  and one I will continue to share with friends in years to come.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The 300,000

Nanjing has temples. Nanjing has palaces. Nanjing has pagodas. Nanjing has all the typical cultural landmarks common in every other city in China. Yet, this burgeoning metropolis in east China’s Jiangsu province sets itself apart because of its role in China’s modern history.

I visited Nanjing, which means “south capital”, in early October during China’s National Day celebration. Opting to skip Nanjing’s standard tourist fare (once you’ve seen one temple, palace or pagoda, you’ve pretty much seen them all) I made my way to the Nanjing Massacre memorial.

The site, officially called the Memorial for Compatriots Killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression, honors the estimated 300,000 unarmed soldiers and civilians killed during the Japanese occupation that started in 1937. More than 20,000 women were also raped by soldiers of Japan’s Imperial Army. The incident still haunts China. It’s one of the reasons, if not the reason, animosity exists between the two Asian nations today.

The atmosphere around the memorial was cold, quiet, dark. Even with the afternoon sun beating down on me, I felt a chill.

A giant statue of a slender woman holding her dead son stood outside the memorial’s entrance. Her face looking to the heavens in anguish, as if to beckon “Why?” Leading up to, but positioned as if running away from, the memorial where smaller sculptures of victims -- mothers, fathers, children and friends -- each with a different expression of horror on their faces. Their hollow eyes cried out for help; their faces were twisted by pain and fear.

Once inside the memorial, it only got chillier.

One of the first things I saw when entering was a massive slab of black marble with the number 300,000 carved into it. For the victims. In another area was a long wall with the names of the dead or missing inscribed on its shiny, gray surface. A plain of football- sized rocks marked the spot where a mass grave of 10,000 bodies had been discovered after the Second World War. Near the end of the memorial a torch burned steadily -- the spirit of the city and perhaps a symbol for a new tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Canal Town

Known as the Venice of the East, Suzhou in east China’s Jiangsu province is praised for its lush gardens and enchanting waterways. Miles of narrow, interconnected canals criss-crossing the old section of the city provide endless opportunities to explore and discover. Alleys and major walkways lined with quaint single-storey houses retain their local flavor while catering to the needs of the modern traveler (i.e. better bathrooms and coffee shops). And small wooden boats give visitors the chance to see a different side of Suzhou at a much slower pace. The absence of major industries pumping pollutants into the air leaves the heavens an unnatural blue.

I visited this canal town during China’s National Holiday in early October and expected the tiny alleys and narrow canals to be packed. I was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite: a dearth of tourists that allowed me to explore the old city without bumping elbows with noisy Chinese travelers. The skies were clear, no rain or smog clouds in sight.

Venturing away from the main city corridors, where malls and McDonald’s were plentiful, I spent an entire day getting lost in side streets and following river passages from one neighborhood to another. For hours I watched the small wooden boats come and go. I enjoyed the skies -- those immaculate blue skies -- and fresh air – well, almost fresh air.

Locals still live in many of the houses. As they have for hundreds of years, they use the waterways in their daily chores. From fishing and washing laundry and dishes, to dumping out wastewater and -- as I assumed from the smell -- disposing human waste, the canals are still a vital part of these peoples’ lives, although the waters show signs of modern use.

Still, Suzhou is a throwback to older times and a nice respite from city life. And did I mention the skies?

Photos from Suzhou, Tongli, and Zhouzhuang