in the center of it all

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Finally got these pictures to upload; my internet connection isn’t any better than it was last year and it’s always hard to throw data over the Great Firewall…

I arrived in Beijing last Friday in the early morning, so the airport was almost empty (well, not the visa-check lines) and I got to Wudaoying just as its (countless) coffee shops were opening for the day. My Airbnb reservation had a check-in time of noon, so I sat in one of them for a few hours eating a microwaved burrito, listening to the Christmas music they were inexplicably playing, and finishing a semantics paper (on a topic I called, I think coincidentally, the “Christmas-light theory of binding.”) For no reason at all, here’s a diagram from the paper (the gendered pronoun, incidentally, is from the original example in Pauline Jacobson’s textbook):

everyone-thinks-that-he-left!bound

Wudaoying (五道营) is usually referred to as Beijing’s “next gentrified hutong,” after Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷), a mile to the southwest, which was invaded by expats and hipsters a decade ago. But of course the websites and guidebooks are themselves outdated, and Wudaoying has undoubtedly arrived already. The restaurants, cafes, and bars on Wudaoying often seem geared towards expats, but even the ones that are expat-owned and Western-themed usually have no English-speaking staff or translated menus–the new Chinese middle class, suddenly willing to pay Western prices for Western food and drink–is the real target market here.

The house I’m living in is the result of the Chinese equivalent of a tear-down; indeed the hutong itself (前肖家 – not on Google Maps!), which not long ago teemed with “cages of chickens and geese” (mine is the one mentioned in the third-to-last paragraph here), is now full of parked scooters, electric concrete mixers, and stacks of bricks and roof tiles. It’s also only half a hutong–the traditional, one-or-two-story houses (that once surrounded courtyards and housed entire extended families, often of Qing-era officials) fill only one side of the alley while a towering apartment block–a “New Urban Community”–takes up the other.

I live just inside Andingmen (安定门, the Gate of Secured Peace), one of the two main entrance points along the northern side of the old walled city (and now a subway stop on Line 2, the inner beltway line that traces the path along which the wall once stood). I take Bus 113 from Andingmennei (Andingmen Inner Street Station) straight to Sanlitun where I work; the subway would actually take longer (and would be a lot more crowded). Commuting by bus takes about 25 minutes and costs an absurdly small (and yet apparently only barely subsidized) 0.40元, or six and a half cents, each way.

Because Caixin English piggybacks on the Chinese publication, we don’t really have any material to work with until 10 or 11 in the morning; our 10-7 hours often end up as 10:30 to 7:30 or later. We also piggyback on them in other ways; the Caixin newsroom takes up an entire floor of Sanlitun SOHO building 6, but the English desk is just four cubicles in the far corner. Unlike last year, when my friend Benjamin was one of half a dozen interns who overwhelmed the English desk (and thus didn’t have much to do), I’m the only intern among the eight of us–a Chinese editor, an English-language copyeditor (from the Louisville Courier-Journal), one other foreigner (a writer who also manages social media and the email newsletter), a graphics editor, three young Chinese reporters, and me.

I had a research and/or translation role in parts of these two pages, though most of what I’ve done has actually gone to the WeChat feed and not the main website. My favorite of those is a set of quotes I translated from Democratic Life meetings (民主生活会), the linchpins of the Communist Party’s latest campaign for Party discipline at which officials criticize themselves for violations like “bureaucratic thinking” and “excessive formality,” as well as for more prosaic missteps:

Li Guoqing, mayor of Enshi in Hubei Province: “When I’m away on official business, I usually travel by plane and only rarely take a train or car. When I see a doctor, I never stand in line; if I’m hospitalized I get a VIP ward with a personal nurse. If a light is broken in my house or a pipe is blocked I immediately call the office’s bureau of general affairs, and they send someone to fix it.”

Zhou Chenliang, head of Lankao County in Hebei Province: “When I’m on official trips I don’t like to stay in ordinary hotels or take the public subway. If clothing isn’t from a famous brand I won’t wear it. If I go to the countryside in the winter I’m afraid of the cold, while in the summer I’m afraid of the heat—and on windy days I’m afraid of sand.”

Sun Ruibin, municipal party secretary in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province: “Sometimes, when I attend an event and the arrangements made by the unit receiving me are too ordinary, I feel uncomfortable. If the arrangements are more extravagant, then I feel that I’m saving face and gaining respect, and my mind can be at ease.”

Shi Luze, commander of Hebei Province military region: “That, in my mind, the occasional banquet that isn’t top-grade means ‘losing face,’ occasions that aren’t magnificent are ‘unimportant,’ driving without a police escort is ‘insufficiently grand,’ and so on—all these I recognize as errors.”

A member of the standing committee in Hebei Province: “When problems arise, my own grassroots investigation is just like a TV drama: there’s a script in advance, a director in the middle, and I show up and bask in honors afterwards. But I am merely an actor.”

We had a welcome dinner with all the Stanford interns on Saturday (along with a few alums of the program and other local Stanfordians–including a young woman with a mobile app startup and a Stanford grad who’s lived in China off and on since 1971, correctly predicted for his PhD in the mid-70s that China would become an oil importer in the early 90s, and currently runs a shale gas investment outfit); I was referred to a few times by the program manager as “the intern who’s most settled by now”–lots of other people have housing and transportation issues; I’m also the person people seem to turn to for general Beijing advice, merely from having spent a month there last summer.

Mostly though, it’s just that I like it here so much. I like how it feels more central, a feeling the capital of the Middle Kingdom came close to losing during the Century of National Humiliation but has clearly managed to retain. I like how it forces you to question your assumptions constantly, to think actively about urban, social, economic, and environmental policy and confront the modernity that’s being built around you–tower by tower, hutong by hutong. And I couldn’t be happier about what I’m doing here, or the people I’m doing it with:

Caixin Media…pushes forward reforms in China and protects the public’s right to know while chronicling, objectively and thoughtfully, our nation in transition.

More to come.

–白哲思

The Conscience of Egypt, Silenced but not Lost

Ahmed Maher could have filled an auditorium. He could have given an hour-long speech about the importance of democracy and the rule of law, answered a handful of inane questions from whichever audience members lined up at the microphones fastest. Or he could have skipped us altogether, spent his whole short early-November trip to America talking to officials or NGOs or supporters from the Egyptian diaspora.

But instead he spoke for ten minutes, then opened up to questions from the 20 or so people in the audience—he came on only a weekend’s notice, and I was lucky to be on the right mailing list. It was a degree of closeness I’d hoped for, but never really expected, in the three years since spending January 2011 glued to the limited window of al-Jazeera.

He told us why he’d come, that a discussion with students was more important than a discussion with officials because his movement (April 6) was a student movement, and in any case he’d had enough of official duplicity and broken promises—Egyptian, yes, but also American.

He gave us the basic narrative of April 6: protests beginning in 2005 (two arrests) which became explicitly anti-Mubarak in 2007 and 2008 (another arrest, this time with torture). Helping plan the first protests in January 2011; being called “heroes of the revolution” at first by the post-Mubarak military government but then criticizing them, too, when they began to restrict media and protect the old, corrupt business establishment. (“At the time, the Islamists supported the military against us,” he recalls with a touch of irony.) Pivoting from an independent stance in the first round of presidential elections to an endorsement of Mohammed Morsi in the runoff, because Ahmed Shafiq was unacceptable and a boycott was the wrong choice for a first stab at democracy. Turning against Morsi when he overstepped his mandate (another arrest, in May 2013). Joining the call for Morsi’s ouster in the June 30 Tamarrod protests, then again criticizing the overreaches of the resulting interim government.

“Again the government has started to control the media, and we’re in square number zero.”

“We want to be the third alternative—besides Islamists and the military—but we know it will be hard.”

Will [current military head Gen. Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi win the next presidential election? “I don’t think he’ll even run, because he doesn’t need to hold the presidency in order to run Egypt.”

What mistakes did the revolutionary forces make? “Our two  big mistakes: We trusted the military and left Tahrir Square after Mubarak fell, and we didn’t form an alternative: we said we wanted to build a new regime but we didn’t answer the question of how.”

How can Egypt move away from a military-dominated economy? “I don’t think any political faction will be able to transform the economy away from the military model for at least 5 years, but the first steps are to increase foreign investment and improve education.”

How did you balance activism with your family and your job as a civil engineer? “Before the revolution, it was difficult. After the revolution, very very difficult. During the revolution, completely impossible.”

He told us that, maybe, a third revolution would be all it takes, and expressed optimism that one would be forthcoming—but after the meeting he talked to a techie friend of mine about developing a private communication tool for the movement, now that (for the first time since he started using it to organize in 2007) Facebook was too risky.

Indeed he was so focused on the future of his movement and his country that those of us who were listening could easily forget that his own future was less certain than ever, that his record of personal triumph which seemed to exist in a myth-world had to fall to earth.

It’s unclear how much he knew then. But these are the facts: he never mentioned it to us at the meeting, but just before leaving Egypt he had turned the reins of April 6 over to a young activist named Amr Ali. A few days after he returned, he was indicted after defying the draconian new protest law, then turned himself in to Cairo police—wearing sunglasses, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds, chanting “Down, down with military rule! I’ll write on the prison wall that army rule is shameful and a betrayal!” (It rhymes in Arabic.) He was released after a few hours, but then arrested again on another charge of inciting protest—the protest that gathered when he turned himself in the first time. While in custody awaiting trial, he was refused paper but managed to sneak out a snark-filled statement on toilet paper disparaging a government-run “Human Rights Council” that is anything but.

On December 22, he was sentenced to three years in prison, along with both other co-founders of April 6. These are the first convictions handed down under the new protest law, and are unlikely to be the last.

Ahmed Maher knows the contours of three years—how much can happen, and how little can change. The next three years will probably bear that out yet again. But if we are ever led by the setbacks of the hour to despair that the light of the revolution has gone out; that not even a candle is left burning in Egypt—there is still a torch in Tora Prison.

blogbury in china, part 6: chengde

(I’m back but I still have to upload the rest of the photos)

Here are the photos from the Chengde trip.

Notes:

  • We had a typical tour guide (she was half Manchu, actually), and she managed basically everything for us, from our 7:30 wake-up call to the food at each restaurant.
  • The biggest thing that’s missing from these pictures: we saw dozens of Buddha statues, including the single biggest wooden Buddha in the world (which was absolutely jaw-dropping), but we were forbidden from taking pictures of any of them.

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blogbury in china, part 5

(Chengde trip pictures coming soon)

Notes:

  • Sorry that it’s been so long.  I don’t have a good excuse beyond the exam on Thursday and the Chengde trip this past weekend.
  • We went to the Temple of Heaven last Saturday morning, then Hongqiao market (basically bargaining practice for tourists) in the afternoon.
  • I had dinner (good, cheap noodles) with Victoria and her friend from Columbia that evening at a mall in Zhongguancun
  • I spent Sunday afternoon with Benjamin; we had lunch at a dim sum restaurant in Wudaokou, explored Yiheyuan, and had terrible kung pao chicken for dinner at the first restaurant we found near a random subway stop.
  • We saw Jingju/Peking Opera Wednesday afternoon (yes, they scheduled it the night before our exam; the other two classes didn’t have an exam but we still make up the majority of the program).  There were Mandarin and English subtitles (Jingju is in an archaic southern dialect) but they stopped after a few minutes; it was still reasonably easy to follow the basic story but I really couldn’t catch more than a few words of what they were singing.  The second half or so was actually mostly combat/acrobatics and had little or no singing; I’m not sure whether that’s standard.
  • On Friday night I went with Victoria to a Tibetan cafe her coworker owns in a hutong near the Lama Temple (unfortunately that was already closed when we got there).  Afterwards we walked around hutongs for a while, then walked three and a half blocks (Beijing has a large-scale street grid that divides the old walled city into six by six large blocks; within these blocks the streets and hutongs are not organized in any consistent way) to her grandparents’ apartment. We talked with her aunt in Chinese for an hour, then took a bus to see her hotel (the Columbia internship program has unbelievably nice housing).
  • Saturday morning we left for Chengde.

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blogbury in china, part 4

Notes:

  • It’s been raining a decent amount the past few days; every time it cuts smog levels in half within an hour and keeps them there for the better part of the day.
  • The Chaoyang theater trip was with the whole program on Wednesday night; the Yuanmingyuan trip was with some classmates after lunch on Thursday.
  • I had hotpot for the first time Wednesday afternoon; there’s a bowl or two of very flavorful soup boiling in the middle of your table and you drop raw meat, vegetables, and noodles in them, wait a while, then fish them out.  I’m not sure how to describe the result; you get a consistency and flavor that you can’t really get any other way and it’s excellent. Hotpot is extremely popular here; some people have been three or four times in the five days we’ve been at Beida.
  • The internet continues to defy our attempts at explanation; yesterday morning the active theory was that we only had internet for July because the previous occupants of our rooms had paid for it, and the shutoff the previous night had been permanent – but then we got service back that afternoon. Now people are saying that we don’t need to pay for international access unless we want campus wifi because our hotel is meant for international students; this still wouldn’t explain quite how intermittent the connection is unless that’s just a technical issue.
  • The cafeterias here have a huge selection, though it’s more or less the same every day. Each building has several independently-labeled counters with their own lines (never more than five or ten minutes long), each of which has five or ten dishes. It costs about 10 yuan, or $1.50, a meal, and there are giant watermelon slices for 1 yuan each (though they didn’t have them today).
  • Today we looked around in the Beida athletic center, which hosted several events at the 2008 Olympics (most famously ping-pong).
  • At any given bus station, at least five buses arrive and leave every minute (a bus ride to anywhere in Beijing costs 4 mao, or about 7 cents, with an Yikatong smart card)

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blogbury in china, part 3

Notes that are EVEN LESS STRUCTURED than usual:

  • AQI was middling yesterday and is pretty poor today; it’s like the weather or traffic or newspaper headlines most other places in the world: it sets the day’s mood across the whole city
  • Much like the old story that airplanes’ air quality was better back when they allowed smoking because they actually had to filter it, it seems like the places with the best air quality are the places where smoking is allowed indoors so the room has giant air purifiers. This includes the lobby of the Beida international students’ center next to our dorm (which has a no smoking sign but usually at least two or three people smoking, and two huge air purifiers of the kind that you only see in places that do allow it), every bar or club, and many restaurants.
  • Yesterday was orientation, which included meeting our language partners, a program-wide buffet lunch, and a campus tour.
  • Six of us went to dinner at an expat bar with good NY-style pizza (we can’t have Chinese food every night) then went to a KTV in Wudaokou (Korean area of Beijing east of Beida) for an hour (video karaoke in a private room; this was the last weeknight we could do something like that without it being at least slightly irresponsible)
  • Today was the first day of class; it turns out first-years are lucky to have one of our teachers (Zhu laoshi) carry over from the Stanford portion (the other levels have entirely new teachers) because we’ve established class structures and routines that work rather than having to adapt now to completely new homework patterns, etc.  I miss my whiteboard; practicing characters on paper will be annoying but I probably can’t justify buying a whiteboard here that I can’t bring home–similarly I’m debating buying a cheap, prepaid Chinese cell phone because my iPhone is carrier locked so I can’t just buy a SIM; it would certainly be useful to send and receive domestic texts here and three people have already asked me if I have a Chinese number.
  • We went to a Hong Kong restaurant immediately outside the Beida southwest gate for lunch; I’ve now been to three of the twenty or so restaurants in the restaurant cluster/strip mall there.
  • The internet: is absurd. IN THEORY: we have Beida network accounts and can pay RMB100/month (about $16) for access via ethernet in our rooms and wifi elsewhere on campus that includes international websites or RMB20 (or nothing, nobody is quite sure because it seems like we have domestic access without paying anything) for access to domestic websites only. IN PRACTICE: even without paying anything (and we haven’t paid yet because our language partners told us that the relevant payment period is the calendar month and we should wait until August 1) we have incredibly sporadic, but definitely real, access to domestic+international websites via ethernet.  That is, it’s enabled unpredictably for a few hours a day.  The wifi seems to be domestic-only until we pay, but in the lobby of our hotel there’s a different network that gives free domestic+international access. In any case, if and when we have international access we can turn on an inexpensive paid VPN service (mine is $9 for a month) and access websites like Facebook and Twitter that are blocked by the Great Firewall. This is established practice among the educated/cosmopolitan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most Beida students have a VPN installed.

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blogbury in china, part 2

Notes:

  • Air quality index was 70-80 today as compared to just over 200 yesterday; what a difference that makes…
  • Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City were considerably less crowded than I had expected; a few people had told me that we’d have trouble staying together as a group while walking through, but that turned out not to be a problem.
  • There is a clear and consistent narrative being pushed throughout the complex, both by the place itself and by our guide: the greatness of Imperial China is, in reality, the greatness of China and the Emperors themselves were a superfluous result of a feudalism that the country has grown out of. What makes this interesting is how it knits the two revolutions together, combining a Marxist reading of the 1911 revolution, as starting the transition from feudalism to socialism, with the Maoist revolution of the Chinese consciousness as completing it.
  • I’m glad I got to meet up with Andrea before she returns to Shanghai this week, even if it was only for a few hours.  She’s doing some incredible things at an internship with one of Beijing’s best-known artists, but I don’t think I can say more than that as most of her projects aren’t public.  She also showed me the Stanford center at Beida where the study-abroad program is based and introduced me to the director, who was (surprisingly enough) at best only faintly aware that there were a dozen Stanford students about to start a month of classes on her campus–the language intensive and the study abroad program are completely separate despite being about a mile apart.

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