Tuesday, April 29, 2008

more censorship

Another development in our ongoing experience with censorship in China is worthy of mention.

Of late there has been extensive discussion in the (foreign) news of the Tibet unrest, the Olympic Torch relay, the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the environment – The Chinese press carries some of this, but with an obvious Chinese bias.

While I have been leery of discussing any of these issues in my formal classes, I have done so with interested students in my office. The result has been some interesting discussions, with my goal (sometimes more effectively achieved sometimes less so) of increasing my interlocutor’s openness to other, sometimes opposing views.

In these discussions I invariably stress that I am not engaged in attempting to convince them of my “correct” opinion – but rather to expose them to alternative viewpoints that challenge the official Party line. A lesson in critical thinking, the power of the media and the benefits of openness to opposing opinions.

Yesterday I was informed in passing by a friend that the university would be hosting a professor from a neighboring university who is an expert on Tibet. The professor was to give a lecture to mid-level campus officials on the history of Tibet in China, the riots and the efforts at dialogue with the Dalai Lama. I was intrigued and excited at the opportunity to hear a lecture that would summarize the Chinese position on Tibet – one that was not filtered through the mass media.

Oddly, no-one seemed to be aware of the lecture, and students and most faculty were not invited. Since the lecture was about to begin, I contacted another colleague (with whom I’m conducting a project) on campus for information on the venue. She seemed surprised about the lecture and said she was unaware of it. Odd, I thought.

After figuring out the lecture venue, I somewhat apprehensively decided to nonetheless attend. Standing outside the lecture hall (they had already begun) I listened through an open door to decide if I would be able to understand the accent of the speaker (I find a thick local accent almost incomprehensible). Deciding that I would probably understand around 70% of the content, I chose to enter.

At that point I noticed some startled faces in the audience staring at me through the doors (interspersed among the many sleeping attendees). The head of the foreign affairs office was among those who spotted me and quickly came to me before I could enter the lecture hall.

He asked what I was doing there, and after I explained my interest in the topic he asked who had told me of the lecture… I obfuscated…. With a smile…. He then proceeded to explain that the lecture would be boring, that it was really only for mid-level officials, that I could learn everything that was being said from the internet, that it was irrelevant to my research and that he lacked the authority to allow me to enter – all with a smile….

I, innocently explained that as a political scientist I was quite interested in the topic – even if not directly relevant to my research. I also described how eager I was to enhance my understanding of the Chinese position on Tibet in order to achieve our shared goal of greater mutual understanding between China and the West (I’m still smiling here)

The official explained that in fact the lecture covered three points (I mentioned these earlier) and that he would be pleased to invite me for dinner and tell me all about the lecture… but (smile) I couldn’t attend.

At this point I bowed to the inevitability of the situation, thanked him and departed. There will be no dinner, of this I am confident. Ah, and as for that friend I called about the venue – the one who didn’t know about the lecture? Well, since the lecture was in the same building as her office, I thought I would pop in to discuss a project we have been working on. Imagine how surprised I was to discover she wasn’t there! Her office mates explained to me that she was busy attending a lecture on Tibet.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Passover in Xi’an was a mixed bag. In some ways it didn’t meet my expectations and in some ways it surpassed them.

We had invited several people. My Chinese language teacher, Carly, a devout Christian who is always peppering me with questions about Jews and Judaism, and was very excited to receive the invitation. A lovely Muslim young man from Turkey (Sirkan) whom we have befriended, also very devout and extremely interested in other religions. Sirkan came to Xi’an about a year and a half ago not speaking English or Chinese, and has since become very proficient in both – he’s really amazing and is wonderful with our kids. Sirkan brought his friend, Khalil – also a very lovely guy, wonderful with kids, who showed us pictures of himself participating in a ritual slaughter here in Xi’an before their Id el Fitr feast. Sirkan and Khalil had invited us to their place several weeks ago and (with their other roommates) cooked a marvelous meal for us including home made yogurt, Turkish tea, and other treats. Khalil does not speak English very well, but says he understands much better than he speaks. Lastly we had our friend Tom, an English/Israeli hybrid and his girlfriend Cynthia. Cynthia is from Xi’an and is non-religious.

So, I had wonderful dreams that this would be a very interesting, inspiring, multi-faith experience. Well, it was definitely interesting, and definitely multi-faith. But the problems started before the Seder began.

We went on a trip to a place called Luoyang just before Passover as there was an organized trip from our university. Timing was awful, and we arranged to leave the trip early so we could prepare for Seder . . but it was too much of a stretch. Y was against participating in the trip, but I pushed hard. Travelling is difficult in China and it's nice (and cheaper) when it's organized for you . . and I feel the end of our year approaching and there's so many places I still want to go. Anyway, we came home to an extremely rushed prep experience (we did the Passover cleaning and other prep in advance, but not the cooking), which meant a late starting seder. Challenging for us, especially after 3 days of tiring travel. All of our guests were respectful, and tried hard in their own way, but it was too much of a stretch. Khalil’s English was just not good enough to keep him interested in the Seder, and since he was the playful type, and sitting beside Noam . . . you get the picture. Needless to say, Noam does not need a lot of encouragement to get distracted. So we spent much time trying to encourage Noam to participate without making Khalil feel like we were reprimanding him. But it was not workable. Tal was helpful in the kitchen and in the prep time, but felt a little uncomfortable with all of the unfamiliar adults.

Between the English/Hebrew/Chinese/Turkish translations, there was always someone struggling to understand, and it was difficult to keep everyone focused at the same time. Yoni and I were trying our best, but after a really rushed seder prep, with me constantly fretting about not having enough food (we did), we were not at our best. Even Tal started to become anxious, “are we going to have enough food?” You get the picture.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. There was some interesting discussion about how the different faiths approached the Exodus story – and everyone was very nice and pleasant to be with. And Noam did a great job with the 4 questions, even though he said he was nervous he came through without a hitch.

Still, we decided to have a family-only seder the next night (didn't really plan on having two seders, but it felt right) after a long family discussion the morning after. This time everyone was better behaved and we all prepared something. It was really lovely and made up for the shortcomings of the first seder, and then some. Next time if we want a diverse seder, I think we will need to bring in some different texts and approach it in a totally different way.

And the lessons of life go on and on and on.

Just another quick note regarding all this talk about Jewish stuff. When a Chinese colleague or friend hears that we're Jewish, the response is very interesting. Almost universally positive, overwhelmingly so. So I began asking people why they think so highly of the Jews. Several mentioned that they have read in many books that the Jews are extremely smart, some of them even say that we're the smartest people in the world. I supposes I could explain to them the multitude of examples where this is not the case, but so far have just enjoyed the good feelings. It's nice to travel in a country where people have such a positive response to your heritage. We should probably try to find some of these , "why the Jews are great" books before we leave . . . to keep us feeling positive when we need it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Views From a Student

In this blog, I am including a note written by one of my students. She has given me permission to post it here. I am posting it exactly as she has written it (grammatical and spelling errors included). She wrote it after several class and private discussions on the subject of Tibet and censorship, as she felt that I really didn’t seem to understand her points, or those of many of her classmates. My student stated that she feels her views represent the majority of Chinese people and, based on my conversations with other friends, students, and foreigners, I am inclined to think that she is correct.

Some additional information about this student, which I think is relevant, is that she is an amazing young woman. As “class monitor” she is always organizing other students, ensuring that everyone’s needs are met, and is always looking out for others. After one class, when the subject of family violence came up, she approached me afterwards regarding a friend of hers who comes from an abusive family. She was worried about her friend and wanted to know how she could best support her. I know her a little better than some of my other students as we volunteer at the same special needs orphanage, and have gone there together on one occasion. She has wonderful dreams about social justice, assisting the downtrodden, and empowering others.

Dear Linda:

I really want to write something for you about Chinese politics, especially Olympics and Tibet.

First, about Tibet.

1. Why does Da-Lai La-Ma ask for independence?

I do not think they ask for independence in order to protect so-called culture. I have three reasons.

A. Chinese central government does not resist or abolish their culture, even not limit. They can develop by themselves because Chinese central government gives them more right to govern their region than Han people. So in this point I want to ask “no destroy. Where is protection?”

B. Of course, everything will change as the time goes. Maybe their culture is gradually disappearing because of the influence of Han culture. But how to protect it effectively? It’s a long way to go and also they should use scientific method, our aim is to deal with things, not to make it mess.

C. If they really want to protect their culture, why do they do that kind of disaster? They rob shops, kill people, and fire buildings? So “protect culture” is just an excuse and a lie. If they really want to protect their culture, please communicate with our Chinese central government and also give their own methods about how to protect their culture.

So, I can say, the real purpose why Da-Lai La-Ma cause this big disaster just want to make things mess, cause chaos to get Tibet independent. Once Tibet is independent just as they expect, they can get more power and more right. So just for right, for power, they cause this disaster.

2.About citizen in Tibet

From some investigation and some information from my major teachers I can say majority of Tibet citizens are good. They love country, religion and culture. In their mind they really want to protect their culture and the place where they were born and grow up. So Da-Lai La-Ma make use of it. Most of them support our Chinese central government but they are utilized.

3. About CNN

Among us we hate CNN. It is not because it says something we cannot accept, just for it tell lies. Maybe it tells some truth, but half lie and half truth. For example, it use some photos, of course which are true, but CNN just take one part of that photo to tell audience something it want to tell. CNN misleads some audience and cause some misunderstanding. So among us there is this kind of saying: “Please tell truth. Do not behave like CNN.”

4.How does our Chinese central government do? Of course, everything has two parts. Da-Lai group must be responsible for it. However, how does our Chinese central government do? Every Chinese know our government gives Tibet more support and money, so we think Tibet citizen should be satisfied about it. But is it enough? More Tibet citizens have their own religion. We should help them to protect and put more care about their spirit not only money.

And also communication. This is the bridge of friendship. We should know what they really need. Not just money.

5. How about this Tibet issue?

I think it will be put down, our Chinese central government can deal with it and control it. Although it becomes bigger and bigger some good sides have appeared. Somebody has surrendered themselves. Now Tibet is in a normal atmosphere and people have a normal life.

6. How about international response?

I think this issue belongs to China. It should be deal with by Chinese government. Other countries do not have the right to deal with.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


We just had a glorious visit to Hainan Island with my folks – the southernmost tip of China (at least the undisputed part of China) . . according to the Chinese there are things further south. But that’s another story. The pictures speak for themselves. It was pure luxury and a welcome change from our small apartment in polluted Xi’an. The swimming/beach pictures are from the hotel we stayed at – complete with water slides, beachfront, banana boats (we got thrown in the middle of the ocean), seawater pool, daily acrobatic show, you name it. Most of the tourists were Chinese, but there were also a ton of Russians, not to mention Koreans and a few other Westerners. Noam at one point looked at me and said, “it doesn’t even feel like we’re in China anymore.” Apparently Hainan, the island, feels very much like other parts of China, just with more tropical weather, but the place where we stayed for almost all of our visit (it was hard to drag ourselves away) – Yalong Bay, Sanya – is really an international resort. My dad and Tal even played golf one day, and there was lots of things to buy at VERY Western prices.

We took one day trip to a fun place called Monkey Island, where the monkeys roam freely. Even Tal came with us to Monkey Island, although it was touch and go for awhile. This time the monkeys stayed away from him, and he did his best to avoid sudden movements.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Jingdi's Tomb

As the weather in Xi’an has become warmer, we have begun venturing out more frequently for siteseeing. At this point I’m already getting emotional about all the wonderful places that we just won’t have time to visit. We love traveling, but we can only push the kids so far, and there’s still work and school. They always seem to get in the way.

The Terracotta Warriors are about 45 minutes outside of Xi’an and are quite incredible, we’ve been there a couple of times and a guide book will explain them better than I. But what we recently discovered is that the Terracotta are really not the most impressive historical site around Xi’an – it’s Emperor Jingdi’s tomb, locally known as Han Yangling. This tomb reveals more about daily life than martial preoccupations (a total contrast to the Terracotta Site) as Emperor Jingdi was influenced by Taoism and thus more focused on improving the daily life of his subjects rather than waging war. What a concept. His tomb is filled with anatomically correct, miniature terracotta figures, all without arms. The figures were originally built with moveable wooden arms that disintegrated over time, and clothed in silk cloth that met the same fate as the arms. The site has only been open for two years, so it is wonderfully under-visited compared to its more famous cousin – the Terracotta Warriors. Not a small draw since in overpopulated China we feel as if we’re elbow to elbow with people virtually all the time. I've included a few pictures of the tomb/museum.

Regarding Xi’an’s historical sites, there is so much more to uncover. Surrounding the city (and other places in China as well) are countless burial mounds . . including the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang himself (the man who unified China and had the Terracotta Warriors constructed to protect him in his afterlife). Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is very close to the site of the Terracotta Warriors, yet remains largely unexcavated. Burial mounds look like small hills and are literally buried treasure. Here's a picture of me and the boys standing in front of one near Jingdi's tomb - the entire site of his tomb is enormous and they've only dug in a few specific areas. I can’t quite understand why more archaeological digging is not going on (or even grave robbing, for that matter), yet each time I ask a tour guide or a local this question I receive a variety of befuddling answers. They’ll say that they want to leav

e some things for their future generations to discover, or that archaeologists can’t figure out how to excavate the artificacts without the figures losing their colour when exposed to air. The first answer seems absurd, and the latter answer has been floating around China for decades according to Yoni, and also seems rather absurd since some of the Terracotta that I’ve seen have colour, and I just can’t believe that modern science couldn’t have figured this one out yet. Especially since they’ve found a way to keep all of the terracotta figures at Jingdi’s tomb under glass in a carefully monitored environment.

I’m also including a picture of a panda from a place called “Louguantai” about 1.5 hours outside of Xi’an. There’s a famous panda preserve in

Chengdu that we’ve been told is a world class wildlife preservation site. We hope to visit if we can squeeze it in, but not sure we’ll manage it. Anyway, I didn’t want to leave China without seeing some pandas, so we decided to try Louguantai. We were a little reticent as I will never forget a zoo that Yoni, Tal and I visited in Nanking in 1999. The conditions were deplorable. No other word for it. We have specifically avoided the local zoo in Xi’an due to those strong memories. Anyway, this panda preserve in Louguantai was recommended by a German friend, so we decided to give it a try. It was really just a glorified zoo, and, although it was better than the Nanking zoo, still very disturbing. I won’t be going to another zoo in China. That’s a promise.

Last is a picture of me and Tal riding horses up a mountain – I think those are cherry trees we’re passing, but I could be mistaken. The mountains are just amazing this time of year – everything is flowering. Even our somewhat grubby campus is looking pretty.