Tom Lantos on CCTV

A US congressional resolution calling for Japan to apologize for the use of sex slaves during World War II is – no surprise – generating quite a bit of positive interest in China. The Chinese have long demanded explicit recognition for this particularly heinous crime of the War, and they are no doubt appreciative of the support lent to their cause by the US government.

That said, I must admit that I nearly slipped off my treadmill at the gym this morning when I saw a wall of televisions suddenly flash images of Representative Tom Lantos of California speaking to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Lantos is a man of unimpeachable courage and moral credibility (a Jew, he served in the anti-Nazi underground during World War II), and he is also a long-time critic of China’s human rights record. For example, few were as vocal or vociferous in their criticism of google’s decision to allow Chinese censoring of internet searches than Lantos.

Unfortunately, I was listening to an ipod, and not the gym’s audio feed, so I couldn’t hear what the announcers had to say about Lantos. But judging from the length of the clip, and quotes from his testimony found online, I imagine that it was positive. Though likely inadvertent, I can’t help but think that the House’s determination to pass the Japan resolution will improve its overall image in Beijing, where – I’m told – the protectionist tilt of the Democratic majority has ruffled feathers.

And all I got was this lousy skyscraper.

I was in a gift shop in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, looking for something – anything – to take with me as a souvenir of my nearly two weeks in Vietnam (on assignment). The bottles of Vietnamese liquers stuffed with cobras were interesting; the T-shirts were nice; the pointy hats were promising. But then, in the back of the shop, I came across this:

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That’s right – a Vietnamese-manufactured “wooden magnet puzzle” of the IDS Center in Minneapolis. For those not from the Upper Midwest, the IDS is the tallest building in downtown Minneapolis (what’s that I hear? A thousand web-surfers suddenly clicking elsewhere?). It’s also a beloved icon. For those of us who grow up in the Twin Cities, a visit to the IDS Center was a childhood event.

So of course I spent the roughly $5 and bought the puzzle.

I’ll admit, I was expecting disappointment, and the box practically promised it:

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Actually, the IDS was completed in 1974, a fact that I learned from the lengthy Wikipedia entry on the IDS that the box label totally cribs – except for the date of completion.

Then again, who expects accuracy when we’re dealing with the world’s 124th tallest building?

While on the topic of shame-worthy, I should mention that it took me a good ten minutes to figure out how to put the thing together. The results are in the image below.

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I realize that the photo doesn’t exactly lend the impression that this was a difficult assembly task. But in my defense, I’ll point out that the puzzle doesn’t exactly resemble the IDS as Philip Johnson envisioned it. The Crystal Court, in particular, is a lame approximation of the building’s best feature.

On the other hand, the fantasy park and two fake trees that ring the puzzle IDS – though a total fiction – are a fine suggestion for a downtown in need of some open space.

Attractive Soldiers

The outright propaganda feature is a dying art at China Daily, and I – for one – miss it greatly. So I must admit that I was absolutely delighted to read Wang Shanshan’s extended love letter to the PLA’s “attractive” Hong Kong garrison.

What does Wang see fit to tell us about the ever-virtuous Hong Kong PLA soldiers? Why, they’ve never once broken a traffic law, and they would surely never interfere with the working of Hong Kong’s courts. Last year, they re-scheduled a land-assault drill so as to avoid frightening beach-goers, a local yachting club, and the children of a nearby primary school. Locals who fall sick while visiting the garrison (and many do visit) are given expert medical care and the all-day company of a nurse. And out of respect for its neighbors, the PLA never, ever honks its car horns.

Of course, no paean to the virtues of the Chinese people would be complete without at least one back-handed slap at those whom the international community might incorrectly assume behave better than the heirs to 5000 years of civilization. Thus, Wang, knowing his genre, fulfills his obligation:

“Hong Kong people are always nice when they visit our barracks on the open days,” said Liao [a soldier stationed with the garrison]. “The are gentle and polite. They never spit or pick flowers. They showed us a society that is different from what I’ve seen in Hong Kong movies.”

Nice.

Low Moments in Aviation History, Chapter 1

On two occasions in five years I have ridden in a Chinese taxi at night with the headlights purposely turned off. In both cases, I complained, and in both cases the driver patiently explained to me and my fellow passengers that he was saving fuel (he wasn’t – but I’ll leave that discussion to wikipedia).

I bring this up because of an experience that I recently had on the tarmac at Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport. I was on Shanghai Airlines flight 9302, Guangzhou to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, departing at 2:30 PM on a tropical afternoon (temperatures exceeded 38 celsius that day). As we left the gate, and taxied to the runway, the plane slowly began to heat up. This would have been no matter except that we sat on the runway for twenty minutes, awaiting clearance for take-off. As we sat, the plane continued to heat up. After five minutes, I noticed people sweating, fanning themselves, and trying to turn on those annoying overhead vents that blow concentrated air on passenger heads . After ten minutes, I paged a flight attendant and asked whether the air-conditioner was on. She answered – no surprise – that it was not. I asked that it be turned on. She said that she would tell the pilot. Of course, she didn’t – I watched as she returned to her seat beside cockpit door and muttered something to another flight attendant, who was busy fanning herself.

I don’t know anything about jet mechanics, but it seems to me that turning on the air-conditioning in a pressurized cabin probably doesn’t draw down much more fuel than what is already being consumed by idling the engines on the tarmac. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. If anybody can offer some insight into this, I’d appreciate it.

Easy Tiger

In an era when sampling and recording software render the art of songwriting more and more rare (and, in some quarters, borderline obsolete), a new Ryan Adams collection is a major event. So it is no small news – in my world – to learn that Ryan Adams will release his ninth album, Easy Tiger, on Tuesday.

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Adams would have been a major artist at the height of the 1970s singer-songwriter era; that he is a major artist but a minor star now make him all the more valuable. Few musicians have his knowledge of American music; even fewer can actually work convincingly in so many genres. For me, personally, Adams is my favorite country artist of the last five years AND my favorite rock artist AND my favorite singer-songwriter. Some writers have criticized him for working in so many genres, but I’ve never understood why. In fact, I think one of the great virtues of Ryan Adams is his subtle but implicit ability to connect the dots between the various genres of American music in such a lush and soulful way.

A few tracks from the new album are posted on the Ryan Adams page over at myspace. They’re all great, but I find myself returning most often to “Two,” and the gentle, delicate vocal that opens the first verse. Other than Smokey Robinson, can anyone name an American male vocalist who sings a ballad with a more sincere and gentle vulnerability? (Ok, maybe Eugene Record on the Chi-Lites “Oh Girl). It’s an astonishing performance.

Reports from concerts indicate that Adams is concentrating more on his singing these days. In a lovely but brief City Pages review of his recent set at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, Andrea Myers reports:

Adams sat in line with the rest of the musicians and fidgeted while he sang, unsure of what to do with his hands in absence of his guitar. “I sometimes wish I was in Iron Maiden,” Adams joked between songs. “Who could get nervous playing ‘Aces High’?”

It’s a fair point, made even more poignant by the fact that Adams is an avowed “hair metal” fan.

Just who is in charge here, anyway?

I had just finished writing the lengthy post (below) on Church property in China when I received a phone call from a friend suggesting that I take a look at David Barboza’s June 24 New York Times story about being detained at a Chinese toy factory. It is an excellent piece of work for many reasons, but for now I’ll merely point out a passage that deals with the de facto autonomy with which local governments operate in China:

Many experts have told me that one of the most serious problems in China is that the government lacks the power to control the nation’s Wild West entrepreneurs, deal makers and connected factory owners.

Bribery is rampant, and government corruption widespread. Just a few weeks ago, the top food and drug regulator was sentenced to death for taking huge bribes from pharmaceutical companies. But it’s not clear that strong messages like that will stop the anarchy.

“China effectively has no oversight over anything,” said Oded Shenkar, a business professor at Ohio State University and author of “The Chinese Century: The Rising Chinese Economy and Its Impact on the Global Economy, the Balance of Power and Your Job.”

“People have this idea they are Big Brother and everyone is under watch,” Mr. Shenkar said. “But this is not China. In China, local authorities often turn a blind eye to problems because maybe they’re invested in it.”

In addition to discussing this issue in the context of Church property, I’ve recently blogged about it here and here.

Property Rites

Earlier this week AsiaNews reported that the government of Henan Province has decreed the destruction (by dynamite!) of a well-known Marian shrine near Anyang. According to the article, upwards of 40,000 people visit the shrine during an annual pilgrimage that is scheduled for July 16. The shrine itself was built 1903-1905, and was nearly destroyed during World War II and the Cultural Revolution. Finally, the shrine is presumably licensed for use by the “open” Church; according to the AsiaNews article, on May 14 Anyang revoked the permit for both the shrine and the 2007 pilgrimage.

This story is beginning to ricochet around the blogosphere, with some commentators erroneously ascribing the action to the “Chinese government” (notably, Amy Welborn’s really excellent blog). Though it may seem like a subtle point, the “Chinese government” – insofar as that means a federal entity in Beijing – has nothing to do with this situation (if the AsiaNews article is to be believed). Instead, the local government of Henan Province – and, it seems, Henan’s governor himself – are behind it:

In the meantime, since the end of May a “working group” from the local government has installed itself in Tianjiajing. According to some suppositions, the local government move requisitioning the lands and abolishing the pilgrimage is due to the geographical position of the Church, on the summit, above a valley ideal for the building of a hotel or perhaps country villa of some Party member.

In other words, the local government’s motive for destroying the shrine likely has very little to do with religion or the suppression of it – and everything to do with greed and real estate. However, the fact that the shrine and church need to be registered with the local religious affairs authorities provides the rapacious individuals who want the property with the perfect means of seizing it. In effect, by rendering the property illegal, they can take it.

This is not a new or uncommon story in China. Media, Western and Chinese, have been reporting on illegal land grabs by property developers in collusion with local government for several years now. Nor is this the first instance in which Church property has been appropriated illegally by land developers. In November 2005, 16 nuns in Xi’an were beaten by thugs presumably hired by a property developer with eyes on property occupied by a Catholic school building.

The issue of Church property in China is a complicated one. During the Cultural Revolution, Church properties (and those of other religions) were appropriated by the Chinese government and converted into other uses, including government offices and factories. For example, Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral was converted into a grain warehouse. Below, a photo of the cathedral’s apse taken during the Cultural Revolution [and thanks to Fr. Tom Lucas, S.J., of the University of San Francisco, for the image]:

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During the late 1970s, as China began to allow limited religious expression, China’s State Council took an interest in insulating China’s Catholic and Protestant organizations from foreign influence. One way of doing this, the State Council determined, was through the return of Church properties seized over the prior twenty years. That way, China’s religious could then generate money from their real estate and not have to depend upon foreigners. On July 16, 1980, the State Council issued “Document 188: Concerning the Real Estate of Religious Bodies.” The introduction included this highly illuminating paragraph:

The implementation of a policy on real estate of religious organizations is helpful to the carrying out of the principles of independence and autonomy of the Catholic and the Protestant Churches in our country. It is also helpful in the fight against the infiltration of foreign religious powers, and is also an appropriate means to solve the problem of self-support of religious organizations and the financial needs of religious personnel. Therefore, this task should be dealt with from a political perspective, and be treated as a special issue.

It is unclear whether Document 188 is still relevant. It may have been superseded by other State Council directives. But what is important to note is that – for various reasons – high-ranking officials in Beijing wanted Church property returned and respected. As with most matters of law in China, the degree to which the decree was followed varied by local government. For example, in Shanghai the local government has generally respected Church property, and most Church property has either been returned to the diocese or compensation has been arranged. But that is not the case in all dioceses.

In either case, it is worth noting that the Catholic community in Henan is not without recourse in the matter of their Marian shrine. An interesting paragraph from the AsiaNews story – that was left mostly unexplained – hints at alternatives:

“It’s unbelievable that they have done this “, one faithful tells AsiaNews. “These local communist leaders don’t even know the central governments laws governing religious polices, they only create useless and dangerous tension”. “We will never give in “says another faithful. “We are not afraid and we will defend our legitimate rights to the very end”.

How will they defend their rights? Well, as ridiculous as it may sound, litigation might be a legitimate option. In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times described how an underground Protestant in Shandong Province successfully sued a local police department after being arrested for running an unregistered house church [subscriber only]. Meanwhile, property owners throughout China (not counting religious ones) are learning how to successfully protect themselves from illegal appropriation by developers and local governments. In this case, like so many not related to religious property, the ability to turn back the developers will be very much limited by the location of the action and, I suspect, whether or not Beijing wants to step into the situation.