Shouldn’t This Be Bigger News?

A chilling item from Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, reports that flooding along the Yangtse River will soon crest at the Three Gorges Dam. According to the report, current inflows into the dam’s reservoir already exceed the amount of water that the dam itself can disgorge, and those inflows are expected to increase. Can the dam sustain the stress? According to an unnamed source in the story, that’s less than certain:

“The Three Gorges Dam has opened 18 sluices and the water level in the reservoir will continue to rise,” said a worker with one of the dam’s operation department. “The safety of the dam will be tested.

The Chinese Scrap Crackdown

Over the last two weeks rumors and facts have been circulating in regard to a massive Chinese government crackdown on the scrap metal import industry in Southern China. Recently, I’ve received quite a few inquiries from industry players, media (both trade and general), and environmental groups as to what – exactly – is happening. Unfortunately, I am not in South China, so I cannot provide on-the-ground reporting. However, I have been in contact with many people who are directly and indirectly involved with the situation, and – so far as I can reveal information – this is what I know:

[Update: readers of this blog who are not scrap industry players might take note of the fact that scrap is the top US export to China, by volume … and the United States isn’t even the leading exporter of most grades of scrap to China. Japan is. This is a major business story, with serious consequences.]

1. The crackdown began in mid-June and not – as many have suggested – in early July. Continue reading

Umbrella Coverage

According to a July 19 story in China Daily (which I only noticed today), Premier Wen Jiabao holds his own umbrella in the rain, and that is cause for celebration among Chinese internet users.

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In the story, and (according to the story), Wen’s umbrella self-sufficiency is contrasted approvingly with photos of Chinese local government officials who insist on having their umbrellas held by others.

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I bring up this story – and these photos – because they highlight an important issue that is not often appreciated or covered in the Western media: namely, the common Chinese belief that local government officials are of lower quality (both as human beings, and as administrators) than their national superiors. These issues were documented most dramatically, and movingly, in “Will the Boat Sink the Water,” an exploration of contemporary Chinese peasant life published by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao in 2004 (and subsequently banned in China). Using several examples from Anhui Province, Chen and Wu explore the regal trappings of power cultivated and enjoyed by China’s (often) poorly educated local officials. In the book, those abuses are somestimes remedied – slightly – by the intervention of better-educated bureaucrats from Beijing (though Chen and Wu are quite clear that Beijing’s intervention is an extraordinary event, not a typical one).

Recent news events, including the awful Shanxi brick scandal, are stark expressions of the Chinese local government quality issue, and why those governments are held in such contempt by so many Chinese. Whether or not leaders in Beijing are, in fact, any better than the local government officials is a topic for another day (though I think it’s quite clear that they are). For now, I’ll note that it is quite interesting, indeed, that an item like the Wen umbrella story received coverage in the state-owned media. Surely, it makes Wen look better. But what interest is advanced by making the local governments looking worse than they appear already?

Greenpeace Gone Wild.

Since its inception in 1971, Greenpeace has enjoyed an almost unassailable reputation as an environmental crusader that answers to no one but the many individual green-tinted donors who support it. According to the organization’s website:

Greenpeace is an independent campaigning organization. We do not accept money from government or corporations. That’s why our financial supporters are our lifeblood.

In the United States, at least, this dependence upon individual donors has resulted in the employment of thousands of individual door-to-door canvassers, as well as seemingly endless direct mail campaigns that have become familiar to almost any American who somehow managed to end up on an environmental organization’s mailing list. In fact, according to Greenpeace’s 2006 financial report (see page 26 for the balance sheet), 25% of the organization’s 2005 income was devoted to fundraising expenses. It is no exaggeration to state that – in addition to being a professional environmental organization – Greenpeace is also a highly professional fundraising organization.

One of the ways that Greenpeace (and, to be fair, many other non-profit organizations) likes to raise money is to connect an appeal for donations to a specific news item and/or campaign by the organization’s staff. Ideally, such an approach cultivates a prospective donor’s emotional response without taking advantage of it. Of course, whenever news is crafted to appeal to emotions – much less, empty wallets – there is opportunity for abuse.

Which brings me to “Toxic Tea Party,” a news article listed under the “International News” section of Greenpeace’s international homepage. Dated July 23, 2007, and reported from Guiyu, China, “Toxic Tea Party” purports to describe the “uncontrolled environmental disaster” caused by the thriving trade in imported e-scrap in southern Guangdong Province. The story opens with a striking description of a tea party where a man named “Boss Guo” makes two cups of tea, one with bottled water, and one with local water likely contaminated by chemicals released during the processing of e-scrap. Next to this opening paragraph is a photo showing the results: the bottled water produces normal-looking tea; the supposedly contaminated water produces black tea. Below, a screen capture of the first paragraph, the dateline, and the photo:

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The photo in question was taken by Natalie Behring, and an enlarged version that credits the image to her can be found by clicking the story here. At the bottom of the enlargement page, the photo is clearly dated March 8, 2005. A screen capture of the (contradictory) dateline:

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Another Behring image from what appears to be the same shoot, can be found on flickr, and is dated March 9, 2005.

The “Toxic Tea Party” story includes several additional photos from Behring, most of which are also found on her personal site, and her flickr site, and all of which appear to have been taken either March 8 or 9, 2005.

In other words – the Toxic Tea Party that Greenpeace implies took place recently (as implied by the July 23, 2007 dateline) actually took place twenty-six months ago. Continue reading

“Your Buddhist and Catholic Thing”

My friend Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB, is a member of the Benedictine community at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and the Executive Director of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue [MID] – a fascinating program designed to foster dialogue and cooperation between members of monastic communities from different religious traditions. I’ve had the chance to discuss the MID with William in the past (and it’s something that I’d like to write about in the future), but I must admit that I did not fully appreciate how, well, participatory it could be until recently.

It seems that earlier this month William and a Buddhist monk by the name of Jotipalo Bhikkhu (of Abhayagiri Monastery, Redwood Valley, California) decided to take a week-long “alms walk” along the Paul Bunyan trail in Northern Minnesota. That is to say, they engaged in the Thai Forest tradition of receiving alms on a journey — through the heart of Minnesota’s Casserole Belt. The two monks maintained a journal, and it’s a fun, thoughtful, and recommended read.

Mavis Staples

A brief but heartfelt recommendation for “We’ll Never Turn Back,” the new recording of songs from the American civil rights movement by the almighty Mavis Staples. From a lesser talent, this would be a stiff and joyless exercise in self-righteous nostalgia. But this is Mavis Staples, the living nexus of American gospel, country, and R&B, and no other living musician has her spiritual and – above all – musical authority.

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In contemporary terms, Staples is best known as the lead female vocalist for the Staples and a string of mid-70s hits for Stax Records, most notably “I’ll Take You There.” But prior to those recordings, the Staples were one of the most successful gospel groups in American history and – most important – they were the voice of the American civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite band. Such a favorite, in fact, that they used to warm up audiences for King’s speeches.

Anyway, “We’ll Never Turn Back” is a marvelous, exhilarating, funky, moving and uplifting recording, and I just can’t recommend it highly enough.

[Briefly: that lovely cover image is a fine argument for the survival of the embattled CD (and vinyl!) format!]

[UPDATE: A reader just pointed me to a wonderful 4:30 promotional video for “We’ll Never Turn Back” on the Amazon site.]

[UPDATE 2: Who knew that there are so many Mavis Staples fans reading China blogs? Another reader suggestion: Mavis performing “Eyes on the Prize” on the Tonight Show.

Up From the Underground?

The Pope’s Letter to Chinese Catholics, released on June 30, received a brief flurry of media and blog coverage (at Shanghai Scrap, too!), and then receded into shadows cast by more immediate and (for some people) controversial Papal communications. Yet the lack of coverage – both in China and abroad – should not be taken as a sign that the Letter’s impact was brief and limited.

I’d like to briefly examine the election of Fr. Li Shan to be Beijing’s next bishop in terms of the Letter’s content, as well as recent and not-so recent Chinese Church history. But before I get to it, I want to point readers to an event and theme that is more immediately related to the Letter’s text.

Rick Garnett, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in church/state relations (and a regular at the very interesting Mirror of Justice blog), recently posted an insightful comment to Shanghai Scrap:

… it does seem to me that “official” recognition is not regarded as necessarily inconsistent with the freedom of the Church, even though “principles of faith and ecclesiastical communion” do constrain the conditions to which the Church submit as part of the process of official recognition. But how, precisely?

Garnett is quite right: How, indeed? For several weeks, now, interested parties inside and outside of China have speculated upon and even offered direction on how official status can be reconciled with the principles of faith, but – significantly – nobody (Chinese) in a position to demonstrate by example stepped forward.

That changed on July 12, when the underground bishop of Qiqihar, Joseph Wei Jingyi, released a letter that offers the first outlines of an answer to Garnett’s question. Unfortunately, the complete text of the letter has not been released to the media (so far as I know), so we are left with tantalizing excerpts as printed by UCAN and others (first reports of the letter emerged on July 18). I strongly encourage those interested in this topic to read the UCAN story. For now, I’ll sketch out some impression based upon that report. Continue reading