Nationals Win the Opener.

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[Photo Update: I've been informed that not everybody recognizes the subjects of these two photos. So, just to clarify: the top one shows Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang at today's ceremony marking the start of the Olympic torch relay through China; the lower one shows President Bush throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at last night's home opener for the Washington Nationals baseball team - which they won.]

As a lifelong American sports fan, I’m accustomed to seeing politicians appear at sporting events. And, like most American sports fans, I really wish they wouldn’t – I’m there for the @#$% game, not the propaganda and self-serving PR value fed to me by some politiican most likely running for re-election. But in China – especially in the run-up to the Olympics – the game is the propaganda. To an extent, the difference reflects the fact that international competition is a low-priority for most US sports fans who value -rightly so, in my opinion – professional competition between the best and highest-paid athletes in the world (question: where does Premier league compare in salary structure?). Does anybody really think that, say, the Olympic basketball final will feature higher quality play than the average NBA game in April? I don’t. Anyway, the nationalism that animates many of China’s sports fans has no real analog in the US.

To be sure, flag-waving, “USA” chanting American sports fans are a fixture at the Olympics and other international events. But those tend to be transitory fits between viewing the higher quality US professional leagues. As a result, no US politician has ever managed to co-opt a sporting event for political purposes as completely as the Chinese leadership have co-opted this one (and that goes for Ronald Reagan and the 1984 LA Olympics). I’m going to have much more to say on the topic of politics and sport in the coming months, but for now I’ll let this be my response to those who insist on telling me “that this should be about the athletes and not necessarily about politics.”

Like A Refugee Museum

On Sunday afternoon I was in Hongkou, retracing some old reporting for a new story, and I decided to take a two block detour over to the old Ohel Moishe Synagogue. In 2006, I became quite familiar with the building, and its neighborhood, while researching two stories related to World War II-era Jews who were granted refugee status in Shanghai (my favorite¬† of these stories can be found here). It’s been more than a year since my last visit, and I’ve since heard that the synagogue has undergone some restoration work. Which, in fact, it has (see photo after the jump), and to its great benefit.

Anyway, the renovations are fairly old news (they were largely complete by Fall 2007). What is news – and what is also worth seeing – is the new refugee museum behind the synagogue. According to the charming old docent (below, in protective museum booties), the Museum isn’t scheduled to open for “another month or so.” But, it’s so great that “somebody” decided to open the doors on Sunday for a sort of makeshift sneak preview requiring the aforementioned booties.

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Unfortunately, but understandably, the docent asked that I not take any photos inside of the museum. So you’ll just have to bear with me as I testify: this is one great museum. It’s a modest space, to be sure, but entirely modern and – best of all – it features great multimedia, including several extended videotaped interviews of Jewish refugees who lived in Hongkou during the 1940s. In 2005 I had the privilege and fun of spending several days walking Hongkou with a returned German-Jewish refugee, listening to his recollections, and his rusty Shanghai dialect; the museum’s priceless taped interviews are the next best thing to having that kind of experience. Continue reading

The Great Man Theory of Eating

[Alternative Title: "You Picked a Fine Time to Feed Me, Beijing"]

A little quiz.

On the verge of the Olympics, Beijing opens one of the largest, and most architecturally uplifting, airport terminals in the world. In an effort to improve guest services, the airport authority invites outside vendors – Starbucks, KFC, TCBY(!) – to set up shop in the concourses. So – which foreign restaurant chain has the most prominent perch in the new terminal, the pride of place, the American chain sign most visitors will see first?

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That’s right – Kenny Rogers Roasters.

[What? You were expecting McDonald's?]

I’ll admit. This troubles me. It troubles me because – among other reasons – it takes only a few minutes to figure out that Kenny Rogers no longer has an ownership interest in Kenny Rogers Roasters (the company was acquired by Nathan’s in 1998). It troubles me because – even though he has no ownership interest – the Beijing airport outlet shows an endless loop of Kenny Rogers concert footage to its customers. And this is all the more strange because I’ve never, ever sensed that Kenny Rogers has a Chinese fan base (I’m open to being corrected on this point). Continue reading

What is Patriotic religious education?

Earlier this week, Meng Jianzhu, China’s Public Security Minister, and a member of the State Council, visited Lhasa accompanied by military and religious officials, including Ye Xiaowen, the Director of China’s Religious Affairs Bureau. It is the highest-ranking delegation to visit Tibet since the unrest began, and its composition – military and religious affairs officials – was no accident. Though unreported in the Chinese media, Meng had a very specific message for the region’s restive Buddhist monks: the monasteries will be stepping-up “patriotic education” campaigns.

Patriotic education in Chinese religious seminaries has been a cornerstone of Chinese religious policy since the early 1980s, and the fact that Meng – and presumably, Ye Xiaowen – are planning to require more of it provides a very useful insight into the way that China’s highest policymakers are thinking about the sitation in Tibet (and, by reasonable extension, religious policy in general). So, in hope of clarifying certain issues emerging from Tibet, especially those related to religious policy, I’m going to use this post to offer a brief primer on Patriotic religious education, its origins and current status. Many reports from Tibet and West China are mentioning it, but I’ve yet to find any that explain what it is, why it exists, and where it comes from. In my opinion, those questions are key to understanding the religious component to the ongoing crisis (merely one facet, but an important one). Continue reading

Terminal (3) Operations.

Chalk it up to my declining powers of perception, but yesterday I somehow managed to fly through Beijing Capitol Airport’s massive new terminal 3 building (986,000 square meters!) without knowing – or noticing – that it was the super-structure’s first fully operational day (h/t to Micah for pointing it out).

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In my defense: the terminal has been open and operating since February 29. Yesterday was actually Phase 2 of a staged opening, with twenty additional airlines (including Shanghai Airlines, which I flew) moving their operations to the new building. Still, in the spirit of giving credit where it’s due: the fact that I didn’t notice anything unusual, any glitches, or even a delay (on my flight) is a credit to whomever is running things over there. It’s a comfortable, visually stunning facility, and I must concede that – in the future – I will no longer dread (as much) flying in and out of Beijing. This is progress. Continue reading

Selective Blocking of the SCMP?

In the early days of the current Tibetan crisis more than a few bloggers (have) reined in their comments on the crisis for fear that their blogs would be blocked by China’s online censors (thus losing access to a Mainland Chinese audience). Though traditional journalists did not have the same level of concern, I know for fact that several foreign correspondents were expecting their sites (major newspapers) to be blocked in China in retaliation for aggressive coverage of the issues. That this hasn’t happened on a wide scale – the blocking, that is – might be a testament to how little the Chinese authorities fear the English-language media (the number of Chinese who can and do read them is vanishingly small). Whatever the case, it’s a surprise.

But if all is well with media based overseas, the same cannot be said for media based in Hong Kong. Case in point: the South China Morning Post. For the last week, subscribers – like me – have been able to access the paper’s contents without a problem so long as those contents don’t include critical stories about Tibet. Positive stories – say, relatively benign accounts of yesterday’s foreign journalist junket to Lhasa – those get through. Of course,this is nothing new: China’s Great Firewall (or Golden Shield), has imposed content-specific blocks for years (The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows describes the means by which they do this, here). But usually, those blocks apply to an entire site. What I’ve never seen before the current crisis, are blocks that might apply to only a portion of page, or site. Take, for example, a screen shot taken just a few minutes ago, after I tried to access a negative Tibet-related story on the SCMP (please click on the image for the full-sized, detailed image):

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Somehow, someway, the actual content of the story – minus the headline – has been deleted. However, if I access the same story using a proxy (in this case, TOR), the full content is readily available (again, please click the thumbnail for a detailed screen shot).

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I’d be curious to hear from anyone who is experiencing something similar. It’s possible, I suppose, that this is nothing new, that content-specific blocks like this have been happening for years, and I’ve just been missing them. If that’s the case, please let me know.

China Environmental Law Blog

A very brief but very enthusiastic plug for the new China Environmental Law blog. It’s only been up for a month, but it’s already published great commentary, great links to important source materials, and some really fine writing. Run by a Shanghai-based lawyer by the name of Charlie McElwee, it promises and delivers daily discussion of China’s environmental and energy laws and policies. This is really, really useful stuff.