May Day 2003: SARS memories for a swine flu present, pt. 2

[Part I in this series, including photos of SARS-era airport health screenings, can be found here.]

News reports to the effect that Mexico is largely being shut down for the long May Day Holiday have, once again, put me in mind of SARS and 2003. May 1, 2003, marked my first Chinese May Day, and my friends and neighbors encouraged me to join the festivities by taking a stroll down Nanjing Road where, they assured me, Shanghai’s families would throw-off months of SARS-related seclusion and go shopping – just like they’re supposed to do on May Day. Not that my friends and neigbors encouraging me to go to Nanjing Road were going to join me – no, they were still holing up in their apartments, boiling vinegar (the smell that – forever more – I’ll associate with the word SARS).

So I took an empty subway to People’s Square, crossed the street and – after walking for a few blocks – took the photo below (almost at noon, according to the time stamp). People who know Shanghai, and China, will immediately recognize two things in that image. First, it is astonishingly barren of people. And second, the sky is unusually blue.


For those readers unfamiliar with Shanghai, then, a couple of points. On weekends and holidays – especially holidays – Nanjing East Road might very well be the most crowded shopping street in China, if not Asia. Think of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, combined with the human currents of Bourbon Street (minus alcohol – admittedly, difficult to subtract) during Mardi Gras, and you’ve sort of got it. That’s normal. Then, the blue sky: we’ve had a nice spell of weather here lately, and the sky has been relatively blue. But during SARS, it wasn’t unlike the blue skies of my Minnesota youth – largely because of the near cessation of economic activity in China.

One other SARS-era May Day memory: the SARS ‘speakeasies.’ The authories had rightfully cracked down on public gatherings, and those included the expatriate bars. But Shanghai being Shanghai, and China being China, the bars pulled their curtains, ‘pretended’ to be closed, and then let customers in through the proverbial back doors and kitchen entrances. By May Day, the restrictions had lightened up. And yet, quite clearly, I remember going for a late-night May Day/night meal and drink and having to enter through an alley. Good times.

[Leonard Cohen’s take on “The Future” felt right back then, and even more so now. First four lines/:30, especially.]

Far from Black and White: Mara Hvistendahl on China’s ‘Patriotic’ Hackers

In late March, Infowar Monitor revealed the existence of GhostNet, a computer spying network that had inflitrated at least 1295 hosts in 103 countries. According to the report issued by the investigators, ownership of the network was unclear, but “circumstantially” pointed to China. For media more accustomed to reporting on computers than China, “China” in the case of GhostNet, meant the Chinese government. And so, in the weeks following the report, it became a truism in some corners of the media and internet that the Chinese government was operating a vast computer spying network.

However, among a smaller, more knowledgeable group of researchers and reporters, a much different story was being told. And that story had nothing to do with the Chinese government, and everything to do with a half-decade’s worth of research into independently operating patriotic hackers in China. However, telling such a story is complicated: not only does it require a certain level of technical understanding, but – if done well – it requires some understanding of how Chinese people interact with the Chinese government, and at least a cursory knowledge of China’s young nationalists (not to mention, the ability to read Chinese hacker blogs). My friend Mara Hvistendahl, a Shanghai-based correspondent who writes for Science, Scientific American, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New Republic and other publications, is just that reporter.

Late last week, Popular Science published Hvistendahl’s “Hackers: the China Syndrome,” a carefully reported story that focuses on Scott Henderson, a private researcher with an expertise on the Chinese hacking community. The story was completed before the GhostNet investigation was revealed, but the reporting is no less relevant and interesting for its very clear picture of how and why China’s ‘patriotic’ hackers operate, and what – structurally – they might look like. Highly recommended.

Over the weekend Mara answered a few of my questions about the PopSci piece, Chinese “patriotic” hackers, and the challenges and risks inherent in doing this kind of reporting (especially if you don’t know what you’re doing). She’s one of the very best and most original reporters working in China today, and I think her answers are a worthy read, both in their own right, and as a supplement to the PopSci piece.

Q. In the aftermath of the “GhostNet” report, people were quick to point their fingers at “China” – with the idea, I think, that some aspect of the Chinese government was behind it. However, your article seems to suggest that such an approach might be misguided, and that investigators need to be paying more attention to independent operators sympathetic to, but not necessarily part of, nation states. To me, this sounds a bit like the readjustment that the US Defense Department had to make when dealing with al-Qaeda as opposed to national entities. Is that a fair assessment? Continue reading

Don’t sneeze at others: SARS memories for a swine flu present

Now that swine flu hysteria is close to full bloom, I dug into the old photo archive and pulled up this classic set of instructional posters from SARS-era Shanghai. For a couple of months during Winter/Spring 2003, these were pasted everywhere – every spare wall (anybody out there remember if these showed up in other Chinese cities? or were there different posters?). The Shanghai posters became hot collectors items after the pandemic fears subsided. And, to this day, I regret not grabbing a set for myself.


[In case the photo isn’t clear, the English captions read (left to right) … Wash your hands often; Ventilate your rooms often; Don’t spit; Don’t sneeze at others.]

Two additional SARS-related recollections after the jump … Continue reading

Peng Wei’s ‘Paper Skin’

If you happen to be in Beijing on Sunday, April 26, allow me to recommend the opening of ‘Paper Skin,’ a new exhibition by my friend Peng Wei, at Gallery ARTSIDE, Space II, at 5 PM (that’s this Sunday). Address and contact info, here.


I should probably do a longer post about Peng Wei at some point. But, for now, suffice to say that – in this blogger’s opinion – she’s one of the most interesting painters to emerge from Beijing in the last decade. Among collectors (as it happens: two fine ink paintings on the wall behind me), she’s best known for her delicate ink paintings of women’s shoes, and her monumental, fictionalized images of classical Chinese robes. Her imagination is boundless; her technique is peerless.

To be sure, Peng Wei could spend her life painting shoes and robes for happy collectors . But what’s encouraging, and right, is that she’s beginning to explore works in three dimensions, among which are works that will be displayed at ARTSIDE. It’s the rare artist willing to buck her audience and market, but that’s Peng Wei, and that’s among the many reasons to go and see this very interesting show.

[For the record: I don’t do nearly enough plugging of my friends on this blog. But Peng Wei is special, and so let this plug be the start of more plugs to come (of other friends, and their work).]

Scrap Breaks for Earth Day

Almost forgot it was Earth Day. So in honor of Earth, please allow me to send you in the direction of last year’s good news Earth Day post concerning a very low-tech green solution to a serious Chinese environmental problem. I am, of course, referring to the famed “vibrating water table” post of April 22, 2008.

Also in honor of Earth Day: the staff over here is going to take a four day hiatus, ending Monday, that we’ll devote to some pressing real world issues, including this evening’s leftovers, pictured below:


If you’re in need of a China blog fix, there’s lots of good reading to be found on the blogroll to the right. But if that won’t do, might we suggest Bill Flanagan’s wonderful extended interview with Bob Dylan on the occasion of his new album? Not only will you get Bob’s thoughts on U.S. Grant, you’ll enjoy exchanges like this one: Continue reading

Visa Madness All Over Again.

Moments ago, I received a phone call from the organizers of a major industry conference and exhibition scheduled for Beijing in late May. For the sake of the people involved, I’m not going to name the conference or the industry, except to note that it is a very, very big industry employing many, many Chinese people in factories receiving a whole lot of Chinese economic stimulus funds. As for the conference: it’s being sponsored by a major Chinese trade group, several major Chinese state-owned enterprises, a notable division of Xinhua, several major foreign trade publications, and one foreign newswire. The people who own and operate companies in this industry (or, heck, analyze them) are not, generally, rabble-rousers. Indeed, they tend to be very conservative, verging on boring, with a strong preference for what some people like to call “stability.” Anyway, until a few minutes ago, I was a confirmed attendee at this conference. Then I had this conversation:

Conference Rep: “Are you aware that this year is the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party?” [actually, the founding of the PRC, but that’s the anniversary he commemorated on the phone.]

Me: “Yes.”

Conf. Rep: “Because of this, I’m sorry but we must postpone our conference until November.”

Me: “Really?”

Conf. Rep: “Many of our international participants will not be able to get visas due to the anniversary. Because of this we must postpone.”

Me: “Not get visas?”

Conf. Rep: “Yes, because of the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party the visa policy changes. So we will postpone until November. Perhaps you can attend then?” [again, stating the wrong anniversary, but you get the point] Continue reading

The Red Race

I received an email this afternoon from a friend who told me that I needed to find a copy of a documentary entitled “The Red Race,” which had aired Monday night on Shanghai’s venerable Documentary Channel. Directed by Gan Chao, a Shanghainese documentary filmmaker, the film offers stark and disturbing footage of a Shanghai-area gymnastics training center. I haven’t been able to find a complete copy of the film online, but there’s a ten minute excerpt available on YouTube complete with a Spanish voiceover. Don’t worry about the language issues, though: the footage itself tells enough of a story.

The film appears to have been released during the Olympics, which is why I must’ve missed it (along with all of the other China-oriented material unleashed and lost during that period). In any case, it seems to have been screened at a number of Western film festivals in the late summer and early fall of 2008. Those few who’ve written about it seem to fixate on the same sequence: two very young girls, in obvious pain, hanging from a parallel bar. The passage is equally engaging and disturbing, and you’ll find it in the aforementioned YouTube clip.

What I find particularly curious about the film (or, at least, the ten minutes that I screened on YouTube) is just how much it conforms to the worst Western stereotypes and fears of Chinese athletic training and – in contrast – how differently it was perceived in a Shanghai Daily article promoting it earlier this week. Whereas this English-language blog refers to the footage as displaying all the characteristics of “child abuse,” the Shanghai Daily quotes the director:

“When I took a gym class in 2007, I noticed these child gymnasts around me,” recalls Gan, 31. “I was touched by their optimism, courage and perseverance in spite of tears and injuries. I immediately decided to make a film chronicling their childhood.”

To my sensibilities, the former assessment seems far more apt. I found the footage to be deeply disturbing, and I find it hard to believe that Shanghainese sensibilities wouldn’t be similarly offended. In any case, decide for yourself, here.

In fairness, brutal exploitation of young athletes is an age-old phenomenon that takes on the national characteristics of wherever it occurs. For a very well-written (though not nearly as brutal) American example, see Michael Sokolove’s outrageously good “Allonzo Trier Is in the Game,” from the March 19 issue of the NYT Sunday Magazine. Just to be clear: I’m not drawing moral equivalents. But the NYT piece is, in its own way, a more affluent (by comparison) expression of the same phenomenon documented in “The Red Race.”