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The screws continue to turn

A friend of ours rides a fairly cool looking scooter. It’s a kind of Italian Piaggio or Vespa knock-off, but Chinese. When you buy one, you are advised to make good friends with your mechanic as he may be required to come and retrieve your broken-down bike from all parts of Beijing at any time. It’s also recommended to have the whole thing rebuilt on purchase, which can be done very cheaply.

The scooters are ridden without helmets, but you do wear anti-pollution face-covering bandannas, that make you look like the Sundance Kid in the middle of his day job.

Anyway. There is a point to this. Our friend has been riding this bike in Beijing for around three years without a license or any plates. Never had any problems with the cops, except the time he attempted to ride it across Tienanmen Square – and even then, he was only asked to get off and walk.

Last week the PLA unexpectedly impounded it, and he can’t get it back without first paying an enormous fine. He is rather shocked.

Reid also tells me China post have now banned the sending of any liquids through the Post until after the Olympics. How is that for random?

Three days of mourning

China is into the second of three days of mourning for the victims of the earthquake.

I didn’t quite know what this meant – but when Yu Mei arrived here yesterday and found Zara and I dancing to music, we got the short version.

There is to be no entertainment for these three days – no music, no watching TV, no video games, no surfing the internet. In the parks, there is no dancing, no singing, no bands playing. Cinemas are closed. Theatres are closed. The Olympic torch relay has been suspended. The state-run TV channels are all showing earthquake-related memorials, or have closed down. The English HBO, ESPN, Discovery channels, plus all the other entertainment-related ones, have also been closed (CNN and BBC World remain).

Yesterday, Nikki (who is the ranking NZ diplomat in town at the moment) went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to sign the condolence book for New Zealand and express our sympathies to the Minister.

And yesterday, at 2:28, exactly a week after the earthquake hit, there were three minutes of silence. Here is an account from someone at the Pew Research Centre

At 2:28 pm, I went outside our apartment building, alongside a big street and one of the major intersections of Beijing. Hundreds and hundreds of people left their offices, restaurants, and apartments to stand together to show respect with three minutes of silence. Cars stopped, and people got out to stand beside them or to look out over the bridges they were crossing. Jackhammers ceased pounding; cranes stopped moving. People were checking mobile phones for the time. Then, on cue, horns from every single car began to sound. It was not honking, but one long, continuous wail. This apparently happened all across China. Then after three minutes, cars started up again, and jackhammers and bus horns, too. Young women wiped their eyes with the backs of their hands. I thought that, for a few moments, the country had achieved its goal to be a “harmonious society,” just as the Party has been trying to build–but at what a terrible cost.

Winning Chinglish

In China, as you’d guess, there aren’t any Video Ezys or Blockbusters – when you want to watch a DVD, you head out and buy one – or ten, for about $4 a movie. The DVD shops seem to be disappearing the closer we get to the Olympics, the closures led by a very good one inside a Government-owned Friendship Store at Sanlitun.

In the good old days (say, 30 years ago), foreign diplomats were confined to a very small part of Beijing and were not allowed out, apart from visits to a couple of approved sites – places like the Great Wall. All staff were supplied by the Government Diplomatic Services Bureau (Yu Mei used to work for them), and diplomats were issued with a special currency only they could use. And the only shop that accepted this currency was the Government Friendship Stores, filled with random array of foreign and local goods.

These days anyone can buy from a Friendship Store, but their contents are still rather random. But a store close by was fairly famous for it’s good DVD collection – up until the local CNN bloke stood in front of it while presenting a story on China’s dubious relationship with copyright. The DVD section is now closed (and the wife of the CNN bloke has said if he does a story on copy handbags, torture will ensue).

So we now have to go a little further to buy the DVDs. They’re all very good quality (the shop will dissuade you from buying a movie that is filmed by a handycam in a theatre), but what impresses me is the loving care that goes into the DVD cases. Someone very handy with Photoshop must spend ages creating these cases, downloading the artwork from the internet and making up a very professional looking result.

The problem is, these guys don’t speak or read English. The results can be entertaining. The blurb on the back of the movie can be a little esoteric (I have a Tom and Jerry cartoon with a blurb describing a “shocking bloodbath”), the credits are usually wrong (my copy of Sweeney Todd apparently stars Steven Seagal and music by Herbie) and they tend to stick logos everywhere, no matter what they refer to (PAL! In Espanol! “Proof of Purchase”! R15! R18! M! (all one on one movie)).

But my current favourite is below. Apart from the ridiculousness of the movie itself (“Loch Ness Terror” is in fact set at Lake Superior), check out the cover (not safe for work – click on the picture to make it bigger).

And here is the (approved) news

The New York Times is reporting on superstitions in China, currently centered around whether the Chengdu earthquake could have been predicted.

Bloggers are now reporting it was obvious something huge was about to hit in the days leading up to the earthquake. A flood of omens presented themselves –

ponds inexplicably drained, cows flung themselves against their enclosures and swarms of toads invaded the streets of a town that was later decimated by the quake.

When a reporter asked about earthquake predictions in a live press conference shown on State TV (a rare thing around here), the conference was mysteriously interrupted for some stock quake footage, returning minutes later when the subject had been changed.

Predicting earthquakes is not a Government-approved topic.

This kind of thing is a nice example of how unsubtle the Government’s propaganda and censorship machine is in China. I may have mentioned this before, but our BBC World and CNN feeds come through a central box manned by the Chinese Government, who flip a switch when a story they don’t like is introduced. Of course, they don’t know it’s coming and they’re always a little late with the button, so usually we get something like “In Tibet today, further riots broke out among…” before the screen goes black. When it comes back, it is time for the weather.

This heavy-handed control of information extends everywhere. There is a Government-sponsored exhibition in town at the moment covering how much better-off Tibet is since China arrived in 1951 (as an aside, it took me three Googles to get that date – Wikipedia and something called are both blocked). According to this exhibition, Tibet was once a land of lawless atrocities and barbarism, where the torture of children and eating the young was the order of the day. Now there are schools, libraries and general pleasantness.

Now, I suspect your average Tibetan (without ever having met one, by the way) would agree that some aspects of the Tibetan way of life have improved markedly since 1950. As would, I might say, your average Chinese, who also experienced the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in the meantime. But it’s not the point – Tibetans don’t seem to want these improvements imposed on them by China, probably as these improvements also include limited cultural and religious freedoms.

That argument aside, I can’t work out who the exhibition with the tank-like subtlety is aimed at. Does the Government believe this will change the mind of the Tibetan supporters? Or is the exhibition supposed to reinforce the Government’s position to the believers?

If it’s the latter, then it is probably successful – there is little public questioning of the party line in China (though I’ve heard a lot of bitching goes on around the baijiu) . However, I suspect it’s the former. And it won’t convince anyone. I really think they don’t get how Westerners with a free media thinks about this sort of stuff.

PS – The local bloggers don’t get away with wandering off from the Government-approved line either. After the quake press conference,

officials announced the arrest of four people for spreading quake-related rumors on the Web and said they would be punished, although the officials did not describe the punishment or nature of the rumors.

Too much information

For those keeping track of these things, Zara used a potty for the first (and so far, only) time yesterday.


I’ve got about 6 posts to this blog all backed up in a draft state waiting for photos to get uploaded – the flood should start shortly – but in the meantime – we just had a pretty huge earthquake here.

It measured 7.6 on the richter scale, centered 1500 kilometers away from here in Sichuan province. As yet, no reported damage in the western media, but no-one has a reporter up there so they are relying on local sources.

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Here in Beijing on the 26th floor we felt a not-so-gentle rolling motion for at least two minutes. The lights swayed. I thought I has having a “nasty turn” (whatever that means). Yu Mei and Reid (home from work) started to feel sea-sick. After waiting a lifetime for it to finish, we decided to do what the locals were all doing and fled the building.

I know this is not the recommended thing to do, but it wasn’t much fun staying inside all looking at each other with white faces, so we took to the stairs. Looking out the window, I see quite a few Beijing ren haven’t gone back inside yet, over an hour later.

Yu Mei remembers well a huge earthquake in 1976 that killed hundreds of thousands, though the exact number is disputed. She was working out on a farm then, as China was still in the tail of the Cultural Revolution, and says after it hit she slept outside for weeks.

(1976 was a big year for China – that earthquake, the Gang of Four were arrested and Mao died).

Update: it’s becoming more and more apparent that this is an awful disaster. Harrowing news reports from the State news agency are coming in, and it appears the loss of life is absolutely horrendous.

Enterovirus 71 (EV71) intestinal virus

State media is reporting 3000 children in Eastern China have contracted the Enterovirus 71 (EV71) intestinal virus, and 22 have died. The virus is highly contagious.

Apparently the outbreak occurred in March in Fuyang (which is more Southern than Eastern really), but the authorities took a few weeks to report it officially.

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Rumours about how widespread it is in Beijing are flying about. The ex-pat network seems to think 1200 cases in the city (which makes the 3000 cases in all of China look a little light), with 800 of them in Kindergarten. Still, in a city of 18 million, that’s not bad odds. We kept Zara home from school last week, but she’ll be back this week we think.

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