Quote of the Day

Posted on June 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Media. No Comments

From the inimitable Christopher Hitchens:

Wiser and older people tell you that the passions of your youth will dry up and that a more sere and autumnal condition will overtake you as maturity advances, but the thought of the Nixon gang in the White House still infuses me with a pure and undiluted hatred and makes me consider throwing up things that I don’t even remember having eaten.

North Korean Succession Sooner Rather Than Later?

Posted on June 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

It appears that the visit of Kim Jong-un to China, stringently denied by Beijing, actually happened. The Financial Times:

The son and heir apparent to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il joined a delegation of senior military officials for a top-secret, week-long visit to China in mid-June in spite of Beijing’s claims that no such trip occurred.

The visit was intended to shore up support for the inexperienced Kim Jong-woon, Mr Kim’s 26-year old son, and reassure North Korea’s closest ally that a smooth leadership transition was already under way, military, intelligence and diplomatic sources have told the Financial Times.

The Swiss-educated Mr Kim has apparently been given the title “bright leader”, following a tradition in which his father is known as the “dear leader” and his grandfather Kim Il-sung, late founder of the totalitarian Stalinist state, is referred to as the “great leader”.

The younger Mr Kim accompanied Jo Myong-rok, first vice-chairman of North Korea’s National Defence Commission, which is regarded as the country’s top governing body, and Jang Song-taek, a member of the Defence commission and Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law.

Mr Jang, who is a powerful political figure in his own right, has been put in charge of establishing Kim Jong-woon’s legitimacy, analysts say. The North Korean military delegation arrived by air in Beijing on June 10 and met senior Chinese officials during a clandestine visit that took them to Guangzhou, Shanghai and Dalian.

The elder Kim is pretty clearly unwell; could this visit by his son and handpicked successor indicate that a power transition could occur soonish? We’ll see, and of course we’ll see if such a change will even make a difference for the hermit kingdom.…

Michael Jackson

Posted on June 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Music. 2 comments

By the time I started listening to music, roughly 20 years ago, Michael Jackson was already past his prime. He was still a major star and a darling of MTV, but he had already begun his transition from the ‘King of Pop’ to ‘Wacko Jacko’. Within a few years would come the first charges of child molestation. Not long thereafter he seemed to fall off the music radar altogether and became better known for his bizarre antics; the marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, dangling his baby child out of the window, the move to Bahrain.

Plastic surgery so warped his appearance that it became difficult to even look at his face. He looked grotesque and inhuman. His death almost seems a relief as the long lacuna of his career was difficult to bear for his fans who so loved the man’s music.

The Michael Jackson his fans choose to remember–the man whose dancing and singing once dazzled the world- died long ago. …

Housekeeping Note (Part Two)

Posted on June 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Housekeeping. 3 comments

I’ve been thinking recently that the outlook and style of this blog could change a little bit. I’m sure some of you feel the same- the layout is a little too utilitarian, even for me. Alas, I’m hampered by two logistical problems. One, I don’t know to redesign/overhaul the blog’s look myself and two, I don’t have enough money to hire someone to do it for me.

Naturally, these two factors will limit what I’m willing and able to do. That being said, I’m curious to hear your suggestions as to how to improve the look and feel of this site.

In addition to the look, what do you think of the content? Are there topics- speaking generally- that you’d like to see me write about more? Are there topics that you’d like to see me write about less? Should I include more visual stimuli, such as photos and embedded YouTube videos?

Ultimately, I’ll continue to write about things that pop into mind. But it is instructive to me to hear what sort of posts my readership likes. Leave any suggestions or comments here or via e-mail. Thanks!…

Housekeeping Note

Posted on June 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Housekeeping. No Comments

At long last, your comments will soon appear on the site the moment after you leave them, as I will no longer have to moderate them. The reason I began moderating comments in the first place was due to the overwhelming amount of trackback spam this blog received on a daily basis. Each day, I would literally sift through hundreds of trackbacks in order to find the handful of legitimate comments I received. Needless to say, this process was extremely frustrating and time-consuming.

So here’s how the new system works. From now on, comments by first-time commenters- which means everyone at this point- will go into the moderation queue. Once I accept your comment, all subsequent comments will appear on the site immediately. I’m keeping first-time comments moderated just in case a few pesky spammers evade the Akismet filter.

I’m hoping this makes the ‘conversation’ on this blog move a little bit faster. If anything else, it will free up an enormous amount of time for me to write a little bit more frequently.

Again, if you ever feel a comment you left never appeared on the site, please send me an e-mail. I’ll see to it right away.…

China? Hardship Post?

Posted on June 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 6 comments

Via Glen at Lost Laowai, Business Week has published an asinine list of the world’s hardest ‘hardship’ posts; i.e., the worst places in the world to be an expat.

Some of the names on the list are obvious; Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya rank in the top ten. However, BW also includes the Chinese cities Suzhou, Qingdao, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

Are they kidding?

Granted, Business Week’s audience is more likely to be businessmen with families than twenty-something backpackers. Access to cheap beer doesn’t appeal much to the straight-laced family man. But I would argue that for anyone, the four cities listed are far from global hardship spots.

Much of the criticism aimed at China’s cities criticize their few opportunities for culture and recreation. Maybe they just aren’t looking hard enough. In Kunming, hardly one of China’s marquee mega-cities, I can see live music nearly every night of the week. There are also art galleries, museums, and lots of restaurants and bars in the city. Options multiply if one learns to speak Chinese, something I assume Business Week doesn’t expect its ‘expats’ to do.

Culture and recreation aside, are Chinese cities that ‘hard’ to live in? First of all, unprovoked violent crime is virtually non-existent here. Petty street crimes, like pickpocketing or bicycle theft, are arguably less prevalent than in many developed countries, such as Spain or Italy. People are out on the street a lot, even at night.

Unlike many countries around the world, Chinese cuisine is rich, varied, and tasty. Not to mention healthy. Each of the cities listed in this ‘hardship guide’ also boast plenty of decent Western fare for the homesick.

And unlike other societies, particularly in the Middle East, China’s is reasonably liberal. You can drink and smoke as much as you’d like. People are friendly and approachable. There are no real restrictions on dress. Having a relationship with a local isn’t all that uncommon, nor particularly frowned upon anymore. Pirated DVDs abound.

The biggest difficulty, I’d say, is in language; it can be difficult finding people who have a good understanding of English and Chinese isn’t an easy language to pick up. However, isn’t half the point of being an expat learning the language?

I only hope that enough people spot this list and decide to stay away. If everyone know how much of a joy it can be to live here, they’d come in droves.…

Being Gay in China

Posted on June 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture. 2 comments

From a friend, a Chinese woman in her mid-twenties:

My best male friend is gay, and he has known this for sure since college. He first told me and a few other female friends about his sexual orientation, a difficult admission to say the least. I encouraged him to tell his parents. His father, not long after his son broke the news, committed suicide. While there were other factors at play, my friend said that his announcement devastated his father. I felt very guilty after that.

His mother refused to believe that her son was gay, and began to seek a wife for him. Meanwhile, my friend fell in love with a male classmate in college. One day, he worked up the courage to tell this classmate that he liked him. The classmate not only rejected him, but also spread word of my friend’s homosexuality throughout campus. My friends and I told everyone that the story wasn’t true, that our friend was just joking. But the damage was done. At graduation, I walked up to the classmate and slapped him in the face.

Now, my friend works as a policeman. Almost all of his colleagues are men, and he would not dare tell any of them that he is gay. His mother eventually found a girl for him to marry. They are engaged, and preparations are being made for the wedding. My friend confessed that he has not yet slept with his fiancee. The thought of having sex with a woman repulses him. He even finds it difficult sharing a bed with her.

When I think of my friend, I feel sad and angry. But there’s nothing we can do about it.

The recent Gay Pride event in Shanghai drew a lot of attention from the Western media, whose common narrative trumpeted a new, more liberal China. Certainly, there are worse places on earth to be gay than in China. But I’m afraid that my friend’s tale is not uncommon, even in reasonably large and cosmopolitan cities like Kunming.…

Back in China

Posted on June 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. No Comments

Twenty days is a perfect amount of time to spend on a vacation home from China. The first five are used up fighting jet lag and being spoiled by friends and family who haven’t seen you in ages. The last three are devoted to shopping, packing, and squeezing in last-minute visits with people. That leaves just enough time in the middle to enjoy yourself thoroughly.

Any less time is too much of a whirlwind; any more, you start to feel a sense of routine creep back into your life, a disconcerting feeling of transition interrupting the pleasant mode of vacation.

My twenty days were nice. I caught a baseball game with my dad, my first live game since 2006. I watched or listened to several others. I ate all the wonderful food I love from back home and then some. I caught up with people who are important to me. I stocked up on clothes and coffee and books. I made an obligatory drive down the coast to LA, and later spent a couple of days showing my Australian friend, whom I know from Kunming, around San Francisco.

San Francisco is a treasure. While waiting for a friend, I spent a half-hour driving aimlessly throughout the city, making mental notes of what I saw at each red light I stopped at. I had forgotten the city’s great diversity; how neighborhoods of different character and appearance manage to blend seamlessly together, how on a clear day every hilltop has a breathtaking view, and the local coffee shops that straddle corners are beautiful.

As always, a place is only as good as the people who inhabit it. When leaving home for full-time residence in a place like China, maintaining friendships becomes difficult; people’s lives change and evolve and often there’s little opportunity to take stock in them.

With my friends, though, our reunions betray little evidence that we live thousands of miles apart. Everything falls into place, as if we exist in a Narnia-like fantasy world in which the main events of our lives exist behind a wardrobe.

Fortunately, leaving is made easy by the existence of a life here in Kunming, full of friends and work and fun. Walking around Kunming last night, fighting jet lag but saying hello to familiar faces, reinforces how lucky I feel to have a rich, fulfilling life on two continents.…

Can Iranian Politics Be Useful to China?

Posted on June 10th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, Current Events. 4 comments

Iran is presently holding a presidential campaign, in which the current president finds himself trailing in the polls. Recent accounts indicate that opprobrium between the two camps- those of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his challenger Mir Hussein Moussavi- is high. The two men have been campaigning feverishly across the country, with one holding the support of Iran’s large peasantry and the other favored by the country’s urban elite.

Of course, the cynic in me must point out that the results of this election will ultimately bear little effect on Iranian policy. The country’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, remains firmly in power, just as he has been for the past 20 years. The President, despite claims to the contrary by paranoid elements of the West, wields little actual power.

Nonetheless, I think this demonstration of democracy- no matter how inconsequential- is a good exercise for Iran and an example of the country’s vibrant civil society. The practice of having political debates aired in public seldom happens in most authoritarian regimes. I’m not suggesting that full-blown democracy is imminent in Iran. But if it were to happen, a democratic apparatus already exists. This is a good thing.

Could China emulate Iran’s political system? The Communist Party has no desire to relinquish control, of course. But China could create an additional layer of government in which this version of democracy is practiced. The CCP Politburo can still vet candidates, hold ultimate power, and pull strings, but I think genuine political debate, difference, and passion would be a good thing for China. Too many intelligent Chinese people I know have told me that the country must unite behind its leadership and not question its wisdom. Maybe a bit of good-old fashioned disagreement would do the country a world of good.…

Is China Complicit in The North Korea Journalist Case?

Posted on June 10th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, Current Events. 1 Comment

What is China’s role in the horrifying story of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two US journalists who have been sentenced to 12 years in a hard labor camp for illegally entering North Korean territory?

The journalists insist they were on the Chinese side of the border, something that shouldn’t really be a matter of dispute; the border is clearly demarcated by the Tumen River. If their account is true, then North Korean agents kidnapped them in a foreign country, raising questions of why China was unwilling or unable to protect individuals on its side of the border from foreign kidnapping.

How would China react, for instance, if North Korean agents were to capture Chinese citizens operating in Chinese territory? I doubt Beijing would take it well. Likewise, I imagine China would try to avoid a diplomatic mess by allowing citizens of third countries to be removed due to the paranoid whims of the Kim regime.

Most of the accounts I’ve read take the journalists at their word, believing their claim to have remained firmly on the Chinese side of the border. The North Koreans have been known for this sort of treachery before, after all, kidnapping both Japanese and South Korean nationals at various times over the past sixty years. Yet I have yet to see conclusive proof that Lee and Ling were indeed in China, and believe it to be entirely possible that the two, perhaps accidentally, were trespassing in North Korean territory.

If this latter case is true, then China’s role in the affair isn’t relevant. I suspect we won’t find out; as outraged the US is over this ridiculous incarceration, there’s little they can do to free the two journalists at this point. But the case does illustrate the balancing act China finds itself committed to over its relationship with the world’s most isolated regime.…