Monday, December 31, 2007

Hope for the New Year

Just learned last night that one person I became connected to almost two years ago was taken in, under one of the shakiest pretense in this country. He was stubbornly honest to himself-- some called him nutty--so he was accused of inciting something something.

Alas, this brand new year of 2008 with all the Olympic glory and the obligatory house cleaning to welcome foreign guests.

Many have asked how I could still remain hopeful. It's a human weakness of mine, I often confessed. Even with statistics one could look at the myriad of the numbers in different ways. Beijing has supposedly the worst pollution among the world's capitals, yet once in a while the wind would come and blow the dust away. Like this early December day when the company I work for organized 100 employees to participate in the AIDS Day Great Wall Hike. It was windy and chilly but the sky was gorgeously blue. And there were many enthusiastic young faces smiling and excited because they were participating in an AIDS Day event.

The pessimist in me saw a turnout not big enough. The optimist caught a bright glimpse of the future in which more in China would be caring, activistic, and creative. (Check the hikers from the condom company!)

Yes, despite the smog and the taking in of honest people hope still persists. History tells us that the right shall eventually prevail. The kids will grow up, and we will grow stronger and wiser ourselves.

Time is our best friend.

Happy new year!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Will the Real Bourgeois Housewives Please Stand Up?

The apartment compound I live in is called Gold Field in Chinese. By the time we moved in, its English name had been changed to Gemdale to deflect some of the tackiness. The complex is not among the very top of Beijing's luxury apartment offerings, but it has all the Western amenities and it's exclusively residential (unlike a few other expat-friendly complexes nearby). In addition, both Shinkong, the latest luxury-brand mall, and the upcoming futuristic CCTV building, are in the neighborhood.

As a result, Gemdale is popular among expat journalists, corporate slaves making Western salaries and rich Taiwanese entrepreneurs with their cute housewives and kids. Since 2004, the apartments have risen more than 100% in value. (Disclaimer: I don't own anything here.)

A week ago, however, I suddenly noticed something unusual about our typically tranquil and family friendly complex--a few apartments had put up signs on their windows reading "Protest--Club House Becoming Tax Bureau!" I vaguely heard something about the developers renting out half of the club house to the tax bureau, which some owners were protesting. But being a corporate slave myself, I did not have too much energy to join in for support.

Then yesterday, while walking to 7 Eleven to get lunch in the warm Saturday sun, I noticed a pack of definitely-not-local-looking-Chinese gathering in front of a building. A guy had jumped off the building that morning, but the police refused to explain the details. He had been clinically depressed, yet the recent spat with developers regarding the club house might (disclaimer: just might) have triggered it.

Then I noticed that many many more windows were showing the protest posters. I was shown a local newspaper coverage of the dispute--the owners accusing the developers of having falsely advertised the compound as exclusively residential; now the tax bureau would draw in undesirable foot traffic, introduce security problems and (gasp!) decrease real estate prices. Three more Beijing newspapers were supposed to publish similar stories that morning but the editors pulled them all after some command from some Related Authority.

I found the gag order bizarre--this is a normal legal dispute between developers and owners, no land grab, forced relocation, or public unrest involved. The authorities want to stop people from knowing because of the current regimented call for harmony before the Olympics, or because the developers are well connected?

In the crowd, an owner suggested, "Why don't we ask XXX to talk to YYY (a high-up government guy)? YYY should know this is no way to build a harmonious society."

I received a poster from the crowd and put it on our window to show solidarity. A couple of hours later, three women looking in their 30s came to our door. They asked for my name, phone and signature on a petition.

"They can't just do this and decrease our property value!" One woman said in her perfect Taiwanese mandarin accent.

They were indeed all Taiwanese. I thanked them for their hard work--they were going through the apartments in the complex one by one for signatures. They whined in that cute Taiwanese way that you mainlanders are not helping. I said sorry we don't have that tradition. They laughed--you are right, we Taiwanese do have the tradition to protest.

Oh how I love the Taiwanese housewives at my door. They were pretty, smartly dressed, articulate and determined. Such a nice representation of the bourgeois living in the neighborhood.

I have always believed that the budding bourgeois class will play a much bigger role in shaping China's future than in previous revolutionaries. They are damn protective of their properties. Nobody dares to force into their apartments to take down the posters, or put them away in unknown locations. Plus they are loud, and they can't be silenced because their neighbors are Western journalists.

It's this self interest, and their insistence on rule of law, that will contribute to the peaceful evolution of China.

Go Taiwanese housewives! The future of China lies in your tenacious well-manicured hands!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Usual Suspects

Got a call from a reporter friend while slaving away at my desk. She's helping a big European broadcaster organize a global panel on Freedom of Expression. They want someone in Beijing who speaks English well and is willing to discuss the topic on radio. I said Good luck.

Last night went to a banquet thrown in honor of John Major, the ex UK Prime Minister. Sir John was in town attending or presiding a seminar on Private Wealth Management, for a fat fee I'm sure. He said I can speak straight now since I'm no longer a politician. Then he went on and on about what an economic powerhouse China is becoming. People asked him questions on rising oil price, the rising influence of Russian, then oil price again.

I had the urge to ask—“Dear Sir John, what do you think of the horrible smog out side?”—but that surely would have spoiled the party. It seemed that what most people really enjoyed, was talking about the obvious while also ignoring the obvious.

I sat next to a private banker who had purchased real estate in seven different Chinese cities. He said trust me man, the real estate price would continue to rise, if not at the astronomical rate in the past. China has this weird characteristic, he said, that as long as there was stability for thirty or forty years, the country's economy would sail smoothly and overtake the world--just check your history books. Don't be bearish on the current problems. China, and Chinese, want stability, which begets prosperity.

Back to my reporter friend. She said if you don't want to--or can't--do it, can you recommend someone? I promised to ask the few usual suspects around. They speak good English, and they know where the boundary lies for any topic deemed sensitive. Meanwhile, I could not shake off the sense of a thrilling irony of living in such a vast country while only a few usual suspects can be found.

Oh well. Sir John mentioned repeatedly last night that China will overtake Japan as the world's 2nd largest economy by 2020. I can't say I'm not proud.

So what if there are only a few usual suspects around willing to talk about Freedom of Expression in English, in this great capital of our beloved motherland?