Another new low at the NY Times: Imagine what news is true

The top news editor at the New York Times has revealed an alarming new standard for what now passes as news in that paper.

The Public Editor’s Journal of Oct. 27 quotes him explaining why a news story containing an error should not be thought mistaken: The Times, he said, was only reporting what was common knowledge and that “It’s hard to imagine some version of this is not true.”

Just not the version reported.

Previously, the basic standard for publishing news required reporters to confirm facts. Specific, concrete, verifiable facts. Only talking heads and bloggers spouting fringe opinions relied on assumptions about what is common knowledge or the comforting excuse that surely some version of the events in question must be true.

Every old-school journalist has heard the saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

From now on, readers of the Times will have to do their own fact-checking before relying on news that’s printed whether it’s fit or not.


Women’s lives don’t matter enough

Once again, the story of a man killing a woman he was dating has made front-page news, and for a familiar reason – police and judges failed to do their duty.handgun

The day he shot Dena Seymour dead, the offender had racked up three orders of protection, was on probation for aggravated assault, had violated probation with an arrest for soliciting sex, had failed to show up in court, had failed to attend a court-ordered class in anger management and had just been charged with rape.

Felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors (allowing him to legally keep his gun) and he was released without bail despite the pending rape charge.

This happens over and over because men simply don’t value women. Instead, they operate from the often unarticulated but bone-deep belief that they must control women or risk being seen as emasculated.

This is especially true among police officers. Rates of domestic violence among their families is three times higher than in civilian families – 40 percent compared to 10 percent.

“Victims of police family violence typically fear that the responding officers will side with their abuser and fail to properly investigate or document the crime. …most departments across the country typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report…,” according to the National Center for Women and Policing.  But this isn’t limited to police families.

After my sister separated from her soon-to-be-ex-husband, she met him at his office for a talk. His employees heard her scream when he tried to yank her out of a chair by her long hair. She called the police. But they spoke to her husband first, who told them that they were going through a divorce. They examined her neck and found no bruises. They dismissed her accusation as a “civil matter” that didn’t warrant their intervention and wouldn’t even take a report. She had to call the police station and insist on filing one. Now she’s getting treatment for the whiplash injury that showed up not long after he manhandled her.

Even her lawyer and her marriage counselor, both women, discouraged her from filing for an order of protection because there were no bruises and no witnesses. Shamefully, they even suggested he hadn’t really hurt her. This shows how deep and pervasive is the attitude that devalues women.

Her husband has subjected her to angry outbursts, extreme verbal abuse and constant belittlement, has a history of drug addiction and owns several handguns. Even if she had an order of protection,  she could still be attacked because he has no reason to think he’d be punished.

The Chicago Tribune article “Red flags before woman’s shooting death” describes how authorities caused Dena Seymour’s murder by failing to take violence against women seriously. One judge had dismissed a fourth woman’s request for an order of protection against the man because she came across in court as too excitable, while he maintained calm composure.

Easy to do when you know the charges won’t be taken seriously.





To silence a jerk, whose name will not be published here, ignore him

If someone bullies you with insults and mockery, as did a rival to Carly Fiorina – “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” –  you should:

A) call him on it using the words “sexism” or “offensive,” thereby demonstrating your weak, feminized, grievance-based victimhood;

B) get over it, toughen up and refuse to be an oversensitive ninny or a loser.

Option B is what one columnist urges Fiorina to choose when she faces that loudmouth tonight in the debate of Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination. According to the columnist, the loudmouth’s supporters like him because he has the balls to offend people. Those who object to being accosted by a jerk, whom the columnist describes as “walking testosterone,” simply invite further abuse and weary those who aren’t oversensitive losers.

What a great way to collude with abusers while burdening their targets with a phony stigma.

This view associates being a rude jerk with manliness, or at least with testosterone. Are there any men out there brave enough to dispute that, despite the risk of being jeered by rude jerks?

The best way for anyone to respond to such boorish behavior, writes the columnist, is to avoid using terms sneeringly deemed as “politically correct,” since that will only spur jerks on. But instead of hobbling one’s vocabulary, I suggest a different course: regal silence. Do not deign to acknowledge jerks.

Attention of any kind fuels them. Their greatest fear is to be ignored. Deal with them as you would a bad smell from someone deliberately and delightedly farting in a crowd. Ignore him until he and the smell go away.


Fairness? Not our job.

Benjamin Franklin probably never imagined a United States of I've-got-mine.

Benjamin Franklin probably never imagined a United States of I’ve-got-mine.


Here’s how Chief Justice John Roberts explained the Supreme Court’s decision to let rich people give up to $3.6 million every two years to candidates and political parties they want to influence: “No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable government objective to ‘level the playing field.'”

Really? Removing artificial, unfair barriers to citizenship, voting, education, jobs and health care is not an acceptable government objective? In fact, the job of a democratic government is precisely to ensure that all citizens enjoy an equal chance of influencing the policies that govern their pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.

In the ceaseless struggle by the many against rigged rules that favor the wealthy and powerful few, Roberts and his court cronies are on the wrong side. For now, that side appears to have the upper hand. But as the history of every revolution demonstrates, there’ll come a time when the structure of entrenched privilege collapses, crushed between the weight of unsustainable injustice and the pressure of popular uprising.

And don’t you know that Roberts and his ilk will be shocked, shocked, at the notion that their actions could have played any part in the uproar.




Is it something in the water? Has heat addled their brains, or petrochemical pollution poisoned their perceptions? Instead of the strong, brave, hero types of Texan legend, we’re seeing two examples this week of Lone Star paranoia run amok.

texas secedes

First, we have the pathetic sight of Capitol security guards confiscating tampons and maxi-pads from the purses of women wanting to attend legislative debate on the state’s proposed abortion restrictions (which passed). Supposedly, guards had been tipped off that “proaborts” might fling feminine hygiene products at lawmakers.

Next, we learn that an anonymous donor paid the $500,000 bond set for 19-year-old Justin Carter after cops arrested him for a sarcastic Facebook post. When a fellow “League of Legends” gamer called Carter insane, Carter unwisely replied, “Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still-beating hearts.”

For this, he was jailed for months after being charged with making a terroristic threat. He’s due in court for a hearing on Tuesday, July 16th.

No sir, Texans don’t cotton to sarcasm or assault with female unmentionables.

Now stupid remarks (ala Gov. Rick Perry) and letting gun-toting Texans exercise their Second Amendment rights with as few restrictions as possible, that’s different.

Let Texas go, as 100,000 people already have urged in a petition to the White House. And make it take Florida with it.




When is it okay to say nigger?

Paula DeenAs we all know now, Paula Deen, the doyenne of deep-fried cooking, has turned her career into toast. Blackened it, one might say, with a series of scorching admissions about her use of the word “nigger” and her proposal to throw a plantation-themed party with African Americans portraying slaves.

Amid the uproar, pundits, newscasters and bloggers routinely used the prettified phrase “N-word” when referring to the racist slur Deen slung around. The cautious resort to a euphemism isn’t the most effective teaching tool for conveying how objectionable the term is. If we’re too delicate to even say the word, how can we possibly educate the unenlightened?

Imagine trying to teach sex education using only “the I-word.”

As distasteful as Ms. Deen’s bigotry is, the rabid reactions of her defenders are downright astounding. To those who insist they “don’t understand” why Deen’s attitudes are so harmful, try this little exercise.

Imagine she was accused of disparaging fat people. She goes on TV to protest her innocence. Instead of saying (as she did) that one of her employees is black and asking him to come on out even though he might be hard to see because he’s as dark as the background of the stage set, let’s say she told him “Come on out here, if you can get through the door, and show people how fat you are.”

Or, let’s take the plantation-party plan a step further. Why didn’t it occur to Ms. Deen to suggest including some light-skinned slaves who look an awful lot like Ol’ Massa, played by her brother Bubba and some relatives with spray-on tans? And an overseer with a big whip? And a pack of baying bloodhounds?

Guess that didn’t fit into the happy slaves theme, and unhappy slaves would be no fun at all, y’all.

Beijing’s cold wars

CHAPTER SIX of “Commie wage slave,” in which capitalist running dogs battle runny noses


The result of one dust storm on the floor of a patio at my Beijing apartment.

The result of one dust storm on the floor of a patio at my Beijing apartment.


Smog obscures the view of anything more than one block away from my Beijing balcony.

Smog obscures the view of anything more than one block away from my Beijing balcony.

A month after arriving in Beijing, I gave up wearing contact lenses. The grit in the air made it too painful.

Some of it was sand blowing in from the encroaching Gobi desert. But much of it was pollution in the form of particulate matter big enough to scratch eyes and clog lungs.

In winter, the air in Beijing is especially dangerous. Cold-weather demand for heat greatly increases the amount of dirt spewing from China’s coal-burning power plants. Combine this with fumes from an astounding level of car traffic running on low-grade gasoline, and the result is sickening.

By January, the expats at China Daily had turned into mucus factories on overdrive. For days, we were forced to breathe through our mouths, carry big boxes of tissues everywhere and try to sleep sitting up, since any attempt to recline brought on coughing fits. We could feel the stuff bubbling in our lungs.

Those who smoked fared even worse. Some developed chronic bronchitis.

All of us needed to take a few sick days. To get them, we had to go to a China Daily-approved doctor and get a certificate attesting to our illness.

Imagine the fun of this, feeling sick as a dog but having to haul yourself up, stumble out into the cold and hail a cab to drive you the whole two blocks to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, our designated healthcare provider. Like everything else in Beijing, their blocks are huge. Walking two of them while sick was to be avoided.

There was almost another block to walk at the hospital, where the wing devoted to treating foreigners is at the far end of the place. Supposedly, the staff speaks English. In reality, they know a few words. They can ask whether you speak Chinese or Japanese. Mostly, they gesture and point when communicating where you should go next.

Your first stop is at an intake desk. The workers there wear face masks. As soon as you tell them you have a runny nose and cough, they hand you a mask and insist you wear it.

It’s amazing how much of an impediment that small piece of cloth can be. Your face gets very hot because your breath is trapped under it. Just enough escapes out the top to fog your glasses. It’s hard to make yourself heard, especially if a scratchy throat and cough already have played havoc with your voice.

It’s cold in the hospital. The nurses and doctors wear sweaters and jackets while they work. Garbage has blown in through an open door. It just sits there. Sunken old couches and chairs line the hallway outside the doctors’ offices. This is where you wait, breathing into that damn mask.

The doctor, a nice woman, sticks a tongue depressor in your mouth and tells you to say “ahhh.” Then she pulls out a stethoscope and listens to your lungs – right through your clothes, even if those include a thick sweater and bra. She wants blood drawn, gives you a piece of paper and points towards the nurse’s station. The nurse points to the cashier.

You will go to the cashier every time a doctor wants a test done or a medicine prescribed. Nothing is provided until you’ve paid for it in cash, upfront. When you have a receipt for payment, you go back to the nurse’s station to proceed with the test. Then, prescription in hand, you once again go to the cashier. Receipt in hand, you can go to the pharmacist. She speaks no English at all.

Our Chinese colleagues routinely warned us to insist on prescriptions for Western medicine, not “TCM” – traditional Chinese medicine. For colds, this would include herbal teas, miso soup or concoctions containing cinnamon twig, ginger root, kudzu root and licorice.

Their pharmacies were fascinating, with big glass jars of chrysanthemum flowers, mulberry leaves, forsythia buds, lavender seeds and rosehips, among many others. There were boxes of teas, bottles of honeys and tablets made from fruit, leaves, flowers and bark for everything from weight loss to “Heat-clearing and Fire-draining.”

Glass cases displayed bones, antlers, claws and horns, many of them from endangered species.

Western medicines are very hard to find and very expensive when you do find them. It’s cheaper and safer to have them bought in America and shipped over. Chances are much better you’ll get the real McCoy, instead of an ineffective knockoff.

For some reason, the Chinese are particularly wary of antihistamines. They also regard blowing one’s nose into a tissue as a disgusting Western practice, while Westerners are appalled by the Chinese habit of emptying one’s nostrils right on the street, snorting clear first one, then the other.

One of our Australian colleagues had the bad luck to be hospitalized with appendicitis. It had to be removed.

During his stay, he was required to pay cash every day before midnight. He would throw a coat over his pajamas and, holding his fresh stitches together, tramp all the way out to the street where he could withdraw yuan from a bank ATM, then hobble back to his hospital bed.

Even though we had insurance from our employer, the best healthcare solution was the same as for those back home with no insurance – don’t get sick.

Coming next: Round eyes, big noses

Culture shock: hitting the Great Wall

A sidewalk game of - Chinese checkers?

A sidewalk game of – Chinese checkers?

CHAPTER TWO, in which I learn how far away China is from home.

China wasn’t a bad place for the privileged foreign white-collar workers recruited to its businesses. At China Daily, dozens of English-speaking foreigners worked alongside Chinese employees as editors, writers, video producers and graphics designers. We hailed from the United States, Britain, Canada, India, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand.

Between the free rent, the inexpensive food and the cheap, efficient subway system, it was possible to live on $500 a month in Beijing, a megalopolis of some 20 million people.

I even enjoyed the huge comfort of having one of my oldest friends working at the same place and living just two floors below me. Without Renee, I never would have made it to the end of my contract.

She was waiting for me at the Beijing airport with a gift she waved at me from behind a security barrier: an “Oba-Mao” T-shirt that depicted Barack dressed in a People’s Liberation Army uniform. (It’s a wonder birthers and other far-right wingnuts didn’t latch onto this kitschy souvenir as further “proof” of the president’s so-called left-wing extremism.)

The trip on the plane had hinted at what was to come, but after 20 hours of travel, I was too numb to realize it.

While on the plane I couldn’t help but notice, crammed close as we were, that Chinese seatmates all around me were busily picking their noses. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this would be a common sight for the next 12 months.

In the United States, airplane passengers scatter as soon as they deplane, eagerly re-establishing the ample boundaries of their personal space as they walk through the terminal. In China, my fellow passengers seemed completely unfazed by remaining jammed together in a massive crowd that carried each of us along in baby steps, hobbled by the jumble of bodies jostling up against one another. Even with room to spread out, they seemed to prefer remaining clumped together in the shape of the giant tube we’d been squeezed into for 13 hours.

At 5’ 11” tall, I stood head and shoulders above the masses, looking down on bobbing black heads as we moved en masse past attendants who waved temperature-taking devices at us to screen out those who might have the latest version of flu, then on and off trams to the terminal and through customs.

Imagine landing in an alien place where you don’t speak, read or write the language, and almost nobody there knows yours. In effect, you become illiterate, deaf and mute. The simplest tasks of daily life turn into problems, reducing you to dependency on strangers who can’t understand you. Making a phone call, buying food, finding your way around: All become challenges at which you are suddenly incompetent. It brings out unattractive aspects of one’s personality.

Those hurdles are overcome, but the enormous gulf of cultural differences remains. If you’ve only spent a couple of weeks vacationing in another country, you can’t know how hugely we’re affected by culture. We assume we know how people feel and think because we’ve been surrounded all our lives by people who feel and think much as we do. We mistake these shared assumptions for human nature. Much of what we think we know about people turns out to be completely wrong when we’re plopped into a radically different society.

Even graphics, like those meant as operating instructions on appliances or directions in the subway, will turn out to mean something other than what they seem so obviously – to you – to communicate.

In China, for example, “yes” isn’t always an affirmative answer, just a way of not saying “no,” which they fear might be thought rude or cause them a loss of face. They avoid directness, considering it too confrontational. To outspoken, blunt Westerners, the Chinese notion of tact or politeness often looks like dishonesty or evasion.

This is not to say that foreigners are treated badly or aren’t able to get to know individual Chinese. But the vast cultural gulf between East and West can hinder the ability to make genuine friends.

In addition, Americans carry a special burden, a volatile Chinese attitude comprising suspicion, competition, curiosity and hostility that goes back generations. Chinese the same age as Baby Boomers like me spent their gym classes lobbing fake grenades at imaginary invading American soldiers, or practiced thrusting pretend bayonets into them. Presumably, Chinese youth aren’t still being warned about an imminent (and equally imaginary) invasion by the United States.

Even so, a young Chinese co-worker told me they assumed all Americans working there were spies.

After weeks of constant confusion, strange food and opaque customs, Westerners typically are walloped by culture shock, a miserable mix of stress and homesickness. Mine was aggravated by close attention to news reports from within China, a daily chronicle of extreme oppression, corruption and cover-ups. Not even the active repression of government censors could hide the ugly, brutal, unjust and often fatal conditions of daily life for the average Chinese.

As an example, here’s one of the weekly round-ups of news items from Chinese English-language media that I would email to people back home. After just a few of these, I stopped sending them, figuring that my friends and family would assume from the predominant negativity of them that I’d lost my marbles. No way could they understand that this was just a small sample of an overwhelming daily struggle for Chinese:


The day after the first snowfall of the year in Beijing, authorities quickly took credit for it.

Big, wet flakes blanketed the city on Nov. 1, a month earlier than normal. The next day, the city’s Weather Modification Office proudly announced it had seeded the skies over the city the previous night with doses of silver iodide. They wanted to break a 100-day drought. But because they hadn’t been sure it would work, they kept quiet about it until after the fact. There was no mention of snow in the weather forecast. 

Tons of it fell. It stranded thousands of people at the airport, many of them trapped for hours on motionless planes, after hundreds of flights had been cancelled. (The inept handling of all those frustrated passengers is another story.) The power grid faltered, with 60 blackouts around the city as heavy snow collapsed tree branches and electrical wires.

Public anger exploded after the weather-mod people finally spoke up. But they offered only a half-hearted acknowledgement couched in dense bureaucratese.

“It shows there is a lot of room to improve the national weather manipulation warning system for the public,” a press officer said.


A 19-year-old taxi driver in Shanghai cut off a finger to protest his arrest by traffic cops. He said police had entrapped him in a sting operation against unlicensed cabs, and that he was innocent. Eventually, police admitted he was correct and that yes, they had been paying people bounties for every illegal cab they could help police nab. The cabby said cutting off a finger was the only way he thought his plight would be taken seriously.

Thirty migrant workers climbed onto a downtown bridge in Guangzhou on Nov. 2 and threatened to commit suicide after their employer failed to pay them. By May of this year, 15 people had already climbed the same bridge and threatened to kill themselves for various reasons.

Also in Guangzhou, one hundred relatives of a woman whose baby died in a hospital on Nov. 3 went on a rampage. They smashed equipment and windows until police sealed them off on one floor.

Finally, a brawl started in – where else? – Guangzhou last weekend after two children bumped into each other. Their angry mothers first fought each other, then called relatives and friends to come help. Police arrested 26 people after eight police cars were destroyed and three officers injured.


The central Chinese government has ordered that free swine flu vaccinations be given to anybody who wants one, but local authorities have been charging for them. Local governments are supposed to fund the free shots, but poor areas have a hard time affording them. In some parts of the country, authorities have charged an “equipment fee” of 5 yuan (73 cents) per shot. The mainland so far has had almost 51,500 cases of A/H1N1, including eight deaths.

In central China’s Henan province, 300 villagers discovered that local authorities had removed their names from census lists as long as 13 years ago by declaring them dead. This allowed local government to hold back tax payments owed to higher levels, but it also deprived the “dead” of accumulated medical and pension benefits for all those years.

In central China’s Hubei province, up to 6,000 farmers have been selling their blood twice a month for years to help cover their basic expenses. They get 168 yuan ($25) each time. The average annual income of rural Chinese residents is about $572.

Despite the nearby presence of Renee and a community of English-speaking expats all around me, I hit the culture-shock wall after six weeks, when just reading that day’s China Daily left me sobbing in despair over breakfast.


At this point, some expats never regain their emotional equilibrium or sense of humor. The majority of Westerners don’t last a year in China. Those who do often rely on drink or drugs to get through their days, and that was true among the foreigners at China Daily. My friend and I relied on bottles of cheap Great Wall wine purchased at the 7-11 across the street, which we downed while watching bootleg American teen-slasher movies. We clung to our English-speaking friends while tentatively getting to know a few of our Chinese co-workers.

I never learned any Mandarin beyond the words for “hello,” “beer” and “thank you.” As an English-speaking foreigner who spent only one year in Beijing, I don’t know much about China. But even that brief time skimming the surface of their society gave me a bit of insight into the world’s most populous country.

Next: A harmonious and stable society

I was a Commie wage slave

CHAPTER ONE, in which a jobless American journalist

goes to work for a Chinese newspaper in Beijing

China Daily building 

Like millions of other Americans, by the summer of 2009 I faced financial ruin.

My biggest mistake was having chosen 30 years ago to embark on a career as a newspaper reporter. I was probably in the last graduate class of journalism students anywhere who used typewriters.

The first computer I saw was at my first newspaper job in 1981. Who foresaw those big, clunky boxes morphing into palm-sized devices, turning printed newspapers into 21st-century buggy whips?

My second big mistake was to leave a newspaper job at the age of 49 thinking I could get another one. I hadn’t realized that my 50th birthday would be like a brick wall between me and a newsroom.

Finally, the whole economy tanked, driving the last nail into the coffin of my career.

So there I was, with boxes full of front-page articles and magazine cover stories, a few nice awards, a master’s degree for the resume and not a chance in hell of finding a full-time job with a livable salary in my chosen profession. The low-wage, part-time jobs I’d scraped up had just delayed the inevitable while depleting my savings. A few thousand dollars stood between me and foreclosure, then homelessness or moving in with a relative.

My long-time buddy Renee, a fellow survivor of news organizations, joked that we would live out of neighboring shopping carts under a bridge in San Diego, where at least the weather was good. That was funny when it seemed unlikely.

In May 2009, I got a card from her that showed two women sitting on a couch, grinning: “A good friend will bail you out of jail. A great friend is sitting beside you saying, ‘Wow, that was fun!’”

Inside, she wrote that she was off to Beijing for a job at the English-language newspaper, China Daily. After she got there, she pelted me with emails describing the wonders of the Chinese capital: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Silk Street Market, the neighborhood noodle shop where we could feast on fresh, hand-pulled noodles with beef and a locally brewed beer for $1.50. Why don’t you apply, she wrote, I’ll give you a reference. They’re hiring.

Renee had been there two months, but it was enough when combined with my resume to snag a job offer.

It came in an email from Mr. Pan, who ran the office that babysits China Daily’s English-speaking “foreign experts” and shepherds them through encounters with officialdom, like registering your address with the police. He offered a one-year job correcting the English of its Chinese reporters and editors at a salary of roughly $33,000 (at the then-current exchange rate), plus a rent-free, utilities-paid one-bedroom apartment, health insurance, 20 days off for Chinese festivals and plane tickets for one trip to Beijing and one back home a year later.

By then, I hadn’t had a full-time job or health insurance for seven years.

So saying yes to an offer that would keep me going financially for a while longer, plus let me experience China with one of my closest friends and on someone else’s dime, was a no-brainer. Only later, after eagerly accepting the offer, did I wonder whether working for a dictatorship on one of its propaganda organs might be hard.

But that niggling concern got shoved aside while I concentrated on the details of preparing for a year in China. These included getting five vaccinations, obtaining a year’s supply of a prescription medicine, buying an enormous suitcase and pressing relatives into duty as caretakers for my pets, my house and my small pet-sitting business.

As I quickly learned once in Beijing, there is no such thing as a free press in China, or freedom of expression. China Daily articles tended to range from public relations hype to outright propaganda.

Taiwan, for example, is not called a country. It’s an “autonomous region.”

The Dalai Lama is a “terrorist,” and Tibet was “liberated.”

Advertising is routinely written up as news, and it’s standard practice to sell or trade space on so-called news pages for articles that here would be labeled as advertising.

The continual distortion doesn’t always sink to the level of propaganda, but it does leave the paper resembling a chamber-of-commerce publication.

Mercifully, the jobs of foreign reporters and editors typically are limited to the point that they do no significant reporting or editing. Chinese reporters (with some brave exceptions) are little more than stenographers, dutifully recording the story line as presented by officials and businesses.

Why, you may be asking, would any self-respecting foreign journalist participate in this?

We needed jobs, and needed them badly enough to go all the way to China for them. Although the younger expatriates generally were just enjoying the adventure, the older ones were trying to hang onto houses, or help their kids through college or recover retirement savings lost to suddenly worthless investments and disappearing pensions.

When I got home a year later, I couldn’t stop talking about China. For months, the most mundane events – shopping for groceries, going to a movie, eating out, waiting in line – prompted anecdotes about how differently people do those things in China.

What most surprised everyone was hearing what the Chinese believed about us. People here don’t realize how little the Chinese know about us (and how little we know about them) until they hear some of these anecdotes. One described an after-work chat over beers that left my expat friends and our young Chinese co-workers slack-jawed with amazement about each other’s countries.

Reports that millions of Chinese visitors to the 2010 Shanghai Expo were mesmerized by its water fountains amused and puzzled the expats. Our Chinese co-workers didn’t understand why the fascination with water fountains wasn’t obvious to us. Most Chinese (and all expats) drank only bottled water because even after boiling, tap water throughout China contains too much sediment to be swallowed. Drinking the equivalent of tap water without boiling it first was a novel experience for Chinese, they said.

We wouldn’t have thought of that, one of us answered, since we’re don’t have to do that at home.

Our Chinese friends looked stunned. Do you mean you drink water right out of the tap, without boiling it? Yes, we answered, in fact it’s required to have drinkable tap water for any dwelling to be considered legally habitable. They clearly wanted to believe us and just as obviously didn’t.

This was one result of severe restrictions on information about the world outside China. In combination with decades of government lies about the United States, such as telling Chinese in the 1950s that children in America were starving, even the most educated, computer-savvy urbanites have trouble telling truth from fiction. They know they’re lied to and are cynical about the government and their news media, but they’re still affected by the propaganda inundating them.

Before concluding that this doesn’t happen here, keep in mind how many Americans believe claims that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim socialist who wants to subject sick people to death panels.

People kept telling me, “You ought to write a book.” (Maybe they wanted to shut me up.) I resisted. Plenty of people, more knowledgeable than me, have written excellent books about China.

Yet some of those books promote a view about China that even a brief sojourn like mine would call into question. One of the most common is that China is a powerful nation whose progress out of Third-World poverty threatens the United States. The Chinese certainly want to believe that, and its government insists this is so.

It’s the conventional wisdom. But what I saw suggests the common-sense conclusion that China will not be strong or rich enough in this century to threaten anyone except the smaller countries that share a border with her. China’s internal challenges are overwhelming, and will suck up every bit of money and effort available to keep them from swamping the country. There isn’t any of the surplus needed for international power.

China is a paper dragon, projecting an illusion of power far greater than its substance. Internationally, its allies are the rogue state of North Korea and some of the poorest countries in Africa, which can be cheaply cultivated by relatively affordable investments.

The highest priority of the Chinese government (topped by nine old men whose dictates rule 1.3 billion people) is maintaining its one-party dictatorship. Its attention, money and policies are devoted to this end, with control of its citizens as the means. All else, including international opinion, is a distant second.

Their methods, very roughly, boil down to three strategies: control information about China’s past, current conditions and the world beyond its borders; prevent citizens from organizing so much as a block club that isn’t sanctioned by authorities; and squash dissent. Transgressors suffer punishments ranging from loss of jobs, harassment and house arrest to beatings, imprisonment and execution. Their children and their children’s children are marked as unreliable and kept out of good schools and skilled jobs. For generations, they’ll suffer from a big, black mark made in their permanent political files.

Here in the U.S., kids snigger over threats made by exasperated teachers that misdeeds will be noted on their “permanent record.” In China, there really are such documents, compiled for every Chinese citizen which none is allowed to see.

Even with a cushy job like I had, its greatest benefit came to be the comforting knowledge that I had a guaranteed exit from China.

Next chapter coming soon: culture shock

What that iPad really costs



Between a factory tour by ABC’s “Nightline” and an investigation by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), it might appear that something is actually being done to help the subsistence-wage Chinese workers at Foxconn who make products for Apple, Hewlett Packard, Dell, IBM and others.

Don’t buy it.

Chinese workers contend with a level of competition for jobs that is simply unimaginable in less populous countries. They accept dismal conditions because they must.

What most Westerners probably don’t know is that Foxconn’s factory complexes also house and feed their workers – barely. Living space is a cot in a room crammed with others. Meals are mostly rice and watery soup. Workdays of 12 hours or more, six or seven days a week, are typical. Permission to leave the grounds often is denied.

Even so, Chinese job-seekers mob Foxconn recruiters wherever they appear.

Two years ago, a Chinese reporter for an English-language newspaper in Beijing wrote a revealing article that described what it took to get one of those highly sought-after jobs at Foxconn. Here are a few excerpts, with a link below to the whole article:

“If your diploma is not genuine, you will be asked to pay for a fake one at a cost of 10 to 100 yuan, depending on how deep your wallet is perceived to be.”

“You will be taken to a minivan of 11 seats. About 18 people and all their luggage will be on board, so travel light and try to find a spot with breathing room.”

“The driver will escort you inside the training center, where harsh-looking men and women in uniforms await…You may be shouted at, intimidated, humiliated and bullied. …be obedient.”

“You will be taken across the street for body inspections. All you need to do is be obedient, stand straight and wait until you are ordered to go inside.”

“Note that you will be waiting with 1,000 others, so be patient and ignore the sweat. Don’t worry about the blood exams.”

“…you will be taken to a dormitory and assigned a bed in a room of 10. You should now be used to the smell of sweat, so bear with it.

“The orientation goes on for two days. Make no attempt to challenge the authority of anyone in uniform…”

“You will be given a badge and assigned a unit to work in at the end of the second day. Work starts the following morning with no prior training.”

Finger-shaking from the FLA might elicit promises of compliance with higher standards, but those won’t be honored by Chinese bosses.China is a lawless society, with no reliable way for complaints to be heard or rights to be protected. Demands, suggestions or recommendations from international groups and Western businesses will be rejected as improper meddling.

They just wait out sporadic spates of public attention, which don’t last long, then go back to business as usual.

Remember, Foxconn’s response after 10 workers jumped from their dormitories to kill themselves was to put up nets.


Top photo of Foxconn job seekers from China Daily

“Fees, humiliation part of getting wired to Foxconn,” by Hu Yinan, China Daily –

Foxconn job seekers doing pushups-

 “We mostly found people who face their days through soul-crushing boredom and deep fatigue,” wrote Nightline host Bill Weir in a story previewing the show.