Boyd Lee Dunlop: getting the fame he deserves … behind schedule

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JISHOU, HUNAN — Some musicians find fame right away. For others, it takes years. In the case of Boyd Lee Dunlop, he had to wait until he was 85 to get a record deal.

Dunlop played jazz piano back in the 1950’s around Buffalo, NY, but his day job took precedence over his piano playing. Time passed and Dunlop ended up in a retirement home, where there was a beat-up old piano that he would play when he thought no one was listening.

Then he was discovered by chance, and now you can buy his debut album on iTunes for $9.99. Most of the cuts are his own compositions, but one is a standard, the St. James Infirmary Blues.

His playing is effortless and original. For an 85-year-old guy, he still has his chops.

Dunlop’s story in The New York Times.

Florida school board member takes state skills test, says test is crap

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JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s a novel idea. A very well educated school board member in Orange County, Florida, took his state’s mandatory assessment test, which tests reading, math, science and writing, and he did very poorly. So, he wonders, how valid are those tests, really?

The board member, Rick Roach, is no dummy. He has two master’s degrees in education and educational psychology, and he’s working on a doctorate. He’s trained 18,000 teachers in 25 states, and served on his school board for four terms.

But his reading score on a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was 62%, which would have sent him to remediation classes. On the math part, he guessed on all 60 questions, getting only 10 right.

In an email to education critic Marion Brady, Roach wrote:

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.

Roach went on to note how his life would have much different had he been required to take the FCAT in high school, and done as poorly as he did now.

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions?

He makes a valid point which should bring up school “reformers” up short, but probably won’t. While reformers bemoan the supposed lack of “teacher accountability,” do they also hold accountable the makers of the tests they buy to measure teacher and student performance? If even one well educated adult fails a test for 10th graders, something is very wrong. Scientifically speaking, if our theory is that standardized tests accurately measure student performance, just one negative result would invalidate the theory. At the very least, Roach’s test results should either call into question his qualifications as an educator or the validity of the FCAT.

Chances are, neither question will be raised. Roach is clearly well qualified. No argument there. But school assessment tests are the latest fad in education “reform” — a form of quality control for a corporate mindset that treats schools like factories, teachers like assembly line workers and students like widgets. Too many politicians, big names in education (Michelle Rhee?) and test makers have invested a lot of time and money to give up their pet assessment exams because one board member flunked an exam.

But Americans need to get off the testing bandwagon long enough to evaluate the tests being used. Students should not be pigeon-holed, nor teachers be punished, on the basis of only fill-in-the-oval examinations. Most colleges in the USA no longer use only the SAT or ACT to make admissions decisions, after all. They use other measures of student quality, too.

China could serve as a model of what not to do. Standardized tests are the be-all, end-all of a person’s education here. The dreaded gaokao — the college entrance exam — is the ultimate hurdle for every high school student here. Graduation is merely icing on the cake. A student’s score on the gaokao determines his or her future for the next four years, and probably beyond. Unlike American colleges, Chinese colleges only consider a student’s gaokao score. If you’re even a few points below the cutoff for the school, tough luck, kid.

It’s draconian, to say the least. And there’s no way out. I’ve had several students here who are bright, well spoken (in Chinese and English), thoughtful and diligent, but their gaokao scores banished them to this third-tier university. Future employers will give preference to graduates of first- and second-tier schools, perhaps disregarding other qualifications, because it’s efficient. With a huge population, bosses have to find some way to whittle down the applicant pool to a halfway manageable level.

The Chinese system invites cheating and fraud, because the gaokao, and the many other required examinations, carry so much baggage. The allegations of fraud in the Washington, DC, testing system while Rhee was superintendent only hint at what could happen in the US if people take the whole testing system too seriously.

I have seen what damage standardized tests can do to Chinese students (including suicide). America doesn’t need to go in the same direction.
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The links above about Roach and Brady take you to The Washington Post. Brady has the original commentary at his own blog, www.marionbrady.com.
The link for the Teflon-coated Michelle Rhee is to a scathing critique of Rhee by Diane Ravitch, a fairly conservative but very thoughtful education expert.

Occupy Wall Street in Chinese eyes

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[Cross-posted at the Daily Kos]

JISHOU, HUNAN –Chinese observers seem to draw two opposing conclusions from the Occupy Wall Street movement in the USA. The more common (state-approved) conclusion is: capitalism is bad, Marxism is good. The more thoughtful conclusion is: if the Chinese government doesn’t deal with widespread corruption, China might see similar protests in the not-too-distant future.

Recently, one of my friends asked me what Chinese reactions to OWS were. So, I’ve spent some time poring over Internet reports and blogs to get a sense how OWS is playing over here. Since my grasp of Mandarin is weak still, and my access to movers and shakers is limited, take my comments here with a grain of salt.

Official Chinese news coverage tends to characterize OWS as a confrontation between the very poor and homeless (the victims of heartless capitalism) and the rich and powerful (heartless capitalist dogs). The Communist Party is using OWS as an object lesson in the superiority of China’s Marxism.

Comments to an article about the clearing out of Zucotti Park in New York City are representative of netizen reactions. Several comments are rabidly anti-American and pro-Chinese, leading other commenters to accuse those writers of being paid pro-government trolls. (The Party reportedly pays people 5 mao, or 0.50 yuan, to post pro-government comments on the Internet.)

The more staid party publication, Global Times, predicts OWS will amount to nothing in the end and China should just wait and see what happens.

The Global Times, a widely read Chinese tabloid published by Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, noted in an editorial that “western countries can withstand street demonstrations better, since their governments are elected”.

“The conflicts may be minor or serious, but it will not bring significant change,” it added. “China needs to stay calm and observe how the street movements in the Western world develop and to make the rights choices for its own good.”

(From The Telegraph, Oct. 17.)

Lost in this state-approved presentation are several salient truths about OWS. It’s not just a poor people’s movement. OWS draws supporters from the middle class, too, including retired police chiefs, Iraqi war vets, housewives, grannies and working stiffs, as well as scruffy looking students. Chinese media ironically play up police roughly dealing with OWS protesters (subtly implying it’s a government crackdown), while obscuring the freedoms of assembly and free speech that permits OWS to be so widespread.

No one in the current government would dare remind anyone here of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests, which brought out thousands of students and intellectuals to rally for civil rights and resulted in a quick and brutal reaction by the Chinese police and military. Most of my students, in fact, know very little about that episode in Chinese history.

As an example of how the message of OWS has been skewed, we can look at a street protest in Zhengzhou by supporters of OWS. Some of them included cadres (important workers who are party members) who seemed to believe that OWS was a rally in support of Marxist ideals and against capitalism. Perhaps the protest was Party-sponsored.

Earlier this year, when the Jasmine Revolution was underway in North Africa and the Middle East, the government here quickly acted to foil any similar movements in China. The usual suspects (likely organizers) were rounded up and detained for several months, the Internet was “harmonized” — scrubbed of any rallying cries for a Jasmine Revolution in China — and official media portrayed the successful Arab Spring people’s movements, as yet more evidence for the superiority of the Chinese Way.

Ironies of ironies, you may be thinking, since China was after all founded as a people’s republic after a people’s revolution against a repressive government. That was before all those “peasants” ended up in power themselves, of course.

It’s that bitter irony that other Chinese recognize. The Party and its economic policies of the last 30 years have enabled China to become a major player in the world’s economy and allowed enterprising Chinese citizens to become rich beyond Mao’s imagination. Meanwhile, freedom of expression is tightly controlled, the Internet and media are closely monitored and censored (I had to use a network proxy to search for “Jasmine Revolution,” in fact), and government officials and business magnates help each other become fat cats.

To help grow the economy quickly, the State has given favored businesses considerable freedom to operate as they see fit (another irony, laissez-faire economic policy), sometimes at the expense of the common citizen, whose protests, when allowed, are ultimately pointless. We hear reports of entire city neighborhoods being evicted and razed for a new construction project, of a miner’s widow being denied access to her husband’s remains and being forced to accept a cash payment as compensation for his death, of bad food resulting from lax regulation, poor construction practices, and environmental disasters.

Many have resulted from the close personal and economic relationships that have developed between government officials, who look the other way, and the favored business leaders, who pay them to look the other way. Having given businessmen an inch, China’s political leaders have seen big business take a mile, and become a troublesome barrier to reform.

This is precisely the same message of OWS, which has not been lost on more thoughtful Chinese observers, who warn that China may yet have its own Occupy movement. As long as China can keep its growing middle class content and comfortable with material wealth, protest movements will gain no traction, however. China has largely been insulated from the economic crises of the USA and EU.

But, if the Chinese economy goes sour and middle class folks lose their jobs, homes and comfy lifestyle, China’s leaders will have an enormous problem that all the ‘Net harmonizing in the world will not solve.

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You might also check out this reports.

Stratfor Analysis

Bloomberg analysis

South African fast food chain pulls lonely Mugabe commercial

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JISHOU, HUNAN — Sometimes satire hits a little too close for comfort, at least among rabid supporters of Robert Mugabe, dictator , excuse me, president of Zimbabwe.

Nando’s of South Africa recently ran a satirical commercial with actors playing several now-dead dictators and a forlorn Mugabe look-alike, who misses all his old dictator pals at Christmas time. Supporters of Mugabe, who has controlled Zim since 1980, threatened Nando’s staff, prompting the restaurant chain to pull the commercial.

Of course, as long as there is an Internet, nothing will ever disappear. So, here it is for your enjoyment.

httpv://youtu.be/RqvdRP0L65w

Nando’s, by the way, sells really tasty (and spicy) chicken. Their chips (aka French fries) and rolls are pretty good, too. Seeing the ad makes me want some now. Num, num.

John Freshwater: the gift that keeps on giving

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JISHOU, HUNAN — Back when I was a science teacher, I started blogged about an Ohio public school science teacher who got in hot water for (1) allegedly using a Tesla coil on his students, (2) teaching evolution was false and (3) going overboard with his religious proselytizing in the classroom.

Without going into a lot of details, let’s just say that teacher, John Freshwater of Mount Vernon, was removed from classroom teaching pending an administrative hearing about insubordination. After a two-year-long administrative hearing process, Freshwater lost his job earlier this year. He and the Mount Vernon school system were also named in a federal discrimination complaint brought by a student’s family; the school district settled out of court and Freshwater, following an unsuccessful appeal, also had to pay damages to the family. Meanwhile, he filed, and later dropped, his own discrimination complaint in federal court against the school system.

So, after all these proceedings which suggest that Freshwater was to some degree culpable, I learn that he has the nerve to play the victim card on David Barton and Rick Green’s WallBuilders Live radio program.

Here’s a partial transcript, courtesy of Right Wing Watch.

Freshwater: When the 2007/2008 school year came along, there was a new principal, a new Superintendent, and three new school board members and what took place that year was they wanted me to removed my Bible from my desk. And I felt I have academic freedoms and I thought I had the right to have my Bible on my desk, so I left it on my desk in 2007/2008 school year and they told me to remove it and that was when they suspended me – April 16, 2008 – they suspended me without pay and I’ve been in litigation since then, the last four years.

Green: What’s their complaint about having a Bible on your desk? I thought teachers were allowed to do that?

Freshwater: You know what? I thought so too, but they said I needed to remove it from my desk. Here is what it comes down to Rick, and it’s this: there is a lot of fear in public school teachers, especially Christian public school teachers. They put fear into them and they keep them ignorant; they don’t teach them, they don’t train them on it, so what a teacher does is they take off their religious beliefs, they take their hat off before they walk into a public school building because they don’t want to lose their job. They really don’t have a good understanding of this whole thing called religious belief and separation of church and state, it has been convoluted, it has been putting fear in the people and it is sad, it’s very sad for a public school teacher in a public school in America today.

Freshwater conveniently omitted the religious posters on his classroom walls, the shelf full of Bibles for students to borrow, his teaching of creationism in class, and comments disparaging Catholics, among others, as not being Christian, which were significant charges that led to his removal from teaching and the federal suit against him and the school system. It is true his principal told him to remove his Bible from his desk, so it was not in plain sight. It is also true that Freshwater refused, and also refused to change any of his other actions that got him and the school in hot water.

As for the malarkey that public school teachers have to leave their religion in the school parking lot, there are no laws that forbid teachers from keeping a Bible in their desk, praying privately or stating their own beliefs in a non-judgmental, non-threatening way to their students. There are laws, however, that forbid them from teaching creationism or Intelligent Design as valid “scientific theories” or using their teacher’s desk as a church pulpit to preach to a captive audience.

i won’t even mention the unprofessional, nay, stupid, practice of using a Tesla coil (technically, a high-voltage, high-frequency vacuum leak tester) to give volunteer students skin burns in the shape of an “x” (or a cross, depending on your viewpoint). These charges were also part of Freshwater’s legal woes, if not the catalyst that brought his other dubious actions to light.

Cry me a river, John Freshwater. You’re not a victim here. You’re the instigator — you made your own bed, now lie in it.

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If any readers are sufficiently curious to read about the Strange and Curious Case of John Freshwater, this link will take you to the Panda’s Thumb, where Richard Hoppe has chronicled in excruciating detail the whole saga.

Powers of Ten for the 21st century

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JISHOU, HUNAN — In 1968 Ray Eames and her husband Charles Eames (of Eames chair fame) released a remarkable short film called Powers of Ten. You may have seen it in a science class, if you were lucky. It opens with a couple having a picnic, then zooms in with ever increasing detail to an atomic nucleus, then zooms out at high speed into outer space. Each step decreases or increases the magnification by a multiple of ten.

You can watch at Vimeo.

Now there’s a Shockwave version of the same idea, by Cary and Michael Huang. A slide control allows you to explore at your own pace.

It takes a while to load, but it’s worth the wait. Nothing showy or (ahem) flashy, but neither was the Eames film.

China’s TV ‘police’ pull plug on commercials during period dramas

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JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s TV networks are saturated with historical dramas, with settings ranging from the Tang Dynasty to the Japanese Occupation and the Communist Revolution. They are surprisingly popular among viewers, but, as in the West, the Internet (free movies!) beckons to those tired of the same old same old.

So, China’s version of the FCC has mandated that, beginning Jan. 1, costume dramas will no longer be interrupted by commercials, which are often as dully repetitive as the shows they sponsor. The hope, apparently, is that viewers will sit glued to their sets and not wander away to watch Hong Kong and Korean soapies, Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, or, worse yet, read the news about China from abroad.

The ban on commercials follows another directive a few months ago to eliminate American Idol-like talent contests like Super Girl and Super Boy, which have been much more popular than the state-approved “ain’t we great?” period pieces.

[Speaking of the Super Boy show, one of my juniors was a contestant last year, but was eliminated finally. If you want to check his singing out, here’s a link of him learning he advanced to the next round and singing, “Any Man of Mine.” Yes, I know, that’s my question, too.]

The authorities hope the nation’s networks will provide wholesome entertainment that fosters better understanding of China’s culture and history — all the good parts, of course.

Chinese origins of English phrases

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[Cross-posted on my QQ diary page.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Last week, two of my colleagues and I debated whether the common English greeting, “long time no see,” was Chinglish or English slang. Since I’ve heard it since I was a kid, I contended it was authentically American. They insisted that its origins are Chinese, because there is a phrase in Chinese that is identical word for word. It turns out we are both right.

I checked for the origins of this phrase. One early appearance apparently was in a 1901 book about Native Americans; the white writer had a Native American speaking pidgin English, “long time no see you.” But a more likely origin is from western trade with the Chinese in the late 19th century.

“Long time no see” is the literal translation of the Cantonese 好耐冇見 (hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3) and the Mandarin 好久不见 (Hǎojiǔ bùjiàn). British (and perhaps American) seamen brought the phrase back home, where it eventually became part of the English language. (I also suspect it spread quickly because of early movies, and radio and TV programs featuring Chinese characters, like the Charlie Chan detective dramas, but I have no evidence.)

As it turns out, “long time no see” is not the only Chinese phrase “borrowed” by the English language. Here are some other common ones.

  • no can do (不能做 bū néng zuò) — “I can’t do it.” “It’s impossible.” An American pop hit in 1981 was “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates. (“I can’t go for that” is an American idiom meaning “I don’t like it” or “I won’t do it.”) Sugababes, a UK girl group, recorded a different pop hit, “No Can Do,” in 2008.
  • lose face (丟臉 diū liǎn) — bring shame upon oneself; “I enjoying losing face!” — one of Li Yang‘s Crazy English mottos for English learners.
  • no-go (不行 bù xíng)– not OK, option not taken; used by NASA and some military people in the USA, as in a “go/no-go situation”; “The launch was a no-go.” = “It didn’t happen.”

  • look-see (看见 kàn jiàn) — look, viewing, observation; “I’ll go have a look-see, and tell you about it.”

  • where-to? (哪去 nǎ qù)– “Where are you going?”, “Where do you want me to take you?”; a shorthand way for a taxi driver (especially in New York City) to ask for a destination: “Where to, lady?”

  • No this, no that — Not really a Chinese phrase, it is attributed to Chinese-run laundries in the US, who had signs that said “沒票沒襯衣” (méi piào, méi chènyī–No ticket, no shirt) meaning without your receipt, you could not collect your laundered clothing. Now, a common sign in many restaurants all over the US is “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” It means no one coming in without a shirt or shoes would be served food. In fact, they would be asked to leave, for health reasons.

  • Chop chop (from 快快 Cantonese faai3faai3/Mandarin kuàikuài — hurry up, go quickly; “Come on, we have to go now — chop chop!” English sailors already used the word “chop” themselves, to mean “quick” or “hurry.” “Choppy seas” means there is a brisk wind and rough waves. They turned 快快 into “chop chop,” to mean the same thing as the Cantonese phrase. When they saw how fast Chinese could eat using two sticks (筷子 kuàizi), instead of spoons or forks, they called the utensils “chop sticks” to mean “quick sticks.” Perhaps they confused the word 筷 with this word 快; in Mandarin anyway, they sound the same, but have different meanings. Nowadays, “chop chop” is not so common a phrase, but everyone knows the word “chopsticks.”

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Since I am cross-posting this on my American blog and my QQ diary, here’s a quick Chinese lesson for my non-Chinese readers.

In Chinese, doubling a word has the same meaning as “very”, “better” or “every”, depending on circumstance. So the Chinese phrase 天天快乐 (tiān tiān kuàile) translated word for word is “day day happy,” meaning “Be happy every day” or “I hope you are happy every day.” (There is that word, kuài 快, again, but combined with 乐 le, it means “happy.”)

Another common Chinese phrase is 好好学习,天天向上 (hǎo hǎo xuéxí, tiān tiān xiàngshàng), attributed to Mao Zedong. In Chinglish, it is “good good study, day day up.” Rendered into more normal English, it means, “Study well, and make progress every day.”

“Good good study, day day up” has become a colloquial part of both Chinese and English here. Hunan Satellite TV carries a popular variety show called Day Day Up. There is also a Chinese language self-study site for foreigners, Day Day Up Chinese.

One last thing: Mandarin (and Cantonese) are tonal languages, meaning the tone (pitch) of a word changes its meaning. Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese even more. We can symbolize tones by using numbers after each word, or by using diacritical marks above the vowels. For example, 妈 (mā or ma1 — high steady tone) is “mother,” 麻 (má or ma2 — rising tone) is hemp, 马 (mǎ or ma3 — “scooping tone,” as I call it) is “horse” and 骂 (mà or ma4 — short, falling tone) is “to scold.” As you can guess, this makes learning Chinese especially difficult for foreigners whose native language is non-tonal. I wonder whether Swedes can learn Chinese faster than Americans.

Made-in-China chili con carne

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JISHOU, HUNAN — One of the things I’ve missed in China is Mexican and Tex-Mex food. So, since I inherited a slow cooker from a former laowai, I’d been planning to make some chili. The other day, I happened to find some dry beans in the supermarket that looked somewhat like pinto beans (see photo).

Mystery beans

Well, they look like chili beans

It was all I needed to put my plan into action.

Purists of various stripes may be appalled that I mixed meat with beans, or used beans at all, or that I omitted the spaghetti (a barbarous custom — sorry, Cincinnati chili aficionados), or used a premixed chili powder (Mexene™, from the USA).

To those purists, I say, get a life. Chili is basically a peasant’s meal, made with whatever is handy. The actual ingredients are not so important (except for the aforementioned spaghetti, which I can’t find here anyway). The flavor is.

So, here’s my made-in-China chili recipe. The only “foreign” ingredient is the Mexene™ powder, which if I tried I could probably replicate with locally available ingredients.


Chinese slow-cooked chili

Serves 6. Cooking time 6-7 hours.

Ingredients:
1 cup dry speckled red beans
1/2 lb. (300 g) beef, cubed and browned (the package was not labeled, but from the looks, it was shoulder meat; Chinese beef is also very lean — no visible fat on this cut at all)
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1 large purple onion, diced and fried
2 -3 red Anaheim peppers, chopped (these are widely available in Hunan)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped (you can omit if you can’t stand cilantro’s smell or flavor)
2 Tbsp Mexene chili powder (I used one Tbsp each of hot and regular mix)
1 tsp salt, or to taste (I tend to under-salt my cooking)
1-2 Tbsp oil (I used peanut oil because of its high smoking point)

Procedure:
The night before —
Rinse the beans thoroughly. Place in slow cooker and cover with 3 cups hot water (for me, that means hot water from my drinking water dispenser, NOT from the tap!). Do not turn on the cooker. Cover and let them soak overnight.

The next morning —
Check water level and add more hot water to cover the beans. Turn on the cooker and set to high. While the beans cook, assemble and prepare the ingredients.

Add tomatoes, peppers, garlic, cilantro, salt and chili powder to the beans.

Get the wok good and hot. Add oil to wok. When it’s also good and hot, stir fry the chopped onion until it just begins to caramelize. Remove and add to cooker. In the same oil, briefly brown the cubed beef. Add more oil if necessary. Add beef to cooker.

Check the water level. Cover and turn heat to low, and cook until beans are al dente (about six hours for mine).

I had a little bit of red wine left over, so I marinated the beef in it while I prepared the veggies. I don’t know if it was a critical step, but the finished product was very good. Two of my Chinese friends enjoyed the chili, and one even had three helpings. I froze some to take next week to the old campus for the teachers there to try. We have a potluck lunch every Wednesday, and so far they’ve done all the cooking.

I served the chili on top of rice, which works out just fine. I plan to try making cornbread when I have some time to experiment. The cornmeal I bought is coarsely ground and needs soaking in boiling hot water before I make it into cornbread. The cornmeal pancakes I made with it were a little too crunchy-chewy for my tastes.

Released from detention, Ai WeiWei still fights authority

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Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei

Ai WeiWei shows media his $2.4 million tax bill

JISHOU, HUNAN — Despite a lengthy detention, a crushing tax bill and continued harassment by Chinese authorities, dissident artist Ai WeiWei remains undaunted.

Ai was arrested in April for “economic crimes” and held in an undisclosed location for more than two months. Authorities claim Ai owes $2.4 million in back taxes, an accusation he disputes but is paying with the help of his fans. Now, he says one of his associates is being investigated on child pornography charges. Technically, Ai and his wife are under house arrest; he cannot leave Beijing, cannot write anything critical of the government and cannot talk to the media.

But he did anyway. Newsweek magazine carries an essay by Ai in which he describes Beijing as a “prison,” without referring specifically to his own quasi-imprisonment. We know what he means, though.

Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don’t care who their neighbors are; they don’t trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can’t even imagine that they’ll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they’ve never seen electricity or toilet paper.

Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.

Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants’ schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don’t have any money, they pull the stitches out. It’s a city of violence.

It’s a bleak description of the reality that lies underneath Beijing’s many tourist attractions and showy attempts to be a world-class city. In fact, he expresses the kinds of thoughts (“open secrets”– 公开的秘密) that dwell in many Chinese citizens’ minds, but are rarely expressed to anyone but trusted friends and family. Although the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are long past, most people here choose to avoid any “imperial entanglements,” as it were.

Ai has a quixotic belief that the government should uphold the national constitution, which guarantees — in theory — that all citizens have civil rights. Despite the huge gap between theory and practice, Ai continues to fight authority. It’s hard to say if he do any better than the guy in the John Mellencamp song.