BBC BLOGS - James Reynolds' China

Archives for November 2008

Update: Wo Weihan

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James Reynolds | 13:30 UK time, Friday, 28 November 2008


In this photo released by Ran Chen, Wo Weihan escorts his daughter Ran Chen at her wedding in Innsbruck, Austria May 8, 2004An update on the case of Wo Weihan, the Chinese businessman sentenced to death for espionage. (See also: 'Taiwan spy' executed by Beijing).

On Friday evening, we received a statement from Mr Wo's family. Extracts below:

Today, our beloved father, Wo Weihan, was executed... At 5pm today, we were informed by Austria's deputy ambassador Stefan Scholz that the Chinese MFA gave him the confirmation that the execution had taken place in the morning today. According to our information, he was executed by gunshot... We are deeply shocked, saddened, disappointed and outraged.

As I write this entry, I'm unaware of any reaction from the Chinese government. But on Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the following: "China is a country run by law and the final verdict concerning Wo was independently made by the relevant Chinese judicial organs."

Rare insight

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James Reynolds | 13:06 UK time, Thursday, 27 November 2008


We've reported on an appeal made by a woman whose father has been sentenced to death for espionage.

Ran ChenOn Wednesday Ran Chen spoke to the BBC - on what she believed to be the eve of her father's execution.

On Thursday morning she was allowed to visit her father, Wo Weihan, for the first time in four years. Ms Chen believed this was a last gesture by the authorities before her father's execution.

After her visit, Ran Chen held a news conference. I'll quote in detail from what she told us, because it's extremely rare to get an insight into how a case like this proceeds in China. The legal system in this country operates amid great secrecy. China doesn't disclose how many people it executes every year, but human rights organisations charge that China executes more people than any other country in the world.

Most families involved in death penalty cases don't speak to the media. But Ran Chen has more freedom to talk because she holds a foreign passport (she obtained Austrian nationality several years ago - her father still holds Chinese citizenship).

This is what she told us.

In the morning, Ms Chen and her stepmother went to the Second Intermediate Court of Beijing:

"Before we went in there we had to sign a paper. We were told in a separate room what the rules were for such a family visitation and we were not allowed to bring any paper or pen. We were not allowed to bring anything apart from three or four photos."

Her father had been taken to the court from a prison hospital. He hadn't seen his family for four years.

"It was a complete surprise to him. He said he was sleeping this morning and then the people came and just took him to the court. He was sitting there and then all of a sudden we came in the door and he was very happy to see us... He was calm - he was obviously much older now. He has aged."

The meeting was heavily monitored.

"There was a glass window and I was sitting [on one side] with his wife. And he was sitting on the other side and there were two officials behind him. He was in handcuffs. And behind me were about five to six officials and also a video camera. So the whole conversation was taped."

There were restrictions as to what they were allowed to talk about.

"One of the rules was that we were not allowed to discuss the case. Whenever my father started to speak about the case he was told not to speak about the case."

But there was something Ms Chen had to know.

A few days ago, a low-ranking court official told the family by phone that the Supreme People's Court - China's highest court - had reviewed and approved Mr Wo's execution. Since the start of 2007, this court has had to review all death penalty cases in China. An approval clears the way for a death sentence to be carried out at any time.

But the family hadn't received this final verdict in writing. It didn't know whether or not it should rely on news given over the phone by a minor official.

So, Ms Chen wanted to hear from her father what he had been told.

"The first thing we asked was 'have you received your last verdict?' He said 'no'. I actually asked twice - 'did you receive any news?' He said 'no.'"

Wo Weihan did not appear to think that he was about to be executed.

"He again repeatedly told me that he is innocent. He said very clearly that he has confidence in the justice system of China."

After 30 minutes, the visit was over.

"After meeting with my dad we went home, and I cried for two hours and it was just so difficult and emotional. Because I thought that maybe by the time I got home maybe he was already executed. I didn't know. That's really what makes it very difficult for us. We don't get information."

A few hours later, the family got a call from the Austrian Embassy (Austria has been liaising with the Chinese government because Ms Chen has Austrian citizenship). A diplomat passed on the message that China had agreed to let the family visit Wo Weihan once more. The family doesn't yet know when this next visit will take place. But Ran Chen believes that it means the possibility of her father's immediate execution has receded.

For its part, the Chinese government has stated its position clearly.

"Wo Weihan is a Chinese citizen who broke Chinese law," a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said at a regularly scheduled briefing held in Beijing on Thursday afternoon, "We can't give privileges to him because he has foreign relatives."

Ran Chen argues that she does not want special privileges for her father. She says that she believes in the justice system in this country, but argues that his conviction for espionage is deeply flawed. She adds that she and her family intend to carry on fighting for her father's death sentence to be commuted.

Chinese Democracy

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James Reynolds | 10:50 UK time, Tuesday, 25 November 2008


If the Chinese Communist Party is looking for a house band to play at one of its next study sessions, Guns N' Roses latest album probably won't be on the list. Chinese Democracy, you can be sure, will not be uploaded onto official Politburo iPods.

Axl Rose in 1992One newspaper editorial here says that the album venomously attacks China. When we mentioned the new album in a Chinese internet forum, the administrator quickly deleted the reference. The record hasn't been released in China - unofficially we've been told this is because the material is too sensitive. The album's official website has also been blocked.

The Chinese government prefers a different kind of music. Before its press conferences, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing plays generically unthreatening acoustic guitar music over its loudspeakers. I asked the spokesman, Qin Gang, what he made of the new Guns N' Roses album.

"According to my knowledge, a lot of people don't like this kind of music - because it's too noisy, and too loud. James, I think you are a mature adult, aren't you?" he said (with what seemed to be a definite half-smile).

But if you look around a bit, you can find something even louder and more provocative than Guns N' Roses.

Ordnance band performingIn a small bar on the Pacific coast, a Chinese heavy metal band called Ordnance perform their new album. The four band members perform with their backs to the audience of 40 or 50 people. Their songs go just as far - if not much further - than Guns N' Roses. The band attacks the Chinese police for not defending ordinary people, they criticise corruption and oppression in their own country.

"Take pride in freedom of speech," the band sings, "take pride in guaranteeing human rights, Take one party dictatorship as a disgrace."

This small band singing in a small bar can get away with saying things that would never be allowed anywhere else in this country. I wonder what they think of the American band thousands of miles away also singing about China.

"Guns N' Roses are in the US - they have never lived in China," says Ying Peng, the band's lead singer, "They don't really know what China is really like. They try to understand it in their way, but it's one-sided. I may like the music, the melody. But for lyrics, everyone thinks differently, and stands on a different side. It's a different place, different culture."

"If they came to China to tour, what would you say to them?" I ask.

"Though we're not on the same level band, we have the same spirit," says the guitarist Liu Li Xin, "The rebellious spirit is the same. We try to discover problems in societies. We respect Guns N' Roses, because they took notice of China's democracy. For that, they deserve our respect. But we do have the same attitude and spirit, hoping to make China better."

In the end which band will have the greater impact on China? The Americans performing in stadiums outside China? Or the four men in their own country yelling out their own concerns to their own people?

The Deal

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James Reynolds | 08:56 UK time, Tuesday, 25 November 2008


You won't find it written down anywhere. The government would deny that it exists. But it's one of the first things that you learn about when you get to China. Everyone here understands it. And it helps to explain why the Communist Party has been able to stay in power.

It's The Deal - sometimes known as The Bargain or the Pact.

The Deal is an unspoken agreement between the Chinese government and its people. It was reached in the aftermath of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989. It goes like this: the people leave the politics to the government; in return the government makes the people rich.

A crude way of looking at it is that the Communist Party has simply bought off its people with money and jobs. But there's more to it than that. For more than a century, until the late 1970s, China lived in almost constant chaos: a collapsing empire, foreign invasion and occupation, civil war, famine (any Chinese person over 35 can still remember some of those years). Many people here want a break from the anarchy they once knew. So, a more accurate way of seeing The Deal is this: everyone has agreed to leave behind years of chaos by focusing all of their efforts on the economy. Getting rich feels better than being hungry and anarchic.

For years, The Deal has governed how life works in China. Today's students haven't protested like their predecessors a generation ago partly because there have always been enough jobs for them when they graduate (and partly because they know that demonstrations end badly). Workers and farmers haven't risen up in mass revolt because the Party's given them the chance to escape from poverty. In other words, if you keep quiet and put your faith in the system, you can get a good life.

In recent years, there have been thousands of small-scale protests. But these demonstrations (or "incidents" as the government calls them) have been about localised issues (eg officials in a certain village have stolen money, or migrant workers on a specific project haven't been paid). Until now, there's been no one single issue for people to protest about.

Migrant workers rest on a Beijing street on Sunday Febuary 27, 2000. China Daily newspaper reported that last year only 22 million out of the 70 million unemployed rural laborers who went to cities found work. Chinese leaders worried that frequent protestBut now, the world's financial crisis has hit China. As I wrote last week, many Chinese companies which export goods to the West have had to shut down. Migrant workers who left their villages to get jobs are now having to go back home to nothing. We've been getting word of more and more protests in different parts of the country. The government admits that the unemployment situation is "grim."

If hundreds of millions of farmers and migrant workers no longer feel that the government can give them a better life, the government runs into trouble.

Here's the thought that may keep China's leaders awake at night: No Jobs, No Deal.

Does history favour freedom?

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James Reynolds | 17:43 UK time, Friday, 21 November 2008


police_203_getty.jpgIn the absence of crystal balls, tea leaves, or time machines, it's hard to know for sure what'll happen in the future. Some guesses turn out to be fantastically incorrect (remember the professor who declared that rail travel at high speed was impossible because passengers would be unable to breathe; or the mathematician who assured the world that heavier-than-air flying machines would never work).

Anyway, the fear of being wrong hasn't stopped anyone from predicting the future course of China.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, one school of thought has dominated the predictions made by China's chief rival, the United States: the belief that democracy is bound to come to China, because free trade leads to political freedom, and because the steady march of history favours freedom. Let's call this the history-says-freedom-will-come camp. It's been championed by the last two American presidents:

"I have told President Jiang that when it comes to human rights and religious freedom, China remains on the wrong side of history. Unlike some, I do not believe that increased commercial dealings alone will inevitably lead to greater openness and freedom. We must work to speed history's course."
- President Bill Clinton, Washington DC, 11 June 1998

"I'm optimistic about China's future. Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas, especially on an unrestricted internet. Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions. Yet change will arrive."
- President George W Bush, Bangkok, 7 August 2008

A pretty clear position, then. But there is another school of thought. Let's call this the don't-bet-on-it camp. This viewpoint argues that democracy in China isn't inevitable at all. It argues that free trade actually strengthens authoritarian regimes instead of bringing them down (this school of thought is vividly argued by the journalist James Mann in his book The China Fantasy). It looks like the don't-bet-on-it camp has had a say in the drafting of a new US Intelligence report which guesses what the world might look like in 2025 ...

"Other discontinuities are less predictable. They are likely to result from an interaction of several trends and depend on the quality of leadership. We put uncertainties such as whether China or Russia becomes a democracy in this category. China's growing middle class increases the chances but does not make such a development inevitable."
Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, US National Intelligence Council (published November 2008)

So, there are two competing viewpoints. The history-says-freedom-will-come camp believes/hopes that China will end up being powerful and democratic (ie - just like America). But the don't-bet-on-it camp suggests that China will be powerful and probably not democratic (ie - not like America). We wait for the position of the incoming Obama administration.

Setting the march/non-march of democracy aside, there is a consensus that China will get more and more powerful by 2025:

"China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country. If current trends persist, by 2025 China will have the world's second largest economy and will be a leading military power. It also could be the largest importer of natural resources and the biggest polluter."
Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, US National Intelligence Council (published November 2008)

So, that's what the US thinks. But how does China see its own future?

In many ways, this country is still following a famous bit of advice given by Deng Xiaoping in 1991 as the Soviet Empire was breaking up. His advice is known as the "Twenty-four character directive":

"observing with a cool head, securing our position, dealing with the situation calmly, hiding our capacities and biding our time, being good at defense, and never being in the limelight"
(quoted in "China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping," by Michael E Marti)

In 2003, China's next set of leaders built on Deng's advice when they came up with a phrase designed to explain the country's re-emergence as a global power: "peaceful rise". In other words, we're not out to invade your country and make you all speak Chinese.

The Communist Party always likes to point out that China is still a developing country that still has a long way to go before it challenges or even overtakes the United States.

The figures show that China has a point. The two most immediate measures of any country's power are money and guns. At the moment the US economy is more than four times the size of China's. And the US spends about 10 times as much on its military than China does on its own armed forces. So, in terms of the power to spend and the power to shoot, the US is still a long way ahead.

But China does have its ambitions. It's clear that the country wants to assert its authority - particularly in East Asia. Politically, the country wants to make sure that the self-governing island of Taiwan doesn't declare independence. Economically, China is determined to protect its trade routes (a large percentage of China's imports comes through the Strait of Malacca between the Indian and Pacific Oceans).

The Communist Party believes that the best way to achieve its aims in this respect is to develop a strong navy. Recent reports suggest that China is keen to buy its first aircraft carrier. China's military ambitions worry some in the United States (I once interviewed a US Congressmen who compared China to the shark in Jaws). At some point in the future the two countries may jostle for position in the Pacific.

In the long term, China, the US, and other countries may also find themselves competing for and even fighting over resources. China's dramatic rise has been fuelled by raw materials provided by other countries - particularly those in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. In order to keep on growing, China needs to keep on importing resources. So, what happens if everyone ends up chasing the same set of raw materials ?

The answer is that we don't know. As I said at the beginning of this post, predictions often turn out to be wrong. Remember that the US intelligence community predicted neither the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 nor its collapse in 1989.

So, no one knows for sure what will happen in 2025. Unless, of course, you happen to have a time machine.

Curious convoy

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James Reynolds | 10:56 UK time, Monday, 17 November 2008


I'm back in Beijing after a trip to southern China to have a look at how the global financial crisis is affecting this country.

Armoured carHad a strange last morning in Shenzhen. The team and I were on our way to an interview at a toy factory. The traffic was jammed and people were standing by the side of the road. We saw a huge police convoy go by - dozens of motorbikes, several vans, and an armoured car right at the front.

None of us had ever seen this before in China - so we followed the convoy at a safe distance (we didn't want to repeat the experience of a colleague of mine in Jerusalem who once drove behind the Israeli prime minister's convoy and found several machine guns pointed straight at him from the rear vehicle).

We followed the convoy for a while (have a look at the photo) before peeling away. We asked local people if they knew why it was deployed - they told us they didn't know, that they'd never seen something like it before. It's entirely possible that the police were just moving vehicles from one place to another. But it does show that the authorities in this part of China have the resources to deal with social unrest if more people lose their jobs because of the world's financial crisis.

China's new economic plan

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James Reynolds | 08:50 UK time, Monday, 10 November 2008


Remember what they teach you in basic manners class: if you're invited to someone's house, don't turn up empty-handed.

Shoppers in ChinaChina's president Hu Jintao is going to Washington in a few days for a summit to discuss the global financial crisis. Now he has something to show his hosts: a new economic plan.

The Chinese government has just announced a series of measures worth $586bn. The plan includes spending on infrastructure, housing, healthcare, and disaster relief. The measures are designed to make sure that China's economy keeps going - and that its people start spending.

Here's what makes the package necessary: the global downturn has begun to affect China. Put simply: since consumers in the West can no longer afford to buy as much, China can't sell as much. So, China's growth has dropped to 9% from over 10% a year ago. Exports have fallen. Factories have shut down. 67,000 small and medium businesses so far have gone bust this year.

Here's why all of this worries the government: fewer jobs means more social unrest. In recent weeks there've been reports of protests and marches by workers who've lost their jobs. More than anything else, the Communist Party hates instability.

So, the government will hope that its $586bn package helps out. It's something for Hu Jintao to discuss with his fellow world leaders when he gets to Washington.

PS. For those who've read my previous entry, Hu Jintao and Barack Obama have now actually spoken on the phone. They did so on Saturday.

Obama's victory

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James Reynolds | 04:52 UK time, Wednesday, 5 November 2008


I've just been watching news of the Obama victory on Chinese TV (it's the second story here after an update on a trip to Taiwan by a senior Chinese official).

If you're Chinese, what do you think of Mr Obama's win? What will it mean for US-China relations?

UPDATE: Barack Obama's election victory is now attracting quite a bit of attention here. The main evening news led its programme with Mr Obama's win. Normally, the bulletin begins with pictures of Politburo members carrying out their latest activities - this usually means endless pictures of meetings held in cavernous rooms with loyal Party officials. But tonight, the first pictures in the bulletin were of Mr Obama's victory - that's very rare.

China's President Hu Jintao and the Premier Wen Jiabao have sent messages to Mr Obama congratulating him on his victory. The official statement doesn't make it clear how the messages were delivered to the president-elect (via telegram? On a silver tray?)

From what I can tell, it seems that neither man actually called Mr Obama on the phone. It may not matter that much, but I find it interesting to note that this is the way that China prefers to deal with foreign leaders - in a courtly, reserved fashion. The Communist Party prizes formality (perhaps as an antidote to the chaos that China once went through).

So Hu Jintao is unlikely to be the kind of person to start texting Barack Obama smiley faces.

Comparing China and Cuba

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James Reynolds | 13:09 UK time, Monday, 3 November 2008


Hello again. Just back in China after a bit of time rummaging around Cuba. Although I was there as a tourist and not in any formal reporting role, I hope the Cuban authories will allow me to share some thoughts.

I decided to go there for a simple reason...

There are just five Communist states left in the world: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba.

These five survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union - in effect, they are the remains of the movement that once threatened to dominate the world.

So, after having spent the last two years living in Communist-ruled China, I was curious to see what life was like in another Communist-run country. At the very least, I thought I could sing the Internationale and wave a hammer and sickle if I got into trouble.

There are plenty of similiarities...

Museum in HavanaThe Chinese Communists came to power in 1949, the Cubans in 1959. Each revolution followed a strikingly similar path. Both were led for many years in the wilds by a charismatic leader - Mao Zedong in China, Fidel Castro in Cuba. The legend around each leader was built on a semi-suicidal manoeuvre - the Long March for Mao, the attack on the Moncada Barracks for Castro. Each man carried out his revolution against a regime portrayed as brutal and corrupt (the way museum exhibits in Havana condemn the indulgences of the ousted leader Fulgencio Batista reminded me of the way China routinely condemns the way the Dalai Lama used to live in Tibet).

After each revolution, each set of losers set up camp on the other side of a narrow strait directly facing their homeland - Chiang Kai-shek took his supporters to Taiwan, and Batista's supporters formed an exile community in Florida. These respective straits became sources of military tension for decades.

When you wander about Cuba, you tend to bump into things that remind you of China. On many streets there are signs for the local "Comite de la Defensa de la Revolucion" (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) - the local neighbourhood organisation that keeps an eye on people's lives, similar to work units in China. Each party has managed to stay in power because of its ability to make its presence felt on every street, and in every house.

Both Communist Parties see themselves as instruments for social (and ideally moral) betterment. In Havana I came across signs encouraging alcoholics to get help at meetings. In one village I read a notice telling people to neuter their dogs. And then, there are the slogans - sayings from Castro and from Che Guevara printed on walls and placards across the country. Add this to what you find in China, and it's unlikely you can walk more than a few yards in either country without coming across wise words from your leaders (if you haven't been to a Communist country, it's a bit like seeing the Ten Commandments and the sayings of Churchill stuck all over Oxford Street).

Each state cultivates a strong sense of national pride and is sustained by the view that its enemies are out to destroy it. In Cuba, the enemy is the United States (a sign on the semi-finished motorway outside Havana says that the road would be finished quickly, if only the US ended its blockade). In China, the enemy is a West apparently keen to keep the country down and go back to the days of 19th century colonialism. But, this need for an official enemy doesn't always filter down to ordinary people - I've found ordinary Cubans and Chinese people to be incredibly hospitable to visitors.

Neither state tolerates any kind of political dissent - nor does it see any immediate need for general elections. The revolutions that brought each party to power are treated as never-ending mandates - no need for the trouble of a popular vote since the revolution is viewed as a permanent popular verdict.

Those are the similarities. But the differences are just as striking...

Cuba looks like it's stuck in 1959 - with old cars and crumbling buildings. China often looks like it's decided to skip ahead to 2059 - with a set of dazzling skyscrapers, stadiums and airports.

Fidel and Raul CastroCuba is still run by the men who carried out its revolution (Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul Castro is the president; Fidel himself still pops up regularly in his new job of newspaper columnist). These are men who work under a US embargo, who have not dramatically changed their ideology in half a century.

But China is run by its fourth generation - men who are several steps removed from the original revolution. These are men who do business with the entire world, who have inherited a system which traded socialism for capitalism a generation ago.

Both countries once tried to export revolution. But now China prefers simply to export goods.

Cuba is still a socialist country. It takes great pride in its free, well-developed education and health care systems (every few blocks in Havana you tend to run into a public health clinic.) China used to have free public services - but gave them up when it introduced market reforms in the 80s. As a result, many now believe that China is now one of the least socialist countries in the world. Tens of millions of migrant workers in China have no health care (a fact that worries the government which has promised to bring back free or affordable services.)

Cuba is still a noticeably poor country - I came across long queues for bread, and people still use ration books to buy food (one woman took me through hers, explaining how much rice she was allowed to buy every month).

By contrast, parts of China are staggeringly opulent. There's an international sportswear shop in Beijing that sells NBA jerseys and Chinese Olympic uniforms - rows and rows of goods perfectly displayed over three floors. I went to the equivalent shop in Havana - a bunch of shirts were crammed onto racks in one room. I asked if I could buy a Cuban Olympic uniform but was told that they'd run out a long time ago (ordering any more didn't appear to be an option).

To get rich in Cuba you have to leave the island. But, in China you can get rich in your homeland.

The one-party state of Cuba has bet on socialism as a way to stay in power. The one-party state of China has decided that money's a better bet than equality.

Which way wins?

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