Tibetans are content, China's Communist Party congress is told


BEIJING -- As far the Communist Party is concerned, Tibet is the happiest place in China and dissatisfaction is stirred up by outside agitators.

So pronounced Tibet’s top delegates at the 18th Communist Party congress, which is convening this week in Beijing. They dismissed the rash of self-immolations by young Tibetans and accompanying protests by thousands of students as the work of outsiders manipulating Tibetans for political gain.

Since Wednesday, at least six Tibetans, mostly teenagers, have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.

"Overseas separatists entice victims. Those people who support Tibetan independence call their deeds a heroic act and these people heroes," said Lobsang Gyaltsen, vice governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is under Chinese rule. He blamed the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, for the immolations. “It is actually an act of murder to entice somebody to commit suicide .... The Dalai Lama group is sacrificing other people’s lives to achieve their evil goals."

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Tibetans greet China's Communist Party Congress with fiery protests

Tibetans protest China's Communist Party Congress
BEIJING — Tibetans greeted the opening of the 18th Communist Party Congress with fiery protests as a record number committed public self-immolations to mark their opposition to Chinese rule.

Over the last 48 hours, at least five Tibetans, possibly six, were reported to have set themselves on fire in western China. Most of them were teenagers.

Up to 6,000 people demonstrated against China on Thursday afternoon in Tongren, a monastery town in Qinghai province, following two self-immolations -- that of a 23-year-old woman on Wednesday and a young former monk on Thursday, exile groups reported.

“The situation there is very tense as Chinese armed forces have placed severe restrictions on movement in the town and are now closing in on the protesters," a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile told the Tibetan news service, Phayul.

“We have heard that 2,000 to 6,000 people demonstrated, which are plausible numbers given that there have been protests of that size before," said Harriet Beaumont, a spokeswoman for the London-based Free Tibet.

She said that the protests were in reaction to the stifling Chinese security measures, the presence of troops, intimidating footage on television and harsh sentences doled out to anybody involved in a protest or even telling people outside about protests.

"Tibetans were also aware of the approach of the congress and that might be a factor in the serious escalation in the last few days," Beaumont said.

Wednesday was the deadliest single day since Tibetans began setting themselves on fire last year. Three were teenaged monks, ages 15 to 16, from a small monastery located on the outskirts of Aba, the Sichuan province county where the immolations began. They lighted themselves on fire simultaneously outside the gates of the town’s public security bureau, chanting “freedom for Tibet” and calling for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama.

Few details were available about another self-immolation reported to have taken place Wednesday in Driru county inside what is called the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Until recently, self-immolation had been unheard of among Tibetan Buddhists who believe suicide destroys not only the body, but the chance of being reincarnated as a human being.

"People are really desperate. They feel there is no exit," said Tenzin Losel, a Tibetan businessman living in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government in exile is based. “Whenever they try to speak up or make demands, it is met with a brutal crackdown by the Chinese government.”

The 18th Party Congress, which opened Thursday, is the showpiece political event for the Chinese Communist Party as it transitions into a new generation of leadership, and security has been heightened throughout China.

In his opening speech in Beijing Great Hall of the People, President Hu Jintao didn’t address the Tibetan situation although he referred repeatedly to the need for social harmony.

“Social harmony is an inherent attribute of socialism with Chinese characteristics," Hu said.

One of the Communist Party’s hand-picked Tibetan delegates to the congress appeared flustered when journalists asked about the immolations. "Can I not answer that question?" she begged in response.


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Photo: Tibetans hold a portrait of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama while shouting slogans during a protest in solidarity with Tibetans who have self-immolated. Credit: Ashwini Bhatia / Associated Press

U.S. election party in Beijing: part celebration, part education

BEIJING -- Flavia Wang, Ashley Xu and Thomas Liu, all graduate students at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, were casting ballots for Barack Obama here in the basement of a Marriott hotel on Wednesday morning. Before making their selections, they posed for photos with some cardboard cutouts of the president and Mitt Romney, standing stiffly in a back corner of the ballroom. 

George Bai was also voting for Obama. "It's easier to select an old friend," said Bai, whose son just started at UCLA this fall as a freshman. "We know more about him."

The votes of Bai, Wang, Xu and Liu (all Chinese citizens) won't actually be tallied in the American presidential race -- the mock balloting was part of an election party hosted by the U.S. Embassy. A crowd of several hundred turned out for the event, which was part celebration, part education: Americans were enjoying the giddy atmosphere of an election too close to call, while trying to explain the intricacies of the electoral college to foreign friends sipping coffee and eating Danish pastries.

Embassy staff handed out books in Chinese with such titles as "The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media" and "A Journey Shared: The United States and China, 200 Years of History."

At at table decorated with American flags, Romney backers John and Terri Tennant of Sacramento were watching big screens displaying CNN and BBC election coverage. The couple, who work in the high-tech sector and came to Beijing 2 1/2 years ago, said watching the election from the Chinese vantage point gave them a new perspective.

"The two main candidates have been talking about China a lot in the campaign, and not in a very friendly way," Terri Tennant said. "We're here in China because our business brought us here. I think all the anti-China talk has been very off-putting. Not just for Chinese, but for Americans who are here too."

Ambassador Gary Locke addressed the crowd, confessing that his family was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. "Across America, these kinds of gatherings are being replicated in homes and churches," he said, adding that more than the presidency was at stake -- many local and state races were also being conducted.

Another embassy staff member pointed out that Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota were voting on gay marriage measures, while other states were voting on whether to legalize marijuana.

Huang He, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences specializing in American culture and society, was eagerly checking an electoral college map at a makeshift Internet cafe in the center of the ballroom. He had spent one year in Dayton, Ohio, and was eagerly tracking the tally in that swing state.

"As a Chinese, I would vote for Obama, but if I were an American, I would vote for Romney," he said. "Maybe in the far future, scholars will see that Obama has put in some policies that helped the economic recovery, but in the short term, voters cannot see much improvement."

The U.S. election happens to coincide this year with a once-in-a-decade turnover in China's top leadership as well: On Thursday, China's Communist Party will kick off its 18th party congress. According to a transition plan telegraphed five years ago, Xi Jinping is slated to become party secretary, replacing Hu Jintao as the country's top leader.

A host of strict security measures -- from stopping the sales of knives in supermarkets to forcing taxis to disable their window handles -- has been implemented ahead of the party congress in Beijing. Internet speeds have also slowed to a crawl, a phenomenon widely attributed to authorities' desire to clamp down on dissent ahead of the event.

Paul Girard, a 16-year-old from France who attends high school in Beijing, said the contrast between the two systems was striking.

"Now people are voting in America, and here you can't even sell knives. The Internet is down because of the party congress," he said at the Marriott, standing with some classmates. "I don't understand why they take such measures. No one's going to do anything, because no one knows what's happening here in China anyway."

Asked whether ordinary Chinese were paying much attention to the party congress,  Xu, one of the graduate students, said: "Everyone knows the outcome of that -- it's Xi Jinping!" But as for the details, Wang added: "They don't tell us much. We don't know much about it, because we are just commoners."

Xu, Wang and Liu then took the opportunity to ask this American some questions about the U.S. electoral system. "Why do they call Obama a socialist?" Liu wondered.

Xu expressed pessimism that China could ever have a democratic election like the one playing out on the video screens before her. "Maybe another form of democracy, but not with all the people voting," she said.

Liu was more optimistic: "Maybe in 10 or 20 years."


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Photo: Chinese guests pose for photos in front of a faux polling station at a party hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Credit: Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times



Notes on Peking opera, propaganda, and China's party congress

121104 Bazhou, Hebei XINHUA-LIU Bin62
BEIJING -- What’s more irresistible to China's propaganda machine than an American reporter in a red hard hat? An American reporter in a Peking opera costume.

These were among the hard journalistic lessons learned on a weekend bus tour arranged by the media center of China’s 18th Communist Party Congress. 

China’s once-in-a-decade senior leadership transition doesn’t kick off until Thursday, but this is a highly scripted event, with no last-minute campaign rallies or get-out-the-vote events to cover. Lest the 1,000-plus reporters expected in Beijing start looking around for juicy stories on their own (and there are many, from government corruption to self-immolations in Tibet), the official media center has arranged some bus tours to keep journalists busy.  

Forget Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City or Mao’s mausoleum –- the idea is to showcase China’s cultural and economic achievements over the last 10 years, and how it’s progressing in accordance with, among other things, outgoing leader Hu Jintao’s principle of “scientific development.” The stops on the weekend itinerary included an abandoned steel plant that’s under redevelopment, a calligraphy clubhouse, a bicycle museum and a ping-pong training center. 

I had already written up several Party Congress articles, and decided to go along more as a weekend diversion. I was willing to brave a few turgid speeches by local party secretaries and maybe a regimented performance of a patriotic song in exchange for a free ride to some sites off the beaten path; after all, I’ve never been inside an old steel factory furnace. Perhaps in spite of all the stage-managing, I thought, I’d meet some interesting journalists, or find a kernel of an idea for a kitschy feature story. What I wasn’t prepared for was becoming the story.

Forty-five minutes into our first stop -- an old Shougang Group steel factory on Beijing’s western outskirts that officials hope to make into an arts district and something called a “comics, animation and game city” -- I had been approached not only by Shougang’s in-house TV crew documenting the visit, but also by representatives from the official New China News Agency, Sinovision New York and China Radio International. Though I think it’s both lazy and boring to interview fellow reporters, these media reps had no such qualms. 

Some wanted to talk about the steel plant. Others wanted to ask my opinions about the 18th Party Congress. I wasn’t alone. A Japanese writer and an American radio journalist were besieged too. Truth be told, these reporters were in a tough spot if their editors were expecting the tour to yield a compelling story, but I really didn’t see how we could help them. I tried to demur, or when that didn’t work, I offered really vague, dull responses.

Gradually, it became evident that many of these reporters were under orders to write up stories about the visits -- not about what they saw, but who was with them, taking in the achievements and grand plans of the party. The American radio reporter, for instance, would become the lead for a scintillating piece on the People’s Daily website headlined, “Foreign reporters eye diverse issues at congress.”  

IMG_20121103_123235[1]As we were led up into a massive smokestack-like contraption that was closed in 2010, we were all given red hard hats. That was the cue for the crew from state-run CCTV: Spotting me in my headgear, they turned tail on the local party official reciting facts on steel production. The cameraman fired up his lights, an assistant popped forward to straighten my cap, and a reporter thrust a microphone toward me.

“How many stories will you write about the 18th Party Congress?” she asked, ignoring the official giving his speech. 

I scratched my head, mumbled and looked off camera, doing everything short of picking my nose in an attempt to make the footage completely unusable.

The next day, I came back prepared with a more aggressive strategy, or so I thought. Fifteen minutes into a tour of the Bazhou city museum in Hebei province, another CCTV crew approached me. “What are the critical issues of the 18th Party Congress?” the reporter queried.

“Tibet, corruption, the purge of politician Bo Xilai, and questions about Premier Wen Jiabao’s $2.7-billion family fortune,” I said with a smile, knowing that there was no way that answer, laden with hot-button subjects, would make it on air. The reporter frowned. 

I thought I had escaped. I fended off further advances, from Hebei radio, Hebei TV and other outlets. Little did I know, there was one last brilliant trap waiting for me. 

It was at the Bazhou City theater. Right after we “stumbled” upon some senior citizens rehearsing a song called “Without the Communist Party, There Is No New China,” we were led upstairs to a gallery documenting the works of a local Peking opera hero. After that, we were taken to a Peking opera theater on the fourth floor. 

Tea was poured. Some local elementary school kids performed acrobatic stunts. The vice mayor of Bazhou belted out a tune. Then, a few reporters were invited on stage to try out some musical instruments.

I sat in the audience, checking my phone and thinking about lunch. Suddenly, the emcee called out from the stage, breaking from rapid-fire Chinese.

“Hello!” he bellowed in English. 

I looked up. Yep, he was talking to me. I shook my head twice, three times. But the rest of the press herd knew if I were to go on stage, they’d get their shot of the day. A few shouts of encouragement went up. At this point, even if I had bolted for the exit, I’m pretty sure I would have been tackled. 

A sinking feeling came over me as I assessed the score and mounted the stage: Communist Party Propaganda Machine, 1; American journalist, zippo.  

I smiled at the emcee. The other reporter on stage, a Chinese guy, mumbled to me in English that this was awkward. Peking opera costumes were presented. Wouldn’t we like to try them on? Oh, and how about trying to sing too?

Cameras clicked. Videotape rolled. I would end the day without a decent story in my notebook, but the Chinese press went home delighted.  

The next day, a British friend emailed me with unrestrained schadenfreude. “Fame and Glory,” he poked, forwarding links from the media center’s official website. “You are officially the (white) face of the Party Congress!”

I opened the link. The main headline blared: “The 18th Party Congress news center organizes Chinese and foreign reporters to visit Hebei’s Bazhou City and have a look and gather news!” Underneath it, there I was, in all my Peking opera finery. Oh, the horror.

My mood quickly changed, though, when I saw just how long the article was: eight pages, documenting every last tedious inch of the cultural sites of Bazhou City. I wondered: How many more such reports is this poor writer  going to have to churn out between now and the end of the Party Congress on Nov. 15? 

Being included in a propaganda piece is a momentary ignominy. But I’m counting my lucky stars: It sure as heck beats having to write them.


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Photos: Your humble correspondent, top, on stage Sunday at the Liu Xiaochun Small Opera Tower in Bazhou City,  and bottom, on site Saturday at the Shougang steel works' third furnace, which closed in 2010. The factory has been relocated outside Beijing, and there are plans to redevelop the area with commercial and residential projects.

Ahead of China's party congress, ex-leaders pop up to show clout

BEIJING –- Apropos of seemingly nothing, the TV program “Music World Today” on China’s state-run channel 15 launched into a 30-minute segment Friday about a schmaltzy, obscure tune, “Moonlight and Shadows,” from the 1936 American film “The Jungle Princess.” But invited guest Chen Lin, a 90-year-old professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, quickly clued viewers in to its significance.

This spring, he said, he received a call from Li Lanqing, who served as vice premier under President Jiang Zemin from 1998 to 2003. The former president, now 86, was urgently looking for the sheet music for the song, which he had enjoyed as a young man in his revolutionary days, Li said. Chen helped a composer notate the melody and words. (Sample lyric: “Even in shadows, I feel no alarm, while I hold you tight, in the jungle light, my dear ...”)

“This beautiful romantic song, for it to be able to reappear, to be restored, and for us to be able to remember it, all the credit should go to our comrade Jiang Zemin,” Chen said on the program.

As China prepares to begin a major Communist Party leadership transition next week, hardly a day goes by without a fresh TV or newspaper report highlighting the recent activities of a former leader, many of whom have been out of the limelight for years. 

While the appearances by and references to the retired cadres may seem awkward, comical or just downright dull, analysts say they serve a purpose: They’re telegraphing that these old-timers are alive, well and trying to play a role in shaping policy and determining appointments ahead of the 18th Party Congress.

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Chinese officials back down on chemical plant in face of protests

BEIJING — After a weekend of protests, Chinese authorities have capitulated to thousands of well-organized, middle-class demonstrators and canceled plans for the expansion of a petrochemical plant in a small coastal city near Shanghai.

Sinopec, the state oil monopoly, had been planning an $8-billion expansion of an industrial complex already suspected of raising cancer rates in Zhenhai.

"With living standards going up, people want not only fresh air and clean water, they want a stronger voice about what’s happening around them," said Timothy Tang, a 29-year-old working in finance who was involved in the protests in Ningbo, a larger city that administers Zhenhai.

Protest organizers said they had been encouraged by a similar uprising last year in Dalian, where middle-class protesters managed to stop a plant that was also supposed to produce paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and polyester.

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Tokyo governor resigns to form new party, run for parliament

IshiharaBEIJING -- Shintaro Ishihara, the strident governor of Tokyo who helped touch off a major dispute between China and Japan over some uninhabited islets near Taiwan, announced Thursday that he was quitting his post and forming a new political party.

Ishihara, 80, told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo that he wanted to return to parliament and said he would run in the next election for the House of Representatives, Japan's lower house.

Ishihara has served as Tokyo governor since 1999, following a quarter of a century in parliament. Known as a fierce nationalist and co-author of the 1989 book "The Japan That Can Say No," he has pushed for Japan to rewrite its pacifist constitution and advocated acquiring nuclear weapons.

Last spring, he announced his intention to have his metropolitan government purchase three islands -– known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China -– from a Japanese family that has administered them in recent decades. China claims the islands as its territory, and some believe the nearby seabed holds significant energy reserves.

Japan's national government, fearing that Ishihara might attempt to build structures on the outcroppings or otherwise develop them and try to change the status quo, announced in September that it would buy the islands. That "nationalization" set off a serious diplomatic row with China and sparked violent protests in scores of Chinese cities that have seriously damaged economic ties with Japan.

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China media: Quiet on Communist Party Congress, gaga for U.S. election

If you picked up a Chinese newspaper in the past week, here's a smattering of the details you could have learned about the U.S. presidential campaign: Mitt Romney might be tanning himself in a bid to appeal to minorities; at 7-Eleven convenience stores, Barack Obama mugs are outselling Romney mugs by a 60%-to-40% margin; and Candy Crowley is known as a tough debate moderator
BEIJING -- If you picked up a Chinese newspaper in the past week, here's a smattering of the details you could have learned about the U.S. presidential campaign: Mitt Romney might be tanning himself in a bid to appeal to minorities; at 7-Eleven convenience stores, Barack Obama mugs are outselling Romney mugs by a 60%-to-40% margin; and Candy Crowley is known as a tough debate moderator.

The two candidates have turned China into a political football this fall, waging verbal war over issues such as outsourcing and currency manipulation. And to be sure, this "China-bashing" element of the contest has not gone unremarked upon in the Chinese media.

"Politicians who always look for scapegoats are either stupid or cowardly," Ding Gang wrote an Op-Ed article in the Global Times. "If Barack Obama or Mitt Romney really won more votes by slandering or playing tough on China, it would be a shame for the American politics and trouble for the world."

But among ordinary Chinese, there appears to be only the mildest concern about the issues of the election. What's of much greater interest, it seems, is just how the whole contest -- and the surrounding hoopla -- works.

Ahead of the second U.S. presidential debate, the Chengdu Business Daily in Sichuan province devoted a full page to the event. The paper outlined the seven major rules of the debate, published a brief biography of Crowley, and explained the whole notion of "cookie bake-offs" between the wives of the candidates and how accurate a predictor they are of actual election results.

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Chinese praise a Nobel 'first' -- ignoring past winner

BEIJING -- Chinese state television hailed Mo Yan as "the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature" following the announcement Thursday of the 2012 award.

The report conveniently ignored Gao Xingjian, the Chinese-born French national whose 2000 Nobel award for literature was condemned by Beijing as anti-Chinese.

As part of its quest for soft power, Beijing has been obsessed for years about winning Nobel prizes, which in its view too often go to dissidents and emigres. Chinese authorities were especially stung by the peace prize awards to the Dalai Lama and most recently in 2010 to the dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison term for subversion of state authority.

Mo Yan probably will come under considerable pressure from the activist community to speak up on Liu’s behalf.

Over the years, Mo Yan has appeared on both sides of the Chinese political divide. His best-known book, "Red Sorghum," was initially banned in China, but in recent years he has irked fellow Chinese writers by cozying up to the Communist Party. At the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, he joined a government delegation in boycotting a seminar attended by dissident writers Dai Qing and Bei Ling.

Reaction in the dissident community was mostly hostile toward Mo Yan.

"For him to win this award, it’s not a victory for literature; it is a victory for the Communist Party," raged Yu Jie, a writer and democracy activist in a hard-hitting blog post. "A writer who praised Hiter couldn’t win this award, but a writer who praised Mao Zedong can."

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Hong Kong leaders try again to put divisive curriculum plan to rest

BEIJING -- Seeking to put to rest months of controversy and demonstrations, Hong Kong officials said Monday they would shelve “national education” course guidelines that many residents of the former British colony had protested as an indoctrination tool being imposed by mainland China.

The "Moral and National Education" classes, which were to have become mandatory at elementary schools within three years, were meant to bolster national identity and pride, Chinese officials said. But critics complained that the classes would be government propaganda that whitewashed history under Communist Party rule.

In early September, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to denounce the planned courses, and some university students briefly went on a hunger strike.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced Sept. 8 in the wake of the large protests that the classes would not be mandatory, but tensions have continued. On Oct. 1, China’s National Day, protesters carrying banners with slogans such as “End one-party dictatorship" and "Power to the people” marched to the China Central Government Liaison Office. 

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