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‘Don’t cry, Shanghai’: Thousands mourn at site of high-rise fire

Crowds pour in towards the scene of last week's fire

Thousands of mourners gathered today at the site of last week’s deadly fire in Shanghai, which claimed 58 lives and injured more than 70.

The 28-storey apartment block in Shanghai’s Jing’an district was undergoing renovations when welding sparks caused the scaffolding to catch fire on Monday afternoon. Flames quickly engulfed the building, and rescue teams said much of the construction material was also highly flammable, hindering efforts to contain the blaze.

Four unlicensed welders who, according to Shanghai police, were illegally welding on the 10th floor of the high-rise, have been detained, with public security minister Meng Jianzhu calling for a full inquiry into the reasons for the tragedy. Illegal sub-contracting and poor government supervision have already been blamed.

I went along to the scene this afternoon. As I exited Changping Lu metro station, not known for being one of Shanghai’s busier stops, the atmosphere was almost one of excitement: something was happening. I was met by a crowd of hundreds laying flowers and writing on posters to commemorate those who had perished seven days ago.

I followed the endless crowd and hit Jiaozhou Lu, the street the high-rise is located on. Police calmly managed the mourners, who could only enter the cordoned-off street with the commemorative items, such as flowers and golden ribbons, that were being handed out. Scattered throughout the sea of people were yellow and lavender chrysanthemums, and monochrome bilingual posters that read, ‘Don’t Cry Shanghai’.

Mourners outside Changping Lu metro station

One of the many bilingual posters found at the scene

The crowd visibly thickened as it continued down the street and approached the building. People stopped in their thousands to pay respects and photograph the blackened remains of the apartment block. A charred, haunting smell penetrated throughout the damp autumn air.

Today's crowd approaching Jiaozhou Lu

The 28-storey apartment block post-fire

At the crossroads with Yuyao Lu the police presence was larger, with authorities cordoning off one side of the street for a lengthy crowd to lead what seemed like a procession. There was no queue jumping (…yet), everyone did as they were told: they continued walking down the street and joined the line at its eventual end.

I carried on following the crowd, which swelled up as the afternoon progressed. By around 3.30pm, more policemen arrived to manage mourners. Authorities seemed on-edge: a uniform look of fear marked their faces as they anticipated unrest or disorder. But, bar the odd person jumping the queue, nothing untoward happened.

More mourners flowing in

I spoke to a few people at the site, and the sentiment – albeit gained from a purely random sample – was unanimous: this was an event to commemorate the dead. A 24-year-old photographer told me it was peaceful, there was no danger; it was simply a Sunday afternoon remembering those who had perished. This was certainly the vibe that rippled throughout the dense crowd.

A local journalist I spoke to added that everyone was united here, regardless of age, gender or class. But as I meandered through the sea of people, 90% of whom were speaking Shanghainese, it became very clear that this was a local tragedy and a local memorial. I, as one of the very few Westerners around, felt as though I was intruding.

As I made my way back towards the metro station, the river of mourners showed few signs of easing, as more and more arrived to pay their respects.

I bumped into some friends who were headed to the site. One of them later said that, in almost a decade in Shanghai, he had never witnessed an event of this kind.

The charred apartment block lingers in a sea of Shanghai high-rises

[Updated] Parting thoughts on the Shanghai Expo

Note: this post has been amended. The original version included a paragraph towards the end in which I stated, “I was left wondering why so much was doled out on constructing a pavilion that legally cannot be eclipsed by any other, which could have otherwise gone to more pressing demands of healthcare or education.” While I still stand by that assertion, a commenter pointed out the statement was misplaced in the context of the post. I agreed with him, and it’s been removed.

Despite its name, this blog has produced next to no coverage of the event that, it could be argued, defined Shanghai this year: the 2010 World Expo. Why? For one, I was out of the city during the height of the event and, by the time I had returned, it was obvious that two good gentlemen had it brilliantly covered: Shanghai Scrap’s Adam Minter and DeluxZilla’s Zachary Franklin provided news from inside the pavilions, details of the length of the queues and what visiting European dignitaries had to say, and everything else in between, from behind-the-scenes nepotism at the construction of the US Pavilion, to where to take a good nap in the scorching summer heat. So, I decided my two cents would take the form of these parting thoughts, and here they are.

Hot off the heels of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which aimed to bring China to the global stage, the extravagant Expo sought to bring the global stage to China. Over the past six months, official figures estimated that over 70 million visitors flocked to the 5.28 square kilometre area housing national, corporate and theme-inspired pavilions, split into two and strewn across the banks of the Huangpu River. That’s the entire population of the UK plus an extra 10 million, in an area more or less the size of New York’s Central Park. Last Sunday alone, 1.3 million people crammed themselves in to the national pavilion side, slamming Osaka’s daily record of 836,000 visitors in 1970.

And not for nothing, either. An estimated $55 billion – double the amount dished out on the Olympics – has been spent on the Expo and immense sprucing up of Shanghai: we have seen the lightning-speed expansion of the city’s subway system (complete with guards and x-ray machines to maintain ‘public security’), the repaving of just about every potholed street, and a brand-spanking new walkway on the Bund. A media campaign pushing for more ‘civilised’ behaviour and government-led programmes clamping down on wearing pyjamas outside, smoking and spitting in public, all day-to-day fare in the city, have also been set up. Perhaps more bitterly, Shanghai has also seen the demolition of several of its quaint, historical neighbourhoods.

It was during this time (September 2009) that I landed in town: the city’s clean up was my introduction to the Expo. As the infamous food street Wujiang Lu faced deconstruction to show a more sanitised Shanghai complete with glitzy malls instead, I became cynical about the price being paid for this World’s Fair. Given that the pavilions (except China’s) were also due to be torn down once the event finished, I wondered what the point of the whole thing was, without a legacy to preserve the efforts that have gone into creating it.

That lingering air of skepticism stayed with me on my few trips to the Expo. As I walked through the Italian pavilion one evening, surrounded by a display of pasta, a multitude of wine bottles, a giant high-heel plastered with other footwear, and all the while surrounded by model Renaissance architecture, I wondered where I was. This isn’t the Italy I come from or know, I thought to myself. Wandering through the Brazil pavilion, I waltzed under a football net. Hmmm. Brazil = football. I then walked beneath passing shots of Rio’s lush skyline. How big is Brazil? How much of the country looks like this? Whether or not North Korea is a “paradise for the people”, as its pavilion suggests, is also open to debate.

The entire event felt like one enormous cliche of regurgitated stereotypes. Adding to the surreal nature of it all was, for instance, the exorbitant prices charged by some pavilions’ restaurants (a set menu in the Italian pavilion’s eatery went well into the 100s of yuan range). Could the average Chinese visitor afford the food they have seen displayed on the walls of the room they have spent the last fifteen minutes circling? Probably not. They get teased but don’t get to taste.

Other foreign bloggers brushed the event aside. ChinaGeeks‘ C. Custer said

The idea of a “World’s Fair” was understandably appealing in the 1800s, when it served as an important exchange point for technology, and its appeal continued in the twentieth century because of the peerless opportunity it provided to get a glimpse of lots of other cultures all in one place. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, we have the internet for that. Many countries seem to be treating the Expo as a soft-power branding opportunity, and some countries are just phoning it in. But what seems to be missing from all this is why any regular person would really want to go. I’ve read far more coverage of the Expo than any average foreigner would be willing to, and it still seems like a collection of overly-stylized buildings containing vaguely interactive tourism advertisements. Why would I want to stand in line for hours for that?

Although I’m unsure of what he means by “any regular person”, Custer’s final sentence summed up my sentiments as my uber-enthusiastic flatmate dragged me, the poster child for a moaning Briton, around Zones B and C one balmy September evening. I strolled past the Russia pavilion at around 7pm: the estimated waiting time was still around 3 hours long. Uninspired by the prospect of waiting 3+ hours just to gaze at what I could only expect would be a cut-out of St Basil’s cathedral, I moved on.

But as the evening went on, my cynicism wore off. I realised, yes, the Expo is pure, unadulterated nation-branding. And yes, that entails re-hashing stereotypes, which, as a privileged and reasonably well-travelled foreigner, I am able to spot. But for the millions of Chinese who have travelled far and wide and spent hours trudging across the Expo site, I doubt the issue of stereotypes is of great concern. In the words of Minter,

Could it be, just possibly, that all of those people are curious to know something about a country capable of spending (reportedly) well over $100 million on a pavilion, and lacking the opportunity to travel there themselves (unlike most Expo critics in the foreign media), are taking the only route available to them?

An Expo sympathiser, Minter has lamented the patchy coverage of the event given by China’s community of foreign correspondents. What motivated the Chinese, in their millions, to keep returning to the site, was a missed opportunity for a story, he argues. Earlier this week, he posted an interview with Malcolm Moore, the Daily Telegraph‘s Shanghai correspondent and undeterred Expo critic. Minter asked him whether Telegraph readers and editors back in the UK were interested in the event, to which Moore responded:

There was no interest. We had a senior editor come over, but he was pretty bored by it all. It was a distinctly unimaginative, uncreative, uninteresting event. Let’s face it, everyone loves sport, so everyone loves the Olympics. But what excitement was there at the Expo over the six months it ran? I must have asked fifty people who paid for tickets and queued up what their impression of it was, and around 95 per cent of them simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was “alright”.

While demand in the West for all things Expo may have been low, it seems the Shanghainese can’t get enough of it. Xinhua reported that surveys conducted by Shanghai-based Touchmedia through touch-screens installed in the backs of taxi headrests, around 60 percent of passengers among the 130,000 surveyed expect another Expo in the Middle Kingdom.

For all its quirky stereotypes, insane crowds (complete with sly folk jumping queues), overpriced refreshments and hasty demolition of some of Shanghai’s more beautiful spots, it’s undeniable that the Expo has been a defining feature in the city’s development and China’s growth more widely. It has seen the Middle Kingdom reach out to the rest of the world far more, and bring those nations, albeit in limited terms, to its own people. It set out to be the victory lap for 2008’s coming out party, and some are optimistic that it achieved this goal. Speaking to Adam Minter, Zachary Franklin said,

You’re not going to find a single pavilion at this Expo walk away saying they failed. Every pavilion had some measure of success. Some pavilions wanted visitors going home knowing where the country was located on the map, other pavilions created extensive cultural and business programs for six months.

So it is goodbye to the Expo, a farewell I am saying from the comfort of my flat, rather than among the millions of visitors who beat me to the punch in securing tickets for the final day. Thank Christ the sun’s out.

What’s happened since Liu Xiaobo’s win?

Less than a week has passed since Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The fallout since then has been heated, and few China-related tweets go by without a mention of Liu or what his prize will mean for the prospect of political reform in China. Tiananmen veteran Wu’er Kaixi has argued that Liu’s win will give the West a much-needed chance to engage better with China and place pressure on it to improve its human rights record, while Kerry Brown has drawn parallels between Beijing’s knee-jerk response and China’s internal weakness.

The points below are a summary of the events that followed news of Liu’s win.

  • Elated reactions were rife on Twitter, as ChinaGeeks covered in the minutes after Liu was announced as the winner. Pro-democracy demonstrations led by human rights activists also quickly ensued in Hong Kong.
  • Chinese media censors blacked out broadcasts of the news. This was followed by the Foreign Ministry slamming the prize, calling it a “blasphemy” and an insult to the people of China.
  • Later that evening (8th October), Liu Xia travelled in police custody to the Liaoning prison her husband is serving his 11-year sentence in. Over the weekend, reports surfaced that she had “gone missing”, after her lawyer and concerned friends revealed they could not contact her. Eventually, she tweeted that she had met her husband, who, having cried upon being told of his win, dedicated the prize to the “dead spirits of Tiananmen.” She also added that his prison conditions had improved since the Nobel, with staff now giving him better food.
  • Also during the weekend, up to 30 Chinese intellectuals were detained, warned or placed under house arrest in an attempt to contain celebrations of Liu’s win. The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts reports that many were connected to a Stockholm-based freedom of expression group, of which Liu was also a member. Around 20 were celebrating in Beijing when police broke up the party.
  • On Monday it was revealed that Liu Xia had been placed under house arrest, and remains skeptical of whether she will be able to leave China to collect her husband’s award. Her phone has been cut and she is forbidden from leaving her apartment in Beijing. Journalists have tried to secure interviews with her, but to no avail: Al Jazeera’s Melissa K. Chan posted this clip of her own attempt today.
  • China also kept to its word when it told Norway that awarding Liu the prize could damage relations between Oslo and Beijing by promptly cancelling a meeting with a Norwegian fisheries minister. It also cut a Norwegian musical due to be performed next month in Beijing.
  • Finally, China Media Project translated an open letter penned by CCP veterans that called for increased freedom of speech, an abolition of censorship, and for there to be “no more taboos concerning our Party’s history”. However, confusion has sparked over whether the letter was indeed sparked by Liu’s win: at the bottom, it is dated 1st October 2010, seven days before the Nobel Committee awarded Liu the prize.

 

[Updated] Liu Xiaobo awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Liu Xiaobo

Unbeknown to him, Liu Xiaobo was this afternoon awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee chose Liu for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

The Twittersphere exploded; from widespread news of the announcement’s transmission being cut in China to netizens’ celebratory meetups being organised (and, in some cases, cancelled for fear of police reprisals). Beijing responded furiously to the news, calling Liu’s win a “blasphemy to the peace prize.”

Quoted in The Guardian, outspoken writer Liao Yiwu said:

As Liu’s best friend, I am so happy I can’t describe what I feel. This is a big moment in Chinese history. It will greatly promote democratic developments in China and it is a huge encouragement to us and our friends.

There has been an influx of reactions to the news, with more likely to seep in. Full reports from The Guardian can be found here and here. At Forbes, Gady Epstein discusses what the prize, Liu himself and China’s other dissidents stand for, while more personal accounts of Liu have been penned by Evan Osnos at the New Yorker, and Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum. Over at the Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, Peter Ford weighs up the possible harm today’s win could cause to China’s other human rights activists.

Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto that landed Liu in jail last December, is available to read here.

The vexed question of a Liu Xiaobo Nobel Peace Prize win

Activists holding photos of Liu Xiaobo. Photo by AP

One of the potential recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, due to be announced tomorrow, is Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most famed dissidents who was last year imprisoned to 11 years for ‘inciting subversion’, having co-authored the pro-democracy document Charter 08.

Modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, the polemic called for multi-party elections, independent courts and greater freedom of expression in the People’s Republic. It garnered around 7,000 signatures both in China and internationally, and warned of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if Beijing failed to reform the one-party authoritarian state.

The possibility of Liu receiving the prize does not sit well with Beijing, with China’s Foreign Ministry calling it “totally wrong.” The head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, also revealed that China’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Fu Ying, warned him that Liu’s win “would pull the wrong strings in relations between Norway and China, it would be seen as an unfriendly act.”

According to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, the fundamental issue is that Liu violated Chinese law. “His acts are completely contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize,” she said.

Human rights and pro-democracy activists, however, have marched behind Liu’s cause. Vaclav Havel, the author of Charter 77, wrote in support of Liu’s potential win. Soon after, a Chinese petition signed by 300 scholars, former government officials, lawyers and factory workers followed:

We ask the Nobel Committee to honor Liu Xiaobo’s more than two decades of unflinching and peaceful advocacy for reform, and to make him the first Chinese recipient of that prestigious award. In doing so, the Nobel Committee would signal both to Liu and to the Chinese government that many inside China and around the world stand in solidarity with him, and his unwavering vision of freedom and human rights for the 1. 3 billion people of China.

Liu is no stranger to the world of Chinese dissent. He cut short a visiting scholarship at Columbia University to return to Beijing and participate in the deadly student and workers’ protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, during which he took part in high-profile hunger strikes. Authorities labelled him one of the protest’s ringleaders, and he served an 18 month jail sentence for ‘counter-revolution.’

Throughout the first half of the 1990s, he wrote a number of essays advocating freedom of expression, promoting human rights and criticising the government. However, he was eventually sentenced to three years of manual labour in a re-education camp, being released in 1999.

Nor is he the only Chinese activist to be shortlisted for the prize. Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and AIDS activist Hu Jia were both favourites in 2008, having lost out to Finnish former president Martti Ahtisaari. Hu was nominated again in 2009, though lost out to a one Barack Obama.

Were Liu to receive the prize, it would certainly be an embarrassment to Beijing over China’s poor human rights record. It would also undoubtedly boost global attention to Charter 08 and similar writings, which would otherwise remain in circulation among small pockets of Chinese citizens. It may intensify international pressure on China to instigate political reform, changes that Premier Wen Jiabao has himself alluded to over the past few weeks.

But it will take more than a Liu win to kick-start political reform in the PRC. Action at a policy level and legal changes, as discussed by scholar Pan Wei, namely in clarifying the role of civil society, are fundamental. At best, Liu’s potential success would raise awareness of dissent in China. How long-lasting this awareness will be remains to be seen.

But, as with most things in China, matters could also go to the other extreme, and a potential Liu win might backfire. In drawing attention to China’s human rights abuses and raising the profile of those pushing for change, Beijing will not only lose face, but the Communist Party’s entire legitimacy – its monopoly of authority – will be brought into question. For the CCP, this is a non-negotiable. In retaliation, the CCP might toughen its stance on China’s other dissidents.

Such a response occurred, for instance, after Liu’s imprisonment in December 2009. Tan Zuoren, who worked with Ai Weiwei in investigating the deaths of children in schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake, was sentenced to five years for subversion in February. One month later, the outspoken writer Liao Yiwu was banned from leaving the country to attend a German literary festival.

In rallying behind Liu – and I should make it clear I greatly respect him for his bravery – it is important to remember how his followers might well bear the brunt of a tougher government only too willing to lead a crackdown on dissent.

Beijing has made it abundantly clear it does not want Liu Xiaobo to win tomorrow’s prize. If he does, and how China would respond, are anticipated.