Around the World in 120 Days

There and Back Again

Tuesday, 07 May 2013 10:18 AM Written by

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I am writing this final posting in Pittsburgh.   It is hard to accept that the semester has come to a close.   We had a great adventure and an unforgettable semester--amazing!   (I’m still buzzing with all that we learned, all that we saw, and all that we did.)   And I’m grateful to everyone who helped to make this trip such a success—our 14 remarkable students (brave, patient, funny, smart, eloquent, resourceful); my colleagues, Michael Goodhart, Clara Heck, and Joyce Bartholomae, who helped to define the trip’s ambition and character; and the faculty and staff at Pitt who created and who manage this remarkable program (with a special nod to Vanessa Sterling and Nancy Condee).

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The PittMAP concept is brilliant.   Provide a focused curriculum to insure that the trip is truly a study trip. In our case, we were studying the politics (and not just the economics) of poverty, looking at efforts by governmental and non-governmental agencies to address the needs of the poor in these three major, emerging economies:   Brazil, India, China.   Provide a focused curriculum, and put the group on a university campus long enough that they can become more than tourists.   With four or five weeks in each city, we got to know people and neighborhoods. The students could follow their interests in politics, sports, culture, and the arts; they found soccer games, favorite beaches, running trails, museums, clubs, and concert venues.   They created side trips and had private adventures.   They made friends, some of the them lasting friends, and partied with students from every corner of the globe. Over the course of our 120 days, we were offered a rare and precious opportunity to enter into the life and rhythm of three great cities: Florianopolis, Hyderabad, and Beijing.

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The long line of blog posts preceding this one has told the story of our travels. As you have seen, much of what we learned, we learned off campus--in the cities and through the excursions (or field work) enabled by our local support groups.   We visited clinics, schools, villages, government offices and NGOs.   We met with writers, social service providers, activists, and corporate executives.   And we found our way to the prime tourist sites: out of the way beaches on the island of Florianopolis, the Taj Mahal in India, and China’s Great Wall.  

bj dave final 6The highlights for me include our visit to a Guaraní village on the mainland of Santa Catarina, our meeting with the journalist and Dalit activist, Mallepalli Laxmaiah, the trip to Burgula, a rural village outside Hyderabad, an evening with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and our visit to the Longhai School, a school for children of migrant workers in Daxing District, Beijing.

I’ve been working with undergraduates since 1973. And I’ve worked with study abroad programs in Spain and England.   PittMap has provided the most memorable and important and productive semesters of my teaching career.   I’ve very grateful to have had the opportunity of spending this semester with this program, these colleagues, and these fine students.    To our readers: please help spread the word.   There will be new PittMAP groups forming every spring semester—each with a different faculty, a different focus, and a different itinerary.   The program provides a once in a lifetime opportunity and you can find it through the Study Abroad Office at Pitt.

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Beijing Sunset

Tuesday, 07 May 2013 08:16 AM Written by

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We emerged from the Nangouxiang Subway station near the center of Beijing, heading southwest toward the city’s famous Jingshan Park. Jingshan Park is directly north of the Forbidden City.   It is renowned for its breathtaking views of the Chinese capital, but also as the best place to take in a Beijing sunset. 

It was nearing 5:00 o’clock.   Clara, Abby, Ally, Liza, Leah and I wanted to make sure that we would get to the park with plenty of time to appreciate its beauty as well as witness the sunset. We avoided the maze-like narrow roads of the Cihui Hutong on our left and kept on the bustling Di’anmen East Street, following it to Di’anmen Inner Street, which took us straight to the northern entrance of the park. 

bj nolan 1It was late in the day, and because of this the northern gate had been closed for the night, forcing us to head around to the western entrance. I could see the shrines and pavilions on top of Feng Shui Hill shimmering in the yellow-orange sunlight. I purchased my cheap 2 RMB ticket and went forward through the formal Chinese gate painted in vibrant shades of blue, green, red, and gold. 

Inside the gate, the ancient trees were planted in rows on pristine green grass and flanked by stone statues and structures; the gray stone path forked in three directions: one passing the gift shop toward the Peony garden, one through the trees toward the center of the park, and the other up the five-peaked hill that rose toward the sky on my right. The sun was not scheduled to set for another hour, so we decided to move in a clockwise direction around the small park, heading first toward the north gate and the peony garden, and ending on top of the hill where the view would be the most magnificent. 

Before long, we walked into a square shaped courtyard surrounded by three identical gateways colored in the typical red, gold, blue, and green, with the fourth side of the courtyard being a wall with a single closed metal gate that lead toward the employee-only area of the park. Two stone dragon statues sat near either side of the door; friends huddled near them and chatted in soft Chinese, a women danced slowly, gracefully, precisely, wielding a yellow fan, kids played near their mothers, zooming around on scooters and bicycles fixed with training wheels, an older woman juggled what looked like a large badminton birdie with her feet, a group of tourists approached equipped with cameras.  “Oi, sorry, would you mind taking a picture of us? Yes?  Cheers mate! 

We proceeded through the eastern gate toward Jingshan’s peony garden which sat in the north east corner of the park and is the largest in Beijing. Soon we were surrounded on all sides by thousands of flowerless bushes and plants, which made the scale of this seemingly lifeless garden impressive enough.   It was a full month before the 200 variations of peonies in Jingshan were scheduled to bloom, and I was left to stand and merely imagine how beautiful this area will be.  

bj nolan 6Stone bricks formed the path up to the incline of the hill, where steep stone steps climbed up from the base, while large boulders on either side of the ascending path formed a wall to keep park-goers from falling back down to the base. After I had climbed a few dozen yards, I peeked back behind me and from the stairwell I could see miles of Beijing buildings and skyscrapers through the trees. Eager to take in the view from the top, I hurriedly climbed past my friends and went the rest of the way up the fourth peak of the hill toward one of the park’s five pavilions. 

Years ago, before the building boom brought Beijing’s distinctive skyline, the top of Jingshan park was the highest point in Beijing, and from here the six of us could see virtually the entire city. Standing on the large circular golden tile that marked the center of Beijing, I looked down to the south to see the Forbidden City. I was perfectly aligned down the center of its northern gate, and from here I could see the tops of all of the Forbidden City’s inner gateways, as well as the dozens of buildings that rested on the sides of the main path.  

I walked to the eastern side of the square pavilion, and from here I could look toward Capital Normal University to see the large white bell tower at Beihai Park and the CRTV Tower (the tallest structure in Beijing). Through the concrete and brick buildings, I could see the mountains over which the sun would soon set. To the north I could squint my eyes to see towers of Olympic Park in the distance, while to the west the view was now opened up, and I could peer through a lone cherry tree (in blossom) to see more of Beijing’s buildings and Tower Three of the Chinese World Trade Center.              

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The sun was starting to set. The sky above me was uncharacteristically blue for a Beijing night; the smog was mild, and the blue sky stretched to the west before its shade turned to yellow and then to fiery orange. The sun began to dim through the haze, and as it fell we watched it illuminate the western part of the city with its orange glow. Dozens of tourists and photographers, both amateur and professional, had gathered at the summit of the hill to photograph the Beijing sunset. The scene was remarkable. The snaps of cameras were all that could be heard; no one spoke. Soon the Sun had descended beneath the mountain, and an intense red glow flooded over the mountaintops and on to the city.

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The Long Hai School

Thursday, 09 May 2013 10:47 AM Written by

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As the bus pulls up, shouting children come running towards the gate, every one in an identical red and blue track suit. When we enter the courtyard, they watch our every move, whispering to each other in a language we don’t understand. A little boy pushes his friend in our direction. A little girl works up the courage to say hello. This was Pitt MAP’s welcome to the Long Hai migrant school.  

bj leah hai 4We were led across the main quad of the school where the children have recess and into the “media room.” This room was made of sheet metal walls and a concrete floor. There were two chalkboards, rows of desks and chairs, and an up-to-date looking projector and screen that was connected to an older computer and monitor. Sandy Chou (right), who works with World Education, gave us an overview of the situation of migrant education in China. “700,000 school age children have migrated to Beijing with their parents who are looking for work,” says Chou, a Taiwanese woman who studied at Boston University, “and by 2015 there will be 250 million migrant workers in China.” 

The Long Hai school was established in 2003. It is privately funded and has now grown to educate 1,400 students. The Hukou system in China, which connects citizens to their birthplace through social services in order to curb migration, creates an education barrier that migrant schools, such as Long Hai, work to address. In China, as opposed to the US, it is the public, government-run schools that have better resources and better results. However, when families migrate to the cities in search of work, children cannot attend the public schools since they do not have an urban Hukou. Many times they cannot attend school at all, because their families do not have the money to pay the fees to attend private schools. There are 1.8 million migrant children in China who are not in school. 

Long Hai school charges 1000 yuan per semester, trying to balance an affordable tuition fee with money needed to purchase resources and to give teachers a decent salary. In China, teaching is not considered an honorable profession, so there are fewer people willing to teach, especially at a migrant school where the pay is lower. When the school first opened, they were only able to pay the teachers 100 yuan per month, but now the school is able to pay 250 yuan per month. Long Hai has done quite well; they teach not only Chinese, English and math, but they also have a gym class and an art class, a rare occurrence in migrant schools.  

bj leah hai 3As Chou explains the educational and psychological hardships faced by children in migrant schools, I hear children playing and yelling outside. Chou discusses the feelings of isolation of migrant students, their low social status, the discrimination, and the times when they are left behind as parents move to find new jobs. She describes the slums that these families live in, slums that are currently being demolished, leaving families with nowhere to go. The shacks in these slums are built out of scraps of corrugated metal and other materials. They are built with no room in between. Each little shack has a small room for one family to fit their few belongings. Many times there is just one twin bed for a whole family and very few other material possessions. “Our goal is to assist vulnerable youth in these situations,” says Chou. The students begin to congregate outside the classroom, trying to get a look inside. Some children try to open the doors while others gather outside the window, shouting at each other in excitement.  

Recently there have been programs enacted to incentivize workers to stay in their villages and to prevent migration. The government has been trying to open up the job markets in villages and to incentivize companies to open factories in the West. These are poorer areas, and this is an attempt to prevent migration to the coast.  Through these actions, the government has been attempting to address the root causes of migrant workers and the issues that they and their children face. Although they have made some headway, the migrant schools are still a necessity and need support and resources. Of the migrant schools that World Education works with, Chou says that Long Hai is one of the best.  

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After the lecture, we were divided into groups of three and sent into the fifth and sixth grade English classes. As we entered, we got a loud “Hello!” The teacher had us stand in front of the class to answer questions. A few mustered the courage to stand up: “What is your favorite hobby?” “What is your favorite color?” “What is your favorite season?”    Our answers were followed up with “Why?” almost every time, and then the students quickly said “Thank you,” and sat down.   The teacher asked us to read from their vocabulary list, which included words such as taller, shorter, and sperm whale!  The children were all very friendly and well-behaved as we gave our impromptu English lesson.  

As we left the school to head back to our university, the students gathered around us, posing for pictures and asking for autographs. They were all smiling and laughing, not betraying the hardships they had faced or were yet to face.

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Seeing Mao

Monday, 06 May 2013 04:19 PM Written by

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A sea of tourists stampeded through the pedestrian tunnel running towards the stairs leading up to the square; it was the survival of the fittest. With our adrenaline pumping, we maneuvered our way through the swarm of matching neon orange hats, staggering tourist flagpoles, microphones, and children on leashes.   The three American girls (Liza, Abby and I) were on a mission to view the preserved body of the late Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square. 

Exiting the congested tunnel, we could not escape the rush around us. Groups of tourists were scurrying in clumps back and forth as intimidating, bilingual police officers directed the crowds in every direction. Thrown into the mix, we started following a group in matching tee shirts to cross the street to Tiananmen. But the group in tee shirts led us to a fence; clearly they had no idea where they were going either. Taking matters into our own hands, we raced down the sidewalk, zigzagging through slow-walking pedestrians and others struggling to keep their balance in their platform heels.  

Once more we tried to cross the street. Just as we were about to step out into the cross walk, a loud threatening voice began to yell, “Wú jiāochā!!” [No Crossing!] I jumped back in fear, practically falling onto those behind me. How was it impossible to cross a street? I held my breath, staring at the police officer as he marched past us towards two young laughing Chinese teenagers. The two had also tried to cross the street. We moved to the next crosswalk to do this legally.    

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I stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square staring up at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the crowd that surrounded me. I was weirdly excited to see the corpse of the great Chinese leader. There must have been at least a thousand people zigzagged around the memorial standing in line, flowers in hand, waiting for their brief encounter.  

As we walked towards the mausoleum, a woman in front stopped in her tracks, turned around, and took a photo of us. Throughout our wait in line I could feel the stares. What were they thinking? We were unquestionably the minority of the group. Chinese men and women of all ages surrounded us holding the small bouquets of white flowers that they just purchased for 3 RMB.   

“They are definitely judging us for being here,” Liza whispered. We laughed as we marched up the stairs, when suddenly everything became silent.  “What is happening…?!” Liza questioned under her breath as we approached a slick stone statue of Mao surrounded by hundreds of bouquets of white flowers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the flowers end up in the trash. How could they possibly keep all of them?” We painfully held in our nervous laughter as a woman behind the red velvet rope advised us to kindly shut up.  

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As we inched our way through the memorial, I looked at those around me. There were groups of teenagers, adults, and children all huddled together, completely silent. The eerie atmosphere made me self-conscious. Individuals were holding prayer beads as they silently whispered to themselves, seemingly in prayer, while others were focused on the godly statue of Mao at the center of the room. Those who crowded around me were most likely at the mausoleum to pay tribute to their previous leader; meanwhile, I was only there for the thrill of viewing a 30-year-old corpse. I curiously watched as groups, one after the other, would approach Mao’s statue each bowing three times before placing their delicate white flowers before him.  

I held my breath as I turned the corner into the viewing room. A large glass cube was placed at the center. Inside, two guards stood on either side of Mao.   A single bouquet of flowers stood behind him. My eyes darted toward Mao’s face, which was illuminated by an overhanging spotlight. His face appeared to be bright orange. I couldn’t tell if it was from the spot light or from the make-up. I leaned in towards the glass for a better view until I was hissed away by a security guard advising me to move on. By the time I looked back, I was already exiting the building.  

“Did you see the communist flag draped over the casket?!” 

“No, I was too busy trying to look for his mole!” 

“Sorry, but I wasn’t convinced that that was actually him.” I said, “It couldn’t be. I mean the amount of make-up—” 

Liza interrupted, “That was the most bizarre yet exhilarating experience of my life.”

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Xi'an

Monday, 06 May 2013 03:35 PM Written by

 

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The water launched hundreds of feet into the night sky, drizzling the tops of spectators’ heads on its way down, mustering up a crescendo of applause, waiting a few seconds before it shoots up again in a different design at the music’s cue. Artificial trees along the side of the fountain were ablaze with bright, red, glowing leaves, drawing eyes to the focal point of the plaza-- the Buddhist Dayan Pagoda in Xi’an.   

At around 8:30 PM, groups of Chinese families -- children with light-up toys, older girls with glowing, red devil horns, men with their phones on camera setting, vendors with posters, posters displaying professional photos taken in front of the massive fountain -- all gathered in the square. The young are easily visible -- holding hands, sharing cotton candy, taking pictures of themselves, giggling.  The teenage girls hang on to their boyfriends’ arms (the side that isn’t already carrying purses). The old also stage their presence in groups along the wide paths, freely moving along to bygone pop songs. Light posts decorated with ancient Chinese poems illuminate the wide pathways.  The energy seems fresh and special, the way people feel after witnessing fireworks in front of Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.  

Buildings the size of department stores surround the plaza, buildings reminiscent of ancient Chinese architecture with its bilateral symmetry and easily recognizable triangular, sweeping roofs.   Regardless of the buildings’ timeless structure, the modern lighting built into the wooden beams, the identical walls in mint condition, and the neon Chinese characters revealed the construction’s young age. Foreign restaurants fill up the space below. Dairy Queen, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks -- we weren’t the only Americans who made it to Xi’an. Chinese restaurants are pushed off to the side, behind Burger King and Subways. Street food is tucked even farther away from the Pagoda, down gray alleys, nestled between shabby residential properties.               

To the west of the 1,700 year-old pagoda, under another wide roof with flashing lights, behind a blinding jumbo-tron, large crowds congregated in another big building, their heads tilted back, jaws hanging down, fingers pointing to northwest China’s largest sky LED screen at 2,800 square meters. The scenery above changed from digitally produced scenes of the galaxy, the deep blue sea, and the tropical forest. The display was amazing, fascinating enough to severely captivate an organic food loving, yoga practicing, middle-aged Political Science professor. “This is just so cool!” he shouted, his fists in the air. 

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Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China.   Today it is one of China’s great contemporary metropolises.   And it is a tourist stop.   Millions of curious visitors flock to Xi’an each year to witness the world’s eighth wonder, the two thousand year old Terracotta Warriors and Horses. Less than forty years ago, in 1974, a group of local farmers discovered clay earthenware instead of an underground well, leading to the excavation of an entire two thousand year old life-size terracotta army. Along with the 7,000 soldiers, hundreds of bronze horses, chariots, and weapons from the Qin Dynasty (211-206 BCE) were unearthed. The clay army replica belongs to China’s first emperor, Emperor Qin Shi Huang. At just thirteen years old, the young emperor began an eleven-year long and 16,300 square meter large project to prepare his mausoleum.  

A UNESCO Heritage Site as of 1987, the park is divided into three pits, each marking a different excavation site and date of discovery. Ancient terracotta warriors can be found standing or kneeling; some are headless and some are armless. Others are severed in half or completely shattered into fragments of clay. Fully intact or broken, no two soldiers are the same. Each soldier has his own facial expression, hairstyle, clothing, physical features, and disposition, attracting visitors from all over the world.  

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In world history books, Xi’an is described as one of the “Four Ancient Capitals of the World,” boasting an impressive history that dates as far back as 11th Century BCE. Those who understand China’s extensive past know that the country’s unification under the Qin Dynasty was planned and executed from Xianying, China’s first capital, located in northern Chang’an (the city’s original name). Yet Xi’an is only third after Beijing and Shanghai as a popular tourist city in China.  

The Bell Tower, built in 1348 during the Yuan Dynasty, currently sits in the very heart of the city, surrounded by a four-lane, major roundabout on which cars continue to precede without caution. The almost seven hundred year-old building is constantly surrounded by the young -- relatively young people, relatively young buildings in the form of fourteen story, Western design hotels, and relatively young innovations such as cars and neon lights.  

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To the south of the Bell Tower, tourists climb Xi’an’s Great Wall, constructed in 194 BCE, and rent bikes for 100 minutes to pedal along the 14 kilometer perimeter. Older folks ride the open shuttles, passing by annoyed bikers who underestimated the bumpy, brick floor full of unavoidable potholes. Ancient ramparts, each several kilometers apart, decorate the time-honored wall. Children, adults, and teenagers alike enjoy the view from above: a far-reaching sea of tiled, triangular, gray roofs; tall buildings that look as though the exterior walls have been plastered with funky wallpaper; man-made rivers and roads under construction; KFCs and McDonalds.  

Back in front of the Dayan pagoda, I visit with John, a South Korean native who, after 11 years in China, considers himself to be Chinese.   And he perfectly captures the essence of Xi’an today: “See--to the left you see ancient China because of the old Pagoda, but to the right you can see modern China.  That mall with the big screen, it is only a year old!”

 

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Breathing in Beijing

Monday, 29 April 2013 07:32 AM Written by

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                I find myself shivering as I pull back the blankets and begin to climb out of bed, cringing as my feet touch the cold, hard tile floor. It's a chilly morning in Beijing. Immediately, I'm reminded that the heat isn't on despite the cold temperature outside. The government turned off central heating throughout the city two days before to cut back on the city's energy use. In an effort to warm my room and let some light in, I drag myself over to the window and peel back the curtains, squinting my eyes as white light filters in. It's a strange thing to see mountains out your window one day and none the next. In their place, a thick blanket of smog hangs in the air, coating the city in fluffy clouds of fumes. 

               Beijing, like most cities in China, has struggled with debilitating pollution for the past several decades. The gritty, burning air that envelops the city's streets has been known to limit visibility to no more than 500 meters at times, about the width of the city's most famous landmark, Tiananmen Square. 

               bj liza air 2Air pollution in China is measured by the State's Environment Protection Agency, known as SEPA, in terms of the parts per million concentrations of five atmospheric pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, suspended particulates, carbon monoxide, and ozone. An Air Pollution Index is assigned to each city every day. Target scores are between zero and 100, which indicate no risk to public health, but can reach maximums in the upper hundreds. During rush hour in China's major cities, pollution levels around 500 parts per million are regularly recorded. 

               “Just to put this into perspective,” said Dominic Meagher, “25 parts per million is considered unacceptable in most countries; we're up in the several hundreds, here.” Meagher, a doctoral student of economics in Beijing, has focused his research on energy usage and development in China. “After joining the World Trade Organization, the country was forced to take environmental concerns off its list of priorities in order to compete,” he said, “but now look at what has happened.” 

               Recently, China's staggering energy demand has put usage issues at the top of the central government's priority list along with pressure from international forces, such as the United Nations. In the country's most recent five year plan, the only numerical targets established were to increase GDP and lower energy consumption. The 12 year plan sets strict targets to lower green house gas emissions. 

               “It has become a huge issue,” said Meagher. “The government is very concerned about energy security.” China itself does not have the capacity to supply all of its own energy at the moment, relying domestically on coal mining and shale gas that is yet to be fully developed as well as oil imports. In an unprecedented move, the government has made staggeringly large investments in alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and hydropower. 

               Under the direction of the central government, five of the country's largest cities have recently launched a pilot program that will encourage reductions in energy consumption while also allowing a form of cap and trade sharing among the municipalities. This program will last five years and is intended to incorporate a larger portion of China's population in the future to promote drastic reductions in pollution and green house gas emissions. 

               “This is the first time China is trying something like this. It really puts the power in the hands of the people through a market-based system. The government normally follows a command and control type of method,” said Meagher, his eyes visibly widening. “Let's see if it works.” As I look outside my window every morning, however, it's hard to tell if these changes will come soon enough. 

               The exhaust from the morning's rush hour leaves Beijing looking as though an impending rain storm has crept into the area. Commuters shuffle down busy sidewalks, briefcases in hand and backpacks slung over their shoulders, pushing their way through the endless bustle of other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and buses. Many retreat underground into the subway stations, hiding from the thick air, where a constant flow of quick-moving trains usher people all around the city. Street vendors lug suitcases and burlap sacks filled with cheap knick-knacks along the subway platforms, shoving themselves and their goods into filled trains; school children play on their phones as they make their early morning trek from home; young professionals grip the railings of the rocking train, looking at the ground with tired eyes.  

               Just a few meters above, millions of cars pile up in the city's overcrowded streets, each one adding their own contribution of pollutants to the stinking air. However, northern China's dependency on coal as a source of energy is the true source of the air problem in Beijing. Billowing out from the tall stacks of the power plants surrounding the city, ash and other chemicals fill the air. The city's location in between three mountains creates a sort of bubble, limiting the air flow and trapping in all the pollution until strong winds force it to dissipate elsewhere.  

               China's environmental concerns reach far beyond air pollution and green house gas emissions. The tap water is undrinkable, cases of contamination in food have created controversies across the country, heavy metals have been detected in the soil of many farms, and trash from the bustling cities clogs the impoverished rural areas that make up most of China's land area.  

               According to Meagher, the government is well aware of the issues that it faces. “This is where China's two priorities come into conflict—the point where development continues in the present and remains sustainable for the future.”

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The Great Firewall

Friday, 19 April 2013 03:25 AM Written by

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We had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with a leading Beijing internet executive (who asked to remain anonymous). He came to speak with us about internet censorship in China—or, as it is commonly called, “The Great Firewall.”

“The Great Firewall” is a metaphor, he said, developed by Western journalists and it combines a clever reference to China’s #1 tourist attraction with a more sinister reference to the Berlin Wall and Cold War containment.   And this, our speaker said, is not quite accurate. In fact, ninety-seven percent of all internet searches in China are directed to Chinese websites.   They are not directed outside the country.   “The people of China aren’t standing in virtual bread lines,” he pointed out. To the contrary, there is a vibrant internet culture in China, and it’s made in China.   And this culture includes political and social criticism.     Many in China are insulted by the idea that their internet is deemed backwards or repressive. He continued to joke, “The only consequence of Twitter being blocked, is now millions of people won’t know what I ate for lunch.”

Internet censorship had been a topic of discussion before we arrived in China—not so much as a political issue but as the prospect of saying goodbye to Facebook, Twitter, and easy interactions with friends at home. We had heard that these social networks, along with Google and Gmail, were blocked in China.   And we had also learned that we could purchase a “VPN” (or Virtual Private Network) which would give us access to all our favorite sites. The VPNs are easy to download and on average cost about ninety USD to subscribe to (a subscription which must be renewed annually). While these sites are accessible to the Chinese, they are still not widely used. Out of the five hundred and sixty four million Internet users in China only a small fraction (about one and half percent) use a VPN.

bj sarah 3As an alternative to the Western Facebook or Twitter, the Chinese longing for a social media venue can use Sina Weibo. It is a micro-blog, and is considered a kind of hybrid of all social media sites. A user of Weibo has the ability to post paragraphs as well as share pictures with friends all in one convenient spot. Our speaker described Weibo as more innovative than any of its western competitors; just another example of how the internet culture in China is thriving independent of outside influence.

But the issue cannot just be chalked up to whether the Chinese people should or shouldn’t have access to tweets about lunch. It is no accident that the Chinese government fears Twitter and Facebook. In recent years, social media sites have become more important as a venue for social change. This was seen at the beginning of 2009, with the movement that came to be called “The Arab Spring.”  In the summer of 2009, the Green Movement swept Iran after a dispute over the presidential elections. For the first time, a protest movement was run through social media and a new venue for social change was born. Twitter turned green and statuses were posted on Facebook in support of the protesters gathering in the streets of Tehran. The internet was used to plan and to organize the protest, allowing the movement to grow quickly and to gain global attention. This went on for a few weeks until Facebook and Twitter were banned by the Iranian government.

Former President Bill Clinton had predicted that this kind of movement was inevitable with the invention of the internet. With so much information at the fingertips of all people, how could it not lead to revolution or demands for more democratic forms of government? Clinton, along with others, had not accounted for censorship. To many the idea of censorship of the internet was not feasible, like trying to nail jello to the wall. Now, in 2013, the Chinese government has perfected its jello-nailing ability. This is the metaphor our speaker used to admit that there is at least some truth to the “Great Firewall” narrative.   Today in China, he said, “There is a lot of jello on the walls.”

While it may be important not to overstate the power of the Internet in social movements, it is also important not to understate them. Those who can get the Chinese versions of Facebook, Twitter and Google are blocked from free speech because these sites are under government scrutiny, even when they are not actively censored.  Google left China in 2010 because it was unwilling to continue to submit to government oversight.   While the Chinese have Weibo, the site is still monitored. If the company sees that any of their users have posted something that challenges the limits set by government regulation, including, for example, the desire to organize (it could even be a flash mob), the company is obligated to delete that post within the hour. This creates a culture of fear around the “free speech” of the internet and puts power in the hands of those who control the information. This will hinder people from being able to build any kind of mass movement that could lead to social change.

It seems paradoxical that the government would censor social media but not block VPNs. Why block Facebook, but allow it to be accessed for ninety dollars a year? The whole process is more calculated than simply trying to keep Chinese online culture Chinese. There is an intentional balance between censoring everything and letting a few things trickle through the web via VPN.   When asked about the lack of censorship of VPN websites, Evan Osnos, a New Yorker correspondent working in Beijing said, “You don’t want to push people into a corner.…you want to make them feel like they have the potential to get this information if they can afford it.”

Our speaker was concerned to correct our misperceptions but also to speak frankly about the conditions surrounding social networks in China.   Right now, he said, Chinese “netizens” feel they are getting what they need from the internet.   At the end of his talk, however, he echoed Osnos and noted the tension between government censorship, self-censorship, and the potential freedom of communication provided by the internet.   He looked around the room as if for hidden cameras, “This comfort keeps people from rising up…but I’m interested to see what will happen in the next couple of years.”

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English in China

Friday, 19 April 2013 03:13 AM Written by

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The familiar sound of playground chaos filled the air at the Longhai School, a school for children of migrant workers in Daxing District, Beijing. The kids playing in the schoolyard were out of control, excited to see Americans who had come to observe.   “Hello! Hi! How are you?”  

Students wore blue and red uniforms and ranged from kindergarten to ninth grade. After recess, children in a fifth grade classroom practiced reciting English words and phrases. They asked the group of visiting American students, “What is your favorite season? What do you do on the weekends? What is your name?” They wore wide smiles and waited patiently for each of the visitors to answer. 

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According to national surveys, there are more people learning English in China than there are people living in the United States. Schools across China, primarily in big cities, have added English to their curricula in an effort to promote internationalism.  But why English? 

Beginning in the sixteenth century, Great Britain was the wealthiest and most politically powerful nation in Europe. This power advantage led to widespread, British colonialism. During Britain’s Imperial Century alone, about ten million square miles of territory and about four hundred million people were added to the British Empire. Despite the eventual independence of many territories, British cultural influences, and in many cases, the English language, stuck.  India is a prime example.    

China’s first encounters with English occurred during trade conflicts in the 17th century. The most intense dispute occurred later, during the Opium Wars in the 19th century, when the British arrived on the coast of China and forced the Chinese to engage in opium trade, even after the Daoguang Emperor had attempted to outlaw the drug. The war resulted in the British dictating terms of settlement, which included forcing the Chinese to continue taking part in the opium deals, as well as the British claiming territory in Hong Kong.   While English was crucial for trade and negotiation, it never became an official language.  

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Now, however, English has become the language of 21st century global capitalism. By the twentieth century, the United States, which has the highest number of native English speakers in the world (also as a result of British colonialism), became one of the most developed nations in terms of economic, political, and military success. Inspired by the economic success of the US, many developing countries, including China, began studying American innovations and economic policies—which, first and foremost, involved understanding the English language. 

In Beijing, English was brought to public spaces in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics, and these changes have continued to prove useful for tourism and international business.   Every ATM has an English option. On subways, announcements that prepare passengers for upcoming stops are made in Mandarin, then in English. In busy areas, restaurants have English translations underneath each menu item. Some of the written translations are broken and flawed, but the main ingredients always manage to get across to the customer. These restaurant owners aren’t the only ones who embrace English as a way of maximizing profit. 

The Silk Market is Beijing’s most popular shopping center for international tourists. Over fifteen hundred vendors sell counterfeit, designer brand clothing and accessories for prices that reflect the bargaining skills of shoppers. Vendor success is attributed not only to the popularity of their products, but also to their ability to swoon customers. When catering to English speaking customers, vendors will claim, “This is a very special price, just for you,” or, “That looks great on you! Very nice.” When customers offer to pay lower prices, certain English phrases are especially helpful. “Are you kidding me? That is way too cheap for this sweater. I need to make money.”  

Beijing nightlife is conducted, at least in part, in English. Nightclubs are crowded, loud, and full of young Chinese people dancing to remixed versions of American pop-songs. At Karaoke joints, locals belt lyrics to songs by Rihanna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, the Backstreet boys, and the Black Eyed Peas. The Chinese are not shy about getting onstage and singing directly into the microphone, and they certainly aren’t afraid of English lyrics; they even have some of them memorized. It’s obvious that they hear English pop songs just as often as Americans do. 

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Zhang Lijia is an international journalist from Nanjing.   We had the pleasure of a long, afternoon meeting with her on campus, where she told us her story and answered questions about her career as a journalist and a writer.   In 1980, her mother pulled her out of school to work in a factory, assembling missiles.    With dreams of becoming a journalist, Zhang devoted herself to learning English. “I listened to English songs, read English books, and practiced speaking English all day at the factory. People thought I was crazy. They called me a toad who longed to eat swan’s meat.”  

Zhang’s first step toward journalism involved translating documentaries for an English TV station. Soon after, she became an assistant to foreign journalists. She left the job, after growing frustrated with the process of correcting other peoples’ writing, to become a freelance journalist. Today, Zhang does all of her writing in English.  She is unwilling to put up with the censorship she would face with Chinese publishers.   In 2008, she published a memoir, Socialism is Great.   She is completing a novel, Lotus, based on the experience of her grandmother who had been sold into prostitution.  

Every year, the number of children enrolled in private language schools in China increases. Families pay top Yuan in exchange for the guarantee that their sons and daughters will be fluent in English by the time they are ten years old. ABC news, in a study on the effects of English in China, claims that by 2015 all schools will begin teaching English in kindergarten. 

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Here in Beijing, members of the PittMAP group have become itinerant English teachers.   Every Friday night, Renmin University in Beijing hosts “the English corner,” where students and members of the community gather to practice speaking English. Nearly one hundred people huddle around on a cold night in an open quad, eager to pose questions like “What is your name? Where are you from? Do you study here?” My presence sparked excitement from those who wanted to meet an American and to test their progress. Everyone wanted to learn English for a different reason. Some had hopes of transferring to American universities. Some would have to know a thousand English phrases in order to be hired as state employees. Some just wanted to add the language to their skill sets. 

When I asked whether or not they think it’s fair that English is being forced upon young children in primary schools, they looked confused. One young man, who called himself Sawyer, replied, “It’s just like any other subject in school. You know, like math, science, history.” That’s when Cassie appeared--a young Chinese girl, no more than four feet tall, wearing pigtails and a puffy pink coat. “Hi! How are you?”  

Blindfolded, I would have mistaken her for an American. “I’ve been learning English since I was two,” she announced.   And how old are you now? “Seven,” she said as she skipped away into the crowd.    

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