Posts tagged: Beijing

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – What to Eat

By , April 23, 2019

October was my dad’s first trip to China. But by the second day in Beijing, he remarked “these people are always eating!” It’s true – Chinese people are always eating. And eating amazing food to boot. So the number one take away from this post is, if you see a line of Chinese people forming around a food stand or in a crowded restaurant – you need to go to that place!  Generally, 21 million people can’t be wrong. And don’t be afraid to eat the food, even if they are selling it on the street. The Beijing government has become fastidious about the cleanliness of street vendors.

With Beijing being the birthplace of some of China’s most iconic dishes and snacks, it is culinary dream. So if something looks good, try it. But just to give a little bit of direction to the first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy never misses out on when visiting Beijing.

Baozi – 包子

A plate of mini baozi. Make sure you get the big ones too!

Baozi is a little piece of heaven here on earth. And I have never understood why it hasn’t become more of a thing in places like New York City. Luckily baozi can be found on almost every street corner in Beijing – either at the window of a small restaurant or from a baozi hawker. Baozi is essentially a steamed, large, bready dumpling that can be eaten at any time of day. Inside this breaded goodness is a filling that can be anything – pork, beef, lamb, egg, an assortment vegetables. The bun that surrounds the filling often gets soaked in the filling’s sauce, making for a savory experience.

Zhajiangmian 炸酱面

A good place to try zhajiangmian

Zhajiangmian – a noodle dish with a tangy pork and bean sauce – is the first thing I try to find after landing in Beijing and its often the last thing I eat before leaving. Nothing is more Beijing than zhajiangmian and, sort of like bagels outside of New York City, it never tastes as good anywhere else in the world.  You can get zhajiangmian in lots of places in Beijing but the place that I think is the best is Xincheng Xiaomianguan (新城削面管). There is one in the Dashilar hutong area and one just south of the Drum Tower. Likely they are elsewhere in the city. But if you can’t find it, just ask your hotel where you can get some zhajiangmian nearby.

Jianbing – 煎饼

Fresh jianbing

I am not a fan of jianbing, but most people are and it is quintessentially Beijing. So it is a must try and tried fresh. The base is a very light and fluffy crepe and when it gets firm enough, a tangy, hot sauce is washed over it, an egg cracked on top and eventually scallions added. Sometimes a fried bread stick is also added. Once cooked, it is folded and ready to be wolfed down for a delectable treat.

Peking/Beijing Duck – 北京烤鸭

Preparing some Peking Duck

Eating Peking Duck in Beijing is not a cliché – it is a must! And it’s hard to find a bad place to eat it. Basically look for a crowded Peking duck restaurant and go in. If you can’t find one nearby, then head to Quanjude (全聚德). Quanjude, first founded in 1864, makes a mean, delicious duck.  Some might turn up their noses at the fact they are now a chain, but whatever. You aren’t in Beijing to be cool; you are there to eat good food and Quanjude offers great duck. If you have a bit more money to burn, there is Da Dong (大董) which serves splendid duck in a higher-end setting that is an experience to say the least. I prefer the one in by Worker’s Stadium(工体)with its neon lights and plastic, life-size horses in galloping poses throughout the restaurant.

Lamb Hotpot (火锅)

Lamb hotpot and other yummy things!

In the United States, when people think of hot pot, they often think of the super spicy version from Sichuan. But hotpot is also very much a Beijing thing, with the focus being lamb. Additionally, Beijing hotpot can have a spicy broth or a non-spicy broth. A simmering pot of the broth cooks in the middle of the table, with raw meat, vegetables and starch ordered to be cook in the broth once it starts boiling. It is best to go with a group so as to taste as much as possible. So if you are traveling with friends and family or a tour, grab a few people and go. If you are a meat eater, be sure to order the lamb slices. Potatoes, tofu, fish balls, chrysanthemum leaves and rice noodles are some of my favorites to throw in the pot as well. Once cooked, you can dip them into the sesame sauce that will be provided.

Beijing Yogurt (老北京酸奶)

Traditional Beijing yogurt

When one thinks of China, one does not immediately think “dairy.” But in Beijing, yogurt has been sold for centuries and is a rather exquisite treat to try while wandering the hutongs. Unlike U.S. yogurt, it is drinkable and you eat it using a straw. It is also unique in that it is sweet, but not overly sweet, with a tinge of the sour. It’s hard to describe why it is delicious which means, eat it.

This post could go on forever about all the scrumptious things to eat in Beijing. The point is, in Beijing, eating is half the fun; actually, it’s probably 75% of the fun.  So just try everything. And if you didn’t eat one of the things listed above, don’t stress about it. As long as you ate something good, that’s all that matters!

But did you discover some edible delightness that didn’t make it to this list? Or found a restaurant that is a must to visit? If so, we would love to hear about it so please share in the comments section below.

And most importantly, have fun in Beijing!

After a breakfast of baozi, Pops, having fun at the Drum Tower on his last day in Beijing!

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Things to See & Do

By , April 22, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

The Forbidden City is a must see, but here are som other recommendations

Few cities have seen as much change as Beijing. When I lived there in the late 1990s, farmers still entered the city with mule-drawn carts to sell their harvest on some random corner in downtown Beijing. They could do that then because many of the farms were just outside of the fourth ring road. Today, fruits and vegetables are largely bought in supermarkets. Flashy office buildings fill the skyline and luxury cars line the roads. In less than two decades, Beijing has transformed from a sleepy capital city into a major, modern metropolis.

But echos of the past still fill the streets and tourists – if they know where to look – can still see customs that are centuries old. Old men still walk their birds every morning; candied hawthorn sticks are still hawked by street sellers; and women practice their taichi early in the morning in Beijing’s various parks. For a first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy thinks should not be missed.

Jingshan Park at Dawn

My Dad, first timer to Beijing, overlooking the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

Here is a secret about Beijing. Although it is a city of over 21 million people, you can have a little bit of it to yourself very early in the morning. So learn to love your jetlag and just get up when your body tells you to, which, for most people traveling from the United States, will be around dawn. One place you want to visit that early in the morning is Jingshan Park. Jingshan Park sits right behind the Forbidden City. The hill that is the park’s defining feature was created from the dirt that was dug up to make the Imperial Palace’s moat, and it offers some of the most spectacular views of Beijing. As soon as you enter the park, follow the signs that take you to the top of the hill. In a few hours, the hill will be a mad house but at 7 in the morning you could easily be the only one at the top. Enjoy the silence, the view and the light breeze across your face. Just to the south you will see the shimmering yellow rooves of the Forbidden City – on a sunny morning, the rooves will glow. But even on a cloudy or rainy day the view is not to be missed. And don’t forget to look at the other views – on the north side you will see the Drum and Bell towers; to the west will be the white pagoda of Houhai. Enjoy it for as long as you like, knowing that for hundreds of years, others have shared in this view. Then walk down and watch the senior set doing their taichi exercises.

Walk the Hutongs

My Dad, enjoying the Beijing hutongs

Hutongs – the alleyways where Beijing residents have lived since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) – are unique to northern China. No other place in the world has such architecture and it is a pity to not spend some time exploring these lanes. At one point the entire city was made up of hutongs but unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s desire to make Beijing into a “modern” city for the 2008 Olympics, many of the hutongs were demolished for large, non-descript apartment housing. However, there are still some hutongs left to explore where you can see how everyday life has been lived for centuries. One hutong area is the between the Drum Tower and the Lama Temple. This area has become westernized and you will find bars, coffee shops and high-end restaurants that cater to the expat crowd. But I do enjoy sitting in Café Confucius, having a nice latte with their cat, and watching everyday life pass by. If your travels do not take you to that area, you can also explore the hutongs just south of Tiananmen known as Dashilar. While a much more commercial district, it’s still a lot of fun to explore.

Inside Mei Lanfang’s siheyuan home

Do remember though that people still live in these hutongs. And while it is completely fine to wander the alleyways, it is not fine to enter into the courtyards where people live, even if the door is open. If you would like to see a traditional hutong home – known as a siheyuan (“four connected wall garden”) – check out the Mei Lanfang Museum over in the Huguosi hutong area, one of my favorite hutong areas. Not only will you be able to walk through a siheyuan home, but you will learn about a rather interesting and charismatic figure in Peking Opera and Chinese history.

Huguosi Hutong Area at night, Oct. 2018

Great Wall

Yes, you should go to the Great Wall. It’s mesmerizing to stand atop the Wall and look as it stretches endlessly into the distance. The only real question is, which part of the wall to see. Should you see the is the reconstructed wall or the “wild wall?”  I generally recommend the reconstructed wall for a first-timer. And if reconstructed is what you choose, the section to go to is Mutianyu (which if you walk in the direction of watchtower 23, you will hit the wild wall). If there are two or more of you, then hiring a driver to spend the day out there is worth it. The driver generally knows to leave early – the wall opens at 8 AM and, on a weekday, if you are there at 8, you will have some of the wall to yourself. As I mentioned yesterday, I have used Miles Meng’s service the last two times I have visited the Wall and find it well worth it.

Dad & me at the Mutianyu Great Wall, Oct. 2018

If you want to do the “wild wall,” do not do it alone.  I can’t stress that enough. Do it with a group so that you have a guide in case there are any accidents. Sprained ankles are probably the most common, but there are significant drops in certain places where the path narrows. I recommend signing up for a trip with Beijing Hikers. Usually it is a group of 10 to 15 people, with a bus pickup in downtown Beijing. If you are doing the wild wall, do wear hiking shoes.

Summer Palace

After the Great Wall, the Summer Palace is perhaps one of the most extraordinary tourist sites in Beijing. As its name connotes, it was the summer home of the Qing emperors after the Old Summer Palace was destroyed by French and British troops in 1860 (with some of the most prized antiquities of China carted off).  While the Summer Palace certainly has buildings that are must sees, it is more than just a palace. It is a massive, beautiful park where you could easily spend a whole day if you have the time. People may say that you only need two hours to “do” the Summer Palace, but this would be a mistake. After seeing the major sites in the park, go off on some of the side paths and enjoy the peace and quiet with spectacular views of the lake and Beijing to the southeast. Bring your lunch as the Summer Palace is a great place to picnic, relax and just have fun.

Beijing’s Summer Palace on a clear October day

Lama Temple

Beijing has quite a number of impressive Buddhist temples but the Lama Temple outshines them all.  Originally built as a residence for one of the Qing Dynasty princes, the building was converted to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in 1744 and has remained one ever since. It is still a practicing monastery and if you get there early enough, you might be able to see the end of the morning group prayers. It is something to listen to rather than to watch. In fact, much of the experience at the Lama Temple is about your other senses. Through out the temple complex, the sweet smell of incense will fill your nose and even though it is often crowded, it is quiet enough that you can hear the tinkle of the small bells hanging in the breeze. It is this feeling of peacefulness – in the heart of Beijing – that will be a more lasting memory than any picture.

Burning incense inside Beijing’s Lama Temple

The World Trade Center’s 6th Floor Terrace

Now that you have seen the old, it’s time to bask in the new.  The place to do that is China’s World Trade Center (Guomao – 国贸), a massive complex of office buildings, hotels and a multi-floored mall in the southeast corner of Beijing’s Third Ring Road. The two, glass brown buildings at the south of the complex, the ones that look very 1970s, were the original World Trade Center buildings that opened around 1990. I actually worked in one of them in 1999 and at that time, those two towers were surrounded by shanty towns. Today, those towns have been replaced by some of China’s most impressive, glittering architecture, including the imposing CCTV tower. And there is no better place to view Beijing’s modern architecture than from the 6th floor terrace of the World Trade Center mall.  If you find yourself getting lost in the maze of a mall, just follow the signs to the Blue Frog restaurant. The terrace shares space with that restaurant. But no worries if you are not up for a bite. Fortunately, most of the terrace is free and open to the public. 

Viewing China’s present from the 6th Floor Terrace at World Trade

These are just a few suggestions of what to see in Beijing. The most important thing is just being there, in the heart of this vibrant city that is changing the world. Was there something else you did in Beijing that didn’t make the list and should have?  Please feel free to comment below about your favorite Beijing experiences. And join us tomorrow as we conclude this series with the all important “what to eat” in Beijing. 

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Know Before You Go

By , April 21, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Getting Ready for the Flight to Beijing

Beijing has long fascinated the Western mind. Since Marco Polo published his travelogue of China in 1300, Westerns have been inspired to visit Beijing and have rarely left disappointed.  And rightfully so for the emperors of China knew what they were doing when they built the city. On a clear day, Beijing’s imposing, ancient architecture, with its blazing red walls and shimmering gold rooves, pops against the bright blue sky. Even with some of the city’s destruction during the Mao era and, more recently, for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is still a city like no other in the world.

But for a first time visitor, this city of 21 million people can overwhelm. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much to eat. How does one prioritize?  China Law & Policy is here to help. In this three-part Just for Fun series, we give some pointers – based on our own experience in Beijing – on what a first time visitor should look to do. What should you see?  What should you eat?  Today, we start with some preliminary matters to take care of before you even get on your flight to Beijing.  For those of you who are regular visitors to Beijing, feel free to share in the comment section what you think is essential for a first-timer needs to prepare for his or her trip.

Virtual Private Networks

Before you get to the Great Wall, you will encounter the China Firewall

As soon as you arrive at the Beijing Capital Airport, you will be behind “China’s Great Firewall.” Those websites you visit daily – the New York Times, anything Google related (think gmail, maps), Facebook, Twitter – are blocked by government decree. But there are ways around it; one way is the use of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”). Technically, accessing the internet through anything other than access points provided by the Chinese government is a violation of 1997 temporary regulations that are still in effect. And Chinese citizens have been fined ($150) during a recent government campaign against VPN usage. But most tourists that visit China use a VPN and here is a list of VPNs that usually work in China.  Here though is the clincher – if you are going to use one, you have to download it on all your electronic devices before you leave for China. Because VPN’s are essentially illegal in China, their websites are blocked in China and app stores are not permitted to offer VPNs once you are in China. So be sure to download them on your cell phone, laptop, etc., a few days before you leave and play with them so you know how to work them. A VPN will run you between $12 to $15/month. Almost all of the VPNs require automatic renewal on your credit card, so mark your calendar to terminate your subscription once you return.

Your Passport – Don’t Leave Home Without It

You will need your passport to get on to Tiananmen Square

Second thing to note is that you need to travel with your passport on you at all times (and in case you missed it in preparing, you need a visa to get in). The U.S. Department of State recently reminded tourists traveling to China to always carry their passports. Additionally, you will need it to get through security checkpoints at certain tourist sites, such as Tiananmen Square. More importantly, for those traveling to China in their golden years, some tourist sites give a discount – sometimes as much as 50%! – to anyone 60 years and older (Forbidden City, Summer Palace are two such places). But the only way to verify that fact is by showing your passport. So don’t miss out on that deal.

Cash is King, At Least for Tourists

For tourists, China is still very much a cash-based society. China sort of skipped over credit cards and went straight to mobile payments.  At a small, hole-in-the-wall shop on some random street in Beijing, you will see Chinese people just flashing their phone at a machine to pay for their water. Fortunately for tourists, these shops still must accept cash. But they won’t accept credit card. For sure you can use your credit card at your hotel, for dinners at more established restaurants, and in fancier shops. When it comes to everything else, you will need cash. So you will be going to the ATM. . . a lot.  You should be able to use your ATM card at the major Chinese banks – Bank of China, China Construction Bank, ICBC, and China Merchant Bank, all of which are common around the city.  And remember, you cannot purchase Chinese money outside of China.  So as soon as you get out of customs at the airport, make a stop at one of the many ATMs that are in the airport and withdraw some cash. How much you need for the trip all depends on what you plan to do and what you plan to buy.

How to Get Around

Now, for taxis. It will be almost impossible to hail one off the street and Uber and Lyft are not really used by Chinese taxi drivers. They use DiDi, which does now have an English version but I have yet to use it. So if you don’t use Didi, empty taxis will drive right by you – even with your hand held up trying to hail them. For some reason, taxi drivers prefer a DiDi fare over a hail. So if you don’t want to download Didi on your cell phone, then your best friend is going to be Beijing’s extensive subway system which is a great way to experience Beijing as a Beijinger. But try to avoid rush hour when the trains are packed. Also, some stops are not terribly close to the tourist attraction and often there is a long walk to transfer trains.  So if you are traveling with someone who has challenges walking a lot, investing in a car service is a good idea. For the past few years, I have used Miles Meng (click here for info – just email Miles and he will set it up and give you the price) for airport pick-ups, driving to the Great Wall, and heading out to the Summer Palace. The driver drops you off and then tells you where to meet for the pick-up. It is more expensive than the subway, but when I was traveling with my Dad, a senior, it was a great way to see a lot of things in a short amount of time without tiring him out.

Toilet Paper – Don’t Leave Home Without It

Some things never change – a view of the Forbidden City at Sunset, Oct. 2018

When I first went to China in 1993, my roommate, who had lived in China before, immediately told me that I needed to carry a roll of toilet paper with me. Twenty-six years later, that advice is still applicable. Beijing is great in terms of public toilets. It’s just that the public toilets don’t supply toilet paper. Which makes sense in a city of 21 million people; imagine how much of the city budget would be earmarked for toilet paper. While you could carry pocket tissues and they would do the same job, in the end, I just end up throwing a roll in my backpack. And you can buy very nice toilet paper in local shops and supermarkets when you arrive – no need to bring that from the U.S. And in terms of public bathrooms, most now do offer at least one stall that is a “western” toilet and not a squat toilet. Although in more dubious bathrooms off the beaten path, I choose the squat toilet over a sit down.  Now that you have the preliminary matters down, it is time to start planning the itinerary!  Join us tomorrow when China Law & Policy shares some of its favorite things to see and do in Beijing.

Just For Fun: Capital Spirits – Beijing’s First Baijiu Bar

By , April 8, 2015

Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

Cozy Capital Spirits in Beijing

For most foreigners in China, baijiu (pronounced bye gee-oh) is a joke, or at the very least, the key element in any story about passing out, blacking out or vomiting up your banquet dinner.  But for the Chinese, baijiu, a strong, traditional grain or rice wine, is a must at any celebratory outing.  While foreigners often turn up their noses at baijiu, the Chinese really seem to enjoy it.  And have so for around 2,000 years.

Capital Spirits, a new bar in Beijing’s Dongzhimen neighborhood, successfully bridges

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

Bartender David gives an introduction to a flight of baijiu

the gap between foreigners’ misunderstanding of baijiu and the Chinese love of it.  Showcasing some of China’s finest and smoothest baijius, Capital Spirits gives the uninitiated a reason to respect – if not begin to love – baijiu.  The bar offers a number of baijiu flights, where for 40 kuai (around $8), you can taste and compare four or five different baijius from around the country.  Each drink in the flight is introduced to you by the bartender, highlighting the differences and history of each brand.

But for those who cannot yet face pure baijiu, Capital Spirits also offers an eclectic and inventive baijiu cocktail mix.  That is the menu my friends and I ordered off of when we were there one recent night.  The cocktails were familiar – the hutong hound, a mix between grapefruit juice and baijiu was similar to a greyhound; the pineapple express had elements of pineapple and Malibu; and the ma-la rita, like a margarita.  But the taste of baijiu was evident if not in the strength of the cocktail alone.  While each was refreshing and tasty, especially the ma-la rita which had an enjoyable Sichuan peppercorn kick to it, because of the baijiu, these were sipping cocktails, not downing ones.  If you do want to down drinks in a more traditional manner, Capital Spirits has a full bar (two men were drinking whiskey when we showed up) and a non-baijiu cocktail mix.

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits - the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Baijiu cocktails @ Capital Spirits – the Hutong Hound, the Ma-la Rita, and the Pineapple Express

Capital Spirits’ goal is to convert the doubting to the gospel of baijiu, a task that it appears to be slowly winning.  But what it truly does best is create an intimate neighborhood vibe in this small hutong space.  This is a crowd willing to try new things, and as a result, willing to talk to strangers.  By the end of the night, we had bantered with many of the other customers.  David, the bartender that night, was also hospitable, explaining all the different drinks.  But if you want to be left undisturbed, that is an option too in this dimly-lit space.

I am probably not going to become one of the converted.  Baijiu is still a mean spirit, especially for yours truly who thinks Mailbu and pineapple juice is a strong drink.  But I am going to go back to Capital Spirits.  It’s a great place to enjoy a drink – even a non-baijiu one – with a fun group of a people.

 

 

 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Capital Spirits

大菊胡同3号 (DA JU HUTONG #3)
Beijing, China

Although in a hutong, Capital Spirits is easy to find. Take Line 2 to Dongzhimen and get out at Exit B. You will be on Dongzhimen Nei Dajie and the Second Ring Road. Walk west along Dongzhimen Nei until you hit Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie. Cross to the otherside of Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie and immediately turn left. Pretty much the first hutong on your right will be 大菊胡同 (Da Ju Hutong). Capital Spirits is pretty much five feet in on your right. There is no sign, but there is the address painted on the front: 大菊胡同3号

Note that the bar does not open until 8 PM.

China Journalists Edward Wong & Paul Mooney to Testify before Congress

By , December 10, 2013

ceccIn response to the precarious situation of U.S. journalists in China where approximately 24 New York Times and Bloomberg reporters may not have their visas renewed, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China will host a roundtable discussion on the issue, tomorrow, December 11 at 3:30 PM.  The event will be held in Washington, D.C. at the Capitol Visitors Center, Room SVC 203-202 .

Panelists will include Paul Mooney, who was outright denied a journalist visa to work as Reuter’s Beijing correspondent, Edward Wong, current New York Times China correspondent, Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists and Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House.

Because of the demand for this roundtable, an RSVP is required.  Please RSVP, no later than 10 AM on December 11 to Judy Wright at judy.wright@mail.house.gov

The roundtable will also be broadcast live on the web at: http://www.cecc.gov/events/roundtables/chinas-treatment-of-foreign-journalists

Since Vice President Biden’s visit to Beijing where he met with U.S. journalists and publicly raised the issue of press censorship, there have not been any reports of any New York Times or Bloomberg correspondents receiving their visas.  To the contrary, in a series of Twitter posts, New York Times China correspondent  Ian Johnson stated that the first reporters will be forced to leave on December 17, presumably the expiration date of their current visa, with all to leave by December 31.

Yesterday, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) released its 2013 Year-End statement, noting yet another year of negative trends.  The FCCC found “…that the Chinese authorities are increasingly using the denial of visas, or delays in their approval, in an apparent effort to influence  journalists‘ coverage. No correspondents for the New York Times and Bloomberg have yet been able to renew their annual residence visas, which have been subject to unusual and unexplained delays this year.”

The FCCC also noted that potential censorship goes beyond China’s borders, giving credence to author Peter Manseau’s belief that in 2010 the Chinese embassy contacted senior editors at the Washington Post to kill his story on Falun Gong in DC.  Although Manseau’s incident was in 2010, the FCCC reported that in 2013, “…[o]n at least two occasions this year Chinese embassy staff in foreign capitals have approached the headquarters of foreign media and complained about their China-based correspondents’ coverage, demanding that their reports be removed from their websites and suggesting that they produce more positive China coverage.”  One wonders how many other occasions there have been.

If you are in DC tomorrow, this should be an interesting and important event.  Again, RSVP is necessary by 10 AM tomorrow to judy.wright@mail.house.gov.

For those interested in learning more about foreign journalists’ visa troubles, please see China Law & Policy‘s three-part series with Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Beijing Air Pollution – A Silver Lining on the Smog Cloud?

By , January 12, 2013

The air pollution reached off-the-chart dangerous levels today in Beijing and will likely remain that way until Tuesday.  Saturday afternoon, the United States Embassy, which has been publicly reporting Beijing air pollution from its monitoring site in the Chaoyang area of Beijing since 2008, recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers of over 800.  AQI of 301-500 is considered hazardous where all outdoor physical should be avoided.  Beijing authorities were advising all residents to stay indoors.  What does 700-800 AQI look like?  Here are some pics:

These pictures of Beijing are gross.  But they aren’t that much different from pictures of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, or London during the same time.  New York alone had three notorious smog disasters – 1952, 1962 and 1966.  The causes were similar  – a cold winter resulting increased use of coal; factories surrounding the city; and the exhaust from dirty trucks and cars. For New York and the United States, these smog incidents were a turning point.  Five to ten years later, the Clean Air Act was passed with a vigorous enforcement mechanism.  Since the early 1990s, less than a generation later, pollution in New York City remains relatively low (vis a vis the 1966).

So will these pictures serve to bring change to China, specifically in enforcement of its environmental standards?  Perhaps.  What might also bring change is the fact that the Chinese government – a one-party authoritarian regime – can no longer hide extremely hazardous pollution.  This might sound strange to those who don’t follow China regularly, but it was shockingly reassuring to hear that it was the Beijing government that was advising people to stay indoors.  Xinhua even honestly reported that AQI exceeded 900.  It’s rare to see such transparency from the Chinese government.

I believe a lot of this transparency is the effect of one thing: the U.S. Embassy’s hourly publication of Beijing’s AQI.  In 2008, the U.S. Embassy began to measure Beijing air quality, publishing it through a twitter feed.  Although the twitter feed is blocked in China, many popular Chinese websites pick up the feed and publish it inside the Great Firewall.  To call this an thorn in the Chinese government’s side is an understatement.  In 2009, according to Wikileaks, at a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MFA”), Embassy personnel were informed that the hourly publication of the Embassy’s AQI was “confusing” to Chinese people and could result in unexpected “social consequences.”  MFA requested that access to the feed be limited to only foreigners.  The Embassy did not give in.

Thus, likely in order to restore its credibility, in early 2012, the Beijing municipal government began to publish its own AQI numbers from a site on the other side of Beijing.  While at times these numbers may differ (with the U.S. numbers usually showing a more hazardous level), so far for this smog disaster the numbers have remained relatively the same: both off-the-charts pollution levels.

So while this pollution is horrible, it demonstrates perhaps the impact of seemingly small, stubborn policies – here the U.S. Embassy reporting in real time Beijing’s true pollution – in bringing greater transparency to a Chinese government that otherwise would not have to.  Perhaps now that Beijing is honest with its own people, it will be set on a course to reform its laws and relegate pollution like today’s to  episodes of Mad Men.

 

Book Review: Paul French’s Midnight in Peking

Paul French describes his gripping new book, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, as a belated quest to bring justice to a young woman, brutally murdered 75 years ago in Beijing.  But the story is equally as applicable to the present, highlighting that our criminal justice system — and with the case of Bo Xilai, China’s criminal justice system — can easily fall victim to political agendas, singularly-focused investigations, and prejudices about who can and cannot commit a crime.

Midnight in Peking opens on a dark, cold morning in January 1937, in the dying days of old Beijing.  A young white woman’s mutilated body is found near the haunted fox tower by an old Chinese man who is up early walking his caged bird.  The body turns out to be that of 19 year old Pamela Werner, daughter of E.T.C. Werner, a former high-ranking British diplomat, China scholar, and single father who raised his daughter outside of the gated-off, foreign Legation Quarter of Beijing.

On the eve of the Japanese invasion, it was a murder that distracted Beijing as much as it obsessed it.  And rightfully so.  For the murder, and French’s amazingly detailed account of it, uncovers the debaucheries of some of foreign Beijing’s most elite, a young girl experimenting as a woman, and the official cover up that followed.  On the eve of World War II, there was no way that British officials would allow the Empire and its respectability to lose face, even if it meant short-changing a police investigation and letting a diabolic murderer to go free.

Pamela Werner becoming a woman - taken a few days before her murder.

French’s talent lies in his ability to transport the reader back to 1937 Beijing, back to the Grand Hotel des Wagons Lits, back to the Badlands where seedy expat Beijing lead much of its life but rarely talked about it within the Legation Quarter.  French also makes the characters come alive – with his seven years of painstaking research into the official criminal investigation and Pamela’s father’s own inquiry, French knows what each of the characters were doing, writing and saying at the time.

Midnight in Peking is known as a work of “literary non-fiction,” presenting the facts almost as a novel but unable to take any of the liberties that a work of fiction could permit.  In reality though, the work has more of the drama of a good closing argument – a winning closing argument – presenting the facts,debunking the police’s simplistic conclusions (including that it was a Chinese who did it; who else would kill and mutilate a body), and thoroughly presenting a stronger theory of who did it, a theory that the reader eventually adopts.

Midnight in Peking is a remarkable read, a page turner that kept me in one Friday night just to find out who did it.  But it is not just a story about the past.  Sitting there, reading  about a British murder investigation in China and seeing the prejudices that the police held about certain incidents, particular people and specific facts, made me think of the recent re-examination of the 1979 Etan Patz kidnapping case that is currently transfixing New York City.  In that case, it appears that the police misjudged suspects and had a singular focus on a specific interpretation of the facts, even with little facts to back that up.  Some 50 years after the Pamela Werner murder, police in New York City were making the same mistakes.  Fast forward 33 years to today and most likely these same types of mistakes are still being made.

But more than anything, the book also demonstrates the susceptibility of any criminal justice system to power and politics.  E.T.C. Werner was an outsider to British expat society of 1937, and not just because he chose to live outside of the Legation Quarter.  That pissed people off and when it came time to investigate the murder of his daughter, Werner, as an outsider, became a suspect.  The murderers that French eventually uncover were not just accepted in British society but considered the elites of Beijing.  That acceptance – and the fact that the British diplomats didn’t want a scandal on their hands – allowed them to live their lives as free men.  Ultimately politics – both individual as well as national – proved more important than justice.  Even when Werner conducted his own investigation and uncovered many of the lies of key suspects, British diplomats continued to ignore his pleas for justice for his daughter.

Not surprisingly, when reading French’s book, the Bo Xilai case – where Bo’s wife is accused of murdering a British national – was not far from

An old ETC Werner, around the time of his daughter's murder

my mind.  Given the politics involved in that case and the fact that perhaps Bo became an outsider to the Party system, it makes one wonder about the accuracy of the story that the Chinese government is currently presenting to the press.  If it could happen in British Peking in 1937, it can certainly happen in Chinese Beijing in 2012.  Likely, no criminal justice system is immune to political pressure.  It would be foolish – and dangerous – to think that any system is impervious.

Midnight in Peking is a remarkable story, wonderfully written and with characters that just come to life – some you love, some you hate and some you just despise.  For those who want to be transported to the past, Midnight in Peking is your ticket there; but for those who want to understand the present, more precisely the mistakes inherent in any criminal justice system, Midnight in Peking will take you there.  Whichever trip you decide to make, French will take you on a fun ride.

Rating: ★★★★½

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French (Penguin Books, 2012), 272 pages.

French also has a great website about the book, including his own explanation as to what propelled him to write the book and a walking tour of Pamela’s Beijing (with downloadable podcasts). For anyone who does the walking tour, I would be interested in you take of it. Please comment below!

Reality or Myth: China’s Rule of Law & Its Recent Assault on Lawyers

By , February 21, 2011

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

Rights-Defending Lawyer, Tang Jitian

The Chinese government has tried to break Tang Jitian’s spirit.  Failing, it now seeks to break his body.  Tang, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was forcibly abducted from his home on Wednesday, February 16 by the Beijing police.  Five days later, in contravention of Chinese law, Tang’s whereabouts remain unknown to his family, friends, and other human rights lawyers who desperately await some news of him.  Tang’s wife, after waiting at the police station for over four hours, was not permitted to see her husband and not informed of his whereabouts.  Tang’s “crime” in all of this: seeking to uphold individual’s legally-guaranteed rights and hold the State to its promise of a rule of law.

When Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Gee Tea-ann) emerges from this unlawful and forced seclusion, he may be badly beaten, tortured and abused.  Soon after his abduction on Wednesday, Tang was transferred to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB), an outfit that has been assigned the task of suppressing China’s nascent human rights movement.  Violence is a necessary part of the PSB’s mandate: it provides a very physical signal to other human rights lawyers what awaits them if they become too vocal, organized, or, ironically, too successful in bringing cases to protect citizen’s rights.  But this State-sanctioned violence is outside the limits of the law, and makes one wonder that if, by attacking these rights-defending lawyers (in Chinese, weiquan lawyers), the Chinese government is really committed to a “rule of law” society or if the use of such language by Chinese officials is a mere mirage.

The Breaking of a Body: Tang Jitian’s Potential Fate While in PSB Custody

Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (pronounced Gao Zhi-sheng) likely serves as the most potent reminder of the

Human Rights Attorney, Gao Zhisheng

lawlessness of the PSB.  In 2001, Gao was listed by China’s Ministry of Justice as one of the country’s top-ten lawyers for his work representing victims of medical malpractice and farmers who were denied just compensation for their land.  But as Gao took on more controversial cases – particularly defending Falun Gong practitioners, a quasi-religious organization that the Chinese government perceives as a real threat to its power – government respect for his work quickly faded.   In December 2006, Gao was convicted of subversion and was given five years probation to be served from his home.  However, in February 2009, Gao was abducted from his home by the police.  This was the second time he was abducted, the first in 2007 where he was tortured for over 50 days.  But this time, Gao’s abduction would be for much longer.  For over fourteen months, he was not heard from and no one knew where he was.  In April 2010, Gao emerged from seclusion only to be abducted again only two weeks later.  During the time he was free, he was able to report to the Associated Press the torture he underwent while in police custody.

What awaits Tang may be similar – 48 hours of continuous beatings, various forms of physiological torture, wet towels over one’s face to give the feeling of suffocation – or even worse.  Unlike Gao Zhisheng, who is well known in the international community, or Teng Biao, a famous Chinese law professor and human rights activist who, because of his status, experienced a less violent beating when he was taken into custody for a few hours by police last December, Tang does not have such connections to protect him.  Without such an international cache like Teng Biao, Tang is an easy target for the Chinese security apparatus and will likely be used to violently symbolize the PSB’s power over the human rights lawyers.

Trying to Break a Spirit: Tang Jitian’s Disbarment

Wednesday’s abduction was not the first time that Tang has been on the Chinese government’s radar.  In May 2010, because of his defense of a Falun Gong practitioner in Sichuan province, the Beijing Bureau of Justice – the government body that manages the legal profession in Beijing – disbarred Tang from the practice of law.  Ostensibly arguing that Tang violated courtroom rules, the Beijing Bureau of Justice’s decision was largely seen as political.  Similar to the United States, disbarment in China is reserved for those lawyers who commit a crime.  Tang was the first lawyer to be disbarred for what merely appeared to be zealous advocacy.

Since his disbarment, Tang has had no way to economically support himself, relying solely on the kindness of other human rights lawyers.  Such a blow has had its impact and more recently, Tang had become depressed about his situation, although still very active in the human rights movement.  One would have thought that this would have been sufficient for the Chinese government – that by taking away Tang’s livelihood, it would not seek to detain him.  One would also think that such action would be unnecessary: Tang’s disbarment was a clear signal to other human rights lawyers that the State could use vague provisions of the law to disbar them and deny them their raison d’etre.  But it appears that disbarment was not punishment enough for the PSB.

Why Abduct Tang Jitian Now? China’s Rule of Law Regression

The immediate cause of Tang’s abduction relates to the recent house arrest and abuse of another human rights lawyer,

Human rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong

Chen Guangcheng (pronounced Chen Gwang-chung).  Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer who represented women forced into abortions by their village government, has been under house arrest since he was freed from prison in September 2010.  Last week, Chen and his wife were reportedly beaten after they leaked an hour-long video of their daily surveillance to the U.S.-based human rights and religious group, China Aid (for the video, click here).  On Wednesday afternoon, Tang Jitian had lunch with a group of Beijing human rights lawyers to discuss what the group could do to support Chen.  Soon after this brain-storming session, Tang was abducted.  Additionally, another participant of the Wednesday lunch group has also been abducted.  On Saturday, February 20, 2011, human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (pronounced Gee-ong Tea-ann young) was taken away in an unmarked van, only days after he was roughed up while in police custody.

But Tang and Jiang’s belief that the law should be followed and individuals’ rights should not be trampled on by the State is the real reason for his abduction and likely abuse at the hands of the PSB.  Over the past few years, China’s human rights attorneys have become more organized, using modern technology to quickly communicate with each other, and increasingly vocal, demanding that  the government abide by its own laws when it comes to the people’s civil rights and civil liberties.  Instead of responding positively to these developments – developments that largely symbolize a growing rule of law society and an emerging civil society  – the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has further entrenched its authoritarian rule and has used increasingly sever measures to break these human rights lawyers. While Chinese human rights lawyers’ cases would be everyday affairs for public interest lawyers elsewhere in the world, the CCP views these lawyers as a threat to their one-party rule and the PSB views them as a threat to its all-inclusive, and many times illegal, policing methods.  Based upon the recent abduction of Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong, the PSB and the CCP will do whatever it takes to suppress these human rights lawyers.

On Saturday, while rumors were circulating on the internet that China itself was to have a “Jasmine Revolution” following the events in the Middle East, a Chinese rights activist tweeted that the Chinese government detained twenty-one other human rights attorneys: Zhu Yufu, Liao Shuangyuan, Huang Yanming, Teng Biao, Ran Yunfei, Li Tiantian, Liu Guohui, Ding Mao, Lu Yongxiang, Xiao Yong, Zhang Jianping, Shi Yulin, She Wanbao, Li Yu, Lou Baosheng, Wei Shuishan, Zhang Shanguang, Li Xiongbing, Xu Zhiyong, Huang Yaling, and Li Bo.  Many may suffer physical abuse at the hands of the PSB.  Some already have.

Why Should Anyone Care?

I met Tang Jitian when I was last in China and was impressed, not just with his bravery, but also with understanding of his role in pushing the Chinese government to truly commit to a rule of law.  If human rights lawyers are suppressed now he told me, there will be no one to take over the movement.  Tang is right and breaking the movement appears to be one of the goals of the Chinese government.  By openly subjecting human rights attorneys to constant surveillance, disbarment, psychological threats, and physical abuse, the Chinese government hopes that once this generation of human right lawyers pass, no younger lawyers will dare to take up the mantle; the repercussions are too severe.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take a hard line on human rights

But the question remains, will the rest of the world allow this?  Last month, the Obama Administration impressed many by repeatedly raising the issue of human rights with Chinese President Hu Jintao.  Just days before Hu’s arrival in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bluntly discussed the plight of China’s human rights lawyers, stating that the United States will expect China to fulfill its own promise of rule of law: “America will continue to speak out and to press China…when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government’s positions….”  The time has come for the United States to back-up that statement.

The Obama Administration has already expressed its concern with the treatment of Chen Guangcheng.  But it cannot forget the less known advocates like Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong – without some form of international recognition of his situation the PSB will believe it has the cover to do with Tang and Jiang what it wants.  Furthermore, the Obama Administration needs to see the Chinese government’s recent reaction as an affront to a “rule of law” and also needs to comment on the importance of not just a “rule of law” in China but on the existence of a vibrant public interest law bar.  Human rights lawyers directly challenge the State in order to protect individual’s legally-guaranteed rights; only when these lawyers are able to more freely function in society will China have any meaningful rule of law.

A meaningful rule of law in China is not just an abstract principle for Americans.  As more Americans do business in China and as the U.S. government seeks to increase the number of students studying in China to over 100,000, rule of law in China will become an everyday concern.  Last year’s arrest and prosecution of Australian citizen and Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu and the recent conviction of U.S. citizen and geologist Xue Feng embody the importance of China’s rule of law development for Americans.  The Obama Administration needs to publicly condemn the Chinese government’s recent suppression of human rights lawyers, call for the release of Tang Jitian, and frankly question the Chinese government’s commitment to a rule of law.  Tang and Jiang’s safety depends on it.

Just for Fun: Tips for Travelers – Avoiding Stress in Beijing

By , July 26, 2010

Visiting Beijing anytime soon?  Or merely just thinking about it?  As anyone can tell you who has ever been, in a city of  close to 20 million people on a land mass roughly the size of New York City, it is a stressful place.  So it is important to know how to remain calm and relaxed in a city that is anything but.  Susan Fishman Orlins, one of the first Americans to live in Beijing after the U.S. normalized relations in 1979, and a notorieous worrywart, offers her suggestions on how to avoid the stress of Beijing and live the imperial lifestyle while there.  Didn’t Puyi ride a bike too? 

What worries me most in Beijing is the air quality. When I view this smoggy city-as though through gauze or an organdy curtain soiled with age-I’m pleased with my choice to get around on a two-wheeler rather than sit in traffic jams, contributing to the pollution. You can rent a bike at any of several subway stations and drop it off at any other subway rental area. Be aware that, traffic-wise, the bigger you are, the more you have right of way. At intersections, cars turn from all four directions, seemingly at once, without slowing down. As for a helmet, don’t leave home without one!…Read More of Susan’s Travel Tips Here.

More of Susan’s worries, and writings on China, can be found at her blog –  Confessions of a Worrywart: Meditations on All that Could Go Wrong.  After reading one or two posts,  you will find yourself happily worrying too.

Just For Fun: Beijing’s First Snow

By , November 1, 2009

The capital awoke to a blanket of white Sunday morning for Beijing’s first snowfall of the season.  While the snow was brought by the government’s seeding of the clouds in an effort to end a drought in northern China, natural or not, the scene was still very pretty.

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