October 2008

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By Angilee Shah

Busan, Korea – Pan Jianlin’s documentary about the earthquake that struck Sichuan province on May 12 made a quiet debut on a Sunday morning, at 10 a.m., the third day of this year’s Pusan International Film Festival.

With its not-so-great timing and grim title, Who Killed Our Children was a blip on the festival calendar’s 315 films and 85 world premieres. And if you happened to miss the documentary in Korea, it’s possible you will not have an opportunity to see it again.

Pan’s film’s subject is as simple as its title, examining the collapse of one of the many schools that became deathtraps for thousands of children after the quake. That subject has been a closed one in official Chinese media since mid-summer which makes Pan’s exploration of the subject very significant.

But after its two small Pusan screenings, the film has no further festival dates to speak of. And though it’s some of the strongest reporting on the earthquake produced so far, it’s almost certain that it won’t be shown in China, except on the black market or in private screenings. In fact, Who Killed Our Children never received Chinese government permission to be screened in the first place.

Pan, a Beijing resident, gives a big smile and a little laugh when you ask him about operating without the official approval so many other Chinese filmmakers depend on. The highly-anticipated feature All about Women pulled out of the festival when it could not get the nod from Chinese authorities in time. Directors are required to seek permission to show their work abroad, and films are often cut to make sure China is shown in a good light.

“My friends and family are worried,” he says with a shrug. But with a wave of his hand, he says emphatically, “Write whatever you want!”

Pan Jianlin at the Pusan International Film Festival

Six days after the earthquake struck, Pan went to Muyu District in Qingchuan County, the site of one of the disaster’s biggest tragedies. The Muyu Middle School dormitory had collapsed and buried hundreds of young students who were napping inside. Parents were camped in tents, homeless and looking for answers.

Who Killed Our Children takes a systematic look at the details of the collapse of the Muyu Middle School dormitory, where even the number of children who died in the collapse is in dispute. Official numbers say 286 of the school’s 846 students died; many believe the number is actually closer to 500. The film is series of interviews, brilliantly edited, that tackle the questions surrounding the disaster one at a time from different points of view.

One interviewee calls the building “tofu construction,” describing the weak superstructure and foundation that has become common in China in recent years as contractors cut corners. Others say students on the second floor where locked in by teachers during their rest time. Help came too slow and ill-equipped, say aggrieved parents. Families buried their children in the hills with their own hands, and government officials reburied the children in the middle of the night without notification. There is a lot of heartbreak in the film. Ultimately, Who Killed Our Children is a relentless investigation of how people and their societies attempt to cope with unimaginable tragedy.

Pan tackles these difficult issues in a remarkably dispassionate way. He started his career as a lawyer, but became a prolific filmmaker. In the last five years, he has made several documentaries and feature films, including Feast of Villains, also screened at Pusan, about a Beijing delivery boy who sells his kidney to pay for his father’s healthcare. He tackles serious subjects in a straightforward way. Absent voice-overs, dramatic music, overdone text, and fancy graphics, Who Killed Our Children relies on the unfolding of events to create suspense. Do not expect easy answers or sweeping condemnations here.

“I just gave the people [in Muyu] to the audience directly,” Pan explains. Aside from the frightening aftershocks, it was a “very easy” film to make.

This is not to say that the film is not critical. Where state-media’s optimistic coverage leaves off, Pan’s reporting just gets started. Around Asia, China was praised for its openness after the earthquake hit, especially in the wake of the Myanmar government’s ruthless clampdown on information after Cyclone Nargis killed about 150,000 people in that country, just a week before China’s quake. The Sichuan earthquake took close to 80,000 lives, according to official numbers, but the Chinese government immediately allowed information out and foreign aid in.

Even so, Who Killed Our Children raises doubts about how information gets out after a disaster. The most striking example is a scene showing CCTV’s limited reporting. Officials opened a temporary school in Muyu district soon after the collapse of the dormitory. CCTV cameras captured children singing nationalistic songs with their new desks and school supplies. They turn off the cameras when parents show up, angry that their grief was being ignored for the sake of a positive story.

Although only a few official media outlets were allowed to report on earthquake devastation at first, other media were not kicked out of devastated areas. Pan stayed in tents, like the locals, and parents were eager to talk. Local officials wanted media attention so that their neighborhoods would get help. In ten days, before being kicked out by soldiers, Pan filmed people on the ground – parents who were eager to find out the truth, teachers who narrated their experiences, and students whose classmates and siblings were lost. Almost all government officials refused to speak, but several school officials, a relief coordinator and an education official did go on camera.

A natural disaster on the scale of the Sichuan earthquake would be a difficult situation for any government to handle. Pan is confident in Beijing’s strides. “If there wasn’t progress, we could not sit here and discuss the problems,” he says.

He returned to Muyu District several times. On his third trip, he was detained in a police station. “Officials don’t like independent filmmakers,” he explains. He stayed two days and two nights for refusing to give up his tapes. Finally, after being sure the tapes were safely copied, he gave the police his footage.

It wasn’t so bad, he says. The officers were friendly and gave him good food to eat. He also used the time to write a new script called Natural Disturbance. It’s about being jailed.


On the Train to Tibet

As part of our on-going series of reading recommendations and conversations about Tibet and Tibetan history, we are today featuring a short excerpt from occasional China Beat contributor Alex Pasternack about his recent ride on the new train to Tibet. Pasternack writes regularly for Treehugger, where this essay was published in its entirety.

China’s – and the world’s – reach to the highest plateau on earth grew in summer 2006 with the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway (Qingzang Tielu 青藏铁路). An engineering marvel that China itself once ruled impossible, the $4.2 billion line traverses an region known for earthquakes, low temperatures and low atmospheric pressure.

Nearly 1,000 kilometers of rail runs at 4,000 meters or higher, and 550 km of track sits upon permafrost, a feat that required a system that keeps the ground frozen year-round to prevent the rails from sliding. Engineers also had to anticipate the long-term effects of global warming, which are melting Tibet’s glaciers at an alarming rate. Former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji called the railway “an unprecedented project in the history of mankind,” a typical unvarnished government boast that for once, wasn’t hyperbole.

But no statistic can rival the humbling marvel of the scenery: the second half of the 47-hour journey is a panoramic moving postcard on two sides, looking like the world’s longest high definition nature film. A throwback to the glorious days of train travel, the route crosses tundra lined by majestic peaks, fading grasslands where yak and rare antelope graze, mirror-like lakes reflecting an azure and white sky, and the homes of herders bejeweled in rainbows of dancing prayer flags…

tibet railway sheep grazing photo
Grazing the landscape

Protecting wildlife
At night, entertainment came by book (I tried to get a copy of The Snow Leopard, but Midnight’s Children would do) and laptop (there’s a standard Chinese outlet in each soft sleeper cabin and along the hallways of each car). One night we watched Kekexili, a hypnotic 2004 film by Lu Chuan that tells the true story of a ragtag militia that protected the endangered Tibetan antelope from vicious poachers.

Conservationists have warned that the train would pose an even greater threat to this and other treasured species. The film’s title refers to the region in the historically Tibetan province of Qinghai where the antelope give birth—and where the railroad threatens to keep them from going.

But as voices in Chinese and English (but not Tibetan) frequently reassured us over the public address system, authorities have gone togreat lengths to mitigate the train’s impact on the fragile environment, at a cost of around $192 million.

Wildlife researchers helped engineers install over 30 passageways that would allow the migrating antelope and other animals to pass beneath the train (see one on Google Earth). Despite an uneasy start and a scandal over a faked 2006 photograph (see below) that purports to show antelope and train in harmony, some Chinese researchers say that the animals have actually adapted to their new steel neighbor. In a letter to the journal Nature detailing their findings, the Beijing-based researchers with the government-sponsored Academy of Sciences say that 98% of the antelopes have managed to migrate in spite of the train.

Photoshop to the rescue

Other successful precautions include the introduction of dozens of man-made swamps to replace swampland and endemic plants destroyed by the train, and the storage of waste onboard until the train reaches collection points, rather than leaving waste on the tracks. A US Embassy report tells of workers halting work to accommodate migrating antelope.

But embassy officials recorded no instances of rolling up and preserving grass, as authorities promised. Meanwhile, nomads and herders who live near the tracks have complained that they received minimal compensation for their ruined farmland…

For more, including Pasternack’s discussion of the effects of resource extraction and migration on the Tibetan people, see the full essay at Treehugger.

Photos by Alice Liu and Alex Pasternack. See also Erica Gies’ excellent travelogue at Grist and Pankaj Mishra’s account at The New Yorker


Charles Hayford shared the link to his recent China Beat pieces (Parts 1 and 2) on using (and altering) Wikipedia with the Asia Scholars listserv, H-Asia. A brief discussion ensued there, which included references to several new (to us) resources. Though we won’t mention names or specific discussions, we did want to share some of the resources we learned about as a result of listening in:

1. At this website, Vincent Pollard has written a student guide on internet credibility that could be easily adapted to an exercise on testing/editing/using Wikipedia.

2. One contributor noted a particularly outstanding Wikipedian (not a professional historian…yet…) whose many entries have been singled out by Wikipedia as “featured” content (supposed to be the very best of all entries). To get a sense of what Wikipedia considers the best (and to appreciate this student’s work), see the entries on “List of Chinese Inventions,” “The Ming Dynasty,” “Shen Kuo,” and “Society of the Song Dynasty.”

3. For those interested in chatting with other China history buffs (including some who regularly edit Wiki entries), you can check out China History Forum.

4. Per Hayford’s point in his pieces that Wikipedia tends to rely very heavily on a small number of sources (mainly those available online), one contributor pointed listserv members to this interesting article, “Is the Internet Bad for Science?” from Wired. In it, the author argues that conducting research online narrows the sources used.

We have heard feedback from several college instructors who plan to adapt Hayford’s pieces for their classroom in an effort to “learn to live” with Wikipedia. If you plan to do so, please feel free to send feedback on your efforts–we’d be happy to post it (anonymously or not–up to you) in order to continue over the coming months the conversation Hayford started .

Last month, we announced our forthcoming book, China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in early 2009. With the manuscript beginning to take its final shape (and 2008 far enough advanced that we felt somewhat—but only somewhat, given what a crazy year it’s been so far—safe beginning to reflect on it), we thought we would share a little bit from the book with you. In the coming weeks, we hope to share with you a preview of the table of contents as well as perhaps snippets of other new pieces from the book.

For today, here is a short selection from the introduction to the book, “China in 2008: A Reflection on a Year of Great Significance,” by Kate Merkel-Hess:

The subtitle of this volume is a play on Ray Huang’s groundbreaking Ming history, 1587: A Year of No Significance. In that book, Huang examined a year of no particular importance when the Emperor Wanli was in power. The irony of Huang’s title is that Wanli’s disastrous reign was the beginning of the end for the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which fell to internal rebellions and then the Manchu invasions that led to the establishment of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China’s last. Fifteen eighty-seven matters a great deal because, while it was not a year of important events, it was apparent in its day-to-day affairs that the Ming was headed toward ruin.

This year, in contrast, was a year of important event after important event for China. In fact, the year was an enormously important year globally, both for stories that pointed the way toward a new world order (geopolitically and financially) and stories that seemed resurrected from news cycles past. In the early panicked days of the fall’s economic woes, coming amidst the U.S. presidential campaign as well as several other big domestic and international stories, David Folkenflik commented on National Public Radio (NPR) that “the breakneck pace of developments means a lot of news worth knowing receives the briefest burst of attention before being dropped for something hotter.” China’s tainted milk story was overshadowed by the U.S. presidential election and the escalating credit crisis. Russia’s invasion of Georgia coincided with the highly-anticipated Olympic Opening Ceremony. The riots in Tibet and the contentious U.S. Democratic primaries pushed rising international food prices off the front pages.

China’s presence in many international stories, from the banking crisis to the genocide in Darfur, was further evidence of its role as an emerging superpower. Just as Russia did for previous generations, China raises the specter for Americans of a functioning superpower with a markedly different economic system as well as a divergent set of political assumptions (several contributors explore the results of these fears in Chapter 15). In July, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the Chinese (and Russian) vetoes of U.N. attempts to impose sanctions on Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. The votes, Friedman asserted, show us where the world is headed: “a world of too much Russian and Chinese power.” Some China fear-mongers went further than the moderate Friedman, talking about “the coming China wars.” But the fact was, the China stories of 2008, taken together, sketch a picture of a China not on the verge of destruction, as in 1587, or a nation spoiling for a fight with the international community, but instead a relatively stable country, focused above all else on trying to maintain its phenomenal 10 percent economic growth rate.

This may seem an incongruous assertion, as other than the relatively smooth two weeks of China’s triumphant Beijing Olympics, when China was in the international news in 2008 it was at moments of crisis: crippling winter storms hit the country in late January, riots occurred throughout Tibet and other parts of southwest China in March, international protests accompanied the spring’s Olympic torch relay, a devastating earthquake rocked Sichuan in May, a massive food safety scandal broke in September, and in October a plummeting stock market hit the Shanghai and Hong Kong as well as New York, London and Tokyo exchanges. Instead of a year of Olympic celebration, for the Chinese people 2008 was the most tumultuous and traumatic year of the post-1978 economic reform era. Unlike 1587, however, we cannot discern in China’s day-to-day life signs of impending doom. Business as usual looks pretty good: the economy continues to grow and consumers continue to spend, China continues to increase international engagements, and all signs point to continued (if incremental) increases in citizen participation in government affairs…

Taiwanese baseball has just been giving a powerful shot in the arm, with three consecutive shots out of the park by the Brother Elephants’ star player Peng Chen-min 彭政閔 during his team’s 7-1 victory over the LaNew Bears in the first game of their playoff series.

For video highlights, please click here. I especially like the announcer’s comments about a home run ball resembling a girlfriend who has just had a change of heart — neither is coming back (In the case of one of Taiwan’s 40-something superstars, Chang Tai-shan 張泰山, this is modified to include a reference to his receding hairline). You might also note the Bears fans eating a certain yellow-skinned fruit (a reference to the color of the Elephants’ uniform), which gives new meaning to that old favorite “Yes, We have no Bananas Today”.

For an analysis of what this means for Taiwanese baseball, please click here. It is especially noteworthy that over 8,000 fans attended (the largest playoff crowd ever), and that Sunday’s game at Tien-mu’s 10,500-seat stadium is sold out. There is always hope.

Finally, for all of you China Beat sports fans who might be wondering what happens when a 102-kilogram Canadian base runner collides with a 88-kilogram Taiwanese catcher at the plate, check this action out.

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