Category Archives for "Local Politics"

Oct 06

Silkworm pupae, urine fish, and farmer’s wine: A meal to remember in Korea’s culinary capital

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking , Food and Leisure , Korea , Local Politics

Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.

On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?

We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.

The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.

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After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.

Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.

Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.

Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!

The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.

Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.

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Jun 30

Staid tourism promotionals leave out the vibrant culture

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Local Politics

I edited and wrote promotional information about the Blue House countless times before I went. Korea’s home and office of the president–its White House–it was listed on almost all of the tours offered by travel agency clients of one of my past jobs. So I already wasn’t expecting much before I went, knowing how these group tours with travel agencies oversell everything. I left even more disappointed with the advertised product than I had expected but happily pleased with what wasn’t advertised.

Blue tiles in front of a beautiful mountain… Garden path… Outside, a museum about the rich history of Korean presidents…

The Blue House is not far from where I’m living–just 10 subway stops, including one transfer–so I decided I might as well see one of the most famous political sites in the country. I hoped I could at least see the famous blue tiles. But it was not to be.

Not quite the famous view.

Not quite the famous view.

The emblematic house is hidden behind a dull grey complex of stone blocks and columns. The main building of the Reception Center isn’t ugly, but it’s not something worth expending much effort to see. Where is the Blue House, I thought? Only from the second floor of the museum can visitors see the part of the roof edging out behind the triangular roof of the front building.

The museum itself could hardly be called a presidential museum. On the first floor, there was a display of 100 of the Korean Tourism Agency’s most favored tourist sites in the country organized by region and mapped. Useful for long-term travelers looking for inspiration, but not very information about the office of the presidency.

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The top floor had a replica presidential desk for photo-ops and a virtual reality game where visitors could pretend to be secret service agents protecting the president. A camera tracked the movements of participants who had to hit threats like drones and grenades with their hands. The sign said, “Photo Zone of Presidential Security Service.”

Xi Jinping's message in the Blue House guestbook.

Xi Jinping’s message in the Blue House guestbook.

The section containing pages from the Blue House guestbook signed by foreign political and business leaders was interesting. There I learned Barack Obama has good handwriting and is more verbose than most foreign leaders; Larry Page has terrible handwriting; and Xi Jinping supports gender equality: he had his wife Peng Liyuan sign as well.

Larry Page's handwriting

Larry Page’s handwriting

What did capture my interest was the scene outside: Along the road from Gwanghwamun Square to the Blue House, Korean men stood with large signs with fiery slogans. Many of them wore hats, sunglasses, arm sheaves, and workmanlike clothes. They looked blue collar.

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Indeed, most of the protesters had grievances with corporations and sprawling family-owned mega-conglomerates with interests in multiple industries, known in Korean as chaebols. Hyundai and Hankook Tires were under attack on separate signs for closing bases of operations. A few blocks away from the central square, a paper mache model of Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo sat next to photos of a Kia worker who had made complaints about working conditions before committing suicide.

The expansive nature of chaebols means they are often under fire for multiple scandals at the same time. No company exemplifies scandal better than Samsung: It’s president, Lee Jae-yong, is in jail, awaiting trial, for alleged involvement in the bribery scandal that brought down South Korea’s last president, Park Geun-hye. Other protesters raised the years-long scandal over Samsung’s treatment of more than 200 workers who contracted leukaemia, lupus, and other diseases while working in a chip factory that exposed them to dangerous chemicals. While Samsung had agreed to pay out 100 billion won (US$85.8 million in 2015), the group Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry accuses the company of denying information about working conditions to this day.

(Chaebols often being family affairs, “Jay Lee” was in a way following in the footsteps of his father Lee Kun-hee, who was convicted on charges of tax evasion in 2009.)

protesters in front of fountain

I talked with one protester who was holding the anti-Hyundai sign. I could tell he probably spoke English because he was young and was wearing an Arizona University hat. He did. He said he was protesting the planned closing of a Hyundai Heavy Industries plant in his hometown, Gunsan, North Jeolla province. Hyundai Heavy Industries is facing pressure from a slump in the global shipbuilding market, but local politicians and labor activists want the government to intervene, offering subsidies or other incentives. President Moon has met with the governor ahead of the planned June 1 closing.

“Jeolla people like to protest,” I said as a complement. He nodded.

South Jeolla province was the birthplace and constituency of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung, whose imprisonment in 1980 inspired the residents of Gwangju to take over the city and form militias, before being suppressed by the military, an event that influenced Korea’s path to democracy. Kim would become Korea’s third-democratically elected president in 1998 and make strides towards national reconciliation.

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After a few minutes he had to go. Down the street, a group of labor activists slept behind a police line and a banner that called for the repeal of “evil laws.” A kilometer or so down the road, union members marched down one lane of the street and bowed to the pavement in unison every few meters.

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The impression I came away with from my visit to the Blue House wasn’t that which the guidebooks impress on readers. It was far from what the tourism promoters want you to read. No, it was better than expected. I came away with the impression of a Korea vibrant and free.

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Mar 10

Park removed from office: photos and fireworks from the celebration

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Local Politics

Park Geun-hye was officially removed from office today by the Constitutional Court. I will have more to write later. For now, here is a photo gallery from the celebration by her opponents. Click play to see the images.

I wrote a short post about it for my political blog, Bombs + Dollars.

In part:

Korean parties fuse and change and rebrand all the time, so of course Park’s Saenuri party has already rechristened itself the Liberty Korea Party. It stands little to no chance. In the last poll released before Park’s impeachment, Park’s approval rating was 5 percent, and the Saenuri/LKP’s support dropped from 34 percent in November 2016 to 12 percent in January 2017.

What this means for the future of THAAD’s deployment is uncertain. The Korean opposition had opposed THAAD for the past year, but in January both Moon and People’s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo expressed that they might be reconsidering their opposition on the basis that it would hurt U.S. relations to retreat from a decision that was already made (by Park’s administration).

Read the full article: The implications of Park’s removal from office for Korea

Previously I covered a pro-Park protest: Why some Koreans are still supporting Park Geun-hye at a March 1 Independence Day rally

Mar 02

Why some Koreans are still supporting Park Geun-hye at a March 1 Independence Day rally

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Korea , Local Politics

It was one of the most important patriotic holidays in South Korea and also a heated period of political discord. March 1, 2017 was 98 years to the day Korean activists read a document they called the Korean Declaration of Independence, in an affront to Japanese colonialism, and two days after impeached president Park Geun-hye’s legal representative read a statement expressing “regret” on her behalf to the Constitutional Court hearing the case.
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Having just arrived in Korea one week ago, I was thrust into the excitement. I went looking for an event to commemorate the March 1 Movement, and I found democracy asserting itself in all its ugliness and glory. People waved their own country’s flag, held signs calling the press “liars,” and defaced images of their political enemies, calling them “traitor,” “rubbish,” and “you’re not going to breath”—all without interference from the military police. In 1919, the Japanese killed thousands in the ensuing two months after the Koreans asserted their independence.

It wasn’t until 1945, with the Allied victory of World War II, that Korea finally was afforded independence from Japan. Then it was divided in half and has remained as such to this day. But while North Korea remains a one-party communist state, consistently landing in the bottom four countries int he world in rankings of political freedom and human rights, South Korea became a democracy in 1988, ending decades of repressive governance, and regularly experiences passionate protests and peaceful exchanges of political power.

Since it was reported that Park’s advisor, Choi Soon-sil, was involved in shaking down chaebols (Korean conglomerates), Korean streets have rocked with protests. By November, one month after the scandal was reported, Park’s approval rating hit 5 percent, and her disapproval rating 90 percent. On December 9, the legislature voted 234-56 for impeachment. Now the Constitutional Court is reportedly close to reaching a verdict on whether the impeachment will stand.
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didn’t go seeking out a pro-Park protest. I just happened to find it when I went to City Hall to see what was happening on March 1. Inside City Hall subway station, passengers exiting were carrying flags. The crowd pushing towards the exits made me feel like I was in China again. In the rush, I ended up in the midsts of masses waving flags to music and speeches and noticed the political connotations.

For someone who has 5 percent approval, the crowd seemed pretty large. (Voice of America cited reports of 200,000 people protesting at a pro-Park event in mid-February, and it may have been even larger on March 1. One of the anti-Park protests was pegged at 750,000.) Even amongst those aged 60 or older, the bulk of the pro-Park protesters, only 10 percent of seniors supported her in a December poll by Gallup Korea released just before she was impeached. For the age groups 19-29, 30-39, and 40-49, the percentage who supported her was 1 percent, 1 percent, and 2 percent, respectively.
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One woman I talked to said, “We believe the president is honest, and she is innocent.” Only Choi was guilty of crimes, she said. A man said he wasn’t there to support Park but rather to oppose what he said was an “illegal” impeachment. He also railed against what he felt was a biased judiciary. Then there were the many people carrying signs attacking the media for “lying.” A group calling itself the Patriotic Alliance to Protect Liberal Democracy posted a banner decrying the “rebellious impeachment” of the president and called the pro-impeachment protesters “instigators” who were “violating constitutional law.”

Park’s lawyers are arguing that the impeachment was illegal or improper for procedural and other reasons. A special prosecutor has named Park herself as a suspect for bribery, and 17 people have been referred for trial. In addition to political advisors, a number of professors and officials at Ewha Womans University, which allegedly gave Choi’s daughter special treatment, have been arrested. The Constitutional Court is made up of eight judges, all of whom have been appointed by two conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park. (Ordinarily, it is nine judges, but one of the seats is empty because the judge’s term ended. Six judges must agree for the impeachment to be upheld.)
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ehind the individual political disputes lays a bigger issue cutting to the heart of Korean political divides. The Korean flags being waved along with American flags, the prevalence of marine veteran hats and military berets on mens’ heads, and the banners printed with portraits of Park’s father, former president Park Chung-hee, says it all.

Korea’s cultural and generational divides echo today. Conservatives still accuse liberals of having communist sympathies or even ties. Perhaps to counter the narrative of the “patriots,” pro-impeachment protesters waved Korean flags on March 1 with yellow ribbons for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, the response to which Park’s critics claim Park was negligent in handling.

Conservatives say young liberals forget about the importance of America and the sacrifices of the soldiers who won South Korea’s freedom. But what of the continued reverence for Park Chung-hee?

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

Sure he presided over an industrialization program that put South Korea on the path to join the first world nations. But if conservatives accused liberals of forgetting the the cost of freedom, have conservatives forgot about all those dissidents arrested and tortured by Park’s regime? Have they forgotten about how Park rescinded the constitution and abolished freedom of speech, assembly, and the press? How his government monitored newsrooms and had critical journalists fired? How the Korean CIA under Park’s rule fabricated charges against activists and had them arrested and eight of them executed within 24 hours of the verdict? The director of the KCIA who assassinated Park, Kim Jae-kyu, said he killed him because of Park’s insistence on using any means necessary to violently suppress protests.

The supporters of Park Chung-hee’s daughter can protest the Constitutional Court now, but only because of the sacrifices of so many activists who risked life and freedom to protest Syngman Rhee, Park and Chun Doo-hwan. As one sign at the rally said, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Rhee, the other man on the banner of great Korean leaders conservatives venerate, took power in 1945 after years in exile as an independence activist. He manipulated his way into the American’s favor and kept the Soviets from unifying Korea under communism. He led Korea through the Korean War, but he used coercion to keep himself and his allies in power by arresting opposition legislators and rigging elections. He had to flee back to the U.S. in 1960 after ordering a crackdown that resulted in the police killing protesters.

The Korean War may have ended six decades ago, but just this past month North Korea tested yet another nuclear missile and murdered its dictator’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-Nam. The U.S.-produced THAAD missile defense system Park’s government agreed to host is a flashpoint today, with much of the opposition opposing its deployment. They say it will unnecessarily exacerbate tensions with the North as well as with China. Chulhong Kim, a Korean Liberty Party (Park’s party) activist and theology professor at a Presbyterian college, accused the opposition of supporting a “pro-North Korean, anti-American, anti-free market, anti-human rights” agenda.

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ational security is one of the main reasons anybody still supports Park. 15 percent of respondents who approved of Park in the December survey cited “diplomacy / international relations” and 13 percent cited “North Korea / security policy,” the two leading reasons. The rhetoric against the left by many on the right can indeed be unhinged, but some on Korea’s far left really do harbor sympathetic feelings, and even more defend the rights of those who harbor sympathetic feelings.

Talking about North Korea, some activists and writers living here—and this speaks to a strain of the global left, as well—will say things like, “What degree of that [information about North Korea] is American propaganda? Because, as you know, America tries to demonize countries that it finds a danger to its self interest. … A lot of people don’t understand that it was the North Koreans who were trying to kick the Americans’ asses out of here. They were the ones trying to kick the new imperialists out of here. But you don’t read it that way.”

South Korea, more than almost any country in the world today, proves that democracy is more complex than can be condensed into one-sentence slogans and absolutist maxims. Voltaire didn’t live in post-war Germany or South Korea. Here, “anti-government” revolutionary activity is still illegal under the National Security Act, a law that some progressives want repealed. Here, the government occasionally restricts South Korean speech to the North by balloon drop, and the leading progressive party has tried to pass a law make balloon drops harder.

At end, if one wants to defend to the death anyone’s right to say anything, they have to defend that person’s right and ability to live in a free and open society. Citizens of South Vietnam didn’t have that right. Neither did those who died on the streets of Seoul and Gwangju in 1919, 1960, or 1980.

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School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

UPDATE: Park was removed from office on March 11 in a unanimous decision. I visited the victory celebration by the anti-Park protesters and shared photos.

Sources
”Impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye tells court of ‘regret’,” AFP/The Straits Times
”What now for Park’s impeachment trial?,” The Korea Herald
”Park impeachment ruling expected in mid-March,” Nikkei Asian Review
”South Korea Impeachment Drama Enters Final Act,” Brian Padden, VOA News
”South Korean Far-Right Rises Up to Defend Impeached President,” Brian Padden, VOA News
Protesters hold weekly rally against impeached Park, Yonhap News
”Is Constitutional Court stacked in Park’s favor?,” The Korea Herald

Feb 03

Arriving in a new and less welcoming America after years abroad

By Mitchell Blatt | Foreign Affairs , Local Politics

On December 5, 2016, I arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Fresh off the plane from China, I was tired and irritable waiting in the immigration line. Then on a TV screen hanging from the ceiling came a familiar face.

President Obama, with his bright, toothy grin, smiled at the arriving travelers. “Americans are some of the friendliest people in the world,” he said in his message, “and they will welcome you to your community … no matter where you come from.” Around me I saw men of every race in business suits, women in headscarves, women in dresses, and people in traditional garb.

I relaxed and felt the pride of returning to one’s country. But my sense of patriotism at that moment was tempered by an abiding anxiety and despair. Imagine what the feeling will be when Donald Trump addresses Americans and foreigners taking their first steps into our country. What message will he send?

This is the man who referred to an American judge as “Mexican” and said his ethnicity should disqualify him from presiding over a case, the man who tweeted anti-Semitic messages from white nationalist accounts, the man who built his political brand on questioning the place of birth and religion of America’s first black president. This man, with his long record of antagonism towards minorities and immigrants, is among the last people you would want to greet diverse travelers at America’s ports of entry.

The very demeanor of the man is disagreeable. He talks like a child. Everything is either “tremendous” or “a disaster.” He can’t go one minute without congratulating himself. There’s nothing welcoming looking at him. His forced smile is that of a used car salesman who just sold you a lemon. Most of the time, though, when he’s not aware of the cameras, he’s skulking around with a scowl like he just read a tweet about his crowd size.

It didn’t take long to find out. Less than two weeks into his presidency, permanent American residents are being detained at airports. Five-year-olds are being handcuffed and removed from their parents. Interpreters who worked with the American forces on our self-proclaimed goal to stabilize Iraq are being told they can’t come to America, and Syrian refugees of any religion are being kept out even if they’ve already been vetted and acquired the proper papers, some even forcibly deported.

There’s more to come that will affect students, tourists, and immigrants from all around the world. One draft order would deport legal immigrants who legally use welfare programs. Another would clamp down on foreign workers. Buried in the text of the immigration ban that Trump already signed are provisions calling for the government to create a database of travel documents and require pointless interviews for any temporary visa holders who wants to extend their visa. Multiple executive orders call for the government to release reports on alleged crimes committed by immigrants and foreigners, reminiscent of Breitbart’s coverage of crimes committed by refugees and minorities under the leadership of Steve Bannon.

It’s not just that Trump doesn’t care about the value immigrants bring to America. It’s not that he simply wants there to be a semblance of order governing immigration. He could have made the already difficult immigration process harder without blocking people who already went through the process. The blanket bans, the wide-ranging scope that targets visa-holders and green card-holders, those measures serve no conceivable purpose other than spite.

As an international traveler who is fortunate enough to have been born in the most powerful country in the world, and thus have access to more than 160 countries visa-free, I feel sorry for the people who went through a process for over a year, paid large sums of money, and are blocked from entering the “shining city on the hill” at their last steps just because of where they were born. I feel embarrassed, having explained many times to people of the world, how America is a country of immigrants, how anyone can be an American, part of a wondrous culture created through exchange. Was I wrong? Were the naive Chinese citizens who told me I “didn’t look American” because my eyes were the wrong color right after all?

I have friends from China who wished to be American, who loved America so much they called themselves “American” when we met. I have friends who wanted the American values of freedom and democracy for their country, who wait to know whether America will protect them, even as Americans themselves take their system of government and rule of law for granted.

Is America still all its patriots and poets say she is? Will America welcome you, “no matter where you come from”? Has it ever been “exceptional”? There have been times before when those words didn’t ring true either. Today’s self-proclaimed “patriots,” who spout on about “America First” in front of a flag while defending their unconstitutional executive order, certainly lose their right to invoke any of the self-glorifying mythology.

But as long as once-strangers fleeing persecution are met with well-wishers and lawyers who will file a habeas appeal on their behalf, America will retain some of the friendliest people in the world.

Jul 25

Protests at Shanghai mall over financial fraud part of a growing trend

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Local Politics

On July 16, law enforcement officers were stationed outside the iapm mall on Huaihai Road in Shanghai and an ambulance was parked in front of the door. Exactly one month ago, the chief financial officer of Jinxing Investments (Shanghai Uprosper Asset Management Co) Ji Jianhua appeared at the firm’s offices and admitted that the firm’s boss was nowhere to be found.

Ever since then investors have been protesting. Inside the mall, which is home to luxury brands like Prada and Givenchy, a line of officers stood at attention in front of the escalators. Mall officials in blazers and ties milled around. A crowd of spectators had gathered at the edge of the second, third, and fourth floors, looking down into the atrium.

A group of retired Chinese people came marching out into the first floor, carrying signs, some with images of Xi Jinping, and waving Chinese flags. A protest. In Chinese, wei quan—“protecting [our] rights.”

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”Come out, boss, and return my hard-earned savings!”
”Jinxing committed fraud, the common people suffer; Honest Judge Gongbao, uphold justice.”
[Under a picture of Xi Jinping]: “Weiquan is actually truly maintaining stability.”

Over ¥400 million Chinese yuan (US$60 million) have been stolen from about 2,500 investors who were attracted by street fliers and seminars. When it opened in November 2015, Jinxing/Uprosper Assets promised to be a safe investment option dedicated to “creat[ing] the top service brand in supply chain finance industry in China.” On its website it claimed to have partnerships with Chinese state-owned banks like China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Its boss, a 37-year-old man named Wang Jian, held glitzy events at 5 star hotels and invited celebrities like 2008 and ’12 Chinese gold medalist boxer Zou Shiming to his offices. On its opening day it held a flamboyant ribbon-cutting ceremony with a dragon dance and flowers gifted by Shanghai district administrative governments.

Flowers gifted by the Baoshan district government for opening day. Photograph shared on WeChat.

Flowers gifted by the Baoshan district government for opening day. Photograph shared on WeChat.

Convinced by the illusion of stability and prestige, Mr. Zhang, a 63-year-old who chose to use a pseudonym for fear of government reprisal, invested ¥200,000 yuan (US$30,000) along with a friend in March. “If we didn’t think the government was supporting them, we wouldn’t have invested,” Zhang said.

Three months later, he couldn’t access his money. On June 15, many investors found their money was gone, and employees weren’t getting paid. Back at the office on June 16, the scene was chaotic. Papers were thrown everywhere. A group of investors surrounded the offices, and 100 of them stayed for three days, not letting financial officer Ji Jianhua leave. Ji said he would let them take him to the police, but Zhang said he feared that even if Ji faced a few years in prison he will come out and still have access to stolen money. Another investor who surrounded the offices for three days, Mrs. Mua was quoted in a Sina Finance article saying, “I feared important evidence would be missing. I have seen salespeople trying to take computers away, so we have stopped them.”

Fled to the United States?
Since then three officials, Ji, legal representative Yan Aimin, and salesperson Li Yintao have been arrested, but Wang Jian is missing and rumored to have fled to the United States along with his mistress. Zhang sourced the claim that Wang flew to the U.S. to Ji via a third-party. On an hour-long recording, one of the representatives of the investors tells other investors about a conversation he said he had with Ji. Wang reportedly has access to ¥150 million yuan of stolen assets (according to Sina and investors). Authorities are trying to trace the path of the money through dozens of bank accounts and recover some of it, but Zhang and Ms Li, another investor using a pseudonym, are not confident that they will ever see much of it again.

Fraudulent Schemes a Growing Problem

In a country with an under-regulated financial sector full of people who have recently acquired wealth, fraudulent schemes are a growing problem, and pilfered investors are increasingly resorting to protest to try to put pressure on a government they say doesn’t care enough. In July 2015, investors of Fanya Metal Exchange were denied access to their cash, which they were told they could withdraw at any time. Later that year investors took to protesting. Over 2,000 were arrested before a planned protest in Beijing on October 26, 2015. In December the founder of Fanya Metal Exchange was arrested on charges of fraud involving ¥40 billion yuan in investments (US$6 billion), but one of the investors, said, in an essay that appeared in Foreign Policy, that she doesn’t think she will get her money back either.

The Fanya scheme and the Uprosper scheme both involved many of the same elements that gave investors a false sense of security. According to the investor who wrote for Foreign Policy, a 29-year-old girl who invested ¥1.1 million yuan (US$175,000) of her parents’ retirement money, she had the impression that Fanya was reputable because it boasted it had the backing of state-owned banks, and it appeared in a CCTV report. (I cannot confirm whether Uprosper actually had a relationship with the banks it claimed to, but the Foreign Policy report stated that Fanya did in fact.)
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As many Chinese are investing large sums of money for the first time, they are not always aware of the best practices involving diversification and risk management. The investor in Fanya wrote that she invested “almost all of my family’s savings.” The two investors into Uprosper who spoke to me told of an old woman who received ¥900,000 yuan in compensation when her son died in a car crash who lost all of it to Uprosper.

Most of the protesters at iapm were older than 60. Those older people are more trusting and less sophisticated, thus easier to scam, Zhang and Li said. Both Zhang and Li have conditions that they need money to treat. Li, who lost ¥150,000 yuan, suffers from an aneurysm. “¥150,000 yuan couldn’t save my life, but it could cut down on the pain,” she said.
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There were some younger victims, too, they said, but, according to Ms Li, “The young people don’t dare come out to protest. They are scared of hurting their future.”

Protecting Their Rights

While walking past Apple and DeBeers, protesters waved their signs at my camera. Some of them covered their faces with their signs. Near the front of the mall, an energetic lady, whom Zhang said was a maid who lost ¥100,000 yuan, shouted slogans into a bullhorn. Others raised their fists and repeated the chants. The spectators crowded around the glass walls above and watched and photographed.

The officers stood in a line and surrounded the protesters. They were not police, but unarmed teqin, a special branch of security that often appears at protests. Inside the enclosement of teqin locked arm to arm, which was getting increasingly crowded, protesters surrounded me and pulled out smart phones and showed me photographs of Wang Jian drinking alcohol, dining, and celebrating holidays and business events. Some of the pictures were shared on his own Weibo social network. Many were exactly what you would expect of an executive, promotional photos even, but they took on a different meaning in light of his theft.

Wang Jian in the center, wearing traditional Chinese dramatic costumes at a party.

Wang Jian in the center, wearing a traditional Chinese dramatic costume at a party.

The group of protesters was becoming increasingly crowded, and I found myself cornered between the wall of a shop and the wall of teqin. Behind me, the protesters were pushing and encouraging me to break the line. I saw their faces, and I threw my arms up. The elderly protesters pushed past me and into the teqin and broke through, marching up the escalator to the second floor.

Another group of protesters stayed back on the first floor, and the officers once again began forming a human enclosure. I ran out before they had completed it. I was surprised the protesters were able to maneuver as they did, facing little resistance when they challenged the teqin’s control of the mall, but they had experience doing it.

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Afterwards, Ms Li said that the teqin at the protest I observed were well-behaved. “Yesterday they weren’t violent. They were good,” Ms Li said. She speculated that they might have been more aggressive towards younger protesters. “Maybe they were a little bit sympathetic. They just want to earn money.” At other protests, there have been allegations of officers hitting protesters.

(Later when I showed pictures to a former Chinese soldier, he remarked that the men wearing “teqin” uniforms looked like “security” or “subway police.” “They are standing around too casually.”)

Mr. Zhang claimed that some of the leaders of the protesters have had to speak with officials and that some had thereafter not participated in future protesters, but there were little specifics offered. There was a general sense of the possibility of consequences, which is one of the reasons both protesters spoke on the condition of anonymity (and also because Ms Li said she didn’t want her family to worry). “Doing weiquan, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow or the day after that,” Li said.

At the end of the day’s activities, they unveiled banners outside the mall that said, “Jinxing thieves, return our hard-earned money, [and we] request the government to protect our rights.”

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Beyond the fact that they want the government to put in more effort to catch Wang and recover the money, the protesters also think the local governments in Shanghai that left flowers for the grand opening have a degree of responsibility. According to photographs shared of the opening ceremony, the district governments of Huangpu, Baoshan, and Xuhui, where the group’s offices are located, and the National Development Bank all left flowers.

The property owners of iapm, Shanghai World Trade Square in Chinese, who have also been caught in the crosshairs of some of the protesters, left a sign outside warning against escalation and continuation of protests, claiming such protests affect business. “World Trade Square has exercised an attitude of restraint and patience up until today from start to finish through many mass incidents, but if these mass incidents continue happening, World Trade Square will take actions to maintain the ordinary operations of World Trade Square and will use the legal channels to pursue compensation for losses. Those suspected of criminally breaking the law by causing disorder in a public place will be reported by World Trade Square to the public security bureau to face investigation and prosecution in accordance with the law.”

A Closer Look at a Protest Sign

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Maintaining Rights Actually is the True Maintaining of Stability

Secretary Xi has said: Maintaining stability depends on maintaining rights. This is to say that you can only implement real stability if you protect the legal rights and interests of the great common people. If you don’t talk about maintaining rights but only talk about maintaining stability then the more you try to maintain it, the more unstable it will be. Definitely protecting the common people’s rights and interests must be put number one. Do that, and only then can problems be solved, only then can real stability be implemented.

If legal cases are not held transparently in public, if stolen goods are not pursued and returned, if the lids are not opened [scandals uncovered], and the problems raised by the common people are not solved, this kind of maintaining stability might actually be the stability of corrupt cronies [corrupt political elements], then maintaining stability might just mean maintaining corruption! Stop dreaming, start protecting our rights now, don’t let a minute be wasted!

Mar 25

Hong Kong travel: After Riot, Mongkok is still bustling

By Mitchell Blatt | Local Politics , Travel

One week after Mongkok was ablaze with fires on the street and police firing warning shots towards rioters, the streets were crowded as usual with MK boys and girls, in their unique style, shopping, eating, and looking around. Although Hong Kong’s Finance Secretary John Tsang Chun warned tourists could be scared away from Hong Kong due to the riots, locals don’t seem phased one bit.

Maybe they’re used to it. In 2014, protesters here fought with triad members during the early days of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, and later in early 2015, they went “shopping” at night, filling the sidewalks in defiance of Chief Executive CY Leung.

Leung said in 2014, “Mongkok is not exactly the most genteel part of Hong Kong,” but if it’s known for being gritty and tough, residents take it as a badge of honor. In fact, Mongkok’s reputation as a former industrial area and a center of gang activity and prostitution, as portrayed in films like One Nite in Mongkok, is really an attraction force for youths who want to see a different kind of culture—free-spirited, thrill-seeking, cheap and accessible, in contrast to what one might consider stilted and unaffordable in Central district of Hong Kong island.
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In recent years, Mongkok has also started to develop some “high culture” to complement its cheap markets, KTV parlors and fishball vendors. Modern and higher-end pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants are opening where mechanic shops used to be. Hak Po Street (Hei Bu, in Mandarin) now has an award-winning ramen restaurant, a dedicated coffee bar, a craft brew pub, and a dessert place side-by-side-by-side.

I discovered Hak Po Street for the first time after searching for Hong Kong’s best cafes. Number 1 on a list produced by A Foodie World.com is Knockbox, located at 21 Hak Po Street. It also rated mentions in lists by HK Magazine, Lady Iron Chef.com and Spurge.com. And for good reason. It has premium coffees available in different varieties and different presses for selection to satisfy your tastes, with recommendations available by baristas who know their stuff. The narrow shop has room for just one bar platform and a line of tables, giving it an intimate feel, and it has classic music playing. Every Friday night, Knockbox hosts coffee sampling starting at 6:30 pm for HK$80 (67 yuan).

If beer is your drug of choice, you will find it in close proximity—down the street from Knockbox is TAP (The Ale Project), a cozy and delicious craft brew pub. TAP, which was opened in 2014 by Chris Wong, who has also opened HK Brewcraft and Beer & Fish, offers an extensive list of beers from local companies like Young Master Ales and HK Beer Co., along with some Australian and European brews. I enjoyed Young Master’s seasonal Celebration Ale, which had a sweet hazelnut and vanilla kick to it. Besides beers, TAP also serves delicious Hong Kong-style fusion sandwiches, like a version of the Cubano with roasted pork and Chinese pickles, made with bread by famous baker Gregorie Michaud, who operates Bread Elements.

Many dessert places like Next Station Dessert and Joyful Dessert line Hak Po Street further along, and Ramen Kureha, with an interior covered with retro Japanese posters, is next to Knockbox on the other side. Next Station has a 97.5% satisfaction rating on Open Rice.com.

MK hipsters have already known about Hak Po Street for half a decade. Knockbox opened in 2011, Next Station in 2012, and TAP in 2014. But Hak Po Street is a little bit off the radar of tourists, since it is in the southeast side of the Mongkok streets, a small street that is intersected by a soccer field. In particular, the section with these trendy restaurants is just south of Shantung Street (Shandong Street), where much of the rioting took place.

While some people across the harbor seem to be scared of Mongkok, the district continues to bustle just like it did before. Throngs of people walk on the streets, bumping into and trying to get around each other. Performers do tricks and shows on the pedestrian street, West Yangcai South Street. Mongkok actually is one of the most popular places for independent travelers to stay, with cheap guesthouses inside the Sincere House on Argyle Street and elsewhere. So, too, in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Chungking Mansions, made famous by the film Chungking Express, have a reputation for being gritty and exciting while also serving tourists with cheap guesthouses. These are the kinds of places that add color to the bright international city of Hong Kong.

Oct 23

Uncle Xi, Save Us!: Shopowners Protest for Compensation from Construction-related Losses

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Local Politics

As construction nears the end for line 4 of the Nanjing metro system, shopkeepers hurt by the construction have increased the visibility of their protests.

During the third week of October, owners of restaurants and businesses along Caochang Men Avenue, where the terminal station is being constructed, put up banners with messages demanding the government step in to help them.

Uncle Xi, save us!

Uncle Xi, save us!

“Uncle Xi, save us,” one said. “For ‘the people [everyone]’, also look after ‘the little people [or little establishments/small businesses]” (习大大救救我们,为了“大家”也要顾“小家”). They don’t oppose the subway construction, they just want to be compensated for loss to their businesses, they say.

Fences have been put up around much of the street, obstructing shop signs and making it harder to walk along the sidewalk in one section which is lined with small noodle and local cuisine restaurants started by people from across the country, as well as dry cleaning and convenience stores. Shop owners report that the fences have caused crowding and obstructed parking spaces. Some say they have suffered losses of up to 50 percent of revenue since the fences went up.

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“The subway construction has affected our business, but we still have to pay rent,” Li Shuangshuang, who owns and operates a Hunan restaurant, said. “We just want some compensation.”

Between 20 and 30 business owners have banded together and gone to the government offices in the past two months to request some of their rent be covered. According to them, the government hasn’t responded definitely and has directed them to the subway company, which also hasn’t responded to their satisfaction.

Subway Development Has Faced Challenges

Line 4 is just one of more than 20 new subway lines that have been planned in Nanjing for the next decade. With two subway lines already opened in 2005 and 2010 respectively, Nanjing is now expanding quickly. Four new lines opened in 2014 and 2015, connecting the city to the airport and to the northwest side of the Yangtze River. Line 4 has been one of the toughest lines to build, because it runs through historic Gulou district, which features Republican-era buildings and Purple Mountain (Zijin Shan), which features ancient relics and mountainous terrain.

Nanjing metro map without line 4 or other new lines to come.

Nanjing metro map without line 4 or other new lines to come. Via Wikipedia. Location of line 4 via Baidu Baike.

Back during the early planning and preparation stages in 2011, there were protests against the uprooting of historic wutong trees, which line the streets of much of the old section of the city nearby Gulou. Six hundred trees were reportedly to be moved in order to make way for subway line 3 station entrances, after plans for changed to protect 900 more trees that would have been cut down. The government says most would be replanted.

People Online: Construction Fence Enclosures Expanded

Many owners along Caochang Men Avenue noted that the extent of the construction fence enclosures have often been expanded as construction continues. One unfortunate operator of a noodle restaurant saw the fence expanded to right next to his establishment one week after opening it.

According to an article by People Online in October 2014, the online property of propaganda outlet People’s Daily, the geological conditions around Longjiang Station are complex, requiring extra safety.

Because Longjiang Station’s geological conditions are complex, geological disturbances could have a little bit of impact on surrounding buildings. In order to ensure the safe construction of this deep enclosure pit, the space of the enclosure at Longjiang Station needs to be expanded. “We’ve already done a security measure, but some section of the enclosure could influence operations at the surrounding businesses,” Li Hailong stated.

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An article published in Xinhua, the government news bureau, in November 2014 noted that the walking space between the shop and enclosure had been shrunk from 7 meters to 3.5 meters in one place.

Some businesses have even been knocked down completely, due to structural issues nearby the construction, and the residents were offered payments. Huang Shuiqing, operator of a dry cleaner, pointed to the delay of the subway line, which is now expected to open in early 2017.

Signs Come Down

After being displayed for about a week, some business owners started taking the signs down. They didn’t say why they were doing it. In one week, the signs had reportedly attracted some Chinese journalists who didn’t write about it and one foreign writer who published this article here.

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Oct 20

How Xinhua Responds to China’s GDP Growth Dropping Below 7%

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Local Politics

China’s official GDP figures fell below 7% for the first time in six years, and Xinhua is trying to reassure readers by noting that average incomes are up. The numbers come as China’s GDP growth slows after many years above 8%. Some slowing could be expected after years of blistering growth, but many independent analysts distrust China’s official numbers released by the government, with some quoted by Marketwatch.com thinking the real figures could be closer to 3% or 4%.

Still, the fact that the figure reported by the government is less than 7%, even if just by 0.1 percentage points, is significant symbolically in that the government set a 7% growth target for the year, and dipping below that has caused a “Breaking 7” situation that was reported in the local press, even by government-owned sources like Xinhua. Xinhua chose to reassure readers that “Breaking 7” doesn’t presage bad things for the economy.

In Modern Express (现代快报) newspaper, Xinhua’s article reported today in the subheadline, “The first time in 6 years to ‘Break 7’, but the major trend in China’s economic development hasn’t changed. At the same time, the average income of residents across the country increased by 7.7%, continuing to outpace GDP.”

Along with a brief summarizing the GDP growth, there is a section of questions and answers that seem meant to reassure readers that the economic and reform policies remain on the right track.

How to regard the quarterly GDP growth rate falling below 7%?

The National Bureau of Statistics spokesperson Sheng Laiyun said international and domestic causes were both added together to increase downward pressure on the third quarter economy. Those factors contributed to the main reason the third quarter growth of the economy fell back. Although the economic growth rate fell slightly, the overall steady fundamentals didn’t change. The employment index on the whole looks good, the average resident’s income growth outpaced GDP growth…

Jul 04

How True are the “Hong Kong is not China” Images?

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Local Politics

A Hong Kong designer by the name Local Studio HK created images to make the point that “Hong Kong is not China” that are going viral on social media and China blogs. Some of them take shots at Chinese people’s su zhi, or “character.” Others compare Hong Kong’s relative freedom to China’s authoritarian one party system. Some are just valueless like “Chinese drive it [on the] left,” and Hong Kong on the right.

The argument itself over whether Hong Kong is, or should be, a part of China is one thing, but what about the logic used to back up that argument in the pictures? I will take a look at each, and, as you will see, a lot of the pictures completely miss the mark.

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More or less true. China has a one party system without rule of law. Hong Kong is comparatively more free and democratic. But anyone following the 2017 reform debate and Occupy Central knows it isn’t a true democracy. The chief executive is still elected by the election committee, after the failure of the Beijing-backed reform bill that would have allowed a few (probably pro-Beijing) candidates to run after being screened by a nomination committee. Only half of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong is elected by universal suffrage, and the other half is elected by functional constituencies of businesses and interest groups that skew towards the elite and pro-Beijing side.

This system is controlled by China, a Hong Konger might say, and the undemocratic reform bill was put forward by China’s government. True, also, but Hong Kong didn’t have any democratically-elected legislature before 1997 either.

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This one points out that the anniversary of the clearing of Tiananmen Square, the early morning of June 4, or 6-4, is censored in China. True.

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A shot at the police for their involvement in arresting protesters. Incidents of police brutality and alleged police brutality are widely shared by democracy supporters.

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Chinese use WeChat, and Hong Kongers use different apps. So what? Some of those apps, like Instagram, are blocked in China. In addition, Chinese also use QQ, Didi Dache (taxi booking), and others that aren’t displayed in this image.

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CCTV is the state-run channel in China. ATV is one of the main channels, which is perceived to be biased towards China and is less popular than TVB. Hong Kongers are disappointed with both options, and there were big protests outside the LegCo when HKTV, which was perceived as independent, was denied a broadcast license (my reporting). Two other channels were given licenses.

Of course, there is no requirement to watch CCTV. Although it is the most popular channel, a lot of people watch provincial networks that produce more inspired programming like Hunan TV (“Baba Qu Naer?” and Fan Bingbing’s “The Empress of China”).

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Haha, Chinese food quality really can be suspect. Chinese say that themselves. That’s many go to Hong Kong to buy milk powder. There have been a lot of food safety scandals in China beyond the daily problems of pollution in the water and soil. Melamine milk, gutter oil… Gutter oil isn’t just a problem for street food, animal-grade oil was used by huge Taiwanese conglomerates like the company that produces Master Kong instant noodles. And the scandal involved a lot of food products sold in Hong Kong.

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First, in the China picture, the Chinese person wouldn’t be laying on the subway seats. There would be four people sitting in those subway seats. Next, in the Hong Kong picture, the Hong Konger wouldn’t by standing by four open subway seats. He would be standing by four occupied subway seats.

There are a lot of people in China and Hong Kong, and the subway is often crowded. In fact, Chinese people who see someone laying on all four seats when it’s crowded would probably start yelling at him, and then other riders would film it and upload it to Youku.

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Um… Chinese toilets are dirty? Yes, Chinese restrooms are often dirty, but do Chinese people really stand on the seat? I’ve never seen it, but then again, I don’t watch other people shitting. A lot of Chinese toilets are squating toilets in the floor. This is one of the images that is quite anti-Chinese people and not just anti-China. Some of the nativists among the pan-democrats in Hong Kong host anti-Chinese demonstrations with racist chants that sully their image.

A few of the others include things about politics, like how Hong Kong has free speech. A lot of them are just irrelevant. Chinese people use Chinese Yuan and Hong Kong uses Hong Kong Dollar. Chinese drive on the left and Hong Kongers drive on the right. And…?

Here’s one I already handled on Twitter:

It says Chinese speak Mandarin, and Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, which, in Chinese is also referred to as “Guangdong dialect,” because Chinese in Guangdong speak it. Indeed, everyone in Chinese speaks local dialects/languages as well as Mandarin. Shanghai dialect is almost as confounding to non-natives as Cantonese, and yet Shanghai is a part of China.

I do find everytime I go to Hong Kong that there does seem to be a different kind of culture there. Openness? Creativity? (There were a lot of great films there, and a lot of Chinese language singers hail from there…) International? The fact that it preserved much culture destroyed during the Cultural Revolution? (Making it more Chinese than China?) I don’t know. It’s hard to put “culture” in words or images, which is perhaps one of the problems the artist had here.

Moreover, culture is fluid. And most countries are multi-cultural. Without even addressing Tibet or Xinjiang, you can see many cultural differences between the “laid-back” Sichuan and the “fast paced” life of Shanghai.

Anyway, I have to go to the airport now to catch a flight, so I can’t analyze every image. I’m on my way to Guangdong to see some cultural things there. See more images here at Local Studio HK’s photos.