You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2008.

If you haven’t heard of MediaStorm yet, I urge you to go to their site as quickly as possible. Be prepared to spend an hour or so immersed in their gripping and compelling storytelling.

They just released two productions worth watching. One, Cleaning the Air: China’s Environmental Challenge, details the challenges China faces as it grows its economy, lifts more of its people out of poverty and asserts itself on the world stage. It’s a good primer about why the environment matters, for China and the rest of the world, especially the U.S.

The second, Common Ground, chronicles how development and progress can be intertwined with the past, perhaps eerily so. Photographer Scott Strazzante first chronicled the lives of a couple, farmers who had sold their house and land to a developer. He then followed a family who had bought a house in the new subdivision. It’s an interesting, though-provoking project. Some people I’ve talked to don’t like it, saying some of the comparisons feel forced.

Luckily, I had a chance to meet Strazzante at the Poynter Institute in May, when he was giving a presentation on his portfolio (I am only a ghost in his memory now). He was a self-effacing, humble guy. Really down to earth. He’ll be at the Olympics, I believe, working for the Chicago Tribune. Hopefully I’ll run into him and make some awkward conversation.

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Journalists are none too happy about the working the conditions at the Main Press Center. The internet is slow, they complain, and sites are being censored. This after officials promised open access to the internet for the Olympics. One of the sites being blocked is Amnesty International after the human rights group released a critical report on China.

I can only imagine what the MPC is like right now — literally. I’ve decided to set up shop at my hutong guest house 20 minutes away from the Olympic area. After two days of trekking to my designated Olympic work area and dealing with a slow internet connection, I’m spending today in the hostel’s computer lounge. The connection has been faster and more reliable.

Moreover, I can connect to any Web site I want, including www.amnesty.org. Of course, it’s most likely because I have a personal VPN. Journalists who live in China also use proxies to get their way around China’s Great Firewall. Both were recommended by Human Rights Watch for journalists covering the Olympics.

It’s a little ironic that I have a better work station in the middle of a gritty, rundown hutong than at the sleek, pristine MPC.

My two cents on the situation: Journalists are a surly (and demanding) bunch, especially sports journalists (I should know). China should just open the gates of the Great Firewall for the next month to avoid any more grousing and controversy.

The taxis are quick and reliable in Beijing, if you’re fluent in Mandarin. Which I’m not. So for those about to travel to Beijing, be sure to have a map or the place you’re going to written in Chinese because taxi drivers will not speak a lick English (despite reports that drivers were given English lessons).

Also, be on the lookout for drivers who start the fare at 11 RMB or more. The baseline should be 10. I had a driver try to pull that move on me yesterday.

For the most part the taxi drivers have been friendly. I had a conversation with one about the merits of Kobe (he’s awesome) and the demerits of Tracy McGrady (he’s always injured and doesn’t care about winning). Most importantly, the drivers have been quick, shuttling me from my guest house to the Olympic area.

I’ve also been able to practice my butchered Mandarin on them; some of them placate me and say that my Pu Tong Hua isn’t bad. I know better.

Officials must be happy — and a little vindicated — today. The weather cooled off, the breeze came in and the visibility improved. You can actually see buildings off in the distance, which is a vast improvement from the weekend.

Perhaps the traffic restrictions and factory closures are making a difference.

Lastly, I met an NBC producer on the media bus this afternoon. He’s an veteran, having covered multiple Olympics. I asked him how the security in Beijing is compared to Athens in 2004. Athens, he said, was much worse, much more strict. He did point out, however, that he hadn’t gone within the Olympic compound yet.

For a newbie, the heightened security definitely has an impact. But after three days of entering and exiting the Olympic area, I’ve gotten used to all the screening and checkpoints.

About a week and a half ago, the South China Morning Post published a story claiming Beijing authorities  told bar owners in the Sanlitun strip to ban blacks and Mongolians. Local blogs jumped on the weakly-sourced article, and major publications ignored the report.

Beijing Boyce, a local blog on the city’s nightlife, made the SCMP look like amateurs (and fools) by doing some actual reporting: He went to the bars and witnessed blacks drinking and partying.

I also went to Sanlitun last night to check out the scene. A handful of countries have already arrived and a few teams were enjoying libations in Sanlitun. A contingent from Cameroon was sitting on a patio outside one bar, clearly not affected by the ban on blacks.

I think this SCMP story has been debunked, for now. Ultimately, Sanlitun bar owners, many of whom employ  pushers who try to persuade you to enter their bar, could care less if you were white, black, yellow, green or blue. They just want you to buy a bucket of beer.

The Temple of Heaven was one of my favorite places to visit, not because of the Taoist buildings, but because the park grounds serve as a sprawling performance center. Groups (or individuals) perform, dance or work out wherever they find space. It’s similar to Yuexiu Park in Guangzhou.

This large group is singing revolutionary songs. After each one, two women would shout “Next song!”

Buses

These are buses awaiting passengers within the Olympic area. Journalists will ride the buses to the venues or to their hotels. One thing I noticed: They were all idling their engines to keep their air conditioners running. These buses, however, should be newer — and greener — than the older buses in Beijing’s transportation system. But they aren’t the zero-emission ones powered by lithium batteries. So I wonder just how much effect they’re having on the environment. We might get an answer Tuesday, when officials hold a press conference on transportation.

The air quality has emerged as a thorny issue in Beijing. It’s a topic of conversation everywhere, from the press center to local bars. Officials are sticking to the party line that the air is improving and that athletes will be able to compete in 12 days. Few people believe them. And the comment by an IOC official that the haze over the city was just “mist” has been widely mocked.

A couple nights ago, I asked a couple expats if they the air had improved within the last month. Both of them chuckled. “No” was the quick and easy answer. I think one of them answered, “Hell no.”

Athletes will decide for themselves if the hazy sky they see will be mist or smog. My own opinion? Well, I don’t want to gross any one out, but when I blew my nose today, it came out black.

MPC security

I scoped out the Main Press Center (MPC) in the Olympic area on Sunday. It was the first time I entered the official Olympic work area. Needless to say, security was tight. I wrote a very, very short piece about the presence of security, including an funny anecdote, for msnbc.com the other day.

To get into the MPC building I had to pass through several layers of security; the outer perimeter, which restricts all unauthorized vehicles (which also means no taxis); another post to check my credential, another one to have my bag and body screened; and one last credential check to get into the MPC.

I had my backpack searched. I brought two bottles of water, which they asked me to drink. I had some Altoids; I had to eat one to show them I wasn’t smuggling in anthrax. And I also had some sun screen, which I applied at the checkpoint. The Swiss Army Knife? Well, it was close but it wasn’t confiscated. They put it on the table but handed it back to me. I guess it’s too small to do any real damage.

Although I can understand the more strident security measures (especially after groups vow to do this at the Olympics), I think a lot of media members and attendees are going to bristle at the fortress-like security. Especially if journalists get their bags opened and searched during deadline.

Most of the security personnel are very friendly and cordial, but you can’t help feeling a little rattled after passing each layer of security. And perhaps a little paranoid. Even hotels are screening guests and bags in their lobbies.

I’m really interested in how the media throng, most of whom haven’t arrived yet, will react. For a government that’s trying to avoid being labeled a police state, the security measures might be giving critics more ammo. The PRC, however, would probably accept the extra vitriol if the Games were harmonious from beginning to end.

Just want to direct you to a New Yorker feature on China’s “Angry Youth.” It’s a revealing look at the pulse of the youth here.

One of the more compelling sentences:

Young patriots are so polarizing in China that some people, by changing the intonation in Chinese, pronounce “angry youth” as “shit youth.”