It’s a strange experience by mattsteinglass
April 30, 2009, 10:01 pm
Filed under: China, Internet

trying to figure out whether someone is trying to stop you from posting or reading some stuff, or whether it’s just a series of accidental coincidences. For a few minutes there it was looking pretty deliberate, but now, obviously, it looks either they’re not out there, or whatever they’re doing is pretty easy to get around.


Incidentally, the Great Firewall by mattsteinglass
April 30, 2009, 8:55 pm
Filed under: China, Internet

of China seems to be more like the Great Prickly Hedge of China. You can get through it without much trouble, but it’s a minor pain in the neck each time, and so most people just aren’t going to do it.

Chinese electric motorbikes are awesome by mattsteinglass
April 30, 2009, 8:51 pm
Filed under: China, Development, Environment

We spent the day today riding bicycles around the villages south of Yangshuo, in Guangxi. It’s spectacularly gorgeous, as most of these karst landscapes are; they’re the areas that gave rise to that genre of Chinese paintings with the mist twisting around impossibly vertical peaks dotted with pagodas, weeping willows, and wizened sages, or, in the modern version, pandas being trained by tortoises to practice kung-fu. Vietnam has very similar areas, mainly in Ninh Binh around 2 hours south of Hanoi. But for reasons I can’t quite pin down, the Yangshuo area feels nicer. There less trash, for one thing. There are fewer gas-powered motorbikes and more bicycles, which I can’t explain at all, since China is significantly richer than Vietnam; Guangxi is a poor province, but the tourism industry in Yangshuo is going gangbusters, whereas it’s minimal in Ninh Binh, and I would find it difficult to explain if per capita income here were lower. People in China honk their horns less than Vietnamese do, which makes a really powerful difference. And there’s something about the feeling of moving through the fields here that’s just different. People leave you more or less alone, for one thing. Vietnamese are compulsively gregarious, and when you cross through a Vietnamese rural landscape it can be difficult to avoid getting stared at by crowds. The folks in Yangshuo seem much less interested, though of course this probably has a lot to do with the thriving tourism industry.

But the main thing I wanted to say was that I am in love with Chinese electric motorbikes. They’re not very powerful. They’re slow. But they are quiet and gentle, and they coexist with the spectacular limestone landscape in the complementary fashion in which sailboats coexist with the Chesapeake. And the bronchial infection I’ve had for 3 weeks in Hanoi’s filthy exhaust-choked air has already started to clear up out in the clearer atmosphere hre. It’s really not inevitable that places like this will ever have to see a dominant gasoline-powered era. If we help things along, people in China could look back at the gasoline era as a brief curiosity, the way we regard the Age of Steam or pneumatic tubes.

Blocked in China by mattsteinglass
April 30, 2009, 7:37 am
Filed under: China, Internet

For whatever reason, access to this blog appears to be blocked by the Great Firewall of China. I’m in Yangshuo, posting here now via the magic of Neuroelectronic Psomiasis. But I probably won’t be doing much more posting in the next week.

Observations: the swine flu scare doesn’t seem to have affected the train border between Vietnam and China yet. And, the Vietnamese customs police at the Chinese border at Dong Dan have the world’s cutest drug-sniffing dog — a Cocker Spaniel. Will try to post photo at some point.


Vietnamese drug sniffing dog and handler at Dong Dan train station, Chinese border. April 28, 2009

Vietnamese drug sniffing dog and handler at Dong Dan train station, Chinese border. April 28, 2009

McCain’s consistency on torture by mattsteinglass
April 27, 2009, 9:58 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, Vietnam


John McCain (left) greets staff of the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Hanoi, April 8, 2009. Photo © Matt Steinglass.

John McCain (left) greets staff of the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Hanoi, April 8, 2009. Photo © Matt Steinglass.

He was tortured by Vietnamese Communists, but “moved on” to support normalizing relations rather than pursuing punishment of the torturers. Now he says the US needs to “move on” rather than pursue punishment of those who established the American torture system.

It has a certain consistency. One could of course point out the differences. McCain never had the capacity to punish those who tortured him; Vietnam wasn’t going to prosecute them. We could, however, punish the architects of American torture. Then, it’s one thing for McCain, the victim of torture, to decide that the pursuit of justice is less important than “moving on”; but we were not the victims of the torture meted out by the CIA, and no one seems to be asking Jose Padilla how he feels about whether those who tortured him should be impeached, tried on criminal charges, etc. Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was tortured by the CIA at a black site in Afghanistan, appears not to be in a forgiving mood.

Finally, one might point out that the fact that Vietnamese torturers were never punished is related to the fact that, according to US State Department human rights reports, beatings and extrajudicial force are still widely applied in Vietnam’s penal system. (“On May 1, Y Ben Hdok, a Montagnard from Dak Lak, died while in detention in the Buon Ma Thuot provincial police station. Police detained him on April 28 for questioning regarding his suspected involvement in inciting demonstrations. Officials stated that the suspect hanged himself during a break in questioning, but family members said his corpse was bruised. No investigation was carried out, and the family reportedly refused to authorize an autopsy.” And so forth.)

Exterminate the brutes by mattsteinglass
April 26, 2009, 11:15 pm
Filed under: Foreign Policy, Health, Human Rights and Torture

My son got bit by a dog this evening, so we had to go in for a rabies booster shot. We were out having dinner in the garden of The Kitchen, a restaurant not far from our house that serves decent Mexican food and is located down a small alleyway with little traffic. The kids were playing hide-and-seek while we waited to order. My son ran off out the gate to hide down the alley while my daughter counted, my wife said “I’d prefer they stayed inside the garden,” I said “Eh, there’s almost no traffic down this alley,” and a second later Sol came running back inside crying, saying a dog had bitten him. One of those moments that makes parenthood such a relentless parade of demonstrations of your inadequacy rewarding and life-constituting experience. My wife and the restaurant owner ran into the alleyway to figure out what the deal was with this dog while I handled the kids. Not a deep bite, barely broke the skin in just one spot, but it hurt; I washed it off and put some ice on it.

The dog belonged to some poor neighbors down the alley. It was on a chain on the concrete stoop of a little brick hut the family uses as a kitchen/utility area. The hut gives directly onto the alley so the dog wasn’t fenced in, and it had already bitten the restaurant’s motorbike valet the week before. (He had unfortunately been in the bathroom when Sol ran out, or he would’ve stopped him.) The restaurant’s manager had demanded they keep the dog inside, which they hadn’t done. The owner was a tiny, blinking lady in her 60s or 70s who did not seem capable of understanding what the issue at hand was, which was simply this: could she prove that the dog was vaccinated for rabies? She said her husband had taken the dog in a week earlier to get vaccinated for rabies, because an announcement had gone around on the neighborhood loudspeakers instructing everyone to do that at the local Ward People’s Committee Headquarters. (Gotta love Communist public health. Seriously.) The problem was she didn’t know where the certificate of vaccination was. After twenty minutes of discussion we finally rousted her husband out to go search the house and try to dig up the paper. I say “discussion,” but I mean “threats”, largely on my wife’s part, to call the police and demand that this family pay our son’s medical bills. That seemed to be the only way to impel them into action — they just didn’t do anything until there was a threat of police action and monetary damages.

Meanwhile I had called my friend Heiman, an MD-Ph.D. who works on communicable diseases here, including rabies, to ask what he thought I should do. Since it was a stupid question, he responded patiently that if I was absolutely sure the dog was vaccinated, I didn’t need to get Sol a booster shot, but if there were any doubt whatsoever as to whether the dog was vaccinated, I should go get Sol the booster, since you don’t take a 0.001% chance on a disease that’s 100% fatal, in a country where it’s endemic. Duh. It can be helpful to have people lay these issues out clearly for you sometimes.

Anyway, as I waited for the husband to find the certificate, the old woman took my hand and led me over to the dog, explaining in simple Vietnamese: “It’s feeding pups. It’s feeding pups.” And there they were, indeed, nursing on the dog’s teats. Which explained why it was acting so aggressive. So you see, she implied, it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s not usually like this. Which, of course, pissed me off. What did I care whether the dog was usually like this or not? The only question for me was: was the dog vaccinated? Did they have proof? Either they had proof, or I had to go the doctor.

The restaurant’s manager had been extremely concerned and kind throughout the interaction, and she by now had called the police to intervene. She, obviously, couldn’t have a dangerous dog in the alleyway outside her restaurant. I went inside and ate the dinner we’d ordered, and a few minutes later the old woman dashed up to me, grabbed my hand, and began pleading. She couldn’t pay the money for my son’s medical treatment, she said. They were very poor. But she promised to kill the dog.

The restaurant manager had come over to help translate, and at this point I didn’t even know what to say. I didn’t want or need this woman’s money. The booster shot wasn’t expensive, and our insurance would cover it. The problem was that this family’s dog had already bitten the motorbike valet, they had been told to keep it indoors or fence it up, and they hadn’t done it. The point of the monetary threat was to force them to do something about the dog. But I didn’t want them to kill the dog. I wanted them to fence the dog in, to go back and get it vaccinated again but this time keep the vaccination certificate — to just deal with their responsibilities like normal citizens, keep their animals on their own property or be conscious of the consequences of letting them run out into the alleyway.

But this is the thing about these kinds of cross-cultural interactions, the thing that makes them so often horrible and tragic. You can put pressure on other people to accomplish goals that you want. But you can’t dictate to them how to go about delivering those goals. You can show them that the consequences of the dog biting a foreigner’s kid will be dire; but while you may think the logical solution is vaccination and a fence, they may think the logical solution is to kill the dog. Whatever norms their society operates under — norms which may appear crazy, perverse, brutal and counterproductive to you — will likely be repeated and intensified in their approach to meeting your demands on them. This isn’t just a problem that appears in interactions across national cultures; it happens across class cultures, between two different families, or for that matter between individuals. You try to teach someone how to do something the “right” way (your right way, anyway); they won’t do it; you finally set a target and threaten to fong the bejeezus out of them if they don’t deliver the target; and they find a way to deliver that target that’s so completely screwed up and wrong, by your lights, that you wish you’d never asked for it in the first place. Usually it somehow involves taking the whole thing out on whoever is weakest and most vulnerable inside their own system. And you find yourself thinking, it’s hopeless. The only solution is to exterminate the brutes. Which is exactly what they’re thinking too.

That’s one way of looking at it by mattsteinglass
April 26, 2009, 10:27 pm
Filed under: Crime, President

David Frum: “Since Watergate, American politics has moved into a new era of the criminalization of politics.”

The other way of looking at it would be that since Watergate, Republican administrations have been repeatedly breaking the law. Nixon spied on political opponents and broke into the offices of the Democratic Party; Reagan cut illegal secret deals to sell arms to Iran in order to fund right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua; and George W. Bush enacted a systematic program for torturing detainees.

Oh yeah, and Bill Clinton lied under oath about getting his intern to give him blowjobs. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush didn’t do anything illegal as far as I know.