Paralympic athlete Claudia Biene, Blysse and Ellie
German Paralympic athlete Claudia Biene, Ellie, and Blysse

At 60,000,000 souls, China’s “disabled” population surpasses that of many great nations.  Until recently, despite the installation of wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, and other infrastructure upgrades mandated as part of the package to allow Beijing to host the Olympic games, along with the accompanying Paralympic games, actual sightings of differently-abled people has been rare indeed.  As with all things China, however, the 2008 Paralympic games have witnessed the greatest support and attendance of any such events in history.  Athletes from around the world have been astounded to behold venues packed with spectators, hooting, hollering, and cheering the efforts of all athletes, regardless of nationality, in what may well be one of the best displays of spectator sportsmanship in history.

This is indeed a startling development.  Deng Xiaoping, one of China’s greatest leaders, who almost single-handedly ushered in a new age in China’s development that led to greater international cooperation and the unique state-controlled market economy that is growing like gangbusters, did what he could to foster sympathy and understanding for those whose unique physical attributes don’t quite fit into the norm.  During the cultural revolution, his eldest son, Deng Fupang fell from a high building and, having been branded as a counterrevolutionary did not receive medical attention and was basically left to rot, along with the other counterrevolutionaries, ultimately leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.  When his father secured his place as China’s next great leader, he appointed Deng Fupang as the head of the new China Disabled Persons’ Federation in 1983.  Even such support from the highest echelons of political power in China did little to further the path to acceptance of those with differing abilities among the general population. Indeed,echoes of  残废 (can fei) or “useless cripple” likely still reverberate in the ears of those who are skeptical of the sudden acceptance with which they are greeted.  Still, such acceptance was no easy accomplishment in any other country, and better late than never.

So, whatever the premise, the fact that millions who have been marginalized are now seeing new-found opportunities is cause for celebration indeed!  I was privileged to attend a party thrown by my friend Joerg who is hosting the parents of  a Paralympic athlete throughout the duration of the games, and had a chance to talk with Claudia Biene, a bronze medalist in the Athens games.  Claudia is fortunate enough to be equipped with one of the most advance prosthetic legs in the world. I mentioned to her that I recalled hearing that a man with two prosthetic legs was able to outrun the fastest “able-bodied” man, to which she replied, “That may be true, but I can assure you that prosthetics are never comfortable.”  After our conversation I recalled one of my favorite childhood programs, The Six Million Dollar Man, where an astronaut was equipped with “bionic” limbs after suffering an accident, and I had to wonder… at what point are the “typically-abled” (yes, I have coined a new phrase, and I freely offer it to the world) going to voluntarily elect to amputate their limbs and replace them with artificial technology that they perceive as “better, faster… stronger”?

My sister Alysoun works at Wright State University, a humble Ohio academy that none-the-less was the first in the world to enable a paralyzed person to walk through the use of technology.  Her daughter, my niece Heidi, is an incredibly bright and beautiful girl, blossoming into a woman.  Alysoun understandably has mixed feelings about China, because she knows full well that if Heidi had been conceived in China, they would have almost certainly have forced her abortion, as Heidi was born with spina bifida and has been wheelchair-bound since early childhood. Alysoun acknowledges that few countries can offer the kind of attention to Heidi that has enabled her to lead the quality of life she has in the US - her helper dog, Madrid, alone cost as much as a car. Few who have ever met Heidi would question her abilities, nor the brightness of her future.  Still, Alysoun can’t help but be moved but what has occurred as a result of these Paralympic games. Heidi told me herself a few weeks ago that she longs to visit China.  The fact that the country is fast on its way to becoming one of the most accessible in the world, along with the new found respect for the abilities of those who have previously been considered cursed, are sure to make that visit one of the most memorable of her life.

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Wen Jiabao on the scene of the earthquake
Premier Wen Jiabao on the scene of the Beichuan earthquake

One week after the tragic 7.9 magnitude earthquake devastated areas throughout Sichuan Province the Chinese central government has declared a 3-day mourning period. Despite having spent over five years living in Beijing, I must admit I was rather shocked at all that this entails. When the earthquake struck last week, I was teaching a class for China Academy of Social Sciences graduate school, and when I came in to teach the class the following Monday, I was informed that there was going to be a memorial service for the victims, along with a 3-minute moment of silence. I readily agreed to take part, and we all gathered in the public area where a giant LED TV screen had recently been installed, and watched as the proceedings took place.

Students and faculty from all of the buildings on the campus formed orderly lines, aided by a man barking orders through a megaphone. Although I expected everyone to maintain silence as we watched a montage of earthquake videos, a healthy percentage of which featured Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao offering their condolences to the victims, there was quiet conversation throughout until the actual moment marking the one week point since the earthquake struck. As I have actually been quite impressed with the way the Beijing government has handled the crisis, my usual cynicism was held at bay. In fact, standing in unity with everyone there, I was overcome with emotion, and my usual stoicism was put to the test as my eyes grew misty. I, along with the entire country it seems, was particularly moved by the loss of a whole generation of children for many villages, as their school buildings (seemingly “made of tofu” according to one despairing parent, implying corruption among local government officials) collapsed, crushing hundreds of students. Imagining my own children among them my compassion was easily stirred.

I watched as immaculate soldiers emerged from the Forbidden City through the central gate, something I have never witnessed, and with astonishing flare raised the flag in Tiananmen Square and then lowered it to half mast. Coverage of similar ceremonies occurring all over China were shown as well. Then, the moment came for the 3 minutes of mourning - not silence, as I expected, owing to my American heritage - and suddenly sirens went off everywhere. Traffic in the entire country halted and people blared their car horns. The TV screen displayed coverage of the event from around the country, and finally settled on a train near the epicenter blowing its horn. It was a truly impressive, and moving event.

Afterwards, I found out that this was merely the first day of a 3-day mourning period that had been declared by the central government. Gradually, I began to understand what this meant. Event cancellation messages began to arrive on Facebook and by email, as anything “festive” has been deemed inappropriate during this period. Certainly no rock concerts, or dance parties. Movies theaters have all been closed. Sporting events have been canceled. Regardless of anyone’s personal approach to mourning, the national mourning period is to be taken seriously indeed.

An incurably nosy person person at times, I couldn’t help but press some of my Chinese friends to tell me how they really felt about this “forced” mourning. Considering my own philosophical and political leanings, such a concept would never even occur to me. In fact, it boggles my mind. Yet, there are obvious signs of solidarity, and, as this has been declared an official period of mourning, to even call it into question is to risk backlash from the fervently nationalistic segments of the population, which have now revealed themselves to be far greater than I ever could have imagined. One of my friends confided in me that she had worn a red sweater to class at university yesterday, only to be chastised by one of her classmates for such an insensitive choice during a time of mourning when all should be clad in suitably drab fashion.

I was curious as to how such an event, one that literally brings all activity in the nation to a halt, a nation with a population many times that of the US, could be pulled off without a hitch at such short notice. Another friend reminded me that everyone in China belongs to a unit of some kind, whether a work unit, or school unit, and there is a communication chain in place that is beyond impressive. Of course, the event was also published in the media, but for those who avoid the media as much as possible, as I do, well… someone has their number.

I remarked to still other friends that it was inconceivable for me to imagine my own government, all grievances toward the current administration aside, attempting to dictate to private enterprises that they must close for business throughout a three day mourning period. Many may very well choose to express their support for disaster victims, and, indeed, many now are pouring out their hearts and sending donations to China, as well as for the potentially far worse disaster that occurred around the same time in Myanmar. But they are free to choose the manner in which they mourn. Mentioning these views to a friend who is fairly high up in a government sponsored agency, I was told that likely the movie theater owners were, in fact, free to choose to open if they wished, and the government wouldn’t stop them, but they wouldn’t dare! The public backlash would cripple them.

Alas, this is China! I am amazed and impressed at what can be accomplished. Certainly, the government has learned a lot since the SARS epidemic, when a legacy of suppression of bad news led to a highly critical public reaction. Conversely, the media this time have been amazingly open, even showing Wen Jiabao gracelessly stumbling among the victims, losing his hat, and even being ignored by despairing victims wrapped in their own grief. This willingness to show the human side of a great leader has led to the overwhelming support of the Chinese people of their government and their handling of the situation. The fact that he arrived on the scene so quickly is greatly appreciated. Let this be a lesson to those outside China who like to hide behind an attitude of moral superiority and a belief that Chinese people feel oppressed by their government. From my vantage, I can assure you that this is simply not the case. While remarks that go against the mainstream views of society are often only whispered to me in confidence, along with sideways glances, it is generally not the government they fear, but their own fervent comrades.

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Björk Declare Independence

Six weeks after Bjork shouted, “Tibet!” at the end of an unapproved song “Declare Independence” at her Shanghai concert, and then sped away on a jetliner, those of us left behind in China are paying the price. Years of progress and an easing of restrictions and red tape imposed by the Ministry of Culture were erased in a night, and have set us back a decade at least. Harry Connick Jr. was the first casualty, as his was the first high profile foreign act after the incident, and he was informed that he would only be allowed to sing the songs on the approved list he submitted when seeking approval. A few years back, that shouldn’t have been too great a problem, because it has always been standard procedure since the days when Wham! broke through the cultural impasse and brought pop music to China in the 1980s, and it was inconceivable to even attempt to sing anything not on the list. Until the Bjork incident, however, there had been a certain laxness, and the list of approved songs had become somewhat of a formality. Not anymore. As Mr. Junior’s band had not really practiced quite a few of the songs on the list that was submitted months before the tour, and they had no approved encores on the list, the concert was purportedly not his best, to say the least, as he had to play most of the songs by himself while the band twiddled their thumbs.

The approval process has also been put back on track, and every formality is now carried out to the letter. It is estimated that at least half of the acts planning to come here during the Olympics will now very likely fail the approval process. Celine Dion may not be my favorite performer, but certainly many of her fans in Beijing were disappointed when she subsequently canceled her Beijing show. Closer to home, our own approval process for our upcoming production of Oliver! very nearly ground to a halt as the Ministry of Culture suddenly demanded passport copies for every man, woman and child in the show, to be submitted in less than a 24 hour period. It is a real testament to the dedication of everyone in the show that we somehow managed to pull it together. The approval process now requires the entire 20 days, no exceptions, so we will likely only get official approval at the eleventh hour, which leaves us unable to sell tickets or do Chinese language publicity until about two weeks before the show.

It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to anyone that Bjork supports the grossly misrepresented “Free Tibet Movement” as she has made no secret of her affiliations, but I really do have to question how she arrived at the conclusion that there really is a popularly accepted “Free Tibet Movement” in the first place. The fact is, the majority of Tibetan people simply want better living conditions, whether or not they are part of China, and mostly look at the small minority who do engage in separatist activities as trouble-makers who will likely just make matters worse. I must say it really rankles me when I hear people going on about some latest cause of the day, smug in the sense of their own moral superiority, and outraged that more isn’t done about it, when, in fact, they have no clue what-so-ever about the actual situation. Tibet is a perfect example.

It is a fact that Tibet has been part of China for over 900 years. Throughout much of that time, Tibet served as the “spiritual” capital of China, while the emperor ruled from the earthly capital. Things would likely have continued on that way to present day, if it were not for two influential factors in the early 20th century. First, China’s own identity crisis and the loss of stability as reforms swept the nation, and secondly the British empire, eager for some final days of glory encouraged the ruling oligarchy, into which the Dalai Lama was born, to take advantage of a momentarily weak China and declare independence, promising them British support. Things were very hard for the Tibetan people when power was once again consolidated in China, and they marched on Tibet to bring them back into the fold. The British abandoned them, and no one in the West rose to their aid, as it was generally agreed that China was simply doing what could be expected of it. I find it ironic to the extreme that people will now go on and encourage people in Tibet to declare independence when it is obvious that such notions will only bring harm’s way to those who take them up on that advice. Never mind that it is none of their business in the first place! For those who would hypocritically condemn China for its heavy handed tactics, while turning a blind eye to the atrocities brought about by their own governments worldwide, I say, wake up!! To those who, like myself, are generally suspicious of ALL governments, and are therefor unsurprised when they act to protect their interests, I say, “Be the alternative.” We can only expect to bring about change through dialog and openness, as well as by offering up a better alternative through example. Acts that cause clocks to be turned back, undoing the good progress that has been made are simply shameful. While I understand those who express the sentiment that by bringing an issue to its head, stunts like Bjork’s actually help the cause, I disagree with the approach.

Talk to average Texan you meet overseas, and they will tell you they are from Texas and go to great lengths to point out that they are not from the United States, but from Texas! There has long been a popular notion that Texas should be a free and independent country. Does anyone honestly believe that if Texas were somehow to achieve through referendum a Declaration of Independence that the United States would allow them to seceed? PuhLEASE!!! The US governement would be in there protecting the “freedoms of the America people” faster than you can wave the stars and stripes at them. As long as people were protesting peacefully, they would be able express their right of dissent, but ask any WTO protester about how quickly and easily police can brutally turn upon a mostly peaceful crowd in reaction to a few hotheads. Yes, folks, this does happen in our own countries too, and on a fairly regular basis. Only you won’t be seeing too much coverage of it in the popular media. You actually have to be interested enough to dig.

The situation in Tibet is obviously different, because most people there do not enjoy the standard of living of even the humblest trailer park resident in Texas, and that is precisely what is worst about the Western media coverage of the recent riots. A journalist friend of mine was there when the riots broke out, and he said the problem was worsened by the fact that for two days, the police did nothing. What started off as a race riot - an uprising of people tired of generations of historical suppression by the ruling oligarchy of 200 Tibetan families from which, unsurprisingly, all reincarnations of holy people are born; fed up with the rich foreigners (i.e. Muslims and Han Chinese) raking in profits while the Tibetan people remain poor; and fed up with the Chinese government’s inability to improve their daily lives- led to crowds attacking Muslim butchers, and then turned very ugly. Once the hate began to flow, it was easy for others to fuel it, and by the time the separatists joined in, the crowds were way out of control. To believe that this was started as an organized democracy movement shows an appalling lack of comprehension of what is actually occurring in Tibet. Of course, the people who believe that kind of trite are the same people who believe most of what they read in the popular media, so that somehow doesn’t surprise me.

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