Monday, June 27, 2011

Fake: The Release Of Ai Weiwei

258 Fake. That's where mainland artist and former detainee Ai Weiwei lives. What was once a comment on the authenticity of "home" has now become a fact of Ai's life. Suspended in a "fake" existence, Ai is anything but free.

Last Wednesday when Ai was released after serving 81 days in detention, the first impulse was to breath a sigh of relief and then rejoice. But what has become clear is that Ai, along with many others, is still firmly under the boot of the Communist thugocracy. As Gao Wenqian, a former Communist Party official who fled to the U.S. after the Tiananmen Square massacre says, “You can say that Ai Weiwei was transferred from a small prison to the prison outside.”

Watching Ai return silently to his Bejing home last week was a chilling scene. The once gregarious artist had been muzzled - he looked worn and haggard and was unable to answer even the simplest questions about his detention. That is one among a long list of conditions pertaining to his "release." He was never formally charged with anything, yet the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that he confessed to his "crimes." The government has now ordered him to pay 12 million yuan ($1.85 million) in back taxes and fines.

When the Arab Spring started gathering momentum the Chinese authorities freaked out and began a crackdown on civil society not seen since the wake of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. As Newsweek reports:
With a powerful “security faction” now ascendant in the Communist Party, at least 500 people have been detained in the past four months alone, observers estimate. Chinese officials have also severely curtailed press freedom, apparently disrupted Internet and mobile-phone service, and gone after human-rights lawyers in a campaign of torture and disappearances. An Amnesty International report states that, consequently, only “a few hundred out of a total of 204,000 lawyers risk taking up human-rights cases.
This is the China that outsiders don't see. It's a terrifying place to be if you believe in basic freedoms, a place where the rule of law and justice are arbitrary constructs, the fake illusions of a tyrannous regime. Fake is only as good as those who settle for less. The Chinese know they deserve better, which is why the current leadership fears its own people.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Legitmizing Fox News: Jon Stewart

"You make it sound like I'm trying to delegitimize you to defend Fox" ~ Chris Wallace to Jon Stewart
Well, now that you mention it.....that's exactly what was on the agenda when Jon Stewart appeared on Chris Wallace's Fox News Sunday program last week. And to a large extent, Wallace succeeded. For whatever reason Stewart agreed to go on (the buffet? parking??) it did nothing for him or the Daily Show and everything for Wallace and his network. Sure, Stewart got in a jab about Fox viewers being the most misinformed, but not before admitting that MSNBC is kinda like the Fox News of the left, opining on the brilliance of Roger Ailes (and South Park!) and paying Wallace an absurd compliment about being a "tough" and "fair interviewer." This is all rubbish, but it's the legitimizing equivalency that Fox so desperately craves in order to counter the criticism that comes from the likes of Stewart.

The take away headline was how Stewart lost his cool, got angry and all scrunched-up like a defensive marmot. In other words, Wallace was so effective in getting under Stewart's skin, forcing him to confront his own true bias that he just couldn't take the fair and balanced scrutiny anymore! Then when Stewart agreed with Wallace that the "mainstream media" has a "liberal bias," (ugh!) - when all the evidence since at least the Iraq war proves otherwise - he might as well have been riding shotgun on the "Fox & Friends" couch. In fact, Stewart's appearance, and his buddy-bromance with Bill-O, has helped Fox move the media discourse in the U.S. so far to the right that Tea Baggers and tax cuts are legit, while climate change and torture have become quaint relics from some bygone era.

Why does this matter in Hong Kong or Canada? Because whatever the right (now the extreme, fanatical right) can get away with in the U.S. eventually spills, Jon! Beware Faux News!! Keep away from the Dark Side!!!

Monday, June 20, 2011

War Is Peace: Obama & Bush

"We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state" ~ Jack Balkin, law professor at Yale
Everyday Obama gets one step closer to surpassing his predecessor's delusional and illegal policies. He's actually worse than Bush because he's legitimizing that agenda by forging a bipartisan consensus between Democrats and Republicans on issues related to war and national security. The growing list involves prosecuting whistle-blowers, criminalizing Wikileaks, extending the Patriot Act and conducting an illegal war in Libya and possibly Yemen. Now Obama, just like Bush, is being accused of breaking the law and overruling two of his top legal advisers over the U.S. role in Libya. His excuse for not consulting Congress? The Libyan conflict doesn't rise to the level of a war:
“We are acting lawfully,” said Harold Koh, the State Department legal adviser, who expanded on the administration’s reasoning in a joint interview with White House Counsel Robert Bauer....“We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” Mr. Koh said. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped, or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”
I originally supported the intervention and agreed with Juan Cole that it was justified. I still feel that way, but Obama must go to Congress or else this whole thing stinks as badly as Bush at his worst.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bloomsday: Canucks Blew It

It's Bloomsday in Hong Kong, rain heavy with memories of Vancouver and of what could have been...

Time to turn towards something a bit more uplifting, like Molly Bloom and the answer to the question of life:

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
Yes, next year. Yes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Canucks Inches Away: Stanley Cup Awaits

“They communicate like dolphins” ~ Alex Burrows on the Sedin twins
Summer is around the corner, the wild mountain thyme is blooming, but ice is the only element that matters. My beloved, feckless and heroic Vancouver Canucks are only one game away from making history and nabbing the holy grail of Canadian sport, the Stanley Cup. But one obstacle stands in their way - themselves. As Dave Babych, who was there in 1994 when the Canucks lost in 7 to the New York Rangers, put it, "If you give it your all, and you come up short, what will it take to win?"

The Canucks have an incredible line-up this year led by Swedish twins, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Raffi Torres, Ryan Kessler and anchored in goal by one of the NHL's great schizoids, Roberto Luongo. So how could they have blown a two game lead over the Boston Bruins and allowed ass-kicking losses of 8-1, 4-0 and 5-2 while barely squeaking through with single goal victories? How so, Johnny Canuck?! Because Lord Stanley isn't convinced you want it.

The Bruins have so far succeeded in dragging the Canucks down to their game and it's not a championship level. They've played so much better before, ripping up the Nashville Predators and then the San Jose Sharks. They were also the favourites going into these finals, but the series has been lackluster so far, to say the least. True, the Canucks don't deserve to lose, but it's still an open question whether they deserve to win. Today's game could make history or it could be another typical reminder of their forty-year nemesis: the fever. Yet they've never been as favoured as they are now and they've even got home-ice advantage. I've been waiting all my life to say my team is a all comes down to today...go, you bloody 'Nucks!

Below is an awesome video making the rounds of Al Pacino's "Inch By Inch" pep-talk from the 1999 film, Any Given Sunday:

"I don't know what to say really.
Three minutes
to the biggest battle of our professional lives
all comes down to today.
we heal
as a team
or we are going to crumble.
Inch by inch
play by play
till we're finished.
We are in hell right now, gentlemen
believe me
we can stay here
and get the shit kicked out of us
we can fight our way
back into the light.
We can climb out of hell.
One inch, at a time.

Now I can't do it for you.
I'm too old.
I look around and I see these young faces
and I think
I mean
I made every wrong choice a middle age man could make.
I uh....
I pissed away all my money
believe it or not.
I chased off
anyone who has ever loved me.
And lately,
I can't even stand the face I see in the mirror.

You know when you get old in life
things get taken from you.
That's, that's part of life.
you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game
life or football
the margin for error is so small.
I mean
one half step too late or to early
you don't quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast
and you don't quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us
to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know
when we add up all those inches
that's going to make the fucking difference
between WINNING and LOSING
between LIVING and DYING.

I'll tell you this
in any fight
it is the guy who is willing to die
who is going to win that inch.
And I know
if I am going to have any life anymore
it is because, I am still willing to fight, and die for that inch
because that is what LIVING is.
The six inches in front of your face.

Now I can't make you do it.
You gotta look at the guy next to you.
Look into his eyes.
Now I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you.
You are going to see a guy
who will sacrifice himself for this team
because he knows when it comes down to it,
you are gonna do the same thing for him.

That's a team, gentlemen
and either we heal now, as a team,
or we will die as individuals.
That's football guys.
That's all it is.
Now, whattaya gonna do?"

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Japan Endures: Three Months On

Shigetsuden Buddha, Shuzenji
Few countries could endure a disaster the size of a magnitude 9 earthquake, but Japan has had some experience. In 1945, after the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Emperor Hirohito called on the Japanese people to “endure the unendurable, bear the unbearable.” Three months on from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Japan is still struggling with the unbearable.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government has been trying to defeat the tsunami's hydra of misfortune, but it's come close to imploding rather than uniting for the sake of the country. Backstabbing foes like Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama are doing their best to undermine Kan's leadership, while the average Japanese is sick to the teeth with these petty power grabs. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant, has been doing a miserable job on all fronts. The plant is still emitting radiation and Tepco has failed to keep the public informed about the levels of toxicity, jeopardizing the health of citizens and the economy of the region.

Shuzenji Temple Daruma
Recently, Tepco doubled the amount of radiation released by the plant in the days after the March 11 tsunami, admitting they were initially negligent or lying. Why the government hasn't taken over responsibility for managing the crisis is a question more and more people are beginning to ask. Today, on the three-month anniversary of the quake, thousands of anti-nuclear protesters marched throughout Japan increasing pressure on the government to shut down more nuclear plants. Japan is running only 19 of the 54 reactors in operation before of the disaster. As summer approaches, the peak season for energy consumption, fears are being raised about serious power shortages.

Mount Fuji, Lake Yamanaka
But not all is doom and gloom. The Japanese have an expression, “gaman suru,” which loosely translates as “stoic perseverance.” The great Ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai, created his iconic series, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (富嶽三十六景, Fugaku Sanjūrokkei), and it includes images that have come to be identified with Japan itself. Despite all the different perspectives and locales, Mount Fuji appears as an immovable and stoic force in each painting of the series, an ever-present reminder of nature’s resilient continuity. Today, Fuji encapsulates the “gaman suru” spirit more than ever.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami-ura 神奈川沖浪裏)

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Velvet Underground: Loaded

"She started dancing to that fine, fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll"
From little things big things grow. It's often been said that the Velvet Underground had barely enough fans to fill the legendary New York cabaret, Max's Kansas City, yet anyone who heard them immediately started their own band. VU's fourth album, 1970's Loaded, sounds almost tepid compared to the sturm and drang of The Velvet Underground & Nico or White Light/White Heat, but it alone has been more of a catalyst for spawning millions of indie bands than those fabled epics.

After years spent toiling in the silvery shadow of Andy Warhol's Factory, Lou Reed abandoned any inhibitions about crafting bright, exuberant pop and let himself go on such audiogasms as "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll."

Some people, they like to go out dancing
And other peoples, they have to work, just watch me now!
And there's even some evil mothers
Well they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
Y'know that, women, never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes, woo!
And that, y'know, children are the only ones who blush!
And that life is just to die!
"Sweet Jane" could put goosebumps on the most jaded of hipsters, Frank Zappa & the Mothers included (ok, maybe not Frank, but you get the idea). From Stanislaw Zagorski's cover art of a lurid, pink cloud wafting up from a subway, to the dizzy heights of Sterling Morrison's guitar solo on "Oh! Sweet Nuthin,'" Loaded traverses both heaven and hell in the flash of a New York minute.

With John Cale's screeching viola long gone, Loaded is stuffed with more melody and sugar than anything that preceded it. There are diversions into rodeos ("Lonesome Cowboy Bill"), Shelley Winters ("New Age") and mud wrestling growls ("Head Held High").

Apart from "Sweet Jane," "I Found A Reason" has always been a personal fave. An alternative take on doo-wop, the quaalude refrain is enough to slow any amphetamine-driven soul. When Lou begins speaking I'm still not sure whether to laugh or cry:
Honey, I found a reason to keep living
And you know the reason, dear it's you
And I've walked down life's lonely highways
Hand in hand with myself
And I realized how many paths have crossed between us
"Hand in hand with myself"? It's that sense of awe - awkward and raw - that lends Loaded the odd plumage it deserves. It was my very first introduction to Lou Reed and pointed me towards Patti Smith, the New York Dolls & the Ramones. And you know, my life was saved by rock & roll...

Friday, June 03, 2011

Hong Kong Vs. China: A Restless Truce

June 4th is the twenty-second anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. A Candlelight Vigil is held every year at Hong Kong's Victoria Park to commemorate it, the only place in all of China free to hold such an event.

The Forbidden City, Beijing
The vigil has always irked Beijing and they've tried for years to undermine any sign of "subversion" in Hong Kong. Authorities have deployed an old party trick: accuse someone of straying from the official line and shady figures emerge from the shadows to shuttle the poor sod away. It's a favorite tactic used by regimes currently darkening corners of the globe such as Burma (Myanmar), Uzbekistan and North Korea. What they share, apart from gross human rights violations, is a thriving relationship with China.

The Great Wall
In the "Middle Kingdom" the politics of vilification enjoys a long tradition. Anyone or anything that's perceived to threaten the government is quickly branded as counter-revolutionary. It happened with deadly precision during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 when even esteemed cadres were not immune. Former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, vanished twice, once in the late 60s and then again in 1976 after the death of Premier Zhou Enlai sparked the protests known as the Tiananmen Incident.

It happened again during the prelude to the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre when the student protests were growing. The Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, published an editorial accusing a "small number of people with ulterior purposes" of stirring up student unrest, of being counter-revolutionaries and creating turmoil. This effectively sealed the fate of the organizers and as a result, hardened their resolve to demand concessions from the government. The editorial is generally regarded as a major cause of the stalemate that arose between the students and the government, eventually causing the massacre and the subsequent purging of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Zhao Ziyang with present-day Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, Tiananmen Square, May 19, 1989
As with the events of Tiananmen, Beijing is currently displaying increasing hostility by using trumped-up accusations to silence dissent. The list is long and includes Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lui Xiaobo and internationally acclaimed artist, Ai Weiwei.

"Marble Arm" by Ai Weiwei (courtesy of Galerie Urs Meile)
This form of government terrorism threatens regional stability. As the lessons of World War II prove, a country that deprives its own citizens of human rights will disregard the rights of others. While Hong Kong enjoys more freedoms than the mainland as a result of its status as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and "one country two systems" policy, Beijing has succeeded in tightening the noose in ever subtle and nefarious ways.

"Running Dog" Martin Lee with Nancy Pelosi
A few years ago, Beijing engaged in a so-called "patriotism campaign" to discredit the democratic movement. Martin Lee, the founding Chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, came under fire from Xinhua, the Beijing government's mouthpiece, which demonized Lee as a "traitor." The China Daily, the Communist Party's English newspaper, also chimed in to attack Lee as a "running dog of colonialists." Lee's family was also targeted. Government officials in Beijing lashed out at his late father, noted Kuomintang (KMT) General Li Yin-wo, also denouncing him as a traitor. Lee's father resisted the 1941-1945 Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, as well as the communists. He's widely regarded as a hero, an embodiment of virtue and a prime example of what differentiates Hong Kong from mainland China. For how long this difference can survive is up to the vigilance of patriots like Lee.