» THE DEFINITION OF SCARY: China’s Cancer Villages (癌症村, Aizheng Cun)

by Brian Awehali

I woke up this morning and considered going outside. Lately, I have been avoiding the outdoors here in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, because I fear the industrial haze and the cough I seem to develop whenever I spend more than a few hours out and about. There are ominous smells here: acrid metallic clouds of gas with something like formaldehyde that have me breathing as shallowly as I possibly can when I pass through them.

Despite this, last night I was reconsidering my aversion to the Chinese outdoors, wondering if I was being paranoid. Sunlight is still moderately healthy. And after all, I drink heavily filtered water, wash any fresh vegetables I buy several times (they recommend using diluted bleach as well, but I refuse to trade one poison for another), and I live, sleep, run and work out in a heavily insulated building with industrial grade air filters going 24/7.

I also drink lots of coffee, which I seem to remember reading somewhere renders me all but impervious to cancer.

But then, after my coffee, any anticarcinogenic confidence I had evaporated when I sat down to check email and a friend of mine had forwarded on a ghastly article entitled “Made in China: Cancer Villages,” by Lee Liu, from Environment Magazine. The article goes into great depth about China’s unprecedented levels of cancer and the “grow first, clean up later” approach to industrial development driven largely by the forces of economic globalization.

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» CONSIDERING ZOMIA: Elevation & the Art of Not Being Governed

by Brian Awehali

Last year, while traveling in East Asia, I read a fascinating book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott, a professor of Agrarian Studies at Yale University.

Scott’s book is essentially about  a  very large number of intentional Southeast Asian maroons or refugees–Zomians–and the book is making me re-think a lot of things, about the normal “advance of civilization” narrative and all that it assumes, presupposes, and omits. It’s also made me rethink my understanding of nation-states to include the surprising importance of elevation.

Tibetans are Zomians. They are are, as I think almost everybody knows, long-term resisters against the Han Chinese empire. The Tibetans are fierce and lovely people who wish not to be told where or how to live. Their monks are known for many things, including sparking militant protest, as they did in March 2008 in Lhasa (elevation: 11,450ft) :


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» ART & FREEDOMS: Half a Day with Chinese People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

by Brian Awehali

[This is a continuation of my post, “The Corpse Walker: Liao Yiwu’s Notes from China’s UnderclassTo read my long-form profile of Liao, “Drift to Live,” click here. To read recent (July 2011) updates about Liao’s departure from China and his subsequent asylum in Germany, click here.]

Excerpts from “Massacre” (by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wen Huang)

Dedicated to those who were killed on June 4, 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

A massacre is happening
In this nation of Utopia
Where the Prime Minister catches a cold
The masses have to sneeze to follow
Martial law is declared and enforced
The aging toothless state machine is rolling over
Those who dare to resist and refuse to sneeze
Fallen by the thousands are the barehanded and unarmed
Armored assassins are swimming in blood
Setting fire to houses with windows and doors locked
Polish your military boots with the skirt of a slain girl
Boot owners don’t even tremble
Robots without hearts never tremble
Their brain is programmed with one process
A flawed command
Represent the nation to dismember the constitution
Represent the constitution to slaughter justice…

Liao Yiwu, 2010. Photo by Brian Awehali

[Earlier this year] we joined Liao and two writer friends he’d shared imprisonment with for tea. Liao was sturdy and bald, his skin ruddy with black rimmed glasses, wore flowing linen pants and navy flip flops which displayed several blackened toenails, and he walked with a limp. I’ll call the other two PB and RG: PB, who said he had eaten much more bitterness in his life than Liao and suffered much more greatly than him, had a typical black bowl cut, glasses, pasty white skin and a shirt tucked into a belt that said “Playboy” on it over the bunny icon. He said that he wrote about his stories of being in prison every day, and that altogether he had been in for seven years. The other one, RG, who said that it was hard to describe what he writes about, had longer hair down to his ears, was pudgy with rimless glasses and wore a plaid shirt. Of the three, RG smiled the most and spoke the least.

We talked about things like Twitter in China. You can say a lot more in 120 Chinese characters than you can in 120 English characters, and Twitter is used for more overtly political purposes in China, to get around the Great Firewall, and less for inane things about where someone’s eating or what someone’s wearing. We also talked about the difficulties of publishing in China. PB had written many stories about his prison experiences, but was resigned to just sharing them with friends and family because he didn’t think he would ever find a publisher; Liao is only published by overseas presses.

At one point Liao said that Chinese view the government as the police. When I asked about Chinese anarchists, Liao replied that all smart Chinese were anarchists (“no government people”) because the government just took their money and land and enforced rules and laws. They were just the police, and didn’t care if the people were hungry or not. I asked about this because I was just then reading Yale Agrarian Studies professor James C. Scott’s excellent book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland East Asia, which details how between 80 and 100 million people in East Asia fled the Han Chinese state and took to the hills (“shatter zones”) to be self-determining over the past few centuries. This includes Tibetans, the Wa, the Kachin, the Lahu and a staggering range of other East Asian “hill peoples.” I’m not positive, but given our linguistic challenges, Liao was probably characterizing “smart Chinese” as more anti-authoritarian than anarchist, but was nonetheless making a deeper point about power than can be got at by conceiving of things in terms of so-called “capitalism” or “communism.”

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» UNDER THE ETERNAL SKY: Mongolia’s Wilderness and People Threatened by Mining Boom

by Brian Awehali

An article I wrote based on my travels in Mongolia was published in Earth Island Journal, then subsequently picked up by the Guardian, and I cordially invite you, dear reader, to check it out.

Mongolia today is the least densely populated country in the world (Antarctica doesn’t count; it’s “just” a continent). It is home to a staggering array of largely untouched natural splendors, as well as some of the last traditional nomadic peoples and wild horses on earth. It’s also home to the largest mining boom in history, and despite projections that the boom is expected to triple or quadruple the size of Mongolia’s economy in the next five years, times are tough for most Mongolians, and the relationship between the country’s great natural resources and the wealth of its people is still to be determined. What’s clear is that the actual land and 3 million people of Mongolia will never be the same.

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» GOLDEN HOURS THOUGHTS IN TAGONG (LHAGONG), TIBET

by Brian Awehali

These days, urban China is made of people, cars, and ubiquitous green scaffolding and yellow-orange cranes flying the red Communist Party flag over construction sites. Everywhere you look, edifices of glass, concrete and stone predominate. By day, construction; through the night, construction. It stops for nothing, not even torrential downpours so heavy that the cab of the crane can’t be seen from the ground.

In western Sichuan, the rains have fallen particularly hard this year, causing floods and mudslides that have killed several dozen people and blocked key roads.

One of those key roads is the one that takes you from Chengdu, where I’ve spent most of my time in China, to Lhasa, the epicenter of Tibet, which is just now laboring under its 59th year of Chinese occupation. It’s rugged country, and the Tibetans are rugged people, accustomed to harsh conditions and high elevations.

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» THE CORPSE WALKER: Conversations with China’s Lower Strata

by Brian Awehali

This is the first of several posts on LOUDCANARY about Liao Yiwu. To read my long-form profile of Liao, “Dangerous Words,” click here. To read recent (July 2011) updates about Liao’s departure from China and his subsequent asylum in Germany, click here. 

When we arrived by cab at the train station, as instructed, Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) met us in a black car driven by a friend and took us to a riverside tea house, where several of his friends were already drinking tea and eating fried Sichuan peppers. We talked for hours, then ate and drank for several more before the musical instruments came out…

Liao Yiwu’s primary importance lies not in what he says, but in the stories of countrymen he collects, which paint a vivid people’s history of China, a country eager, and engineered in many ways, to forget its past. Many college students do not know about the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, to take one prime example of this willful (and highly orchestrated) amnesiac tendency. In his work, Liao focuses on the diceng (底层)or “bottom rung of society,” a concept hated by both supporters of Mao’s “communist” revolution and the current PRC, as well as by many Chinese people for whom the concept of “face” (mianzi, or 面子) — looking good and having status and, in this case, not making China look bad to the laowai (老外, or foreigners) — is all-important. In an only theoretically classless society, people are reluctant to speak of beggars, thieves, drug addicts or those in poverty, even if their presence is glaringly obvious.

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» THE U.S.-CHINESE MINING RACKET IN AFGHANISTAN

by Brian Awehali

On a recent trip to Mongolia, I found the place filthy with miners. I rarely come into contact with people in the mining industry, but I often read about their exploits, usually in the Wall St. Journal, The New York Times, and The Economist. So much of global politics is about competition for resources that I’ve always thought it was wise to pay attention to the aims and strategies of those tasked with acquiring and processing them. I definitely want to know what a mining executive thinks about political and economic realities, for the same reason I read the business press.

On the flight into Ulaanbaatar, I sat next to a Canadian miner employed by an Australian company, who was in the Gobi helping to set up a copper mine. He told me lots of interesting things about transnational mining companies doing business in the region. It’s mostly Chinese, Russian, Korean and French companies, and selling what’s under the ground is basically the only real business in Mongolia, though they’ll be happy to sell you a cashmere sweater or a variety of felted wool products as well:

On my flight out, I sat next to an American mining executive on his way from gold mining in Mongolia to an oil drilling gig in Kazakhstan. This second executive talked a lot about the backstory of the mining business, about corruption and bribery, and he claimed that “risk averse” U.S. and European mining companies were losing out in the resource wars. He spoke of some sordid realities of the mining business and shared stories about Nigeria, Mexico and… Afghanistan.

Afghanistan? Did the U.S. have mining operations in Afghanistan? Not exactly. But were we in the mining business in Afghanistan? Absolutely, in a manner of speaking.

“Oh yeah,” the mining executive said, leaning in confidingly: “The Chinese just won the largest copper mining bid in the world after bribing a bunch of Afghan officials, but that’s not even the worst part.” He paused for dramatic effect, then continued: “The worst part is that it’s the U.S. providing military protection for the Chinese to do it!”

Interesting. Once I got back, I started looking into U.S-China-Afghanistan relations, and found that this guy was basically speaking the truth: Continue reading