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Hire China's Princelings, Lucrative Contracts Follow

Last May, according to a report by the New York Times, JPMorgan Chase received a request from the antibribery unit at the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The company complied, providing information on the hiring of Zhang XiXi. In August, the company disclosed it had also provided information on a second hire, that of Tang Xiaoning.

Why were these Chinese employees of interest to the SEC? Both are the children of current or former high-ranking Chinese officials. These types of hires, and there are scores of them across Wall Street banks, are the focus of a current SEC investigation into whether or not US banks have been offering “princelings”—the sons and daughters of China’s ruling elite—jobs or contracts in direct exchange for business.

Doing so would be in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a 1977 federal law that forbids US companies from offering a long list of items, from cash to plane tickets to parties to gifts, to a foreign official in exchange for business.

China Ramps Up Intimidation of Media

East of the Lama Temple in Beijing sits a typically imposing building just off a busy corridor. It is the entry-exit office of the Public Security Bureau (PSB). A multi-storied, cement building with sharp angles, it is as warm and fuzzy as Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. This is where all foreign journalists must submit their J-1 visa renewal applications annually. And where, this year, reporters from the New York Times first realized they might have a problem.    

North Korea Rattles Nuclear Sabers

When North Korea’s Kim Jon-un recently proclaimed that South Korea was the nuclear-capable dictatorship’s next target, the people in South Korea’s capital city let out a collective yawn. Yet Seoul lays a mere 30 miles from the North’s battle-ready garrisons, just on the other side of the demilitarized zone—that narrow swath of land that has divided the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

But while that divide may separate the two geographically, many in the democratic south consider that the strip of land is transcended by the ancient blood relationship that joins the two sides. One expert told me, “They are our blood brothers.” And that is one of several reasons why many here believe that, in spite of the bluster and even the occasional armed confrontation, their North Korean kin will never follow through on Kim’s bellicose threats.

Can China's Toxic Air Clear a Fog of Lies?

Last week the air in Beijing was so toxic that officials forbid school children from playing outside. Pharmacies sold out of protective masks. Emergency rooms hit capacity day after day with coughing Chinese complaining of respiratory problems, itchy eyes, and blurred vision.

At its worst the AQI, or air quality index, as measured by the US Embassy, hit 755. Elsewhere in northern China, the government’s own readings (based on a similar AQI index scale) climbed even higher. Online reports coming in from Hubei Province cited numbers as high as 900 or even 1,000. Neither the US nor the Chinese AQI index has a description or warning for pollution that is above 500. When it was designed, the idea that pollution would ever get that bad was unthinkable. But according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a reading of 301 or greater triggers a health warning of “emergency conditions.”

Journalist Rebellion in China

Last week in China I saw an extraordinary thing captured on video by the New York Times. One of several hundred protesters outside the gates of the Southern Weekly compound in Guangzhou loudly called for the freedom of expression. “They have all the power!” He shouted, “They control what the paper reports!”

His facial expression struck me as anxious. At times his eyes darted from the left to the right as if he feared he might be reprimanded, arrested, or beaten at any second. Such action would not be a surprise in China, where police brutality—particularly as punishment for confronting the government—is the norm. Still, he continued, “Censorship! It kills stories that should be printed!”

The man was protesting in support of journalists at the Southern Weekly. The newspaper is known for aggressive reporting, exposing government corruption and social injustice in China and resisting censorship imposed by the Central Propaganda Department.

Educating China's Migrant Children

Drive far enough outside of Beijing and the signs of breakneck growth appear fewer and farther between. Instead of soaring skyscrapers and construction on every other block, there are one-story buildings. Outside, street vendors huddle on sidewalks and in wind-swept alleys. The odd electric bike, laden high with random goods haphazardly perched precariously high, quietly passes by. Public buses are intermittent.

This is the Daxing District, a southern outpost of Beijing and home to the Dandelion School, a unique haven for the children of migrant workers. It is also where the myth that the Chinese government has solved its population problem meets reality.

Hope Fades as Self-Immolations Rise in Tibet

From the outside it would appear that China pulled off a seamless transition of power. On November 15th China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, strode confidently out onto the world stage. In his first public remarks as the anointed head of China’s Communist Party, he denounced corruption and vowed to work for the people. Behind him the six new members of the Standing Committee, the governing body that essentially rules the country, stood at attention wearing dark suits and dull, thin smiles.

But on the inside, and far off the front pages, turmoil is intensifying in Tibet. Self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule now constitute, as Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “one of the largest such phenomena anywhere in the world in recent memory.” 

Chinese Debate America’s Next Leader—and Their Own

I watched Monday night’s presidential debate in Beijing with a young colleague who is a Chinese national. Xiao Kaijing is 26 years old and typical of a successful, young, female professional here in that she graduated from university, landed a good job with an international company, and aspires to own her own home one day. Her mother nags her constantly by asking, “Why aren’t you married? Why can’t you just get married?” But for Xiao Kaijing, marriage, even dating, takes a backseat to pursuing her career and living her 20s in the fun and fast-paced city of Beijing.

We listened together as Governor Romney said, “China has an interest that is very much like ours in one respect and that is they want a stable world … they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open.”

“Free and open?! China wants the world to be free and open, ha!” said Kaijing.

China’s Nobel Complex

If you happened to be watching the 7 p.m. broadcast on Beijing’s CCTV Thursday evening, you witnessed a notable first. China’s state-run news network proudly announced that the mainland writer, Mo Yan, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was recognized for his contribution in fiction, including the internationally acclaimed novels Red Sorghum and Big Breasts and Wide Hips.  

Since then, newspapers across China, including those considered to be a mouthpiece for the government, have trumpeted the win. It is the first time a Chinese writer living in China has won the prize.

But it is not the first time a Chinese national living in China has been recognized by the Nobel committee. In 2010, the political activist Liu Xiaobo won the prize for human rights—for, in the committee’s words, “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu had co-authored the “Charter 8”petition in 2008, which took aim at the Communist Party and called for democracy in China. The following year, a Chinese court sentenced him to 11 years in prison for subversion.

China's Summer Davos: The Elephant in Tianjin

I imagine the roster of RSVPs for this year’s confidently titled “Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2012” in Tianjin, China is daunting for even the most preeminent global thinkers. The event is one of several offspring of the World Economic Forum’s premier event, Davos, named after the Swiss ski resort where it is held each year. A so-called “summer Davos” or “mini Davos” has been held annually in Tianjin since 2007. It is the most successful of the spin-offs, in no small part because it is held in China, the country with the world’s second-largest economy, and offers attendees a chance to swap ideas with their Chinese counterparts.

At any given time, one might wander into a panel session to find “new champions” discussing, debating, and frankly dishing on the world’s socioeconomic landscape. It’s the sort of place where one might bump into someone like the prolific columnist Tom Friedman, wearing his backpack and wandering the halls as if he’s a college freshman searching for the right lecture hall on his first day on campus.

China's Trial of the Century a Mystery to Its Citizens

This week a verdict was reached in what is arguably the Chinese government’s most dramatic, and damaging, court case in decades. But the average Chinese citizen has no idea.

Not since the “Gang of Four” was put on trial in November of 1980 for attempting to overthrow the government has there been a similar case of national interest, or what should be of national interest. Where the trial of the Gang of Four was about wrongs righted, this case carries the potential to shed light on corruption at the very highest levels of the current Chinese leadership.

And yet the “suspended death sentence” the Hefei Intermediate Court handed Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, fell flat here in China. For all the racing heart rates of the Western press, for all the twittering on China’s microblogs, and for all the scholarly discussion taking place around the world, the average Chinese citizen did not know the trial was taking place.

That’s a shame for two reasons.

China's Gold Fever Heats Democracy Talk

It was wrenching to watch. China’s Wu Jingbiao, 23, broke down on live television after competing in the men’s 56-kilogram weightlifting event (video here). In a live television interview with China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV he said, “I feel terribly guilty for disappointing my country, the Chinese weightlifting team, and all the people who supported me.” He paused to fight back tears. “I’m sorry!”

His profuse apology and obvious pain may have made at least some sense if he had failed in some spectacularly shameful way. But that was not the case. Wu won the silver medal. Yet for him it was a prize so far from gold that it called for self-flagellation.

Almost immediately in China, on microblogs and in state-run media, a debate began over whether Wu’s reaction was justified. The vast majority of responses conveyed two things: sadness for the distraught young athlete and anger at China’s national drive for gold at any cost.

Censoring Pollution in China

On a recent Sunday morning, I pulled back the curtains to peek outside and assess the air quality. “Great, just great,” I mumbled in defeat as I chalked up another weekend day lost to what we call “soupy skies” in our home. Even my 3-year-old is attuned to how the pollution in Beijing affects me. I can’t help it; enjoying the outdoors is part of my DNA. “Oh yuck,” my son says as he sees my shoulders slump. “It’s not a great day, huh Mom?” “We’ll make it one buddy,” I tell him.

I loaded my two boys into the double stroller to brave the 15-minute walk to an indoor play area. Walking out of our apartment building, I noticed it right away. Severe pollution looks like dirty fog and has its own scent; like hair burning. Within minutes, my eyes were slightly irritated with a subtle burning sensation. The boys didn’t seem to notice—no eye rubbing or coughing—so I pressed on.

This is not a story about polluted air in Beijing (at least not this week). This is a story about polluted information. But like many a sensitive topic here, ever the two shall meet, and in this case they do.

Could Movies Bridge the Gap in US-China Ties?

A visit to the Wanda International Cineplex in Beijing includes the following: glitzy movie posters heavy on promoting forthcoming actions films from the US and Hong Kong, a massive snack bar offering a Chinese take on American munchies such as sweet (but not salty) popcorn and bottles of full fat milk, nine theaters with enough space to fit 1,505 moviegoers in plush seats, and, last but not least, the films themselves—shown on massive screens (including Imax) with excellent audio. 

Ignoring the fact that every single film released in China must have the government’s stamp of approval and be suitably non-inflammatory (sorry, Sacha Baron Cohen, but you are not likely to be coming to a theater in China anytime soon), going to the movies in Beijing is a lot like going to the movies in any big American city. What is striking is that both China and the US are working hard behind the scenes to make that so. 

The Latest Twist: Chen to Attend University in US

BEIJING — Confusion has dominated the air in Beijing in the wake of Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape from police custody in Shandong Province, his period under the protection of the US Embassy in Beijing, and the delicate and intense negotiations on his behalf between American and Chinese diplomats.

After a week of fraught diplomacy and Hail Mary passes in the name of US-Sino relations, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sought to clarify things on Friday in Beijing. Addressing the topic for the first time since she arrived on Wednesday, she said the US was encouraged by the progress that had been made but, “there is more work to do.”  

A senior American official said that the secretary of state has been directly involved in negotiations. An agreement was reached just minutes before she took the stage to face reporters.

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