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Inside The Tibetan Village That Just Got On The Grid

This article was originally post on The WorldPost. To read the original and see more photos click here.

WENPING VILLAGE, China — Rinchen Gyaltso sits in front of his stockpile of firewood, quietly muttering prayers while running his thumbs over wooden beads. His vision is fading and he can hardly see past the edge of the porch just a few meters in front of him, but his memories of life in Wenping stretch back eight decades. He has overthrown local landlords and served in the army, suppressed rebellions and directed collectivized farms.

And now, at 84 years old, he can finally turn on a lightbulb during the day.

Tashi Namyak in his home in Wenping Village.

Over the summer, the state-run power company hailed this cluster of villages as the last in Sichuan province to get hooked onto the electrical grid. After years of making do with a local hydro generator that only eked out some electricity after sunset, farmers in Wenping and neighboring villages finally took this baby step into the 21st century.

Provincial newspapers waxed poetic on the wonders of bringing electricity to the last villages of the highlands — an “epic engineering project” that marked a “major event in the historical progress of Sichuan.” Progress, yes, but the kind that shows just how slowly three decades of breakneck economic growth in China have trickled down to these remote corners of the country.

A woman spins a prayer wheel in Wenping village.

Sichuan province, in southwest China, borders Tibet, and at last count was home to just over 80 million people. The provincial capital of Chengdu is a modern city with world-renowned cuisine and a burgeoning tech scene. But roads heading west from the city slowly wind their way toward the Tibetan high country, where oxygen and first-world amenities grow scarcer.

Wenping lies about 130 miles west of and over 9,000 feet above Chengdu. With mountain roads often closed, the drive can take over 12 hours — the final two on a molar-rattling dirt road that follows a stream up the valley.

A woman sews by the light of a window in Wenping village.

Pulling into Wenping, you’ll find a scene much like other villages across China. Men huddle in deep squats smoking cigarettes. Middle school kids yell “Kobe” while swishing (or air-balling) fade-away jumpers. Livestock wander the lanes at will.

The Tibetan village’s intricately carved doors and lushly painted window frames set these homes apart from those in majority Han Chinese regions. So does the anemic supply of electricity.

In 1949, during the the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover, electricity consumption in the countryside was close to zero — equivalent to each person turning on a single lightbulb for about 50 minutes a year. Rural electrification gathered steam during China’s three-decade experiment with a government command-and-control planned economy, but it really took off with China’s industrial boom in the 1980s and ’90s. By 2013, 99.7 percent of the country’s population had electricity, according to China’s State Council.

A employee of the power company surveys the new power station near Er Dao Qiao village.

That’s impressive progress, especially compared to India’s 75 percent electrification rate. But it still left 3.8 million people — roughly the population of Los Angeles — in the dark.

While stadiums, high-rises and light shows in urban China guzzle electricity, Wenping and neighboring Er Dao Qiao village rationed what their small generator could gather from a babbling stream. The provincial power company publicly announced that this area was connected to the grid in early July, but during an August visit to Wenping and nearby villages, electricity access remained spotty during the day, apparently due to ongoing construction work. The WorldPost could not confirm statements by State Grid Sichuan Electric Power Company that every village in Sichuan province is now connected to the electrical grid. The company could not be reached for comment.

Despite lagging decades behind these metropolises in access to basic amenities, the village homes here are ahead of the curve in one department: propaganda posters. Around China, homes and restaurants often reserve a place of honor for an old framed portrait of the country’s founder, Mao Zedong. But in Wenping, many living room walls are plastered with several generations of Chinese leaders and the entire line-up of the current Politburo, all courtesy of the local Communist Party offices.

A woman making feed for pigs in Wenping village.

When discussing the new power lines, “the Communist Party is good” — a staple propaganda phrase featured in the hit 1950s song “Socialism is Good” — crops up frequently in conversation. The benefits of getting on the grid are cited repeatedly (“I can watch TV during the day”), but the question of why it took so long to get here doesn’t come up, at least not in the presence of an outsider.

Isolation has both spared this village the costs and denied it the benefits of China’s manic development model. With no industry and just one road, the valley boasts impossibly crisp air and a daily routine dictated by the sun’s movement across the sky. It’s a lifestyle that many Chinese urbanites say they aspire to but that almost none choose to adopt themselves.

Economic stagnation has also removed one of the greatest irritants in village politics: the constant seizure of farmers’ land for urbanization projects that meet development targets and fill pockets of officials. Conflicts over government compensation for seized land fuel tens of thousands of “mass incidents” — an expression the government uses to refer to everything from peaceful protests to strikes and riots — each year. But out here, where there are fewer lucrative contracts to win and no new highways to clear a path for, there’s just not as much worth fighting over.

Wenping village at nightfall.

With these immediate issues off the table, villagers’ attitudes toward the government are often based on political events of decades past. For Rinchen Gyaltso, the pivotal moment was when the Communist Party overturned the village hierarchy by deposing the landlords. (Tibetan names can be one, two or three words and do not follow a strict family-given distinction.)

“We were so happy,” he recalled. “Before we had no land, so we’d do the work and other people would walk away with the profit. They’d give you just a little bit of money. Those were tough years.”

When the Chinese Communist Party’s Red Army “liberated” villages, it would often encourage the peasants to persecute their former overlords. An enthusiastic recruit to the cause, Rinchen Gyaltso remembers some local landlords being beaten to death, and others being sent to brutal “re-education through labor” camps. He went on to enlist in the army, put down local revolts, and eventually work as a village official planning agricultural production.

“People from my generation have really deep feelings about the country’€™s opening up policy,” Lhagon said. “You young people just don’€™t have those same feelings.”

Lhagon, who was born in 1945, still remembers the abject poverty that drove people here to eat wild plants in search of sustenance. For him, the real turning point came when China shook off the shackles of Maoism and began liberalizing its economy in the 1980s.

“People from my generation have really deep feelings about the country’s opening up policy,” he said. “You young people just don’t have those feelings.”

In the villages today, young people are growing up on a tri-cultural diet. Tashi Namyak’s two children have left for school and work in Chengdu, but their posters still adorn the bedroom wall: Kobe Bryant, a Tibetan lama and embroidery of the Chinese character for “good fortune.” While village elders still spend much of the day spinning Buddhist prayer wheels, the introduction of limited electricity over a decade ago meant NBA games and Chinese TV shows came streaming in each night.

Local children in a Tibetan language class in Erdao Qiao village.

Phurpa Gyal studies at a local Tibetan-language high school, and he’s using the end of his summer vacation to give free classes in standard Tibetan. Most kids here will grow up speaking regional dialects of both Tibetan and Chinese. Pacing the classroom, Phurpa Gyal slaps his thigh while leading them in rhythmic chanting, alternating between standard Tibetan and the translation into standard Mandarin.

Those will be the languages employed if school or work draws them out of thisvalley.With job prospects limited in the valley, many of the kids imagine moving to nearby cities, or to Chengdu at the furthest.

Chinese leaders hope electricity and eventually e-commerce will hook China’s remote regions into the country’s massive economic engine. That would theoretically mean new markets for goods, and skilled jobs in the countryside that could take some pressure off China’s packed cities. It’s a nice thought, but one that seems far way for Wenping: At minimum, it would require widespread broadband access and a road that doesn’t abuse every car that travels it.

For now, the benefits of electrification are lower key: more light for cooking lunch and some entertainment for those slow afternoons.

“I haven’t traveled anywhere,” Rinchen Gyaltso said with a smile, “but I watch TV.”


Rinchen Gyalsto helped to “struggle” landlords in Wenping after the Communist Party takeover.

Anatomy of a Chinese Airport Rumble

(You can read my original Beijing Cream post here.)

It’s 8:40 pm on a Friday. We’re lined up at the China Eastern Airlines counter a full ninety minutes before takeoff, and I have everything I need for a great, just-quit-work weekend: passport, check; cleats, check; Frisbee, check; baijiu-Fanta mix, check. But just then, China decides to remind me where I am. Ahead of us in line, an argument begins to stew, froth, and bubble. The verbal combatants are an elderly couple, possibly from the countryside, and two overdressed, overly made-up, and apparently overconfident young women.

The initial dispute is over whether a luggage cart bumped into an ankle, but it gets ugly fast: one of the girls taunts the old man’s ability to speak standard Mandarin Chinese. Airline employees break up the verbal sparring as quickly as they can, but the tone for the evening has been set. At the counter, a friendly but frazzled attendant tells me my flight doesn’t yet have a gate, and I already have an idea of what I’m in for.

“Does that mean the flight is going to be delayed?”

“There’s no way to know right now. Just head through security, take a seat and wait.”



By 10 pm I’ve slumped into chairs around the corner from the China Eastern counter along with 30-plus fellow travelers to Ningbo. There’s a collective nervousness about the total lack of information, but a sense of safety in the knowledge that they wouldn’t leave withoutall of us. As the minutes tick by, most people have their eyes on the flight monitor, but mine keep wandering to the company whiteboard that sits upside down and untouched in the corner:

“Hello, today’s flight ____ to ____ has been delayed because of ____. We are very sorry for all inconveniences. This sign will be updated every five minutes.”

At 10:50 the television monitor makes its opening play: 32登机口. Gate 32. The news travels via murmur through our group, and we show detectable optimism as we head down the causeway. What greets us on arrival at Gate 32, however, kills that flicker of hope. The expansive gate is populated by a few men in cheap suits who are slumped creatively around the arms of airport benches.

Our group hasn’t sat for more than ten minutes when the flight monitor makes its second play: Gate 19. The number flashes for a minute before settling into a steady neon blue. Our fellow travelers, with their luggage and their discontent, now make their way back down to the far end of the terminal. Gate 19 forms a cul de sac at this end, and the geography matches the mood. As we sink into our seats, people begin fearing the worst and getting ready for the long haul. Instant noodles are purchased, playing cards come out, pillows are unpacked, and you get a moment to appreciate how good Chinese travelers are at settling in wherever they find themselves.

My frame doesn’t fit well on airport benches, so I abandon any expectation of rest and concentrate on worrying. A delayed flight is expected in China, but there’s something eerie about the ever-changing gates and the fact that they’re still advertising a 10:40 pm take-off at 11:45. The airport is fast emptying of staff, and our group hasn’t had contact with China Eastern employees since they were last seen two hours ago.

A few members of the group are dialing airport help lines when the television monitor makes another bold change. At 12:15 am, the monitor informs us that our flight will be departing from Gate 32… at 10:40 pm. Several passengers rise to the bait, but while we’re gathering bags, our collective angst turns into action. The group quickly coalesces behind some very vocal middle-aged women who have had enough. As they spout off, the loose gaggle of passengers transforms into a posse out for blood.

With the China Eastern desk long-since abandoned, the mob rounds a corner to find a break room where employees of another airline are eating Ramen. At this point, anyone wearing a uniform is deemed guilty by association. On the defensive, the workers deny any connection with our airline. Asked where the China Eastern people are, they reply, “They already clocked out.”

Fresh blood on a shark snout, that comment. The middle-aged women — we’ll call them the Aunties — are beside themselves and immediately pull out the big guns. “Everybody send out Weibos! Everybody send out Weibos!” Nervous anger and microblog posts begin to emanate out from our group. We demand that our two hostages contact China Eastern people, and we only leave when reports trickle in that our airline’s people are back at the counter.

Marching down the concourse for the third time, our posse is riling itself up for confrontation. As voices grow shriller, distinct sub-groups begin to emerge. At the front the Aunties are feisty and feeble at the same time. They’re dressed and hair-dyed in a way to showcase their (or their husband’s) moderate financial success. Creeping through their 50s, the three women appear to have channeled decades of quiet emotional suffering into indignation over the 800 meters they’ve been forced to walk tonight.

On the other hand, one of the words you keep hearing bounce around their conversation is “rights,” e.g., “consumer rights.” Now that’s something that’s rarely brought up in China (outside of CCTV’s exposes of “malicious” foreign firms), and it’s one that could use a little more play. Consumer rights in China are abysmal, with a company generally considered socially conscious if it doesn’t poison or outright defraud you. These Aunties’ tone may be shrill, but there’s a kernel of a legitimate complaint in there.

Behind them is a loosely assembled group of half a dozen young men. Nearly all wearing black jackets and tacky shirts, the guys look like the kind of people who hang out on street corners and try to sell you receipts or stolen Motorola Razrs. A Chinese person with strong regional prejudices might guess that the men were from Henan. We’ll call them the Goodfellas.

The rest of us are tag-alongs, sharing in the ire but unsure what to make of it. As we approach the China Eastern counter, now populated by three female employees, the Aunties’ wrath finds a target.

“Where the hell have you guys been? We’ve been marching back and forth for hours with no sign of what’s going on!”

“We’ve been here the whole time.” (Lie.) “And why have you been marching back and forth? The flight is delayed and departing from Gate 40.” (Infuriating, but interesting tact.)

As the employees persist with a combination of bald-faced lies and potential half-truths, the outline of our conflict takes shape. China Eastern’s position is that after a brief delay in information, the flight has consistently been set to depart from Gate 40 once the plane arrives. Our claim that monitors have been displaying a revolving stream of gates is met with absolute denial from the employees: the monitors have always displayed Gate 40.

This unfortunate employee has wandered in past her depth here, and she realizes she’s in trouble when the Aunties, Goodfellas, and tag-alongs cry out: “TURN AROUND!” “LOOK AT THE GOD DAMN SCREEN BEHIND YOU!” “READ ME WHAT IT SAYS ON THE MONITOR!” Oohhh. That’s going to be a tough one to wriggle out of, so the woman takes a bold stand: she will not turn around and look at the screen.

Cue: Frenzy Feed.

Everyone gets in on the action, with even the most reserved members of the posse spewing venom across the counter. Company policies are being cited, compensation is being demanded, and someone’s character is being called into question. Camera-phones are snapping pictures of faces, name tags, and television monitors. Cornered and argumentatively crippled, the woman calls for reinforcements in the form of a mid-level manager.

When back-up arrives, it is calmer, friendlier and about 125 pounds heavier. The man appears to be in his early 30s, and has probably sat through a few graduate classes on customer service. His hair is dyed and styled to appear slightly more Western, and his healthy potbelly also takes after certain aspects of Americana.

A fresh perspective and some diplomacy buy the man time, but in the end he’s fighting a losing battle. The Aunties quickly work themselves into a frenzy, citing a litany of health issues aggravated by tonight’s regimen of waiting and walking. One with dyed red hair and a complexion to match begins pounding the counter and lecturing Mr. Middle-Manager on her high blood pressure.

The Goodfellas have taken up positions safely behind the Aunties, contributing nothing except a periodic “Yea! She said it!” and the occasional slander of someone’s mother. One member of the gang makes his first real foray into the debate by wadding up a newspaper and throwing it at the manager’s head. It’s a bullseye, granted one without a whole lot of force.

This is where our pudgy middle manager truly shines, if just for a moment. He bows his head, takes a deep breath and says, “You know what, respect goes both ways,” before plodding ahead with his analysis. Unfortunately his position in the argument isn’t proving quite so flexible.

“The flight has always been scheduled for Gate 40… No, I won’t turn around and look at the screen… No, there won’t be any compensation for you passengers. OK?”

The last rhetorical “OK” is uttered in English over his shoulder as he turns to walk away from the counter. The man doesn’t make it two steps before a half-full plastic water bottle sails out of the crowd, over my shoulder and directly into the left cheek of Mr. Middle-Manager.


The man turns on a dime and lunges at the counter as the Aunties retreat. His pudgy fingers grasp at the culprit, a darker man in a grey jacket who is smirking from a safe distance. Slowly awaking to the public relations disaster on their hands, two male employees grab Mr. Middle-Manager by the arms as their female co-workers whip out camera phones and snap pictures of the culprit. The better restrained the big man becomes, the bolder our water-bottle thrower grows. He steps up to the counter and wags fingers accompanied by curses in Mr. Middle-Manager’s face.

By this point there are enough camera-phone angles on the scene to accommodate a Matrix-style freeze-frame 360. Each side is hoping to gather evidence for the coming trial to be waged on Chinese social media.

Unfortunately, our manager isn’t doing his side any favors. His initial composure has given way to an elephant seal battle for male supremacy. In struggling to free himself for the offensive, the man exposes his ample belly. Pushed up against a wall he grabs for the only large projectile on hand: a metal stool. Cursing the stench of his assailants’ mothers’ reproductive organs, Mr. Middle-Manager lifts the stool for launch. Lucky for him, one of his co-workers manages to get a hand on it, deflecting the missile onto the counter. The China Eastern staffers hold tight as the aggrieved manager rages and wriggles. Weaponry and energy deprived, Mr. Middle-Manager contents himself with a purely verbal assault as he’s ushered away.

As China Eastern’s lone combatant is dragged off to a back office, some female employees have managed to get around the counter and directly photograph the water bottle thrower’s face. Soon the argument re-centers around the bottle thrower, the Aunties and a gaggle of female employees. By constantly upping the ante and baiting the employees, one cunning Auntie manages to get a woman to swear at her. They all immediately seize on the lone curse word, wagging their fingers in the face of the embarrassed woman who knows she’s slipped up.

The chaos has finally garnered the attention of a higher-up who comes down to fill the role of our fallen middle-manager. He takes a similar tack, apologizing and even bowing. But our impassioned defenders of customer rights are not to be so easily placated. Despite inciting the scuffle, both the Goodfellas and the Aunties are now demanding financial compensation and a direct apology from Mr. Middle-Manager.

As it becomes increasingly clear that neither of these will be forthcoming, most of the tag-alongs begin the slow walk down to Gate 40. Some time between 1 and 2 am, our 10:40 pm flight finally begins boarding. We take our assigned seats along with around a hundred other customers who somehow did get the memo on Gate 40. In the end, the final delay comes from the Aunties and the Goodfellas who defended their honor until the bitter end. They trickle onto the plane after half an hour, empty-handed but determined to give off the mien of victory. The Aunties’ conversations are dialed up four notches as they give a blow-by-blow retelling of the most exciting thing that’s happened to them in a decade. When the emotional hollowness of the conversation really starts to grind my gears I pipe up with a simple, “That’s enough, thanks.” It earns a stink face from an Auntie, but voices are lowered.

Four hours after our scheduled takeoff, China Eastern Airlines MU5177 gains speed down the runway and finally takes off into the black Beijing night.

A Day in the Life of China’s First Cyber Dissident

Why is Huang Qi the only activist optimistic about human rights in China?

(You can read the original post here.)

CHENGDU — It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Friday, and Huang Qi is knee-deep in the drudgery of defending villagers’ rights.

We’re driving south out of this steaming metropolis in southwest China, headed to a village restaurant slated for demolition to make way for high-voltage power lines. The family that owns the restaurant thinks the government is stiffing them on compensation. That’s where Huang comes in.

Huang is a talker, but his vocabulary is drastically different from that of China’s other prominent human rights defenders. He doesn’t discourse on the nature of freedom; he rarely mentions the constitution or the inviolable dignity of the individual.

As the high-rises give way to corn fields, Huang is quizzing villagers about the compensation per square meter of the restaurant. He’s explaining the government permits required to carry out a legal demolition. He’s weighing the appraisal of fruit trees. He mentally catalogues each answer, assessing the government’s compensation package and what can be done to increase it.

Huang Qi takes in reports of government land seizures and state violence from around China.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANHuang Qi takes in reports of government land seizures and state violence from around China.

“Democracy is great; elections are great. But in China you need to work on very practical things when you’re working on this stuff,” Huang said. “Democracy is an action — not something that comes out of your mouth.”

Huang has been waging a campaign to protect the interests of China’s dispossessed for 17 years — eight of which he spent in prison. After working for more than a decade in manufacturing and business, in 1998 he created a site exposing human trafficking and then started China’s first domestic human rights web site. Two years later he became the first known “cyber dissident” to be jailed in China for online activity. Released in 2005, Huang went right back to human rights work. In 2008 he was rewarded with another three-year jail stint for reporting on how shoddy construction of a school led to student deaths following an earthquake.

Now 52 years old, Huang maintains many of the mannerisms of a Chinese factory owner. He chain-smokes cigarettes and relishes a good deal — or a good fight. When not fielding phone calls from aggrieved citizens, he is coaching farmers on how to resist forced demolitions and squeeze more compensation out of local officials.

Guo Yingliang, a farmer who has protested over compensation on his seized farmland, holds up a certificate commending him as an "Excellent Communist Party Member." Three days after this photo was taken his wife, Wu Ping, was reportedly detained.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANGuo Yingliang, a farmer who has protested over compensation on his seized farmland, holds up a certificate commending him as an “Excellent Communist Party Member.” Three days after this photo was taken his wife, Wu Ping, was reportedly detained.

His website,, is a clearinghouse for the injustices that plague the bottom rungs of Chinese society: violent evictions, forced abortions, attacks by club-wielding thugs. The site has been blocked in China for a decade and a half, but Huang shrugs that off. He believes it’s still reaching its audience.

Higher-level government officials monitor Tianwang for tip-offs about corruption among local officials, Huang says. China’s leaders are in the midst of the most sweeping crackdown in decades on corrupt officials — and rival political factions. With fear gripping Communist Party cadres, the threat of publicity can be an effective deterrent for local despots.

“In China the law isn’t important — power is important,” Huang says. “The key is finding the methods that the government is most afraid of.”

Urbanization and nail houses

At the restaurant on the rural outskirts of Chengdu, Huang gives the owners a 30-minute crash course in negotiations and resistance: Demand to see all the government permits. Don’t allow any demolition before compensation is agreed on. If there’s violence, take pictures and immediately send them to Tianwang volunteers to put on the website.

Li Min and other Tianwang volunteers pick vegetables as a gift for Huang Qi.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANLi Min and other Tianwang volunteers pick vegetables as a gift for Huang Qi.

“Resistance gives you bargaining power,” Huang says. “Power produces respect.”

As he departs, the family that owns the restaurant loads the car down with bags of peaches from their trees.

Huang’s success in helping China’s poorest residents stand up to the Chinese state keeps his phone buzzing throughout the day.

“Hello… yes, this is Huang Qi… ok… look, send me this in a text message. Write the time, place, people and your phone number. Don’t include your own commentary, don’t curse the government — just write down what happened… If you can’t type then have a kid type it for you.”

Rural land seizures, both legal and illegal, have been the grease in the wheels of the largest wave of urbanization in human history. As China’s leaders flung sprawling networks of highways, high-rises and high-speed trains across the country, farmland has been acquired and repurposed en masse.

A "nail house" in the middle of a road in central China is finally demolished in 2012.CREDIT: STR/GETTY IMAGESA “nail house” in the middle of a road in central China is finally demolished in 2012.

Deals turning rice paddies into shopping malls are immensely profitable, but little of that profit reaches the land’s original inhabitants. Land seized by local governments is often resold to developers for dozens of times the compensation that farmers receive. In return for being kicked off their land and deprived of the only occupation they’ve ever known, farmers are usually given a lump sum payment or apartments in new developments.

Villagers who hold out for higher compensation sometimes end up living in “nail houses” — a Chinese term for the last building left standing after its neighbors have been demolished, like a stubborn nail that can’t be hammered flat or yanked out. Occupants of nail houses are often subject to the full gamut of intimidation and violence: bricks through windows, illegal detentions in “black jails,” and vicious attacks by armed gangs.

Huang meets a group of core Tianwang volunteers for lunch before visiting Yuan Ying, the proud resident of a “nail car.” Yuan, a 46-year old woman who used to work in a bread shop, refused the compensation offered for her home. After the building and subsequently the tent she lived in were toppled, Yuan bought a boxy van and parked it on her property. She now sleeps alone in the van amidst a vast sea of rubble.

Yuan Ying stands beside the car that she uses to block construction on the site of her former home.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANYuan Ying stands beside the car that she uses to block construction on the site of her former home.

Crushing corruption and dissent

Driving toward our last stop of the day, Huang proudly catalogues the local officials who have been thrown in jail after corruption exposés. China’s President Xi Jinping has pursued a two-track approach to squelching disobedience, simultaneously jailing huge numbers of corrupt officials and the very activists campaigning against corruption.

Most activists describe China as in the midst of a mounting crackdown on the pillars of civil society: independent media, activists and lawyers. That momentum culminated in the recent detentions of many well-known human rights lawyers, a move that some say marks the death knell for the rights defense movement.

Huang sees things very differently. He is one of the only high-profile activists who say the human rights situation in China is improving. He’s also one of the only activists who has spent more than a decade fielding phone calls from peasants who are having their land seized and their loved ones thrown in prison.

Scrolling through his website, Huang says he’s seen a dramatic drop in human rights abuses at the grassroots: violent evictions and illegal detentions. In 2013 the government abolished the dreaded “re-education through labor” system, a move that Huang says signals major progress.

Huang Qi visiting the area affected by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANHuang Qi visiting the area affected by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

But other activists are clearly dismayed about Huang’s claim that things were improving.

“This is a dangerous thing to say,” said Liu Feiyue, founder of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a prominent human rights web site. “It’s a lie that’s not based in reality.”

Liu has worked on civil rights issues for a decade and has been detained briefly by police. Earlier this year he described the human rights situation as the worst since 1989. Liu suggested Huang’s positive spin was rooted in hopes that “he could win favor with the government.”

Is this progress?

A more generous interpretation might point to how long Huang has been in the movement and just how bad things were when he began. One of the first major investigations by his website documented government officials profiting from forcing fishermen to undergo mandatory appendectomies. Other pieces detailed the brutal suppression of Falun Gong practitioners. When he began, without social media or web sites challenging government propaganda narratives, there were virtually no channels for individuals to air their grievances.

If Huang and his volunteers are currently trying to avoid confrontation with authorities, they’re not doing a very good job. Li Min, one of the leading citizen journalists documenting abuses for Tianwang, disappeared into police custody 24 hours after accompanying us on these home visits. Li’s husband had spent the previous three months in the hospital after he was brutally attacked by men armed with wooden clubs. (Local police hung up the phone when questioned about both cases.)

Other Tianwang volunteers are currently awaiting trial and subject to ongoing harassment of their families. Huang gives himself a 90 percent chance of spending another few years in prison.

Liu Zhizhong searches his wife, Li Ming, outside a prison on July 20th. Li was detained on July 18th and remains in custody on charges of "obstructing official duties."CREDIT: MATT SHEEHANLiu Zhizhong searches his wife, Li Ming, outside a prison on July 20th. Li was detained on July 18th and remains in custody on charges of “obstructing official duties.”

After one last visit to victims of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, we pile into the car and head back toward Chengdu. Over the course of nine hours and 200 kilometers (124 miles), we’ve visited four homes and one hospital, accumulating several gift bags of peaches, lettuce and green beans in the process.

Looking out the window as we fly down the highway, Huang reflects on the number of calls he gets and how things have changed since he began this work almost two decades ago.

“When the people take part in defending their own rights, that is the first step in a democratic movement,” said Huang. “You must have the people first.”

Proof That Chinese Grandparents are More Athletic Than You

(Here is a link to the same video on Youku)

BEIJING — No treadmills, no iPods and no sweat-wicking fabrics. No protein shakes, no hot yoga and no Fitbit. Armed with just jungle gym equipment and mind-boggling levels of physical fitness, these elderly Chinese people are putting on a showcase of human dexterity at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park.

temple of heaven park

This 86-year-old Beijing native ran his last marathon four years ago.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that few of them exercised seriously before retiring. In China, it’s common for people’s athletic lives to begin in old age, when their daily duties often consist of haggling over vegetable prices and watching the grandkids. When that’s finished, they hit the park to chit-chat and work up a sweat.

Almost every person captured in the video is retired and over 60 years old. The man on the ab roller at the start of the video? He’s 86 and ran his last marathon at 82.

Geng Zhi, shown swinging like Spiderman at 0:13 and torquing his leg behind his head at 0:56, is 67 years old and retired. He spent his working years on an assembly line at a car parts facility.

“Back then I didn’t exercise at all,” said Geng. “Who would have thought of exercising? If you had enough to eat and a place to live that was enough.”

temple of heaven park

Geng Zhi is 67 years old and has been exercising since retiring from his job at an auto parts factory.

Spry and with supple wrists, 80-year-young “Old Liu” (seen at 0:51) prefers to sweat it out on the ping pong table. He sends men a quarter his age scrambling from corner to corner, and celebrates slams with a fist pump. Originally hailing from impoverished Gansu province in western China, he came to Beijing at age 19 having never finished elementary school. At the time, the People’s Republic of China was just four years old, and Liu enrolled in a night school that granted him an elementary school degree after six months.

Old Liu’s relationship with ping pong has tracked with international affairs: He learned of the sport when Rong Guotuan became the first Chinese person to win an international sports championship in 1959, and Liu really began playing during “Ping Pong Diplomacy” of the 1970s, a series of international friendly matches between the U.S. and China that signaled a thaw in icy relations.

old liu ping pong beijing

“Old Liu” turned 80 this year but still slugs it out with young guns.

Back at Temple of Heaven Park, you won’t find Liu or the others using ear buds: Exercise is a fundamentally social phenomenon among China’s elderly. Grandmothers gather in parks at dusk for group line dancing routines, and old men chat as they take turns on the parallel bars. Private space is a rare commodity in cities, and cramped apartments drive both the young and the old out onto sidewalks, parking lots and parks, where they take advantage of every inch of public space.

Exercise equipment like that shown in this video can be found in most Chinese neighborhoods, with jungle gyms and metal exercise bikes offering the raw material needed to construct a workout regimen. Metal bars are the platform for some high-flying aerobics, but traditional Chinese beliefs about the need to balance one’s inner qi(“life force”) also have many aging athletes simply standing in one place and rubbing or hitting their limbs.

temple of heaven bar spin

The bars in Temple of Heaven Park play host to elderly acrobats.

Your personal trainer might question the science, but it’s hard to argue with the results: Despite rampant cigarette smoking, suffocating pollution and some ghastly food-safety scandals, China compares favorably with other upper middle income countries on life expectancy. At 75.2 years, China’s life expectancy currently lags only 3.5 years behind that of the U.S., despite China havingaround one-eighth of America’s per-capita GDP.

What those statistics don’t reveal is the organic joy and community vibes that emanate from these temples of public health in China’s parks. Monkey bars, concrete and a little bit of free time form the foundations of these communities that might beat the hell out of a nursing home.

That’s something to remember next time you’re strapping on your heart rate monitor, connecting it via Bluetooth to your iPhone, and driving to the gym to watch House of Cards while on the elliptical. You can do much more with much less — and right now, some Chinese grandparent probably is.



Why Young Chinese People Love Ultimate Frisbee’s Hippie-Go-Lucky Culture

ivan dope

(link to original piece on The Huffington Post)

BEIJING — These are not the Chinese athletes you’ve seen on TV, those scarily synchronized divers or the gymnasts plucked from preschools for their bone structure. The Ultimate Frisbee players running and diving all over these fields are too scrappy, too goofy and having way too much fun.

Ultimate Frisbee (often called just Ultimate as “Frisbee” is a trademarked brand) is growing in China, and 17 teams gathered here in Beijing for the national championship in late May.

The sport’s hippie-go-lucky slice of American culture has also migrated to China, and tournaments offer some grassroots cultural diplomacy. Many Chinese players have their first meaningful interactions with foreigners on the field — and at the after party. It’s an intoxicating gulp of fresh air for young people coming out of the stultifying Chinese education system.

The game resembles a mix of soccer and American football — you score points by catching the flying disc in the end zone — but without the tackling or stoppages in play. Competitions in China are self-officiated, with players resolving foul calls on the field.

The weekend Ultimate tournaments are 48-hour marathons of sweat, beer and social bonding. The co-ed teams cram onto overnight trains and converge on the host city. Games last all day Saturday, culminating in a dinner banquet and costume party. Sunday sees more games, a finals match-up and an awards ceremony.

The May contest served to crown the Chinese champion of Ultimate for 2015. Teams came from 13 provinces. Squads include graduates of local sports colleges, Chinese returning from university in the U.S., and Uyghur players from Xinjiang province. Many teams also feature foreigners, although the weekend’s rules limited the number of non-Chinese players on the field at any time. A team of graduates from the Tianjin University of Sport was a consistent favorite, but they faced a veteran Hong Kong squad as well as last year’s champion, Wuhan C.U.G.

selfie pic

Tournaments like this give the players a taste of what’s often lacking in the lives of Chinese youth — sports, dumb decisions and a chance to get weird.

If you’re a Chinese teenager with ambitions beyond a factory job, your high school life revolves around one event: the country’s college entrance exam, or gaokao (pronounced “gow-cow”). The test is sometimes likened to the SAT, but in reality there is no comparison. Thegaokao is an all-consuming black hole at the end of high school.

The two-day test is given once a year, and a person’s score is the sole criterion for most college admissions. High school seniors often study more than 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Some schools have hooked students up to IV drips during cram sessions and installed so-called suicide nets at dorms.

In the minds of many Chinese parents, the gaokao determines a child’s future. Succeed and you go to a top university, securing a place among China’s rising middle class (as well as a comfortable retirement for your parents). Fail and you’ll be working construction or other jobs serving the new elite.

warm up buttkickers

But that obsession with job security and status no longer sits well with 29-year-old Ivan Xu.

“F–k the job,” said Xu. “Just be good at what you love, become the best possible at it, and then you’ll be fine with the jobs and income.”

Words like that strike terror in the hearts of conservative Chinese parents. They might even have shocked Xu himself a decade ago. That was before he fell in love with Ultimate, founded the first team at his school, became one of the best players in the country, and started a bike journey around the world.

Growing up in a small city in central China, Xu was a short, shy kid. He stood just 4’10” when he started high school, and he was bullied for his size and poor grades. His parents run a dumpling restaurant. Xu threw himself into test prep for the last years of high school.

“I just studied, only studied,” Xu told The WorldPost. “I come from kind of a hard background — my parents are not rich. If I don’t study well, they don’t have any means to support me. … I don’t have another choice.”

Xu’s cousins working in the factories of southern China serve as a constant reminder of the way life’s path can be changed by a test score. For him, the hard work paid off. At the end of his senior year, Xu tested into a top-ranked university in the provincial capital of Wuhan.

leapord skin tights

Chinese college life is much less pressure-packed than high school. But after years of intensive test prep, many students lack hobbies or the habits of socializing. They end up sleepwalking through a bachelor’s degree on a diet of instant noodles and computer games. If they’re lucky, something — a romance, a sport, a trip abroad — shakes them out of their post-gaokao stupor.

Xu first encountered Ultimate in 2006 during his junior year of college. An English teacher from the U.S. schooled him in the basics, and at the end of the year the pair traveled to a tournament in Shanghai. For Xu, the weekend’s antics were eye-opening.

“It was crazy and something I hadn’t seen before,” Xu said. “These people seemed happy.”

Xu returned to the China University of Geosciences his senior year on a mission to spread the gospel of Ultimate. He started by converting a room of freshmen across the hall and anyone else whom he could grab (“I made all my friends play”). Together they founded a team: Wuhan C.U.G.

ivan fris

After graduating, Xu moved to southwest China, where he started a local pick-up game and worked a series of jobs. But his mind was never at the office.

“All I thought about was Frisbee so my boss didn’t like me,” said Xu.

He spent almost all of his earnings traveling to tournaments around the country. Chinese people associate suntanned skin with manual laborers and farmers, one reason why young men and women play so few outdoor sports. When Xu returned to his hometown with a tan, he’d make sure to come in at night so as not to lose face for his parents.

His travels eventually went international, taking him to tournaments in the Philippines and then Prague. A chance meeting with a Russian model at the Prague airport inspired Xu to study Russian. In Belarus for three years, he developed a working grasp of Russian and got the idea for his next project: biking and walking across every continent, promoting Ultimate along the way.


Last year Xu traveled around 14 European countries by bike and won a Latvian Ultimate championship along the way. Those exploits earned him a corporate sponsorship that is funding his current 1,000-mile journey across China. Along the way he puts on clinics and speaks at universities, hoping to shake students out of their obsession with job security. A U.S. trip is planned for this fall, followed by South America and India.

But on this May weekend, the goal is to repeat Wuhan C.U.G.’s championship run from last year. Xu has supplemented a core of C.U.G. alums with players from around China and a Cambodian all-star he met there on a trip to donate Ultimate discs. (This author also played with C.U.G. during the tournament.)

Saturday went as planned for the squad: C.U.G. won all four games, including a nail-biter against a Beijing team. After each game, the two teams cheered for each other and huddled together for a pep talk.

“Today we’re opponents, but next time we might be teammates. Let’s go, Chinese Ultimate!”

high fives

Sunday morning saw players trudging to the fields while nursing sore legs and hangovers from Saturday night chug-offs. As the championship bracket took shape, players on eliminated teams climbed into the bleachers to heckle their friends.

In the semifinals, C.U.G. faced the veteran Hong Kong team. Xu started the game off with fireworks, diving and snagging a long throw as it faded over his shoulder. But that grab proved to be the peak for C.U.G. An ankle injury sidelined Xu for part of the game, and the rest of the squad struggled to break through Hong Kong’s suffocating zone defense. Hong Kong won the game, earning a match-up against the Tianjin University of Sport grads in the finals.

With the grandstands filling up with players-turned-fans, organizers handed out the beer. The Tianjin team plays a fast-and-loose style ripe for highlight reels. Their athleticism proved too much for Hong Kong’s defense, and Tianjin took home the title.

As the victorious athletes drank out of the trophy cup, other players hugged it out and promised they’d see each other at the next tournament. The sun hit the tree line, and everyone loaded onto the tournament bus and then the trains and planes carrying them home.

liang zhuang crazy face


A Day in the Life of a Chinese Muslim Migrant Family

This piece documents a day at a small restaurant in my neighborhood run by the Mao family. To read the original piece on The Huffington Post click here.

 A Day in the Life of a Chinese Muslim Migrant FamilyDSC_4268

BEIJING — Fourteen-year-old Mao Baolong wears a goofy grin as he pinballs up and down the restaurant’s cramped aisle — taking orders and delivering bowls of noodles, taking money and returning change, taking dirty dishes and returning with a rag to whisk over the tabletop. It’s grinding work, but Baolong appears to be on the edge of a giggle, and the regulars love him for it. Ignoring the baby fat that still softens his features, some of them have taken to calling him shitou — “rock.”

The restaurant is a family business through and through, funded by family savings and operated by everyone. Baolong and his 19-year-old sister Mao Fangfang act as the wait staff, while their mother and father chop, fry, knead and boil the day’s offerings. A second sister, Yufang, works at a cousin’s restaurant nearby, but comes back after midnight to help close up.

Baolong and his family came to Beijing from their hometown in Gansu province, 900 miles to the west and a world away from life here in the capital. Gansu is a rural and rugged corridor that once hosted Silk Road traders shuttling spices and religion between China, Central Asia and Europe.

baolong mirror happy

Baolong peeks out from the restaurant’s kitchen. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
But today, interior provinces like Gansu pale in comparison with cosmopolitan coastal regions. Members of the Mao family have been traversing the country in search of work for decades, as have most of the 260 million migrant workers in China. The children’s father left home at the age of 15, traveling to neighboring provinces on construction jobs. Their mother was on the move at a young age as well, staying home in Gansu mainly around the years her children were born.

When Fangfang was 10, her parents deemed her mature enough to take care of her two younger siblings. She began cooking the family meals while her parents labored in distant cities. All three children dropped out during middle school (“I just couldn’t sit still,” explained Baolong), and they joined their parents in Beijing during the years most Chinese students would be in high school.


The Mao family is part of China’s Hui ethnic minority — Muslims who trace some of their ancestry to Persian and Arab traders on the Silk Road. While scrupulous in their avoidance of pork and alcohol, the family does bend certain religious dictates to the realities of running a business. They serve beer to their customers, and opportunities for prayer are scarce.

“We should be praying five times a day,” lamented Baolong’s father. “There’s just no time.”

family close

Baolong (left), Fangfang (right) and their parents in their restaurant. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
Time flies when you’re working 15 hours a day. Doors to the restaurant open around 11 each morning and close when the last patron calls it a night, usually around 1:30 a.m. It’s a grueling schedule, with the only benefit being that no one has time to reflect on how grueling it is. The family works 364 days most years, with the lone day of rest coming at the end of Ramadan. Like many Hui, the family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year, the one time of year when China’s churning economic engine sits idle.

Such thoughts are no help during the lunch rush, though. On Dec. 9, Baolong and his sister arrive at 11:22 a.m., two hours after their parents began work and about 15 minutes before the rush begins.

The restaurant’s patrons are primarily men who work with their hands: construction crews, delivery men and self-employed mechanics. Menu offerings are an Atkins adherent’s nightmare and a working man’s dream: large bowls of noodles and piles of white rice sprinkled with fried meat and vegetables.

The tables fill up, and orders echo off the walls. In the small kitchen tucked in the back of the restaurant, four family members move in an intricate choreography, handing off steaming bowls of noodles as flames dance around the wok.

Out front, Baolong laughs when the regulars tease him about his outfit (pleather on top and bottom, every day), and he dishes just enough back at them so they know he’s got it. Fangfang is quieter with the customers, but still commands the attention of her younger brother.

At 1 p.m., after an hour of unceasing activity, the restaurant empties just as suddenly as it filled up. Customers will drift in throughout the afternoon, but the next four hours will be the calmest of the day.

mom sleeping

Baolong’s mother sneaks in an afternoon nap to break up the 15-hour day. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)

As the midday crowd subsides, Baolong buries himself in cell phone games and Fangfang walks the one block back to the 12-by-12 room she shares with her brother. At night, both parents sleep on a cot nestled between the tables and the kitchen, and Baolong’s mother uses the afternoon lull to nap there while her husband and son handle any customers.

A Silicon Valley denizen might describe the Mao family as “serial entrepreneurs.” They’ve opened and closed about half a dozen restaurants in different cities. The current location is their third in Beijing. The previous two were bulldozed to make way for new construction, and this one will almost certainly meet the same fate.

“They say the neighborhood is gonna get torn down,” Baolong says. “If not this year, then next year. If not next year, then the year after that.”

Amid apartment towers and multistory buildings, the neighborhood is an anomaly in this part of Beijing — a two-block cluster of single-story dwellings that share walls and public restrooms. Narrow alleys between the shack-like homes open up onto small plots of total destruction: About a quarter of the homes in the area were bulldozed several years earlier by a developer who failed to finish the job. The caved-in structures now serve as open-air bathrooms and community gardens.

baolong in room

Baolong and his sister Fangfang share the one bed in this room a block from the restaurant. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
When the bulldozers reach the Maos’ latest restaurant, the family will likely pick up stakes and move to another location on the margins of Beijing society.


Working in the restaurant means the Mao children don’t have to worry about the punishing preparation for China’s college entrance exam. But they also lose any chance to hang out with kids outside their own family. Baolong had one friend in Beijing, the son of a local street sweeper, but the boy has now returned to his home village. Given a day off, Baolong says he would love to visit the Beijing zoo.

The world outside these walls filters in by way of the always-on television and talkative customers. Those are narrow channels, and glimpses of far-off countries produce more questions than answers.

“Do black people come from America?” one member of the family wants to know.

“Are American cartoons in English or Chinese?”

“So Americans don’t really believe in any religions, right?”

dad barbecue

Baolong’s father uses a hair dryer to prepare the barbecue coals. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
Fascinating as these questions are, the family has more pressing matters at hand. By 5:30 p.m. the restaurant begins to fill again with dinner customers and everyone is back at work.

Now Baolong gets to show off the two newest bullets on his resume: whipping dough into noodles and roasting lamb kebabs. The noodle strands he casts into the steaming cauldron are usable, but he can’t make the dough dance the way his father does. Trips to the outdoor barbecue mean braving the biting wind, and after he deposits the finished skewers, Baolong grips the room’s hot water pipes with both hands.

“When I first learned to barbecue, it’s all I wanted to do all day,” Baolong says with something between a smile and a grimace. “Now when I hear ‘kebabs,’ I just want to throw up.”

restaurant outside night

The restaurant on the night of Dec. 9, 2014. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)

By 11 p.m. the customers are thinning out, and Fangfang and her mother sit around a table, skewering lamb and mulling over the next few years.

“Back at home, a lot of girls my age already have their families setting them up for marriage,” says Fangfang.

Her mother recalls how girls were pressured to marry between ages 16 and 19 when she was growing up. She’s decided to be more lenient with her daughter.

“When our friends come by, they’re already starting to say, ‘I know a really good guy to introduce to your daughter,’” she says. “But she’s still only 19, and I don’t think she can handle that kind of responsibility. We’ll wait until she’s 20.”

Baolong still has a few years before marriage prospects enter the conversation. His earning potential will weigh heavily in those calculations. For now, he’s playing his part and learning the fundamentals of the family business.

“Of course we’d have liked him to stay in school a little longer, but that didn’t happen,” his mother says while pouring water over the kitchen floor. “Now he’s in a big city like this and we hope he can find out something about himself, find out what he can do.”

chuanr skewering

Fangfang and her father preparing lamb skewers. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
After midnight, Baolong’s other sister, Yufang, comes back from work at their cousin’s restaurant, and the family sits down together for the first time all day. They devour a massive plate of flat noodles and chicken, and the three kids clear the dishes, wipe down the tables and sweep up. When the kids say good night and head out, the parents are left hanging a sheet across the sliding glass doors.

At 1:18 a.m., 14 hours after it opened and 10 hours before it opens again, the front door to the restaurant is locked shut for the night.