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So long and good luck

It’s time to turn my attention to more urgent tasks, like making a living. So I intend this to be my last post on Dateline Beijing. Although working and living in Beijing is a big challenge, that’s one of the reasons I would urge anyone to go. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your country, and at least a bit about China. My year in Beijing was frustrating, tedious, exciting, challenging and entirely worthwhile. Go for it!

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Before setting off to an alien culture thousands of miles from home, do yourself a favor – research blogs, websites and anyone who already has made the journey about what items you’ll want to bring with you. In addition, have a few family members and friends willing to ship you care packages as needed. Don’t count on being able to order things over the Internet – lots of businesses don’t ship to China. Here are those items that I found most important:

-Western medicines, especially antihistamines, pain relievers, aspirin, cough syrup, allergy medicine and hand sanitizer; Chinese versions are likely to be ineffective or even adulterated fakes. The Western products are not impossible to get in China, but they aren’t easy to find and they are extremely expensive.

-Cooking supplies such as a serving fork, a potato masher, a coffee grinder and coffee maker. Again, the coffee supplies can be bought in China but only for a big price and with mediocre quality. The big fork and potato masher were things I couldn’t find at all.

-Personal grooming products such as shampoo, soap, deodorant and toothpaste. It’s comforting to have a year’s supply of products whose quality you trust, instead of worrying about fakes and possibly toxic ingredients.

-Clothing; if you are not a very short, skinny person, don’t count on being able to buy clothes in China that fit you. Shoes are especially critical. Make sure they fit comfortably and can handle lots of walking on uneven pavement and sidewalks. A pair of rubber boots is desirable for heavy rains, which cause Beijing’s sewers to flood into the streets in a most awful way.

-Your own computer. You won’t want to buy one in China, where it’s difficult to tell if it’s fake and will be extremely expensive if it’s not. Internet speeds in China are 10 times slower than in Japan and 50 times slower than in Korea, and to access a lot of Western sites you’ll have to use a virtual proxy network, which also slows things down.

-A translation app on your phone, such as English-to-Mandarin and vice versa, can help you communicate on-the-spot with cab drivers, sales clerks and others.

-Finally, if in doubt, follow the recommendation of this old joke: When in the P.R.C., bring Patience and Reams of Cash.

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This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, imprisoned Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, has been silenced and punished for years because he spoke out in favor of free speech and an end to one-party rule in China. The picture of an empty chair at the award ceremony today speaks eloquently about Liu’s oppression, and his own words about banishing hatred from his country are astonishing evidence of why the Chinese government feared the power of his public proclamations. For a translation into English of Liu’s final address to the court that sentenced him to 11 years in prison, go to this link at the China Digital Times, a project of the journalism school at the University of California in Berkeley: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2010/02/liu-xiaobo-i-have-no-enemies-my-final-statement/#

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After a spate of hysterical denunciations about interference in Chinese affairs and cultural imperialism, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony slated for this Friday (Dec. 10) is now being greeted in Chinese media with a thunderous silence. No doubt propaganda authorities have ordered news media not to mention imprisoned Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving 11 years in prison for advocating freedom of speech, an act considered to be subversion.

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Despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the Public Broadcasting Service cut parts of a speech by comedian Tina Fey, whose imitations of political gadfly Sarah Palin skewer the Alaskan politician. As she accepted the 2010 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Fey joked about Palin’s political views. Those jokes, however, weren’t broadcast. A PBS producer claimed they were cut only because the speech was too long.

The cuts PBS made also violate its own editorial standards, the first of which includes “shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.” Finally, they dishonor the man for whom the prize was named. Mark Twain’s writing also used humor to skew powerful people and entrenched ideas because “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

The only crime worse than government-imposed censorship is self-imposed censorship in a country whose guarantee of free speech can actually be exercised.

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China Digital Times has published two weeks’ worth of orders to Chinese media from censorship authorities, which it says are cheekily referred to by Chinese journalists and bloggers as “Directives from the Ministry of Truth.” Of special note are instructions forbidding any mention of the Nobel Prize ceremony scheduled for Dec. 10, at which imprisoned Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo will be awarded the Peace Prize. A link to the China Digital Times posting is below. A column about the results of censorship (which had to be written without mentioning censorship) can be found on the Columns page under the post, “An elephant in the room.”

“Latest directives from the Ministry of Truth,” http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2010/11/latest-directives-from-the-ministry-of-truth-october-22-november-7-2010/

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That was the message in the subject line of an email sent from a friend who still works for an English-language publication in Beijing. Nothing in the message – just that cryptic subject line. She feared that if she had mentioned the Nobel Peace Prize or Liu Xiabo, the imprisoned dissident who won, her email might not have gone through. Or, someone at the publication might have detected it and alerted the powers-that-be about the need to monitor her communications. Maybe someone in the IT department or anyone with good hacking skills, looking to curry favor, would report it to the authorities. We don’t know how realistic these fears are, but they’re the result of living in a place where the government monitors even text messages and advocating freedom of speech is prosecuted as subversion.  Realistic or not, the possibility of punishment is plausible.

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