Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Mother’s Day Tribute to the Matriarch of this Great Irish Clan

This past mother’s day weekend we buried the matriarch of our peace-loving, hard-fighting, hard-drinking, Irish-American clan.  Margeret (Peg) Sheehan Fitzgerald Gallagher was 96-years old when she succumbed to a hemorrhagic stroke, but she had become legendary among Omaha’s peace-makers for her integrity, courage and tenacity.  Never before had 4 Irish names been strung together so beautifully.

As a youth she  baby-sat an infant Marlon Brando in diapers.  She raised three sons with her first husband, Douglass County Attorney Eugene Fitzgerald.  As a widowed mother she had founded the first women-owned and operated real estate agency in Omaha with a friend when established companies refused to hire her.   
When my father was a college student at Stanford in the midst of the Vietnam war, news of his hunger strike at the Dean’s office against weapons research at the University reached journalists in Omaha.  One of them writing in the newspaper asked Peg what she thought about her son causing trouble when he was meant to be graduating from College.  Her answer was sincere and profound: “If what he is saying is true, I have to look more into this.”  Some fifty years later, at age 91 she was still in the news, laying down in the door way of Omaha’s Qwest Center toblock the entrance of a weapons’ convention until officers of the OPD lead her into a waiting Paddy Wagon.
Peg Gallagher after misdemeanor arrest at the Qwest Center. Photo Credit: Omaha World Herald.
As a 90 year-old at her sentencing hearing for this protest she told the judge that she did not believe she should have to pay a fine for doing the right thing.  When the judge threatened her with jail time if she refused to pay, which she was willing to accept.  The judge told her that he was as “bull-headed” as her conscience, but, perhaps thinking the better of it, he offered her probation and community service.  Peg’s conscience graciously accepted.

As she waved the American flag at weekly anti-war protests at 72nd and Dodge, occasional oppositionists would challenge her patriotism.  But she would say she loved her country like she loved her family.  She was quick to tell her family when she thought they were not acting right. 
 The priest leading her eulogy urged the audience to come forward and fill the void left by Peg’s passing.  However, the passage that brought those gathered to tears of pain and joy, however, was a reading of Isaiah 58:1-12:
“Is this not the fast that I choose: to end injustice, to break the chains of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

She was dedicated to peace and justice, and she was willing to be challenged.  Her activism was grounded in Christian teaching and informed by a love for her country.  So who among us will live by her example: to carry ourselves with dignity and integrity; to treat our neighbors and family with love and respect; and to speak out to end war and injustice?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Who got Josh Rubin?

Twice last year, a gruesome high profile murder shook the diverse friendly Brooklyn community i call home.  In July, 35 year old Levi Aron kidnapped and then murdered 8 year-old Leiby Kletzky, whose dismembered body was found in Aron's freezer and a nearby dumpster.

On Halloween, local entrepreneur and coffee shop owner Josh Rubin went missing after leaving his Kensington apartment.  His charred and bullet riddled body was found the next day in rural Pennsylvania outside of Allentown.    He couldn't be identified for over a month.  Since then stories and rumors about $20,000 debt and bulk marijuana dealing have surfaced.  However, no serious news stories have come out this year about the murder.  Pennsylvania police are the primary investigators, but are convinced (reasonably so) that the kidnapping and murder happened in another state (NY). 

In the meantime, no one seems to know, 'who got Josh Rubin?' 
And what is going on in Kensington/Ditmas Park?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Homecoming: Chinatown Bus Conflagaration

Some people don't like it when I punctuate comments about the future by saying "God willing."  However, as my recent homecoming trip shows, you never know when the bus you are traveling on might explode.

And the aftermath

Friday, April 01, 2011


I took my first steps into the warped, tunneled world of cheap plastic camera photography known as "lomography."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain,...: A generation later, echos of '89

Courtesy of Al Jazeera: Project for a New Arab Century
When Mohammed Bouazizi attempted suicide by fire in the center of the Western Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid as a lonely protest against unemployment and corruption, he could not have known that he would ignite the whole Arab world.  Within a month the 23 years of corrupt and authoritarian Tunisian government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fallen.  The government of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell only 18 days after the protests started.

Bouazizi died on January 5th, but his suicidal protest spread, with self immolation protests in Algeria, Iraq, Morrocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia , and Mauritania.  While strikes spread across post-Mubarak Egypt, protesters are negotiating with the military over the disappeared and the shape of Egypt's future after the military (hopefully) releases power into the hands of some popular body.  Tunisia and Egypt continue to struggle with political and economic instability.

This year will go down in history as a pivotal moment as important as 1989-1990 was a generation ago.   While the economic hard times have contrasted with the the wealth of corrupt and brutal authoritarian regimes, the youth of the Arab world have asserted a generational challenge to an entire regional paradigm of power.  This moment is as momentous as the fall of the Berlin wall, the Tian'anmen Square protest and following massacre, the Velvet revolutions in Prague and Ulaan Batar.

Meanwhile another wave of protests have exploded. In Bahrain foreign police under the monarchy's orders have repeatedly open fire on protesters with live rounds, killing many to dislodge them from strategic positions.  Gulf leaders have been meeting in Bahrain, leading many to speculate Saudi influence, and maybe even Saudi riot police are pushing this repression.  In Libya, dozens have been killed in violent uprisings that may have seen Gadaffi's repressive police lose control of parts of the country.  The initial crackdown was called a Tian'anmen response, though its clear the scale of the massacre in Benghazi, Tripoli and elsewhere have gone far beyond the violence 20 years ago, one night in Beijing.  Yemen is also a seen of ongoing battles between police and protesters.  Just as the Yemeni and Bahrain governments initially offered some concessions hoping to head off protests, so too is this wave affecting policy in Jordan.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Peking University Student Run Free Clinic

I've been working with medical student founders of the Peking University Student Run Free Clinic and helped them submit to the Lancet Student blog an announcement of their work so far.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

English in Changping: With the Children of Migrant Workers

A rambling commentary on environmental health and migrant workers' issues framed from an English class for the children of migrant workers.  The first citation, Chan's "The household registration system and migrant labor in China: notes on a debate" is particularly good, and worth a read for anyone interested in the topic.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Teaching myself SAS with a soundtrack

Proc freq Data=Work.Queens; Tables JamMasterJ;
Run; *DMC taught how to walk This Way;

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

First Public Speaking in Chinese

大家晚上好。我叫 Simon Fitzgerald。我的中文名字是费希孟。 免费的费。希望的希。孟子的孟。我是 State University of New York 大学医学专业的学生。在我的大学里,从 2008 年开始, 几个医学院的大学生建立了一个免费的医疗诊所,我是其中的一名志愿者。因为我的中文不太好,所以下面的话我将用英语来说。

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sinicized French Fries: Physical Activity, Diet and Disease in 21st Century China

The Political Economy of Chinese Food
The rapid globalization of China’s economy that has accompanied its industrialization and economic expansion in the post Mao era has resonated in the global consciousness, with iconic imagery such as the (now closed) Starbucks in the heart of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Just as the rise in car ownership and car culture have lead to a decrease in bicycle use and physical activity, the influx of fast food by international corporations is similarly impacting dietary habits, with profound effect on the health and future of China.

Though I tend to avoid eating fast food, during a recent breakfast at a bustling Beijing McDonalds I meditated over diet and chronic disease in 21st century China. 

With 24 hour home delivery, McDonald’s golden arches and popular hamburgers have arrived at China’s doorstep.  Famously, YUM brands’ massive profits have made their marketing of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut a model for foreigners hoping to make money in China.

With a reputation for higher, international standards of hygiene, and certain exotic premium to familiar food like spicy chicken, KFC has not only become the leader in Chinese fast food.  It has been described to me as a cultural space in small cities across the country where the aspiring middle class people can meet and and taste something representative of international opportunity in the new China. 

Its worth noting that a Chinese Pizza Hut would be almost unrecognizable to Americans.  Over coffee and tiramisu another American health researcher pointed out escargot and other high end options on the Pizza Hut menu that seem unimaginable at the American counterpart.

Fast Food and Public Health 
After a recent talk by American CDC head Dr. Thomas Friedan at the Chinese Center for Disease Control,  repeated questions from the audience addressed an anxiety about the rise of fast food consumption in China.  One malaria specialist expressed concern that his son preferred KFC to all other food, wondering how much this food was introducing transaturated fats and other unhealthy nutrition to the Chinese diet.  He asked how Friedan’s experience changing food health policy in New York (for example banning trans fats) could inform Chinese policy.  Another student researcher pointed out that candy manufacturers such as Mars have stated a desire to increase Chinese consumption of sweets and candy (traditionally lower than in Western countries) because China represents such a large growth opportunity.

The influence of such corporations raises some interesting contradictions.  A recent Conference on Physical Activity and Health was sponsored by Coca-Cola and Nestle with a special presentation by representatives from Nestle about their work place exercise policy.

The lunch offered to participants at a recent China CDC interdepartmental sports and exercise competition included of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a snickers bar.  Medical literature has established that these types of food choices and the environment that promotes them contributes to the obesity epidemic.  The literature has also begun describing the late rise of childhood obesity in China and other developing countries.

Chinese Tobacco and Salt
China of course has its own health problems related to domestic culinary and corporate culture.  The tobacco industry, domestically controlled by a Chinese government monopoly, makes huge profits, while Chinese smoking prevalence is among the highest in the world.  In corporate culture, cigarettes form a fundamental currency for “pulling guanxi” (拉关系) and developing business relationships.  As Dr. Friedan noted in his speech, they are often given as gifts when different professionals or businessmen meet.  Smoking cigarettes is a essential punctuation of business negotiations, at the beginning middle and end.   Though China has recently instituted some limitations on smoking (such as in hospitals), the persistence of cigarettes in the majority of public spaces, including the bathrooms of China CDC, show how rooted this suicidal habit is in modern Chinese culture.

While New York under Friedan and other parts of the world have used taxes to limit smoking access, the Chinese government interests in tobacco profits make such options especially politically complicated in China. 

Chinese food is also notoriously high in salt (as well as oil).  Chinese rates of hypertension are astronomical and constitute, according to some health researchers, the greatest public health issue in China at the moment.  Research into salt reduction and substitution are hot topics for research in China now.

As smoking cessation is politically difficult in China, salt reduction is technically more difficult, requiring gradual reduction in salt use in package food, restaurant food and household cooking.

As Dr. Friedan said at his lecture, though China still does far better than the U.S.A. and other countries when it comes to childhood obesity, they are starting to take the worst of both worlds.  The high fat diet of processed and fast foods developed by Western corporations, as well as the more traditional habits of a high salt and heavy tobacco use.  Such habits are sure to add to the chronic disease burden of China's aging population.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Fort Carroll

Photo: Gene Carl Feldman
One place I failed to visit on my brief trip to Baltimore is Fort Carroll, the small hexagonal man-made island visible just to the south of the Francis Scott Key Bridge as you drive on the Baltimore Beltway I-695.

Built in 1848 under the oversight of Robert E. Lee before he became a Confederate general, the site has long been abandoned and is now essentially a bird sanctuary.

While I had hoped to cross the busy Chesapeake Bay shipping lanes on canoe or kayak to reach the rotting relic of concrete, iron and wood,  time just did not allow it.

Maybe next time.  I wonder if Four Square has a Fort Carroll mayor?

Photo: Avi8tor4fun Flickr page

Monday, November 29, 2010

Khamenei dying of cancer?

Among the vast number of communiques released by Wikileaks "cablegate," one from August 2009 in Tehran suggesting that supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is dying of leukemia (and would in fact likely only live a few months).  The supreme ayatollah has been chronically ill for years, and rumors that he has cancer (often lung cancer) have been published since at least 2006.

The 2009 cable suggests that some Iranian political players may be cautious to act too boldly until Khamenei passes and the reform leader Rafsanjani might be able to position himself to be appointed the next ayatollah by the Assembly of Experts.

This same cable also mentions a general "invisible strike," where Iranian workers have been showing up but not working as a form of nonviolent resistance in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections and political violence.

Wikileaks Diplomatic Cables

DIY researchers and journalists are bouncing off the walls tonight, as Wikileaks has released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world.  About half are classified in some way.  Among the bombshells already described by NYTimes:
When Afghanistan’s vice president visited the United Arab Emirates last year, local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that he was carrying $52 million in cash. With wry understatement, a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul called the money “a significant amount” that the official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, “was ultimately allowed to keep without revealing the money’s origin or destination.”
The cables are now published on line in full (with some redactions and deletions austensibly to protect the release of identities and some other sensitive information.  However, access is inconsistent reportedly because of a "cyberattack."

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I recently took a trip to a rural area of Henan province for work.  I have to admit being too shy with my camera, but the Chinese business trip (出差) is an experience worth describing in itself, and the little I can say about Henan ( 河南) is worth noting.

I've been researching the health of Chinese elderly, particularly centenarians.  The county I visited in Henan province has a particularly high concentration of centenarians.  They also had some unexpected results on routine blood tests, so we went to pay a site visit to meet some study participants and to see the lab where the blood tests were processed.

We took a train from Beijing (北京) to the capital of Henan, Zhengzhou(郑州).   Passing some curious sites along the way.

Like one might imagine in a country as large and diverse as China, there are many regional stereotypes and prejudices.  One Chinese friend in Beijing told me in Chinese, perhaps with a certain sense of irony, “中国人不喜欢河南人,” "Chinese people don't like Henanese people."  I was told they have a reputation for dishonesty and thievery.  I am assuming that the reputation is not entirely fair.  Henan is one of the poorest provinces, though its distance from the coastal cities of wealth is not nearly as great as Western China.

While Henan was the birthplace of the first literate Chinese imperial dynasty, its more recent history is notorious enough to resonate with these prejudices.

Henan AIDS Villages
As described in Cohen's 2004 article in Science, businessmen in the 1990s set up commercial blood "donation" centers in rural areas, taking advantage of the peasants' poverty to purchase blood and blood products on the cheap.  However, Chinese are culturally not very comfortable losing blood, so the centers offered to return the blood cells to the donors to prevent anemia (and allow them to donate more often).  With the support and encouragement of local government, villagers donated blood that was then pooled with other plasma and the red blood cells returned to the donor.  As a result of the mix of plasma and blood and re-use of tubing and other equipment, an estimated 55,000 plasma donors were infected with HIV.  Other viruses such as Hepatitis C were also rampant.  This came at a time well before China was prepared to acknowledge, let alone treat HIV among its population.

The most famous Henanese physician, gynecologist Gao Yaojie, built her international reputation calling attention to the unsanitary commercial plasma purchasing business and the numerous "AIDS villages" in their wake.  Now, as a 84 year-old dissident living in Harlem, she estimates the total number of AIDS cases in China (including those who have already passed away) at 10 million, well above the official figure of 740,000 HIV positive Chinese that is commonly circulated in the medical literature.

When i arrived in Zhengzhou I was talking to an American who had married a local woman, and they had been living together in Henan for years.  Before parting ways, the Henanese woman warned me to be careful around the train station for the immingrants from Xinjiang, where the famous Uighers are from, who are notorious pickpockets.  I guess everyone has their own prejudices.

In Zhengzhou I was picked up by a representative from the Henan state CDC and his driver in a new black Buick, which is much more of a luxury brand in China than in America.  The drive out to the county study site took hours on the new expressway.  The road was relatively empty except for truckers, and speed limits appeared to only be enforced by geographically fixed speed cameras, as described by Peter Hesler in Country Driving.   Needless to say we flew over past the trucks, the driver slowing periodically for the hundred or so meters around the predictable speed traps.

Upon arrival in the county seat, it was dark.  We, of course hadn't eaten dinner, and the real ritual of the Chinese business travel was about to begin.  The roll of the Chinese host is very important culturally, and this tradition seems exceptionally important when welcoming professional visitors.  Our elaborate dinner with motorized lazy Susan was punctuated with the almost competitive ritual drinking and choreographed toasts to guests and hosts that would make the glasses of wine at the Jewish seder seem like grape juice.  We drank first glass of the anise flavored erguotou liquor (二锅头) before the first dish had arrived.  I had been warned to respond to the question of "Can you drink" with "我不会" ( "I don't know how"), so they went easy on me.  One of the health officials from Zhengzhou was more firm in his refusal to drink, leaving 3 or 4 ounces of liquor untouched in front of him while he repeatedly toasted our hosts graciously with water.  After dinner my colleague came to my room where I was working a little to tell me that he was drunker than he had ever been before and needed to stay up to drink some water and talk a little bit.

Health of the Chinese Centenarians
Our work in Henan started the next day with a presentation from my colleague updating the local CDC officials on our progress in the study that they had collected data for.  I was struck by the juxtaposition of the Hammer, sickle and AIDS ribbon, but perhaps that combination of iconography is becoming more common.

We also visited their laboratory to test the equipment related to some funny results in the data.  They also had a special HIV lab, though I did not take a picture, for the many HIV + patients who were plasma donors.

We also met some of the local elderly featured in much of the local CDC's recent work.  One woman said, when asked loudly and closely, that she was 109 years-old.  Her neighbor, tightly gripping a bird in his left hand, described her family history, relative good health and strong appetite,
and a couple in their late 80s.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

More NYTimes

The New York Times has two more interesting articles.

One describing how Chinese mental wards have been used/abused to control "assertive" or activist individuals by authorities.  On the brighter side, while the recent Burmese election appears to have largely been a sham, the image of Aung San Suu Ky speaking to thousands of supporters in the streets of Yangon is enough to make one irrationally optimistic about the possibilities that exist in this world.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Psychiatry in China

The New York Times highlights the tenuous position of psychiatry and mental illness treatment in China.

Tunneling through the great wall again

I've had some internet issues recently, along with being busy.  Back on my VPN to access forbidden fruit.  I have a couple of substantive posts I should write, so hope to have more online shortly.

In any case, guess what happens when you surround me with nine year olds and point a camera at us...

Friday, November 05, 2010


A little late, but halloween in Beijing started with another English class to rowdy 9 year old children of migrant workers, starting late because of an unexplainable traffic jam on the bus.  Next was a subway party on the #2 line I attended in a Mongolian Del, capped off with a boisterous playing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  If only more Chinese people could experience an interactive showing of Tim Curry in drag...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Strong Work, Marty

Little brother has been in Nevada for several of months working on the Harry Reid campaign.  Strong work, Marty.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

NIH Director, Beijing Free Clinic and English Class

The past week has quickly become the busiest, with a lot of small projects coming to pass at the same time including:
A speech by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at Peking University Health Science Center

Where the staff photographer was also a volunteer at the Peking University Student Run Free Clinic which had its first trial run this past weekend.

I was able to visit that at the end of my day teaching English to 3rd grade children of migrant workers.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Does Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize Matter?

In the wake of Liu Xiabo's Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese officials have been furious.  Some have openly wondered, with good cause, if the prize does more harm than good to Xiaobo and his allies.  It certainly has increased pressure on his network of activist friends and colleagues.  Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that Xiaobo and his awarding of the nobel prize are relevant in China today.

Soon after his prize, a prominent group of communist party elders, somewhat protected by retirement, have written an open letter, distributed by email and on the blogs of Sina.com, calling for freedom of speech in China.  The letter, described in a recent TIME article, is clearly in solidarity with Xiaobo and shares many themes in common with his Charter 08.

It would be naive to say that Xiaobo has brought these ideas into Chinese political discourse, but he is forcing them into the spotlight.  The letter notes that many of the basic freedoms of speech are in fact guaranteed by the country's constitution, but are denied by a government censorship apparatus with little accountability.  The letter references with indignation the fact that the censors have even blocked domestic publication of the Premier Wen Jiabao's words abroad when they call for more reform than those responsible for censorship are comfortable with.

A Chinese-born American friend points out how the transfer of Hong Kong to China, with its inherited status from the end of British colonialism, has been pushing this conversation deeper into Chinese consciousness.  Indeed, the letter above notes that even under British occupation, Hong Kong enjoyed greater press freedom than the Chinese censors allow their their own people.

This energy, of course, is not to be overstated.  Much of the country, especially in rural areas without much access to international media, are unlikely to be discussing Xiaobo's importance in the political discourse.  They, in fact, may be completely unaware of the June 1989 Beijing protest, uprising and massacre that propelled Xiaobo into infamy (in the government's eyes). 

Even in center of Chinese internationalism, there is a widespread nationalist sentiment that is indignant about how the international media covers this prize.  While the growth of the Chinese economy has lifted countless millions out of poverty (among other things), many urban youth and professionals find the focus on contentious weeks in 1989 or limits of press freedom to miss the point.  In this way the argument by the Chinese government that the prize awarded to Xiaobo represents an "Anti-China" sentiment resonates with popular Chinese frustration, pride or insecurity about its accomplishments and their perception abroad.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dearly Departed

This past Tuesday, October 12 the world lost a young giant.

Sujal Parikh, a 2010 Fogarty International Clinical Research Scholar died in a motorcyle accident in Uganda, where he was continuing research that he first laid the groundwork on in 2008.

His death was painful for a lot of people that, like myself, barely knew him.  We spent less than three weeks of our lives together.  Beside a moment of truth that we once shared, I also could tell that Suj was working on greatness.  While I struggled to bring enough copies of my CV to a marathon of different interviews, he had all of the interviewers' CVs ready at hand.  I once struggled to stop a session of congress for half an hour in protest of their support for the Iraq war, he helped shut down the city of San Francisco.  I was trying to figure out how to make a start in global health research, he was well on his way.  While several years younger, he wasn't hoping a site would let him do research, he was shopping for mentors with the most resources and common goals.

His death seems senseless, but like the murder of Stephen Pitcairn, such is our mortality.  My psychiatry professor, Dr. Wesley Dickerson, used to say in reference to others' attempts to pschoanalyze pscyhotic patients, "pathology owes us no deeper meaning."  Trying to find a reason in the madness of Suj's death feels the same way.

I wrote to a group of young researchers that I met with Suj right before I moved to Beijing, and after learning of Pitcairn's death.  Excerpted below, I wrote to these people I had gotten to know a little over  2 weeks:

Some of us became close; some of us shared fleeting moments of truth; I passed by others in silence like ships in the night.  Nevertheless, it was an honor to share that time and space with all of you.

On my way to Beijing I passed through my home town of Baltimore just long enough to hear about the murder of a 23 year old Hopkins researcher 1/2 block from the corner where I used to live when I was a 24 year old Spanish interpreter working at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  

In short, our future is not promised.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have met all of you and look forward to opportunities to collaborate in the future.  Next time we meet, don't be surprised if I remember your name.  I'm both sentimental and forgetful, ambitious and nostalgic.  Whether we have a chance to meet in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Beijing, Port-Au-Prince, Dhaka, Kampala or La Habana, look me up.
It was the last communication I ever had with Suj.  He never made it home from Kampala.

It is impossible to know what his impact would have been on this world, if only...

But like the Jewish belief I have been taught that the dead live on in our memories, Suj's impact on our lives, even those who passed by him like ships in the night, will continue to shape our world.  His energy, courage, imagination, and discipline redefine my expectations of myself and others, and not just in preparations for my next interview.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Last letter to a Fallen Comrade

The tragedy of an October accident
Tears of unfinished research
Of injury related morbidity and mortality
An aspiring doctor of limitless potential
Whose sense of justice gave me solace
When his record made me
Wish I wasn’t jealous
I pour Jack Daniels
On a Beijing curb
Next one’s on me
Dear Stranger

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize on a Hazy SaturWorkDay in Beijing

This weekend weekend on a hazy work day on a Saturday in Beijing.  Since this past week was the week-long national holiday celebration, yesterday was a national day of make-up work when all Chinese employees are expected to report to work.
Night time pollution shines like halos around the Beijing street lights.

The haze hides the buildings across the street.

After a string of blue sky days last month, pollution has been particularly bad for Beijing this October.  According to the US Embassy Twitter feed on air quality (banned from China's networks), the particulate matter levels have been at "hazardous" levels for the fifth straight day.  As an international conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 60 miles away in Tianjin "shows little signs" of progress, the haze has clouded the sun in an eerie bluish blanket like something out of a science fiction movie from the not so distant future.   Meanwhile, the China Open tennis tournament has had to turn on the flood lights during midday matches, and, as reuters reports
Air quality is so bad at the China Open in Beijing that players should have access to oxygen tanks on court to help them breathe through the smog, says world number two Novak Djokovic.
Back in Oslo, the Nobel committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo ( 刘晓波).  The former Columbia University literature professor has been a human rights activist since leaving his American position to join the hunger strikers during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest (similar to the Mongolian protests the next year) and June 4th "Beijing massacre," did his first term in prison, detailed in an LA Times feature.  He will spend the his awards ceremony in a Chinese prison cell where he is serving an 11 year sentence for "subversion" for drafting a circulating a petition known as Charter 08 to allow more political and press freedom in China (named after a similar petition of the Czechoslovakians during the Prague Spring of 1968 quite similar to the Cuban Varela Project in 1998 made possible by the internet that used the limited legislative institutions to push reform).

The Chinese government responded with threats to Norwegian-Chinese relations and coercive silence internally.  In general, the topic of the Tiananmen protests of 1989 is still not up for discussion, as google has found out (A brief history is online at the NYTimes).  Though unprecedented and something of a turning point in recent Chinese history, young people are not generally aware of the events of that Spring.  Even the physical landscape of the Square has been changed in the last two decades, sorrounded by gates, checkpoints and metal detectors that prevent any free movement that could create a situation that even briefly looked like 1989.

During the Nobel committee's announcement, CNN and BBC were completely blacked out.  Afterwords, Chinese websites removed all mention of the Nobel Peace Prize, and "Liu Xiaobo" and the "Nobel Peace Prize" were censored from search engines. Within Chinese media, the prize was only discussed in one English language editorial in the Global times (bemoaning the "anti-China" purpose of the prize "loaded with Western ideology" that wants to see China collapse like the Soviet Union).  The foreign ministry reportedly described the decision as "blasphemy."  The controversial cartoonist Kuang Biao reportedly put a cartoon of the nobel prize behind bars on his sina.com blog, but I have been unable to find the image.

Liu Xiaobo for his part has not been able to communicate with the world outside of his prison.  His wife was taken out of Beijing by uniformed police who kept her from a press conference she planned to hold, and  told her she was being taken to visit her husband.  She is apparently now on house arrestDeutche-Presse reports that many activist colleagues of Liu Xiaobo have been followed, put on house arrest, or taken into custody.  According to the report from this weekend, some activists seem to have been disappeared.  Their phones are not working and no one had yet heard where they were at the time the article went to print.

The Washington Post has an editorial suggesting that the prize may do Liu and his allies more harm than good.

The legacy of the 1989 protests is a complicated and controversial topic that i am ill prepared to write much about, but its echos clearly continue bouncing a generation later, as in this case, from the cell blocks of Jinzhou prison to the stage of Oslo's City Hall.