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, 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 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.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

National Holiday in Yangshuo

I spent the Chinese National Day holiday in the city of Yangshuo (阳朔县).  Since the Chinese government extended the holiday several years ago to a week-long affair, domestic tourism has increased exponentially in the area, with karst formations with impressive peaks, scenic river rides and some of the best rock-climbing in China.  The resulting crowds, tourist traps and confusion left me feeling at times like this first image from our arrival.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Retire the Dragon

I've been considering some more news commentary while so far away so people interested in how my mind is changing can watch the world reflect off my computer screen.  The trick, of course, is not to misspend too much time doing it.

But for those who found the dragon image I referenced for China in my first post to be a tired cliche, Christina Larson at Foreign Policy shows you are not alone.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Rebirth of Chinggis: A laowai's glimpse at 21st century Mongolia

The glistening image of Chinggis Khan
Ulaan Baatar- Sandwiched on a plateau between global powers Russia and China, it is easy for an American ignorant of the region to imagine the sparsely populated Mongolia as a marginal nation that will forever be coerced in the shadow of its giant neighbors.  Of course, Mongolians remember that, at its height, the Mongol empire was the largest land empire, stretching from Bulgaria to Korea. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Mongolian national identity has been rising like a 130 foot steel image of Genghis Khan (known locally as Chinggis Khan).

Mongolian religious art and culture culture, from what I can gather, appears to be a rich mix of traditional shamanistic practices and buddhist influences from afar as Tibet and India.  The art and iconography of Mongolia's buddhist temples, ritualistic masks and traditional dress is intensely colorful, powerfully violent at times, erotically sexual at others, and suprisingly psychodelic.  

Masked dancers of the Tumen Ekh National Song and Dance Ensemble.

Other ethnicities, including the Kazakh, add layers of different traditions, designs, art and rituals.  With a semi-nomadic herding tradition, the basic unit of social organization is the Ger, a home that can be built in 60-90 minutes and taken apart in half as much time with materials that can be shipped on the backs of camels or horses.  
Twin gers of relatively affluent Kazakh herding family with wind turbine and solar panel (on right ger just above and to the side of the entrance.  Their herd of sheep is visible in the distance to the viewers left.)

Southwestern Mongolia is also believed to be where throat singing began.  The singing styles based on the harmonies of the singers voice of resonant overtones in the throat and mouth are essential parts of Mongolian art, and even the chanting styles of Buddhist monks I saw in the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (pictures not included).  
Throat singing with the Tumen Ekh ensemble.  I'm afraid I failed to save the names of the singer or the musicians.

This style of singing has become famously associated with Mongolia's northern neighbor, the Tuva Republic (part of Russia), from the documentary Genghis Blues in which blind American blues singer travels to Tuva for the first time to win the Tuvan national throat singing championship (a clip is on Youtube, forgive the German subtitles).

Tall Shadows
The standard English language historical text in the Mongolian Museum of National History, as well as the bookstores and gift shops of Ulaan Baatar, is Baabar's History of Mongolia: From World Power to Soviet Satellite, printed in a joint venture by Cambridge University Press and Mongolian national publishers.  

Baabar describes how the 1911 Mongolian independence became possible with the the imminent collapse of the Qing dynasty which had dominated Mongolia as a foreign power.  With the Bolsheik revolution to the Northwest, both Russian White Guard and Chinese nationalist troops invaded in 1917.  This era included a Russian dictator with a ragtag army of soldiers from Eastern Europe to Japan named Roman Ungren von Sternberg whose wikipedia page is just too bizarre for me to comprehend.   

While the national government failed to raise enough support and troops to throw out the invaders, several rebel groups organized into the Mongolian People's Party enlisted the aid of the Soviet army, starting a series of events that would shape the future of the Mongolia for the next 70 years.  With military might came political advisors.  After the Czarists and the Chinese were defeated, a process of sovietization of the society over the next generation collectivized farms and other property in 1928.  This was wildly unpopular with many Mongolians, particularly the nobility and Buddhist clergy.  Disorganized rebellions were easily put down with Mongolian-Soviet military power into the early 1930s, coinciding with a war against the Japanese over control of parts of Mongolia.  With Soviet propanda against Japanese spies, a whole generation was purged.  Climaxing in 1937 with mass murder of almost the entire Buddhist clergy and the execution of the exiled prime minister Genden who refused to carry out the purge, no level of Mongolian society was spared the purge.

This history seems to be an important part of the Mongolian national consciousness.  A Museum of Political Persecution was founded documenting much of this.  But, with the exception of the bullet riddled skulls excavated in 2003 from a Soviet mass grave in Mongolia, the museum is poorly organized for an English-speaking audience.
Bullet riddled skulls excavated in 2003 from a Soviet mass grave in Mongolia.

Zorig and the New Mongolia
Soviet control of Mongolian affairs continued into perestroika, but in the late 1980s several organizations, particularly the Union of Mongolian Composers, created space for students and young adults to openly discuss politics and the future of Mongolia.

From this energy sprung the Mongolian Democratic Union, which organized protests and open letters, some carried in the press, calling for elections with a multiparty system and basic political freedoms.  The coming out party for this movement, described well in an excerpt of Mossabi's Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists, was a small but boisterous December 10 1989 Human Rights Day Protest in Sükhbaatar square.  Though Rossabi argues that the demonstrations reflected divisions within the ruling Mongolia People's Revolutionary Party, the government did not respond to the demands, the protests swelled in size and became increasingly rowdy, immortalized by the photo of Sanjaasürengiin Zorig, the "Golden Magpie of Democracy," calming the crowd as it seemed about to lay seige to government offices.  The confrontation ultimately climaxed in a March 1990 hunger strike demanding that the entire politburo of communist leadership resign, arrange for multi-party parliamentary elections and separate Mongolian government functions from MPRP party functions.  By mid-April Mongolia had entered a new phase in its history.
Infamous photo of Sanjaasürengün Zorig from Mongolian newspaper reports from early 1990.  I am unable to find the photographer's name.
Sükhbaatar Square now is a center for congregation for young and old; bicycle, roller blade and power wheel

During my first moments in Mongolia, reading the cyrillic script and overhearing fragments of conversations in a language where I could barely distinguish the syllables, there was something extremely foreign and somewhat intimidating in the Mongolian language.  I imagined that the Klingon language might have been modeled after Mongolian, carrying its history of conquest under the Mongol empire and representing a Soviet styled nemesis of the USA-like Federation of  planets.

Of course, that impression reflected more on my ignorance than on the Mongolian language.  Though written in cyrillic, it is not at all a slavic language.  Several alphabets pre-existed the use of cyrillic, famously including the alphabet introduced by Zanabazar shown below whose first symbol is on the Mongolian flag.  
Part of Soyembo alphabet introduced by Zanabazar in the 17th century.

Another alphabet was used in the pre-soviet area, and was elegant enough to be used on typewriters.  

However, at that time illiteracy, especially among herders, was the norm.  As part of the literacy programs devised under soviet advisors in the 1930s, the cyrillic alphabet was adapted and taught all across the country.  The result was a linguistic as well as economic and cultural Sovietization.  While the traditional scripts are still studied, as are Tibetan and Sanscrit in this Buddhist country, they are still only marginally used in public context outside of the monasteries and universities.

Post-Soviet Discontent
Though Mongolians are apparently quite proud of the peaceful transition from Soviet domination to a new Mongolian national identity, the post-Soviet era has also been wrought with disappointment, corruption and inequality.  There is a palpable tension in Mongolia, a mix of frustration and aggression that is simmering underneath the apparent economic growth and outward political stability.

The post-Soviet transition to democracy also left Mongolia's economy without the Soviet support it had become dependent on.  Before 1990, the exchange of Mongolian Tugriks to the American dollar was about 10:1.  Now that ratio is above 1300:1.  The period of privatization was heavily directed by foreign lending institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, resulting in a defunding of education and health care.  The mining sector was being increasingly exploited by foreign corporations with relatively small benefit to the Mongolian economy.

The "end of the romantic phase of post-Soviet Mongolia" occurred in 1998 when Sanjaasürengiin Zorig was stabbed to death in his apartment the day he was nominated as the candidate for Prime Minister.  His widow speculated that the still unsolved crime was related to corruption in the privatization phase that Zorig refused to participate in or allow.  

I met a highschool English teacher who was skipping work at school to make money as a guide to foreign tourists because of the difference in money.  She hoped to give up teaching and help her sister start and run a hostel.  Our driver says he was a doctor trained in women's health, (though he also claims to have been a gun and drug runner with the Mongolian mafia in 1990s until he was shot at and decided that wasn't the life for him).  He says he gave up working as a doctor in order to work for a tourism agency for better pay and lifestyle.

This distortion of economic incentive is not the recipe for good social and economic development.  Despite the apparent boom of construction in Ulaan Baatar, as numerous cranes tower over the city, many construction sites are half-finished shells with no signs of active construction.  Some streets are coming apart, and there is a strange sense of growth and decay at the same time.  The national recreation park contains a new amusement park with rides and bumper cars, but the rest of the park around it seems like a scene out of the depressing "Return to Oz" movie.

While the poor outskirts of most modern cities like Mexico City are defined by the shanty town, Ulaan Baatar is wringed with Ger districts of new rural to urban migrants in search of work.  Particularly bad winters at the end of the 1990s led to an increase in poor immigrants and a rush of homeless children, many of them living in the sewer, a number of them involved in prostitution.  Since then more orphanages and NGOs such as Save the Children have been addressing the problem but it continues.  Violent crime and property crime also appear to be on the rise.

The ecology and economy of the Ger show similar dichotomies.  Some gers have wind turbines and solar panels to charge the batteries they run their household electronics off of.  Those with substantial herds can burn the dung for energy, but they also apparently burn and dump the trash, much of it plastic.  The drainage ditches and roadsides of Mongolia are sadly decorated with plastic wrappers, drink bottles, and broken glass.

Mongolian Fascism and the Duality of the Swastika (Khas)
The failures of the post-soviet democratic leadership to provide economic stability for Mongolia have occurred in the context of simmering resentment towards Mongolia's Soviet experience and socialist ideals and animosity toward foreign interests profiting in Mongolia.  This has created fertile ground for what would seem an unlikely location for the rise of Nazi-inspired Fascism.
Photo: Dan Chung of The Guardian newspaper

Youth fascists have been involved in increasingly common incidents of violence targeting inter-racial couples, homosexuals, transsexuals, foreigners (especially Chinese) and Mongolian women associating with foreigners.  NPR describes a recent "song by a band called 4 Zug. The title: 'Don't Overstep The Limits, You Chinks.' It is a violent, hate-filled tirade against Mongolia's massive neighbor, China."  After shopping for a made in Mongolia hat and jacket at the "Black Market" of Naran Tuul, I met one such shaved head youth wearing a German cross pendant around his neck throwing a punch in my direction. 

Many have pointed out the irony of a Mongolian political philosophy respectfully modeled after the racist Nazi policies that targetted Mongolian POWs for execution.  Perhaps more interesting is how Hitler's rebranding of the swastika, a Hindu and Buddhist symbol, as a Nazi emblem gives fascism a strange symbolic connection to the pre-Soviet Mongolian buddhist tradition.

The symbol, called a "Khas" in Mongolian appears not only in traditional design, but in traditional games and on the first Bank Note of the Republic of Mongolia in 1921. 
It was explained to me to be something like a spiritual compass rose, taking in energy from the four cardinal directions and unifying it into oneness.
Though my Mongolian is woefully inadequate.  I believe this book states that traditionally the Khas was part of a spiritual machine that kills fascists.

So Much to Say: I've Said too Much
Its impossible for me to do justice to the Mongolian experience with 5 days and no Mongolian education.  The future of Mongolia remains in contention, poverty remains rampant while social services like transportation, education, health care and child care are in ruins.  While a sparsely populated country, the lack of clear ecological policies are going to catch up with the Mongolian environment.  The youth movements, in tension between the democratic revolutionaries of the previous generation and the rise of Mongolian hip-hop culture, are significantly influenced by fascism, but its impossible for me to appreciate other influences and the dynamic between them all.

As I return to work in Beijing, I can't help but fantasize about interesting possibilities for a health worker collaborating with Mongolian doctors and researchers to push the standards of Mongolian health care...

ed. note: The phrase laowai is an anglicization of the Chinese 老外 (lao wai = old foreigner).  See the 1st post from China for more.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Beijing to Ulaan Baatar

Ulaan Baatar- This weekend I took the long train ride from Beijing to the Mongolian capital on a Mongolian Railway train.  The 20 hour trip included a surprisingly fun three hour layover at Erlian (二连浩特).

My Fogarty colleague Sarah planned most of the trip.  From Summer in Beijing, its quickly becoming winter weather in the desert of Mongolia, with nightly lows below freezing this week.  With much more to say, it will have to wait.  The early Mongolian morning calls...