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.