The Return of Suzhou’s Prodigal Sun
Part 20 - Un-American Behaviour
Searching for local news this week has proved somewhat difficult; one might say it is all quiet on the eastern front. It would seem that with a major earthquake in Qinghai, continued global concerns about the Yuan, reports of a 12% growth for the Chinese economy in the first three months of the year and the Shanghai Expo about to open, that there would be a bit of press activity; however everything seems a bit low key.
Google Earth has updated its coverage of our bit of China; which had been stuck on September 2003 since we arrived here; it is now March 2009. Interestingly they’ve made a little more available though and have added the historic record for March 2002. Now some unbelievable things happened between March 2002 and September 2003 in Suzhou Industrial Park; the place was cleared. I haven’t got space to go into things fully here but load up Google Earth, put in this coordinate: 31° 18’ 52.38” N 120° 44’ 04.55” E and get to an eye altitude of four kilometres. Then select the history tool (the clock at the top) and on the space bar that appears toggle between the three dates above; it’s quite amazing. I’ve put two pictures here of a slightly different area but you don’t get the impact without going on Google Earth itself.
Quite why this has happened right now is something of a mystery. There have been other changes; those people to whom I advised the location of my photos on Google Earth, you now have to drop down to an altitude of 150 metres before they appear and that’s if you’re lucky. (Anyone who would like the coordinates of these photos I have a list of a about thirty dotted around China; just ask.) Quite why Google have updated their records right now is a mystery and obviously they have had access to the material for some time (the 2002 stuff wasn’t available before). Is the dispute over? Are Google waving two fingers at the Chinese government? Has anyone realised? These are questions that will probably never be answered as Google can be as tight lipped as North Korea when they chose to be; they’ve almost certainly had an ‘arrangement’ with China for years.
Yushu, the town close to the epicentre of the recent earthquake is easy to find on Google Earth and the shot, from March 2005, is pretty clear. (Just put Yushu, Qinghai into the search). It’s hard for anyone to imagine just what Qinghai is like; this includes myself. In the province there are only three urban centres with over 100,000 people, the population density is below 8 per square kilometre and there is virtually no land beneath 2,500 metres above sea level. Just to give you an easy comparison it is ten times the size of Scotland with about the same number of people as the kilted state and well over 2500 metres further from the sea in a vertical direction. It is landlocked; the closet sea being the Bay of Bengal some 1000 kilometres from its southern border.
The Yushu Prefecture, the location of the earthquake, is almost 4000 metres above sea level and the freezing conditions and blizzards have added to the problems; it is unlikely anyone trapped in collapsed buildings will survive very long at all. One thing that may not have been reported overseas is that many of the rescuers who went in have had to return due to severe altitude sickness. There has been nothing like the outpouring of generosity that accompanied the Sichuan quake but this is almost certainly because the death toll from Yushu is dwarfed by the 2008 quake and it is widely felt the government is coping very well.
There has been a lot of work done by the Chinese government to improve the rescue services since the Sichuan quake but getting these teams into Yushu proved exceptionally difficult. The Buddhist monks combined well with the government services and there has been considerable praise for them from Beijing. Many other volunteers were turned away because of fears about the dangers of altitude and the problems with roads getting blocked. The report today is that schools will re-open this Friday so a slight degree of normality is returning for some.
Of course the Qinghai earthquake coverage was drowned out globally by being bracketed between the Polish president’s death and the Icelandic volcanic eruption closing airports. These events also took another interesting headline out of the papers that of the agreement on the control of weapons grade nuclear material. To say we’ve not heard anything since the summit ended is not quite true, but the near silence is deafening. It would appear that some sort of deal has gone on behind those closed doors. There may be the reluctance to publicise it over here as it is to do with interference in another country’s sovereignty. I think everyone is aware that China’s policy on non-interference has been steadfast, so if something has happened in this regard it would be a break with policy. The only cards that could have been thrown on the western side of the table would have been: a change in the stance on the Yuan, trade protectionism, Taiwan and/or Tibet; it will be interesting to see what goes on in the next few months. Certainly the deep hole that Chinese-American relations had got into does seem slightly less deep than a month ago and the current boom may cause the Chinese to re-think on the Yuan.
Last year we had the news of an outbreak of pneumonic plague in Ziketan, Qinghai. The disease was quickly snuffed out, but is a regular visitor to China and, more surprisingly to the USA. Obviously everyone believes it is spread by rats but that is more normally the bubonic or septcaemic version; all three are real plague (as in the Black Death type thing). At the start of this month two guys from Sichuan were arrested in Lanzhou, Gansu for transporting 109 live marmots. Initially when I read the headline I assumed they were charged for fur trafficking but it turns out that the marmots are carriers of plague. As well as a hefty fine the two men were placed in medical isolation due to contagion fears. Marmots are both eaten and their fur used for clothing in China, and a lot of this goes on, even if it is illegal.
I can’t remember if I mentioned that the Chinese government is reviewing its stance on the use of dog and cat meat. It seems the proposal is to ban the sale of these meats is in restaurants, rather than a complete ban. The battle is really a regional one rather than anything that is divided by class as I previously suggested; these animals are eaten in the south and the north-east. It seems the new middle classes of the mid-east are the ones up in arms as both cats and, especially dogs, are becoming common pets, but the new middle classes in the two aforementioned regions would prefer to continue to eat them. I’m not sure which way the coin will fall on this one but, you can almost guarantee, whatever changes there are in law, the custom will continue.
There’s a particularly obnoxious dog that lives at the base of our apartment block; from the moment it is taken out to the moment it returns to the house it yaps loudly and continuously. It has beautiful white hair, which would make a nice but small rug, and looks reasonably well-fed. I would happily eat it if I could persuade someone to handle the messy affair of killing, gutting and skinning it; 20 Yuan should do it. (My apologies to Kirsten for this paragraph.)
I had to throw this one in. It relates to comments in my last missive regarding the desperation felt by many young Chinese girls. Obviously this can be taken with a pinch of salt, and I’m convinced I’ll be accused of gratuitous behaviour, but as a story it’s one not to be missed. Apparently this group of groovy young chicks went down (in the nicest possible sense of the word) on the metro to advertise their willingness to wed. It seems their attractions were not taken seriously until they started to get their kit off; a very un-Chinese activity. As I’m far from prudish myself, I felt they deserved a little more than the statutory ten minutes of fame and the minimal exposure they received in the press; I wish them luck. It’s just a shame the Suzhou metro will not open until after we’ve left!