A new literary magazine features new writing from Zhou Zuoren

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O-pen, Spring 2011

Following Zhang Yueran’s NEWriting (鲤), Han Han’s defunct Party (独唱团), and Di An’s ZUI Found (文艺风赏), Annie Baobei becomes the latest popular novelist to launch her own literary magazine.

The inaugural issue of O-pen (大方) makes a splash by featuring a pair of literary giants.

The first half of the magazine is devoted to a lengthy interview with Haruki Murakami. The interview, conducted over the course of three days in May 2010 by Matsuie Masashi, first appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Kangaeru Hito (考える人, “The Thinker”). The O-pen version is translated by Zhang Lefeng.

Accompanying the interview is a 1Q84-inspired trip through Tokyo courtesy of Peggy Kuo (郭正佩), the author of a book of photo-essays about the Tokyo locations featured in Murakami’s fiction.

One of the issue’s other highlights is “What Are Dragons” (龙是什么), a previously unpublished essay by Zhou Zuoren. Critic and O-pen editorial board member Zhi An (止庵) describes the essay’s journey to publication:

“What Are Dragons” is an unpublished piece by Zhou Zuoren written in the early 1950s. In Zhou’s diary, we find in the entry for August 24, 1953: “Copied out the old essay, ‘What Are Dragons’, twelve pages by the afternoon.” August 25: “Copied out the old essay, eighteen pages in all.” August 27: “This afternoon went to the post office to send off the old essay ‘What Are Dragons,” eighteen pages, to Mr. Pan.” Mr. Pan is Pan Jitong (潘际垌), then head of the Beijing office of Da Kung Pao. However, the piece was not published. Zhou rewrote some of its material into “Yangtse Crocodile” and “The Qilin, Phoenix, Tortoise, and Dragon,” collected in Wood Chips (木片集). The October 28, 1964 edition of Hong Kong’s New Evening Post (新晚报) printed “Dragons Today” (现今的龙), which included the line, “Ten years ago I wrote a piece called ‘What Are Dragons,’ and although it was not published, the manuscript fortunately still survives.’ The piece excerpted part ten of “What Are Dragons,” with certain additions and deletions. The handwritten manuscript of “What Are Dragons” is retained by the late author’s family. Neither Uncollected Writings of Zhitang edited by Chen Zishan nor the Complete Prose of Zhou Zuoren edited by Zhong Shuhe include this essay.

In the essay itself, a rather lightweight investigation into the origins of the mythological creature, Zhou Zuoren briefly discusses traditional Chinese depictions of the dragon as a reptile, as a supernatural being, and as the Dragon King, before moving on to look at how dragons are depicted in India and in the West. He also compares the dragons to dinosaurs, crocodiles and lizards, and suggests, “We can conclude that the Chinese dragon actually existed as a large reptile, a kind of lizard. Closest to it today is probably the Komodo dragon, and hence it could be raised domestically. But the strange thing is that this not particularly sophisticated creature has left such a deep influence upon Chinese culture.”

This issue also features a translation of “Pharmacy” from Elizabeth Strout’s collection Olive Kitteridge, an appreciation of Hou Hsiao-hsien by Jia Zhangke, a short story by Hong Kong writer Flora Wong Bik-wan (黄碧云), and an essay by Annie Baobei herself.

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Energy-based cultural transmission

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Soft power

The Dongguan-based Pegasus battery company decorates its wares with elements of traditional Chinese culture.

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“Energy transmits culture” (能量传播文化), the packaging claims, and customers can enjoy depictions of giant pandas, Peking Opera masks, the four great inventions, and scenes from classic novels, at least until they shut the battery slot and go back to clicking the TV remote.

Shown here is a Qing Dynasty ceramic jar with an illustration of a man riding a qilin. The caption:

Thousands of years ago, through their own knowledge and hard work, the ancestors of the Chinese people invented and created with their own hands a perfect artificial stone, which has endured to be enjoyed by all humanity. This artificial stone, known as ceramic, is a great wonder in the history of human civilization.

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The Eurasian Face

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The Eurasian Face cover. Image: Blacksmith Books

Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:


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Image: Blacksmith Books

Adrian Da Silva

Musician / Songwriter

I was born in Hong Kong, my mother is British and met my Macanese Chinese father here when her family moved to Hong Kong.

As a child, being Eurasian had no real impact on me. I went to an international school and everyone was different. Now I am older, I appreciate the ambiguity of being Eurasian, I kind of like not belonging to any particular ethnicity. It’s good to not be defined by any nationality and its accompanying stereotypes (although it has to be said that sometimes Eurasians have their own stereotype of being smart and good-looking!). Saying that, I think that this ambiguity is not the preserve of Eurasians alone. Being such a cosmopolitan place, people in Hong Kong generally have a choice to take what they want from each culture. Even if you belong to a nationality, it doesn’t mean that you have to be immersed in that nationality. A lot of Asians identify with other countries, for example in following football, or being fans of different music.

I play and sing in a band and although sometimes it seems a bit weird to be playing English music to a mostly local crowd, I feel that music is truly international – it doesn’t matter about language. Everyone knows who Michael Jackson is.

Being Eurasian has not really affected my music career. The only time it really comes up is during interviews when I’m always asked how I can look kind of Chinese and have lived here for 29 years and not speak Cantonese. The only answer I can give is that in the international school bubble, many if not most of us couldn’t speak Cantonese regardless of how long we’d been in Hong Kong or even if we had been born here.

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Dating 101: change majors?

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Man meets woman at Beijing’s 8-Minute Dating club (photo courtesy of the club, 2004)

Ralph Jennings is a journalist and long time resident of China. He currently lives in Taipei. From mid-2000 to 2006, he had an advice column in the 21st Century weekly newspaper in which he answered letters from thousands of students and young professionals. Below is a letter from the archive, with an introduction by Jennings.

Meeting members of the opposite sex of course doesn’t just challenge the youth of China. But a bouquet of social pressures that start from childhood nip off most of the nation’s female-initiated romances before they bud: you’re too young for a boyfriend (mom talking), we sent you to college for education not messing around (parents talking), women appear too “easy” if they make a move (society talking) and you’re not good enough for the rich, handsome, charismatic guy who everyone else has eyes on (society again). Demoralising? Ask Judy.

Student letters to a foreign agony uncle

Dear Ralph,

I’ve been living for 22 years. I have experienced and learned a lot. Now I’m a junior in college. I’m happy and I love my life and everything around me. But there is still one thing I don’t understand. I never think of myself as introverted. I’m always willing to help others at any time. I have many female friends who get well along with me. They say I’m kind and humorous. But it is unbelievable that I have not even one male friend. Worse, I’m afraid of talking with male students in class. Sometimes boys do talk to me, but our conversations are always so formal and stiff that I can hardly stand it. I don’t know how to communicate with boys. What should I do?

Judy, September 2009

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What the citizens know: oil spills, environmental disasters

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Clean up worker drowning in the the Dalian oil spill

This opinion piece is by Zhenni Zhang, who is studying environmental policy for her Master’s in Environmental Management student at Duke University.

If they know the truth, they can do something

On 16 July 2010, in the northeastern port city of Dalian, China, two pipelines exploded, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air and burning for over 15 hours. The damaged pipes released thousands of gallons of oil, which flowed into the nearby harbor and the Yellow Sea.

When it happened, it was called China’s worst ever oil spill, but it seems to have long been forgotten.

The State Oceanic Administration of China, an administrative agency for the supervision of sea area uses and marine environmental protection, will release the Annual Bulletin of Yellow Sea Environmental Quality in March. With the publication of the Bulletin just six months after the spill, the disaster is likely to reappear in public view.

Government officials should take the opportunity to provide candid coverage of the spill, including the full and accurate assessment of the ecological damage of the area affected. If the public know the truth, they can do something. They have the ultimate power of bringing about changes to some of the most severe environmental problems society faces.

The Chinese government has placed a greater concern on environmental issues since the early 21st century. In order to promote public involvement in environmental governance, China’s Measures on Open Environmental Information (for Trial Implementation) , similar to the Toxics Release Inventory in the United States, went into effect on May 1st, 2008. The measures require environment agencies to disclose 17 different kinds of environmental information, including regional environmental quality, amounts of discharge and the records of polluters in various regions.

Despite these efforts, the public remain disconnected from environmental issues. The enforcement of “The Measures” is problematic. My hometown, although only a hundred miles from the beach nearest the polluted sea area, remains apathetic. People rarely talk about the spill there. After all, this one did not produce deaths like an earthquake or mudslide. Oil spills, to them, are isolated, accidental events that can be avoided by government institutions maintaining policies and regulations.

Why are they apathetic? Were they born less concerned about our home than people from other countries? Of course not. Chinese citizens are often not well informed or aware of the implementation of environmental policies or the severity of environmental problems. How could they participate in solving the problems? The public needs to be informed so that their energy can be harnessed.

The Chinese government has the duty to make environmental information public. Governments in the U.S. or other industrialized countries have passive roles in most environmental issues. They react to public opinion. Credible information is provided by NGOs or other independent research institutes. But in China, environmental NGOs are still weak and most media agencies are state-owned. The government is the only source of real environmental information. To effectively engage public participation, the government needs to take a leading role.

The Annual Bulletin of Yellow Sea Environmental Quality, which will be released next month, is an opportunity for the government to be honest about the accident and to provide candid coverage.

An oil spill happens for a reason. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Dalian to the numerous coal mine accidents, it is tragically obvious that economic development built upon fossil fuels is unsustainable and comes at a high price.

By informing the public about the connections between their daily life and ecological disaster, more people could potentially change their consumption habit. If everyone in the country could think about how bad an oil spill like this could be each time they drive a car, turn on a light, or use a computer, the country’s energy conservation targets may be met by the ability of citizens to respond.

The authorities cannot solve all of China’s environmental problems, nor can we trust corporations to be socially responsible. To improve China’s environment, we need to empower the public. The key is for the government to make more environmental information available so as to catalyze public participation.

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Copyright Society to reprint out-of-print texts

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Orphaned academic works will be reprinted in small quantities under a partnership launched by the China Written Works Copyright Society on February 24.

As announced by a small item in the February 28 edition of the China Press and Publishing Journal, the Society, the China Printing Group Corporation Digital Printing Company, and the Beijing Hanwen Diancang Culture Company signed a licensing agreement to bring limited-edition reproductions of out-of-print academic books to university libraries.

Covered by the agreement are “out of print books possessing research, reference, or collectible value,” primarily in the humanities, and originally published between 1949 and 2005. The rationale: “Reportedly, more than half of the books published in China every year, specialty academic books for niche audiences in particular, circulate only briefly before going out of print.” Additionally, university libraries have significant gaps in their collections “for various reasons,” and this project would help fill those gaps.

“The Copyright Society will utilize its advantageous position to obtain the permission of the works’ copyright holders, the China Printing Group will provide the project with printing support, and the Beijing Hanwen Diancang Culture Company will be responsible for handling orders from universities. The three parties said that they would endeavor to comply with copyright laws and regulations and would explore avenues through which a large quantity of out-of-print academic books could be provided as needed on a print-on-demand basis.”

Zhang Hongbo, a deputy director-general of the Copyright Society (中国文字著作权协会), said that the Society’s role would be to remit royalties to copyright holders and to keep reprint numbers “under 200 copies per title,” according to the China Culture Daily, which ran its own report the following day.

The articles went largely unnoticed upon publication (who reads CP&PJ, anyway?), but microbloggers picked it up a day or two ago and began debating whether the Copyright Society had the authority to reprint old texts.

University libraries that do have rare titles in their collections will run off photocopies for a fee, and a number of private companies do a thriving trade in copied editions of out-of-print titles, selling their wares through used book forums like Kongfz. However, the prospect of a large-scale copying effort spearheaded by an organization supposedly devoted to protecting the interests of copyright holders made some publishers uneasy.

Shi Hongjun of the Century Publishing Group posted updates to his microblog that accused the Society of overstepping its authority and raised questions about the legitimacy of their plan under China’s current regulatory environment:

2011.03.07, 09:17: Can academic texts be copied at will without the publisher being informed? According to the first page of the February 28 edition of China Press and Publishing Journal, the China Written Works Copyright Society, a printing agency, and a private bookseller will copy a large quantity of out-of-print academic texts from 1949 through 2005. Why does it seem like they’re shutting out social science publishers? Isn’t this sort of book printing, without publisher participation, illegal? I solicit your opinions…

2011.03.07, 23:49: Since you’ve taken so many things for granted, it looks as though I’ve got to put out some common sense. The copyright for a printed book is a complex thing. Although the publisher may no longer possess the exclusive right of publication, it may still retain the following copyrights: cover design, interior design, textual edits, and illustration edits. If you eliminate the publisher and simply photocopy the book, you’ve got big problems. This is an entirely separate issue than the scheduled reversion of rights.

2011.03.07, 23:54: Additionally, according to publishing norms, to improve quality and timeliness, publishers are required to re-submit a book for review when it is reprinted. The publishing agency I work for has always worked in this way. When you copy these books, who will assume responsibility for the re-approval work that ought to be undertaken by the publisher?

Shi’s comments prompted The Beijing News to run a report on the situation that quoted him further:

The main problem is that the Copyright Society ought to serve its members. If it engages in this, it shouldn’t route around the publishers and enter into a for-profit commercial partnership. First, it ought to solicit publishers’ opinions and see whether they will re-issue those books. If they will not, then the Copyright Society can consider other areas. Otherwise, what happens if you just photocopy a book at will? Everyone knows that library book sourcing is chaos.

Zhang Hongbo told the newspaper that Shi’s objections were based on a misunderstanding of the partnership. Copyright law would be observed by first asking for permission before going ahead with any reproductions. Design and other copyrights expire after ten years, so the complicated copyright situation would only exist for works published between 2000 and 2005, for which a list of titles has yet to be drawn up.

Finally, he explained that the money involved was minimal: several dozen copies of each title, with the Society taking between 10 and 20 percent, so “it’s basically for public service.”

Last year, when the Copyright Society went up against Google over the Internet giant’s book digitization program, Zhang was frequently quoted in the Chinese press defending authors’ rights. Although Google Books is not mentioned in any of the reports on the current partnership, by stressing their intent to consult copyright holders beforehand, Zhang distinguishes his operation from Google’s “scan first and compensate later” approach.

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Big in China

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This is an adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.

I met my Chinese teacher Yechen within two months of moving to Beijing and developed an immediate affection for him. When he told me that he was going to quit the language school where I was studying, I immediately hired him to give me private lessons and helped him find some other students who were also drawn to his rigorous, intellectually demanding sessions.

Yechen was an unusual guy, thoroughly grounded in classical Chinese philosophy, culture and religion. He spoke in aphorisms without pretension, animated his conversation with references to ancient parables, guided his decision-making by looking to historical precedence and was deeply out of step with contemporary Beijing’s go-go aesthetic. But he was also full of contradictory impulses, an Anglophile who spent five years teaching at a prestigious London university and had cultured taste in music and literature, both Western (Tennessee Williams) and Chinese (Gao Xingjian).

During our second year studying together, Yechen asked if I wanted to accompany him and a Taoist monk friend on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Huashan. It sounded like an unforgettable journey but I already had plans, so Yechen went with another of his students, returning deeply moved.

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Nixon in China, not in China

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Nixon in China (SW file photo)

Sometime Danwei contributor Nick Frisch covers music and culture in and around Hong Kong and Greater China. He wrote in with the story behind his recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia (English) (Chinese) filed from New York City during last month’s performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

Nixon in Limbo: How John Adams’s Nixon in China Never Quite Arrived There

You might expect John Adams’s Nixon in China to be forbidden fruit among composers, musicians, theater-lovers, and artistic subversives of all stripes in the PRC. After all, historical dramas are the Chinese theatrical tradition’s stock-in-trade. The opening salvo of the Cultural Revolution was a scathing review of one such play – “Hai Rui Dismissed from Office” (海瑞罢官) – that obliquely criticized Chairman Mao through Ming Dynasty parable. Many Chinese composers, from the ivory tower of the Central Conservatory to the grimy backrooms of D-22, are familiar with John Adams and musical minimalism (简约音乐 or 简约主义). Nixon’s visit profoundly altered the everyday lives of ordinary Chinese, far more than Americans. You can even stream the entire 1987 Houston Grand Opera production from Tudou (Scene 1 – it is also on YouTube.)

But when it comes to Nixon in China in China, the silence has been deafening.

There is one article from a 2007 issue of “People’s Music” (人民音乐). The Tudou clips have a few hundred views at most (one from Youku clocks in at a modest 10,000). While an avalanche of English-language media coverage has greeted the year’s production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (and another in Canada), there has been barely a blip on Chinese radar screens.

Taking some Chinese friends in New York to the Met’s Saturday matineé last month, and discussing the opera with many others, it became apparent that they are simply unaware.

Maestro Li Delun (李德伦) was Mao’s top musician, the music director for the “model operas” (八个样板戏) referenced in Act II, and in charge of vetting songs played for Nixon in 1972 – “Turkey in the Straw” and “Home on the Range” among others. Over breakfast in Beijing, his widow Li Jue (李珏), herself an accomplished violinist, professed ignorance of the opera, but gladly showed off her souvenir paperweights from the 1972 visit. Her daughter and grandson, both musicians living in Canada, were likewise unaware.

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The weight of history: a 1972 memento

Many Chinese who saw the opera, onstage or online, found parts of it bizarre, even faintly ridiculous. When Mao sings about a “golden bowl broken” – a reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes and a Henry James novel – one imagined 金饭碗, a comfortable government sinecure and play on “iron rice bowl” (铁饭碗). Zhou Enlai’s soaring aria leading up to a repeated “Gambei” (as ganbei/干杯 is rendered in the libretto) sounds stirring to Western ears, but mildly preposterous to Chinese ones. Act I sticks largely to historical facts, over a pulsing minimalist score. Act II begins to descend into fantasy as the Nixons interfere with the action of their evening’s entertainment: The Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军), a revolutionary ballet that was one of Jiang Qing’s pet projects. Act III is total fantasy, as the characters ruminate and wonder “how much of what we did was good?” My Chinese friends found the original Red Detachment more compelling, and I was inclined to agree.

Art follows art: Two Red Detachments

By unanimous acclaim, however, one moment was pitch-perfect: Jiang Qing’s coloratura tantrum “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung.” A whole slew of interviewees, from State Department veterans in Nixon’s entourage to Chinese artists familiar with Jiang’s tirades, said the moment nailed perfectly her personality and tendency to interfere in the arts.

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She speaks according to the book: Jiang Qing

While the authorities today might not disagree with that depiction of the Gang of Four’s disgraced and reviled leader, the Met production’s Act III is surely grounds for censorship: Mao’s sexual escapades were inspired, said director Peter Sellars, by revelations from The Private Life of Chairman Mao (毛泽东私人医生回忆录), the memoir of his doctor Li Zhisui (李志绥). Even in Hong Kong, the Met’s popular season of HD broadcasts has mysteriously dropped Nixon.

In some ways, the opera has aged well, especially for an American audience – Mao’s jokes about listing on the New York Stock Exchange seemed timely. Members of Nixon’s entourage who saw the opera were mostly appreciative, with a widely-repeated exception. “The treatment of Henry Kissinger was very unfair and distorted” said Nicholas Platt, who helped engineer Nixon’s visit before serving as Ambassador to Pakistan and in other key US government posts.

John Frankenstein, an opera lover who was a junior State Department officer in Hong Kong when the visit was announced, thought the opera did a decent job of capturing the sweep and gravity of the moment. “We thought a rapprochement of some kind was coming, but it was done so secretly, the announcement was a surprise. Not even the US ambassador to Taiwan [the Republic of China] was alerted. The libretto had some interesting angles on the story, and I think the staging of [Jiang Qing’s] aria really conveyed the regime’s institutionalization of violence that we had guessed at, but now know to be a fact of live that peaked during the Cultural Revolution.”

Only one reaction to the opera from Chinese officialdom surfaced, via former State Department official Douglas Paal: “When [Nixon] premiered at the Kennedy Center, I hosted the Chinese embassy’s leaders in the President’s box” he recalled in an e-mail. “Their reaction ranged from shock to outrage to ridicule. They were offended by attempts at low humor, especially suggestive behavior by Jiang Qing. They were not favorably impressed.”

Adams, Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman certainly succeeded in creating a classic American opera, which all three insisted was their only goal in interviews last month . All the same, it would have been interesting to see to see Nixon the opera try a little harder where Nixon the man succeeded – in reaching out to the Chinese themselves.

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Holding up half the search engine

Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan talks to Baidu’s female vice president of search technologies Wang Mengqiu on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

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Beijingers agree with Beijing Daily‘s position on stability: they’re all for it!

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Beijing Daily, March 7, 2011

The Beijing Daily published two front-page editorials over the weekend calling on the general public to do their part to work for stability. As it continued to push the stability theme in a front-page local news story, today’s paper referred several times to the “strong response and resonance” its editorials had generated among Beijing residents.

Referring to the call for weekend protests in China’s major cities, both Saturday’s “Conscientiously preserve social harmony and stability” (see the translation at China Media Project) and Sunday’s “Preserving stability starts with each person” speak repeatedly of the efforts of “people with ulterior motives” to destabilize China.

Saturday’s piece declared that “the masses are fiercely displeased” at the “farce.” To illustrate the consensus of the masses, today’s article, “Preserving social stability and harmony begins with me,” presents reactions from ordinary people from all walks of life, paraphrased in language that echoes the original editorials.

  • Ma Huimin (马慧敏): a party member in her seventies. “She clearly sees the essence of those people with ulterior motives who recently have incited illegal gatherings, and said she would not trust rumors, spread rumors, look on, or participate.”
  • Deng Haihong (邓海红), an employee of Beijing Jeep who has been in the work force for two decades, applauded the editorials. “He said that so long as we all conscientiously safeguard social harmony and stability, the people with ulterior motives inside and outside China will have no chance.”
  • Zhao Yi (赵轶), a software developer of four years, said, “Only in an excellent overall situation of stability, unity, and harmony can young talent like us show off our abilities and plan and realize a better future.”
  • Liu Fengzhen (刘凤珍) of Xicheng District received her senior citizen card last year and is enjoying the benefits it brings: free admission to parks, medical compensation. “Without a stable country, where will ordinary people find so many beneficial policies?”
  • Speaking for Beijing’s rural residents, Yang Xiuqi (杨秀齐), a 62-year-old farmer, explained how he was able to take advantage of new rural medical policies to avoid paying 70,000 to 80,000 to treat his uremia six years ago.
  • Lu Yaohua (卢耀华), a computer science student at the Beijing Institute of Technology, “had his own ideas about the people with ulterior motives inside and outside China who attempted to stir up so-called ‘street politics’. He said, as college students, we ought to keenly recognize the nature of the people who have ulterior motives to incite unrest, and starting with ourselves, safeguard social harmony and stability.”

Today’s top headline reports on the latest lianghui news: Hu Jintao, Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, and Xi Jinping took part in various discussions. In the photo, President Hu meets with the delegation from Tibet.

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