Gambling for jade on the China-Myanmar border

Patrick Cordwell

Society and culture | Asia


The unofficial lotteries and clandestine casinos of China are the source of many tales of instant wealth and dramatic financial loss. But in Yunnan province, you’re more likely to see amateur gamblers pin their hopes, and their savings, on lumps of rock as they hunt for precious jade.

Jade is big business in China. In Yunnan province alone, the industry employs more than 500,000 people and annual sales of the precious stone have reached nearly US $2.5 billion. The prized stones flow across the border from Myanmar, and most find their way to counters in cavernous showrooms and glittering jewellery emporiums in Ruili, a small city near the frontier.

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To heal or to harm – problematic doctor-patient relationships in China

Jiamei Feng

Society and culture | Asia


According to a non-official survey in China, around 60% of medical workers in China are unwilling to let their children become doctors after growing up.

While this figure may be an exaggeration, today the reality is that working in the Chinese medical system is not so appealing. While surgeons and physicians are considered prestigious professions and count among the highest-paid jobs in Australia, in China a doctor working in a tertiary hospital “sees fifty or sixty patients” in a single morning, and may still earn less than 80,000 RMB (around $US 13,000) per year.

Not only is the salary far from satisfying; being on the job can turn into a nightmare.
Health practitioners get beaten or even killed because patients and their families are not content with treatment results. Sometimes people hire hospital violators, organised mobs or “professionals” to get greater medical compensation. To avoid further conflict, hospitals usually make concessions and pay.

On the other hand, the public is unhappy about expensive medical fees. China provides general healthcare insurance to almost every citizen, but the costs are still high. An ordinary family can easily become broke if someone in the family is diagnosed with a serious disease like cancer.

And doctors’ reputations have only worsened in the face of scandals, like news about receiving financial kickbacks from drug companies (thus raising drug fees) and “red envelopes” – when patients give extra cash to surgeons and anaesthetists for special care. The amount of money varies according to the doctor’s title, the hospital’s location and how serious the disease is. Traditionally worshipped as “angels in white” Chinese doctors are now criticised as “white-eyed wolves” – a metaphor for ungrateful souls.

The public also complains about the difficulties in seeing a doctor. The most extreme cases happen in specialist clinics in China’s tertiary hospitals. Patients prefer experts to young, unknown doctors and they are willing to spend hours or days to get registered. The registration fee is genuinely cheap.

Consequently, an illegal but often agreed silent occupation has sprung up – Huangniu, or registration scalpers. They sell specialist registration numbers to those who cannot wait at a much higher cost.

In January this year a video of a young girl went viral when while at a famous Beijing hospital she angrily claimed that she could not see an expert as a result of her rejecting scalpers, and that the hospital was playing ‘footsie’ with them.

[caption id="attachment_4886" align="alignnone" width="449"] A screenshot of the "girl condemning Huangniu" video. Her words sparked country-wide discussion.[/caption]

Medical institutions have attempted to eliminate this by adopting a real-name system and online registration. But scalpers have also upgraded their operations, remaining active in the shadows, while the police complain it is too hard to arrest them all.
The leading cause of doctor-patient conflict is China’s slow healthcare development. In 2014 the government spent $590.2 billion in medical services, accounting for 5.7% of GDP, lower than Brazil -- 8.8%. Financial aid accounts for a mere 10% of a public hospitals’ income, while 40% comes from medicine earnings, which directly pushes up medication prices.

Additionally, community hospitals, a supplement to big infirmaries, are in an awkward position. They are set to offer basic healthcare, yet lacking funds, they can barely afford advanced facilities for comprehensive treatment. Ambitious doctors are not interested in them either, due to disappointing payment and the bleak career path. They remain ‘deserted’ while major hospitals are overcrowded.

Moreover, the Chinese medical system is caught in a bizarre arrangement. In the 1990s, then Premier of China, Zhu Rongji, promoted industrialisation of healthcare services. Trade in medicines and medical equipment become entirely commercial. But supply channels are controlled both by the government and corporations. Staff in public hospitals, on the contrary, are “within the system” and their salaries increase with the rise in career levels and any official adjustment (which happened only twice in the past decade).

Leaving aside verbal and physical abuse, medical workers argue that they do not receive proper pay. A high professional rank and educational background are critical to a doctor’s career, but it usually takes eight years to get a master’s degree and at least four years of working experience to become an attending physician. Long working hours and night shifts make the job even harder. Receiving bribes and red bags seems acquiring what they deserve in an illegal way.

Subconsciously, citizens regard medical resources as public welfare. People pursue top treatment in the hope of a low price. In 2016, the government announced a raise in registration fees in tertiary hospitals -- from $US 1.3 to $US 3.7 to see a specialist. Although the price is low in doctors’ eyes, the new regulation still sparked controversy online.

China is actively promoting medical reform, yet the results are not satisfactory. Both practitioners and patients consider themselves victims and medical disputes continue. An ideal solution is to fully finance all public infirmaries regardless of hospital volume, but funding remains the biggest problem.

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Warm diplomacy in the world’s coldest capital

Harrison Rule

Society and culture | Asia


“The sleeping giant of Asia has awakened.”

So warned Charles Morgan, the Honourable Member for Reid speaking of Asia to a deeply divided Australian parliament in the midst of the Cold War.

“It has been said that he who rules or dominates Asia rules or dominates the world. As the methods and techniques of Genghis Khan are being revived … we could suddenly be embroiled in trouble.”

At the time, the image of a ruthless conqueror whose great Golden Horde toppled even the most equipped armies of Central Asia and beyond, sent shivers down the spine of Australia – a young nation that viewed itself as alone in its own region, highly reliant on far off powers for protection.

The Mongol Warlord whose empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Siberia, has acted as a cautionary symbol in Australian Defence politics, of an Asia with an inherently aggressive and expansionist spirit. An Asia that is to be feared, placated or contained.

It thus with great irony, that Australia’s newest embassy has been erected in a city guarded by the watchful gaze of the Great Khan himself. Casted in steel and gold a stoic Genghis watched on from the wild steppes just east of Ulaanbaatar as diplomatic relations were formalised between the two unlikely partners earlier this year.

[caption id="attachment_4742" align="alignnone" width="3557"] Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue - Located East of Ulanbaatar on the bank of the Tuul River. Source: Jonathan E. Shaw [/caption]

This was a move that seemed quite out of character for a sea-girt middle power that has traditionally focused its diplomatic efforts on Oceania and South-east Asia, while consolidating its presence in Northeast Asia to a few major capitals.

So what has changed? Why reach out to Mongolia now?

The importance of engagement with Asia has never been of greater strategic value than today. Following mutual recognition in 1967, diplomatic officials in Canberra were “at a loss” to describe the exact nature of Australia’s business in Mongolia. It was only recently, with the shift in focus towards the “Asian Century”, that Australia has realised the economic and strategic potential of deepening relations with powers like Mongolia.

With a rapidly changing global order, Australia is facing increased competition for access and influence in the region. Larger Asian countries are becoming more central to global diplomatic decision-making and are beginning to encroach on Australia’s traditional diplomatic stomping grounds.

Mongolia presents an opportunity for deepening and broadening our relationship with Asia. The Land of Blue Skies has already backed Australia’s bid for a UN Security Council seat as well as advocated for Australian participation in important biennial diplomatic forums such as the Asia–Europe Meeting. Like other small powers squeezed between military giants, Mongolia is looking to combat its vulnerable geographic position by expanding its diplomatic networks.

By supporting Mongolia’s aspirations for involvement in the ASEAN Regional Forum as well as other international financial institutions, Australia may in return win the support and cooperation of a state in the heart of the world’s most dynamic region.

As mineral-rich nations, both Mongolia and Australia rely heavily on Chinese importation of resources for economic prosperity. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report suggesting that the two nations will find themselves in deep competition for mineral and agricultural export markets in North-east Asia. While this may in part be true, the economic relationship shared by Australia and Mongolia is in fact far more complex.

Fifty Australian companies have a presence in Mongolia, according to data released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including mining giants Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Leighton, Xanadu Mines and Kumai Energy – all of which have significant Mongolian mineral leases and investment plans.

On the other hand, Mongolia lacks the domestic technology, wealth and expertise to capitalise on its resource potential. In a 2011 joint-statement, it was made clear by the Mongolia government that the country is looking to Australia for vocational, agricultural and legal assistance in the coming decades.

While some Australians may still be skeptical of their country’s engagement with Asia, we must depart from the political trappings of the past. The image of a terrifying Mongol horde surging towards Australia is today unfounded and laughable.

The “sleeping giant of Asia”, as the late member for Reid warned, has indeed awakened. The threat posed today, however, is not one of ideology or a Pan-Asian Empire, but of a failure to engage.

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Bhutan, body counts and beauty

Harrison Rule

Society and culture | Asia


In elegant white cursive, the words “mountains, monasteries and magic” accompany an image of a picturesque Buddhist temple delicately balanced on the edge of a rugged cliff face.

This is the scene chosen by travel guide giant Lonely Planet to encapsulate what the Himalayan hermit kingdom of Bhutan has to offer visitors, as one of the guide’s “Top experiences in Asia.”

Though the company behind the iconic blue spine travel guides has always been criticised for homogenising and euphemising myriad cultures and societies, Lonely Planet’s most recent glossy depiction of Bhutan seems more fitting for a clichéd corporate motivational poster hanging above the water cooler in a dreary office break room.

In reality, the land of the Thunder Dragon is definitely no Shambhala.

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Racism in Beijing megaclubs

Mark Rowe

Society and culture | Asia


For foreigners new to Beijing, the allure of the Sanlitun megaclubs is irresistible. There are few cosmopolitan capitals where shabbily dressed foreigners can experience the over-the-top decadence of Maserati-filled carparks, tuxedo-clad bouncers and free-flowing Moët that has come to epitomise the nocturnal stomping ground of Beijing’s super rich youth.

On these roaring marble dance floors a grand bargain has been struck. Foreigners get in and drink for free in exchange for being, well, foreign. To many this seems like their long-awaited international acclaim has finally arrived. What is not to love about VIP treatment?  However, behind the opulence of these glistening dance floors lie a few uncomfortable questions. What sort of business model can sustain giving away unlimited free alcohol to thirsty foreigners? And what of those non-Caucasian foreigners who just aren’t ‘foreign’ enough to make it through the door, let alone partake in the liquid benefits of white privilege?

Monsoon subeditor Mark Rowe spoke to Vlad* a Sanlitun club promoter originally from Kazakhstan about his three years being what he calls a ‘professional foreigner herder’ for some of Beijing’s largest nightclubs.

[caption id="attachment_4365" align="aligncenter" width="671"] A hedonistic playground for foreigners or a zoo for super-rich locals? (Photo source: Wikimedia)[/caption]

M: How did you end up in Beijing, and what made you want to stay?

V: I moved to Beijing in 2013 with my girlfriend who got some work here as a nightclub model. I did not have much to keep me back in Kazakhstan, so I thought why not! The relationship with my girlfriend didn’t last, but my love for Beijing and its nightlife has. Where else in the world can you get paid to go out and dance on a Monday night?

M: How can a club afford to give free alcohol to foreigners? Surely someone must be paying for it?

V: There are two important points to note in terms of the free alcohol given to foreigners. Firstly, I would not bet any money that the vodka red bull you order with your foreigner arm band contains vodka or red bull. It is likely to contain cheap grain alcohol substitutes and something that tastes a bit like red bull but is far from it. I would not be too worried that it is going to be methanol or something like that, but, I mean, I wouldn’t want to drink it every night of the week. The hangovers from that stuff are the worst!

M: So in this type of club you get what you pay for?

V: Exactly. The basic business model is to use the foreigners to give the club status, in line with this Chinese idea of ‘face’. The rich young elites are willing to pay exorbitant prices for bottle service at tables if the club has a more cosmopolitan sophisticated feel to it. On one level there is this sort of logic that if foreigners are in the club it is more sophisticated and international and must be good.

M: How much would a table cost for a night?

V: In some places you can pay the equivalent of $500USD. But these kids are so rich they don’t even care. A lot of them will spend money just to show off and get girls. It is by getting these sort of rich kids into the clubs that the clubs make their money. That is why the alcohol they give for free is often so cheap.

M: So are foreigners just the dancing bears for the people spending up big at the tables?

V: I actually think it’s a win-win. The foreigners get to party for free, the rich kids get to feel important and I get paid OK money to make it all happen.

M: I have heard of promoters being paid per foreigner they get into the door?

V: Yes, depending on the club, the promoters do get a small commission per invitee they get into the club.

M: Are the reports of racism in the clubs true? Are white foreigners worth more than foreign born Chinese or people of African heritage?

V: Look, the short answer is somewhat, but I mean, it is more complicated than how it has been portrayed. The clubs I work for are trying to create a certain vibe, just like any club around the world—I am sure also in Australia. As a promoter it is my job to bring in the most good-looking blonde girls possible. A lot of the clubs pay models to come to the clubs again to bring a certain status with them. The people at the tables are paying for that vibe. Anyway in my years as a promoter I have never seen someone be refused entry because of the colour of their skin. Some have had to pay for their own drinks or a cover charge, for sure, but not flat-out refused.

M: Isn’t that basically the definition of racism?

V: You don’t see the white Westerners complaining about their drinks being free do you? Even though the locals have to pay for entry and drinks.

M: Touché.

Beijing’s nightclub scene is relatively young by international standards, only really emerging in the early 1980s in large cities. Nevertheless, for a place full of inebriated sweat-soaked people dancing to sub-par music, Beijing clubs are a microcosm of a Chinese society coming to grips with growing income inequality, racism and ever more encounters with the West.

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Media Control in China: Zhao Wei and Weibo

Jiamei Feng

Politics | Asia


Often when it comes to film all the drama plays out on the silver screen. Not so in China.

A recent controversy played out on Sina Weibo, regarding a romance directed by one of China’s most famous actresses Zhao Wei. It is a revealing and cautionary tale about how much control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still has over the media.

Zhao has been forced to replace Taiwanese actor Leon Dai, and Japanese actress Mizuhara Kiko after finishing her new movie “No Other Love”, due to intense pressure on microblog site Weibo from both the public and Beijing.

Dai has a history of supporting Taiwan independence, while Kiko once visited Yasukuni shrine. Dedicated to dead Japanese soldiers, including those who fell in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the shrine has been condemned by the Chinese.

[gallery type="rectangular" ids="4199,4200"]
Weibo is a Chinese Twitter-like social media site, and the hottest microblogging service currently is Sina Weibo– the original inventor of the platform. It has various powerful functions, allowing users to insert rich media. The word limit for a basic microblog is 140 words, but users can edit and post “Long Microblogs” with lengthy text and multiple pictures.

[caption id="attachment_4218" align="alignnone" width="1346"] A screenshot of a microblog, otherwise known as Weibo[/caption]

Netizens can speak relatively freely on Weibo. Besides memes, commercials, news and harmless personal daily records, people use it to call out immorality, crime, and to criticise the political system – exposing injustice, corruption and the abuse of power.
Of course, this freedom is not entirely without limitation. Sina can delete posts and comments if they contain illegal content, or “sensitive words/information” unwelcome to Beijing, or the company itself.

For years, microblogs have served as a highly-valued justice tool. In 2016, however, things have started to change. Although netizens often criticize the CCP’s strict media control, they have paid more attention to Sina since the Zhou Ziyu Event.

The Taiwanese female singer insisted that Taiwan be an independent nation during her appearances on Chinese television. Angered, the public took to Weibo to ask her to apologise for the remarks.

Throughout the incident, a popular view emerged that Sina’s executives, in fact, support Taiwan independence, as the system deleted countless posts and comments in which furious netizens urged Zhou to apologise. Mistrust was bred.

The Zhao Wei Event is a replica of Zhou’s, but more serious and complicated. The movie was partly-financed by Alibaba, the country’s e-commerce giant as well as a major shareholder of Sina.

Three months ago when Zhao announced the cast on Weibo, her fans immediately realised that such choices would be a hidden danger to both Zhao’s movie and reputation. They kept reminding or questioning her about this on her posts, only resulting in deletion by the actress and her company.

The situation was inflamed on 25 June when she posted a joint photo with Dai to celebrate the movie’s completion. More protests appeared, while Zhao’s company threatened to sue, and Sina prevented users searching for the ongoing drama by blocking keywords.

[caption id="attachment_4229" align="alignnone" width="690"] The joint photo of Dai and Zhao that led to great controversy[/caption]
On 6 July, there was an even more surprising plot twist – the Party began to interfere. The official account of the Communist Youth League, a key element of the CCP, posted a long detailed microblog about the incident.

Although it used the word “alleged” when presenting Dai’s history of supporting Taiwan independence, the end of the article “kindly” reminded the public of three other movies which he stars in and will be soon on screen, and directly mentioned Zhao.

“Everyone makes mistakes – what is crucial is that you should be aware of and correct them,” it wrote.

[caption id="attachment_4263" align="aligncenter" width="604"] The screenshot of the article posted by the Communist Youth League on Weibo[/caption]

Making matters worse, Sina deleted the post after only 10 minutes, which led to unprecedented fury. As more political accounts got involved in the incident, Zhao finally threw in the towel and now the movie is in post-production.

Territorial unity is China’s most important political topic and nationalism is a mainstream ideology. The country is particularly sensitive to Taiwan. It may be seen as self-ruling from an international point of view, but in China it is considered an inalienable part of the territory. Any remark about independence can be a serious political mistake – as highlighted in both the Zhou and Zhao events.

And such control will continue to be stricter in the visible future. In February, President Xi Jinping stressed in a national speech the necessity of media’s subordination to the Party’s will.

Outside forces like business and the market might make some change in China, but they will never win the fight for dominance. Big Brother rules, as always.

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