Documentary “Hooligan Sparrow” shows how dangerous it is to protest against rape in China

Quartz – The documentary film Hooligan Sparrow begins with Wang Nanfu, a fresh journalism school graduate, introducing herself while standing on a busy street. Seconds later, she is surrounded by a group of men. They egg each other on, threatening to smash her camera and daring her to continue filming. “This is the story I captured before they took the camera from me,” Wang says in a voice over.

The rest of the documentary is even more violent, but Wang’s subjects appear better prepared. When eleven people storm into the home of a Chinese women’s rights activist named Ye Haiyan, who also goes by the name “Hooligan Sparrow” (link in Chinese), Ye deftly fights off their attacks with a meat cleaver.

Hooligan Sparrow, Wang’s first film, was an official selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and debuts this month on the POV series on PBS and on Netflix. The severe harassment it documents of women’s rights activists is part of a broader clampdown on civil society in China. Last summer, police questioned or detained over 300 human rights lawyers and activists. At least a dozen are yet to stand trial.

Days before the attack on Ye’s home, during the summer of 2013 covered in the documentary, Ye had organized a small protest in the southern island province of Hainan, where she held up a poster saying, “Principal, get a room with me—leave the school kids alone.” A photo of Ye with her sign went viral, raising awareness of a spate of sexual assaults in China against schoolchildren. At the time, Ye was already widely known for volunteering to work for free in a brothel in order to draw attention to sex workers’ rights.

Like Ye, Wang is from a poor village in China. Wang taught herself English and won scholarships that allowed her to study journalism in Ohio and New York. She was planning on making a documentary about Chinese sex workers when Ye invited her to film their protest.

Their Hainan protest was aimed at a school principal and a local government official, who had taken six female students aged 11 to 14 to a hotel and raped them over a 24-hour period. The men claimed they thought the girls were sex workers. They were each sentenced to less than 14 years in jail, reflecting the fact that the punishment for “engaging in sex with underage prostitutes” in China used to be only five to 15 years in prison. The “prostitute” label was a criminal classification that legal experts said shamed child victims into silence and let rapists off the hook.

In the film, Wang follows Ye and her fellow activists as police and hired thugs chase them from town to town. In one chilling scene, only the sounds of Ye getting beaten can be heard. Wang is also followed and interrogated, with her camera jerking wildly as she tries to run away. All of this happened because a small group of women were successfully raising awareness, mostly through social media, about sexual assault cases.

Anti-rape activism wasn’t always so controversial in China. Before president Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, authorities seemedrelatively tolerant of advocacy around women’s issues, compared to causes such as religious freedom and land rights.

Female activists who are currently in jail include former primary school teacher Su Changlan, who faces up to 15 years in prison on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Su is a former volunteer for the New York-based Women’s Rights in China group, and has campaigned for an end to violence against women, and assisted women who were forced to abort children to comply with China’s family planning system.

After shutting down Ye’s activism and driving Wang out of the country, authorities made an even stronger statement last year by arresting five young feminist activists, shortly before International Women’s Day on March 8. The five were planning to distribute stickers with slogans, including a call for police to arrest sexual harassment suspects, when they were detained.

“Ye can’t hold street protests anymore. She has trouble traveling because she is under constant surveillance, and her passport has been taken away,” said Wang, who is married to an American and lives in New York. “Police threatened my family and urged them to stop me from making my documentary. I haven’t tried to go back to China yet. I don’t know if it’ll be safe to go.”


China laughs off US democracy

Donald Trump’s brash and unpredictable campaign boosts Beijing’s argument that China’s one-party state system is superior to US-style democracy. 

Beijing (dpa) – On an autumn evening in Beijing, people from the United States, Canada and China gathered at a pub in the city centre to watch the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

While nearly all the foreigners were Clinton supporters, many of the Chinese viewers had mixed reactions.

“Trump doesn’t seem that bad. I thought he’d be totally crazy, but he seems pretty smart,” said Chen Yu, a student at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Chen and his classmates laughed when Trump blamed China for stealing jobs from US citizens and devaluing its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage.

“Look at what China is doing to our country,” Trump said. “They are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.”

In May, the Republican nominee had gone as far as to describe China’s trade relationship with the US as “rape.”

But despite his attacks, Trump counts a number of Chinese admirers. Some have even set up groups on social media with names such as “Donald J Trump Superfans Nation.”

Official Chinese media, meanwhile, have jumped onto the opportunities Trump’s scandals present to point out the failings of Western democratic societies.

In a popular editorial, the state-run Global Times called Trump a “narcissistic and inflammatory candidate” who acts like “a clown,” expressing alarm that he could become president in “one of the most developed and mature democratic election systems” in the world.

The newspaper warned that people like Trump are not only “big-mouthed,” they can be dangerous.

“Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy,” it said.

But analysts say that events over the past year – from Brexit to Trump’s rise – have tarnished the image of democracy in China, where there is no meaningful political opposition to Communist Party rule.

“Even Chinese citizens who are sceptical, who have travelled abroad, see that there are genuinely worrying events in the US.

The Chinese media doesn’t have to make it up,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese and world history at the University of California, Irvine, in an interview with dpa.

Ying Ying, a banker in Beijing, agreed: “What’s happening in the US and Europe really doesn’t make democracy look good.”

A commentary from the official Xinhua news agency earlier attacked Trump for playing the “China-bashing card” in his efforts to shore up his support, and accused him of offering no real ideas on how to improve relations.

Xinhua also said Trump’s policy ideas had “betrayed” the Republicans’ traditional endorsement of free trade.

Some Chinese are worried that if Trump wins, China’s economy will suffer. Leaders have assured citizens China will meet the government’s growth target of 6.5 to 7 per cent for 2016.

“If Trump becomes president, he would add heavy taxes to export products, delivering a huge strike to China’s economy,” Hu Die, a trade company employee in Beijing told dpa.

But many Chinese still think that even an election involving Trump is better than no elections at all.

“I hate the Chinese here who support Trump for fun

“But I understand those people who would vote for Trump to show their unhappiness with the current government. It isn’t going to solve the problems, but they have that right,” said An Ruyi, an assistant television producer.

“China doesn’t have politicians who act like Trump. But at least they have elections in the US. I would still like to have the opportunity to vote,” said Guo Guo, a product manager at a Chinese technology company.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 20:  Pokemon GO players meet at Sydney Opera House on July 20, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. The Opera House hosted a Pokemon gathering,  adding lures to all nearby Pokestops. The augmented reality app requires players to look for Pokemon in their immediate surroundings with the use of GPS and internet services turning the whole world into a Pokemon region map. The hugely popular app has seen Nintendo shares soar following its limited release in the US, Australia and New Zealand on July 6.  (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Exclusive: Pokemon Go launch in China given hope with new technology venture

A ban on Google Maps means that Pokemon Go is still unavailable in China months after being launched in other parts of the world. However, local fans may finally be able to join the craze if a new technology venture succeeds. 

Beijing (dpa) – A new venture from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba may smooth the path for the launch of Pokemon Go in the world’s most populous country, technology experts have told dpa.

Nintendo’s smartphone “augmented reality” game, in which computer-generated Pokemon characters are superimposed onto real locations, has been a sensation this year with over 100 million downloads worldwide and an estimated daily revenue of 10 million dollars.

Nintendo’s Pokemon chief executive said Tuesday the company hopes to bring the game to China and South Korea, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the long wait has led Chinese citizens to take desperate measures to access the game such as buying expensive foreign Apple IDs or jailbreaking their phones to change their GPS location and simulate play in other countries.

“The main reason Chinese fans cannot play Pokemon Go in China [on real Chinese streets] is because the app uses Google Maps, which is blocked in China,” Kong Shan, CEO of Beijing-based app development company IT Engineer, told dpa.

Pokemon Go runs on Google App Engine, Google’s cloud computing platform for developing and hosting apps in Google data centers.

China has blocked Google products since 2010, when the US company refused to comply with the government’s censorship demands. Popular social media apps such as Facebook and Snapchat are also blocked in the country.

However, potential ways around the blocks could emerge on the back of the Alibaba Group’s announcement last month that it has partnered with 11 companies including AppScale Systems Inc of the US to help them “leverage Alibaba Cloud’s leading cloud computing expertise … to explore the China market.”

Appscale is a Google-approved open source version of the Google App Engine that gives companies the ability to move their Google-based applications and run them anywhere they choose without the need for additional software.

“Our customers have built their business success on Google App Engine. At some point, China becomes a market that these customers desire to penetrate,” Appscale CEO Woody Rollins told dpa.

“Alibaba’s AliMaps has similar functionality to Google Maps, particularly as the requirements of Pokemon Go are concerned. AliMaps would be the plug-in replacement for Google Maps.”

“We have concluded not only is this possible, it is do-able,” Rollins told dpa exclusively.

The launch of Pokemon Go in China could lead to a massive windfall for Nintendo.

There are an estimated 563.3 million smartphone users in China, and mobile gaming is a major source of revenue for Chinese internet giant Tencent, the maker of the hugely popular WeChat app.

“I hope it happens. I travelled to Hong Kong last month mostly just to play Pokemon Go. I think there would be huge demand for the game in China,” said Zhang Pengfei, 32, a Beijing-based restaurant manager.

But Kong Shan warns that it could still be difficult for foreign companies to negotiate the use of Chinese map systems.

China’s State Council announced new regulations in December that required all digital maps provided in China to be stored on servers in China, and imposes fines and penalties for violations of rules such as one that prohibits the display or storing data deemed to be illegal by the government.

“Pokemon Go makers would contract with Alibaba to use their services … similar to what they currently do with Google. It is the AppScale software that enables Pokemon to run on Alibaba,” Rollins said.

However, only third-party applications can use Appscale. Gmail, Google Maps and Google Search are all services that can only be provided by Google. They would remain inaccessible in China without the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), Rollins said.

Rollins said Appscale has not yet approached Pokemon Go executives with their China research findings and Niantic Labs, the developer of Pokemon Go, has not responded to dpa’s requests for comment.

Alibaba’s “AliLaunch Program” with foreign technology partners comes at a time when China is taking more steps to hinder foreign companies from openly competing with domestic companies in various industries.

China requires foreign carmakers to set up businesses with local partners to help boost the technological and operational advancement of the domestic industry.

China also restricts foreign movie imports to 34 titles a year out of concern that opening up completely to the foreign market could damage its domestic film industry.


Charity overhaul in China, but only with government approval

Beijing (IRIN) – The world’s strongest storm of the year slammed into China last week, just as the country was recovering from severe flooding that the government said left about 1,000 people dead. In many nations, this would prompt a deluge of donations to disaster response, but not in China, which is ranked the second-least charitable country in the world.

A new law is meant to fix this, but critics have voiced concern that it is too restrictive and will lead to greater state control.

Researchers and charity workers say people are reluctant to donate largely because they don’t trust the system. Scandals have damaged the reputation of major charities, many of which have been forced to operate in legally grey areas for decades if they do not have a government sponsor.

The national charity law, which came into effect on 1 September, includes improved fraud protection, relaxed registration requirements, and incentives such as tax benefits. The new measures may help encourage charitable giving, which is especially important in a country like China that suffers from frequent natural disasters but doesn’t generally invite foreign aid.

“It is too early to say if the law will lead to an increase in giving, but I think it will definitely push the charity sector to become more careful and accountable, and in time this should encourage more giving,” said a staff member of a government-backed humanitarian agency who requested anonymity because she was not authorised to speak to media (A media officer from the same organisation did not respond to requests for comment).

Distrust and scandal

China ranked second to last of 145 nations surveyed for charitable giving, according to the World Giving Index published last year by the Charities Aid Foundation. It was followed only by Burundi, a country in the throes of a violent political crisis.

Surveyors found that only eight percent of Chinese reported giving money to charity during the last month, while just four percent said they would volunteer.

The low level of charity in China is particularly striking since the country is producing more billionaires than ever. The murky nature of the Chinese economy makes it hard to measure wealth, but Forbes estimated the country had 335 billionaires last year (compared to the United States with 536), while the Shanghai-based publishing and market research firm Hurun Report put the number of Chinese billionaires at 568.

But the number of people supporting charities has been falling even as the rich get richer, according to the World Giving Index. And it’s no wonder people are distrustful when it’s so difficult to access information on non-profits. Nine out of 10 charitable organisations in China failed to meet basic standards for transparency, according to a recent report from Peking University’s Center for Participation Studies and Supports that evaluated 93 charities across 31 Chinese provinces.

Scandals have also hurt the Red Cross Society of China, which is not affiliated with the International Federation of the Red Cross, but is one of the biggest humanitarian groups in the country. In 2013, the organisation admitted that nearly $12 million donated by Chinese artists to build an art school and support reconstruction work after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province was redirected to other projects.

Increased transparency

Under the new charity law, organisations no longer need a government sponsor but would have to demonstrate sound governance and legal compliance before seeking funds from the public. The stated aim of the law is to “build a comprehensive regime for the regulation and management of charity organisations in China.”

Charities that gather public donations are required to keep their administrative costs at no greater than 10 percent of the amount they raise in any given year. To help prevent fraud, groups are required to post clear information on their websites or use online donation gateways designated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

The law also introduces attractive new tax benefits. If a company’s donation exceeds 12 percent in one year, the balance can be deducted from the company’s income over the following two years. However, this is contingent on whether the rules are consistently implemented by local tax authorities.

“The law itself is a big step forward. It was made through a revolutionary, entirely participatory process. Many academics and practitioners were invited into the drafting process, and [their suggestions] were heeded by lawmakers,” Karla Simon, a scholar at the New York University School of Law and author of Civil Society in China, told IRIN.

Holly Snape, a Beijing-based analyst at the Tsinghua NGO Research Center, said the law is also a timely response to the explosive development of China’s mobile web.

“More people are using cellphones to shop and donate money, both in terms of numbers of people and amounts of money involved,” she said. “This naturally comes with much higher demands placed on charitable organisations for public reporting and transparency, proper auditing and so on.”

Too restrictive?

The law has its critics too.

Charities may now have their registrations revoked if they engage in activities deemed to “undermine state security or public interests”. Groups or individuals raising funds without a license will have to return donations and face fines of up to 200,000 yuan ($30,000).

“This law goes beyond what is necessary to build trust by restricting fundraising to government-approved groups only,” said Frances Eve, a researcher with the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

One group likely to be hit hard by the law will be friends and supporters of prisoners of conscience, who often put out calls for donations online, she said.

Rights groups accused the government earlier this year of planning to use a separate new Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations Management Law as part of a crackdown on critics. That law was passed in April but has not yet been implemented.

SEE: Activist arrest puts foreign NGOs in China on edge

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT

Exclusive: G20 leaders to agree to join Paris climate deal as soon as possible

Hangzhou (dpa) – All members of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies are expected to join the first universal action plan to mitigate the impacts of climate change, according to a late draft of the G20 summit communique seen by dpa on Sunday.

“We commit to complete our respective domestic procedures in order to join the Paris Agreement as soon as our national procedures allow,” the draft read.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly entered their countries into the Paris climate agreement on Saturday, bringing the total number of ratified countries up to 26.

The agreement will enter into force 30 days once 55 countries accounting for at least 55 per cent of global greenhouse emissions ratify it.

Activists at Greenpeace were sceptical of the agreement’s impact, saying that the “G20 summit threatens to be a flop.”

Criticizing a lack of additional commitments, Tobias Munchmeyer, Greenpeace’s political unit deputy director, told dpa that “after China and the US showed leadership, the G20 seems to not want to go forward.”

Last December in Paris, nearly 200 countries agreed to cut emissions with a goal of keeping the increase in average global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The G20 communique draft did not mention the 100 billion dollars that signatories had agreed to mobilize by the year 2020 to help developing countries combat climate change.

It also did not mention plans to fulfill a promise the G20 made seven years ago to put an end to controversial fossil fuel subsidies.

The final communique is to be released Monday evening at the close of the summit in China’s eastern city of Hangzhou.

Several leaders of highly industrialized economies were in attendance at the summit, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Xi had opened the summit Sunday afternoon with a call for the body to become “an action team instead of a talk shop.”

“It is imperative that the G20 takes the lead and blaze a trail,” Xi reiterated to the summit Sunday evening at a welcome dinner.

HOLD FOR STORY G20 CHINA HOST'S IMAGE BY CHRIS BODEEN A man cycles past a propaganda board with the words "Organize well G20, be a good host" in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. China’s hosting of the Group of 20 industrialized nations summit highlights its role as the world’s second largest economy and a growing force in global diplomacy, but also comes amid sharpening frictions over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, disputes with fellow regional powers South Korea and Japan and criticisms over a sweeping crackdown on dissent at home. China hopes to avoid discussion of such issues while using the summit in the eastern city of Hangzhou to burnish its image as a responsible major nation whose support is essential to solving the world’s ills. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Exclusive: China blocks major civil society groups from monitoring G20 summit

Hangzhou (dpa) – The host of this year’s G20 summit has “broken precedent” by denying leading civil society organizations the ability to monitor and comment on events inside the venue’s media centre, activists charge.

China either ignored or refused the requests of major international non-profit organizations to participate in the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou as observers, representatives of several such groups asserted Saturday.

They spoke to dpa on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their operations in China.

“I’ve been at the last three G20 summits but not this time. In those three years, we had up to around 40 places in the media centre and were able to provide comment to journalists,” a manager of an international advocacy group told dpa.

“Basically, there is no representation by civil society at this G20 summit,” a senior staff member of another major humanitarian group said.

He also noted that when China hosted the meeting of the Civil Society 20 (C20) in Qingdao in July, roughly three-quarters of organizations were affiliated with the Chinese state.

China did not agree to host a C20 event until late April, and at the time did not clarify when or where the gathering would take place.

“Chinese authorities have made their hostility to civil society painfully clear in recent years, such that no G20 members should be surprised at the restrictions imposed for the summit itself,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

“Past meetings have taken place in locations that generally were more tolerant of civil society, such that access was easier. But maddeningly a lot of ‘how’ any G20 is held is really up to the host – it’s not a codified matter of international law,” Richardson told dpa.

International advocacy organizations and prominent activists have appealed to G20 leaders to confront Beijing over what they call a dramatically worsening environment for human rights.

In June, authorities sentenced Hangzhou-based democracy activists Lü Gengsong and Chen Shuqing to prison terms of 11 and 10 and a half years respectively for their online essays, in a move seen as an attempt to intimidate other dissidents from speaking up during the G20 summit.

Of the more than 300 human rights lawyers and activists who have been detained or summoned by Chinese police since last summer, over a dozen are believed to still be in jail, according to Amnesty International.

Teng Biao, one of China’s best-known human rights lawyers who fled to the United States in 2014, said silence from G20 leaders on China’s human rights would amount to complicity.

“If G20 participants only talk about issues concerning the economy, if they don’t say anything about human rights, they are helping the Chinese government to crack down on the people and civil society,” Teng told dpa.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday told a meeting of G20 business leaders in Hangzhou that China is committed to “law-based governance.”


G20 host China faces tall order of keeping controversy off the agenda

World leaders are convening at this year’s G20 summit in China amid high uncertainty over issues such as Brexit, the South China Sea dispute and the refugee crisis. Beijing is worried that topics it finds politically sensitive will make their way onto the agenda.

Beijing (dpa) – This year’s G20 summit in China follows a summer of jolts to the market caused by pendular news events – not least of all Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and an attempted coup in Turkey.

But the hosts of this year’s Group of 20 summit, taking place from September 4-5 in China’s eastern city of Hangzhou, are determined to keep things strictly business.

China has its work cut out for it in avoiding thorny subjects. The country itself is currently embroiled in its own geopolitical dispute over contested territories in the South China Sea, and has come under fire from other world economies for its low-priced steel exports.

Nonetheless, Chinese organizers will want to steer discussion away from topics they deem controversial, experts say.

“China wants the discussion to be focused on, even confined to, the world economy with no sensitive political issues discussed, especially current disputes,” Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at the People’s University in Beijing, told dpa.

The summit will be attended by leaders of the world’s largest economies, including US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

While Beijing is loath to focus on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, such unsavoury themes are expected to come up during bilateral discussions on the summit’s sidelines.

“As the G20 is an economic themed conference, it is clearly contrary to the original intention of the summit if [other countries] raise the South China Sea issue,” researcher Xing Hua of the China Institute of International Studies, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs think tank, told dpa.

“China always considered the South China Sea issue a regional issue, which should be resolved by diplomatic solutions with regional countries and should not be considered an international issue,” said Guo Xiangang, the institute’s director.

An arbitration tribunal set up in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea recently upheld a complaint by the Philippines about contested islets in the sea, which holds key shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in mineral and marine resources.

China’s excess production of steel and aluminium is another topic that the summit would rather avoid, according to the institute.

However, US officials have listed that among the issues other nations hope to discuss with China.

The European Union and the US have also called for additional protections from dumping and for China to reduce excess capacities, which have put pressure on world markets.

“Overcapacity is not only happening in China, but also in quite a lot of other countries,” Xing argued. “China is making great efforts to solve the problem. What else is expected?”

So what does China want to talk about at this year’s G20? Working together on managing the fallout from Brexit, fighting global climate change, and strengthening cooperation on anti-terrorist and refugee issues are all approved items on the agenda, Guo said.

A July statement from the G20 said members were “well positioned to proactively address the potential economic and financial consequences stemming from the UK referendum”.

However, G20 finance ministers and central bank chiefs failed to propose any concrete joint initiatives following their meeting in the south-west Chinese city of Chengdu in July.

It is unclear whether further action will be discussed during the G20 summit.

The meetings will take place at the Hangzhou International Expo Centre, a sprawling complex that was only completed in April.

Organizers have gone to lengths to ensure the setting will showcase Hangzhou without the traffic congestion and polluted air for which Chinese cities are infamous.

The neigbouring metropolis of Shanghai will stop or limit production in 255 factories from August to September and no trucks, tractors or vehicles carrying hazardous chemicals will be allowed to enter Hangzhou during the summit, according to state media reports.


Chinese sports regime under pressure to go easier on future Olympians

As China faces a disappointing third place in the Rio Olympics, young athletes say they want a more relaxed approach in notoriously gruelling sports vocational schools.

Beijing (dpa) – Winning her first Olympic gold medal was a huge relief to 15-year-old diver Ren Qian. That’s because she’s been training since age 3.

Ren clinched the 10-metre platform competition on Thursday, becoming one of the youngest medalists at Rio and bringing joy to a country bracing for a disappointing medal tally in the Summer Games.

China hasn’t finished below second in the medal standing since 2004, but is currently trailing behind both the US and Britain.

Born in 2001, Ren started training at age 3 in gymnastics at the Chengdu Children Sports School in southwest China. At 6 years old, she transferred to diving then joined Sichuan’s provincial team in 2012.

“I performed well today. I didn’t think too much. I cannot be nervous,” the composed and soft-spoken teenager told reporters.

Her triumph comes amid on-going controversy about what lengths Chinese sports authorities have taken to produce a large number of Olympic champions since rejoining the Olympics in 1980 after the Cultural Revolution.

There are around 2,200 dedicated sports schools in the country that train about 95 percent of Olympians, according to Chinese media reports. This number of schools appears to be significantly down from the 3,687 schools reported by the government in 1990.

Children are usually recruited from normal school or community sports teams and begin intensive training at around 6 years old. Critics say state-backed vocational schools leave so little time for academic curriculum that students have limited prospects.

Even if they make it to professional levels, by 2009 there were 4,343 unemployed former athletes with thousands more estimated to have joined their ranks since then, according to the state-run Phoenix Television.

China Sports Daily estimates 80 percent of retired athletes suffer from unemployment, poverty or chronic health problems related to overtraining.

Photographs of children crying or straining through exercises in sports school gyms have gone viral recently, sparking concern among both international observers and Chinese citizens about the cost of Olympic glory.

Facing declining enrollment, specialist sports schools are taking more steps to ensure young athletes have wider options and avoid injury, a leading coach told dpa.

“For young athletes, you don’t train them like adults because their hearts and body systems are still developing,” said Wang Shizhong, a graduate of Beijing Sports University and coach of 32 years who had guided stars including long-distance runner Wang Junxia.

“It’s also important that they enjoy their event, because that will determine whether they will be tough enough to keep training,” Wang added.

Yet many talented young athletes are choosing to not go down this path.

“I won’t do it. I’ve trained seriously before and it was way too tiring,” Zheng Ying, a former top-level junior soccer player in northeast Dalian province, told dpa.

“We spent every day with our coaches at the training centre. I thought that the coaches must have been more miserable than we were,” the 17-year-old said.

“If there were many different kinds of opportunities I might consider pursuing professional soccer, but going to sports schools means that there is only one road available,” said Chen Shuoshuo, 18, Zheng’s former teammate.

It seems the wider public is shifting away from obsession over gold medals, too.

Popular Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui did not aspire to become a professional athlete when she first started out. Her parents sent her to a sports school because they thought swimming would help reduce her asthma attacks.

Earlier this month, Fu won the hearts of millions in China and around the world with her goofy sense of humour and enthusiasm upon finding out that she qualified for the finals of the women’s 100-metre backstroke.

“I used all my mystic energy!” the 20-year-old exclaimed to a reporter. “I was so fast! I’m very satisfied,” she said.


Pipe Dreams: Major Chinese cities can’t seem to figure out basic drainage and flood prevention

Quartz – As major Chinese cities were submerged this summer during some of the worst floods to hit China in history, the irony of the fact that the 600-year-old Forbidden City remained free of flooding thanks to its well-designed ancient drainage system did not go unnoticed.

This year’s floods have left at least 1,000 people dead (link in Chinese) or missing since June. With about 150,000 homes destroyed, 21,000 square miles of cropland wiped out, and tens of thousands of people displaced, this flood season has been the nation’s second-costliest on record—and more rain is forecast in coming weeks.

Horrified citizens have turned to social media to post photos of children’s bodies floating in brown floodwater in protest against officials they accuse of failing to take basic precautions and underreporting the death toll.

Though summer floods are common in some parts of China, the government blames El Niño weather patterns for bringing torrential rains that flooded more than half the country, including typically drier areas in the north. Scores of people were also injured in mudslides, building collapses, and flood-related accidents during the general chaos(see: escaped alligators). In the northern Hebei province, police reportedly suppressed street demonstrations by furious villagers.

Meanwhile, other places in Asia—including Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—experienced similar weather, yet saw zero or few casualties. Urban planning experts say much of the death and destruction could have been avoided in mainland China if government funds allocated years ago to update drainage systems nationwide had actually been used to lay out new pipes. Instead, various government departments in municipalities across the country have failed to move past bureaucratic hurdles. Drainage renewal work has yet to begin in many places.

“In China, networks of drainage pipes tend to be very low quality—most meet only 1980s standards. And once pipes have been built underground, they need regular maintenance and cleaning. Because of lack of maintenance, many outdated pipes are operating at less than half their original capability,” said Ma Renhai, an expert in city planning and water services at Shanghai-based Intelligence Technology, a water industry research and development firm that has worked in some of the country’s biggest cities.

Bureaucracy is another huge obstacle. In Wuhan, for example, which suffered heavy floods last month, the municipal government said it spent less than a third (link in Chinese) of the 13 billion yuan ($2 billion) pledged in 2013 to update the city’s drainage system, following rapid urbanization and the loss of natural reservoirs such as wetlands.

“It’s a management problem. A lot of government departments need to work together. But the leadership did not give clear instructions when distributing funds, so all these different departments have to spend time going through [bureaucratic processes] to gain approval before they can implement projects,” Ma added.

“I just want to know how that [money] was spent,” said an open letter (link in Chinese, cached version) from a Wuhan university student named Wang Xinyu that went viral. “Three years have passed, but there has been no solution,” Wang wrote.

The push to invest heavily to update the country’s drainage pipes was first raised by president Xi Jinping in 2013, with the central government subsequently investing 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) to jumpstart pilot reforms in 16 cities.

China’s premier Li Keqiang told government leaders in August last year that more infrastructure spending is needed to construct modern drainage pipes, which would have the added bonus of boosting the nation’s slowing economy.

It’s not unusual for infrastructure in developing countries to lag behind rapidly growing cities’ needs, said Kean Fan Lim, an economic geographer at the University of Nottingham in the UK who is researching economic policy experimentation in Chinese cities.

“What is unique to China is the difficulties of implementing an integrated approach to improving these services in spite of the efforts of the central government,” Lim said. “It is important to understand the highly territorialized nature of governance within and between cities.” A fixation on short-term, GDP-oriented approaches in local governments is also to blame, he added.

Meanwhile, authorities have made heavy-handed attempts to put a positive spin on the floods. State media reporting has focused almost exclusively on coverage of disaster relief, with government censors removing critical social media posts.

State media attracted ridicule for sending out a tweet inviting the public to write to premier Li’s office with suggestions. The tweet acknowledged that “construction of underground pipelines in China is seriously lagging” and “it is necessary to speed up the construction of urban underground infrastructure.”

View image on TwitterChinese-speaking Twitter users were quick to point out that nothing resembling the tweet was shared on state media accounts directed at domestic audiences (Twitter is blocked in China), suggesting that the call-out was a hollow public relations exercise.

Beijing-based reporter Chris Beam said last week that he and a colleague were offered a bribe to axe their story in the New York Times after they visited one of the villages in Hebei where floods had wreaked havoc. A person claiming to be a friend of the Party leader featured in the article called them to offer “compensation for their losses” if they didn’t run the story, Beam told Quartz.

Despite all the challenges in China, quick upgrades to key infrastructure shouldn’t be impossible. In 2012, the mayor of Beijing resigned after the heaviest rain in over 60 years caused flash floods in the city that killed at least 77 people and stranded thousands. Citizens at the time also accused officials of underestimating the death toll and failing to update drainage systems before the deluge.

This year, Beijing mayor Wang Anshun vowed to “learn the lesson of the July 21 flood.”

To the credit of capital officials, many pipelines in Beijing have been upgraded since 2012. Flash floods from recent rainstorms caused plane and train delays, but no casualties were reported.


The judicial system: Suppress and support

The Communist Party cracks down on political activists, even as it eases up on some less sensitive legal cases 

The Economist – A HUMAN-RIGHTS lawyer and three activists have been found guilty of “subverting state power” in a series of trials in the northern city of Tianjin. With resonances of the show trials of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, they are the latest part of a crackdown on Western ideas and social and political activism that began in earnest after Xi Jinping became Communist Party chief in 2012.

The past year has been particularly intense for lawyers and activists, starting last July when 250 of them were detained by police. The four convicted between August 2nd and 5th were accused of being part of a foreign-backed, anti-party conspiracy and confessed their “crimes” in video footage.

Yet the crackdown on rights lawyers and political activists is not the whole story. It comes as incremental judicial reforms are taking place for less sensitive cases at a local level which mean that some citizens are making modest progress seeking redress through the courts. These two contradictory dynamics—old-style, top-down political pressure alongside some bottom-up legal empowerment—are part of the party’s carrot-and-stick approach to maintaining stability. While no one expects significant change at the top, the big question is how much impact the local level reforms can have.

The four men who stood trial last week included Zhou Shifeng, former director of a Beijing law firm famous for defending activists such as Ai Weiwei, an artist, and intellectuals such as Ilham Tohti, an economist who spoke up for the Uighur ethnic group. Mr Zhou was jailed for seven years.

His family members, and those of the other defendants, were not allowed to attend the trials. Police blocked foreign journalists from entering the courthouse and official media reports discredited the men ahead of their sentencing. International observers condemned the proceedings in Tianjin as a travesty of justice. On August 1st, Wang Yu, another prominent human-rights lawyer, was said to have been released from jail. In a televised confession she proclaimed that “foreign forces” were to blame for inciting her law firm to undermine the Chinese government. “I won’t be used by them anymore,” she said. Over a dozen lawyers and activists are still being held, according to Amnesty International. They could be tried at any time.

Stay out of politics

On less sensitive cases, however, popular anger has pushed the judicial system to try to be more accountable. China’s most senior legal figure, Zhou Qiang, appointed president of the Supreme People’s Court in 2013, is widely believed to want to use judicial reform to stop people taking their anger onto the streets—an increasingly widespread phenomenon. In the past, Chinese courts would arbitrarily reject sensitive cases. Many still do. But new rules brought in last year now oblige them to hear all cases that fulfil basic standards, even if they then throw them out. In the first month after the regulations came into effect, there was a 30% jump in the number of cases accepted.

In China’s first same-sex marriage case, a gay couple went to court in April in the southern city of Changsha to sue the local civil affairs bureau for the right to marry. The judge dismissed the couple’s case within minutes and they lost their final appeal two months later, but legal reformers saw the case as progress because it was at least heard in a courtroom.

In the past year, the number of cases accepted by courts relating to the rights of socially marginalised groups has surged, even though few have won. They include a lesbian student suing the education ministry for textbooks calling homosexuality a disorder; the country’s first transgender employment discrimination case; and dozens of food-safety and environmental-protection suits that challenged large companies. In a landmark victory in April, a court in the south-western province of Guizhou ruled that a local education bureau must pay a school teacher compensation after he lost his job for testing HIV-positive. China has no specific laws against employment discrimination and the case was reportedly the first of its kind.

Stanley Lubman, an American legal scholar, says the ability to sue government agencies is important and the increased pursuit of such cases reflects a greater legal consciousness among citizens. Two other things are contributing to the changes. One is progressive legislation, such as recent new laws to protect the environment and punish domestic violence; these have widened the space for litigation. A pilot reform launched last year even encouraged state prosecutors to pursue public-interest suits.

The other is social media. Sun Wenlin, a 27-year-old IT worker who is half of the gay couple in Changsha, is optimistic in spite of losing his case. “Homosexuality is taboo and we thought no one would care. But our case generated a lot of discussion on the internet. We had sympathetic coverage even in state-owned media,” he says. Mr Sun now gives workshops around the country to teach others how to file similar lawsuits, hoping to change the belief among cynical Chinese that the law is just a tool of oppression. “China is clearly changing, but slowly,” he says.

Yet the courts are still under the thumb of the Communist Party. Officials approve the hearing of many cases and sometimes determine the verdict and sentence, too. There is no way for plaintiffs to know whether a case will cause them trouble or not. Jerome Cohen of New York University says the focus of Mr Xi’s presidency is on expanding central control. The party defines sovereignty and national security broadly in order to keep control over sensitive issues, says Susan Finder, an expert on China’s legal system.

Long way to go

It will take a lot more effort to educate the broader public on their legal rights and to train enough legal officials. Judges, especially those in lower courts, are poorly paid and have little formal legal training. Many have been jailed for taking bribes. This generates deep resentment, and is the reason why thousands of petitioners journey to Beijing each year to complain to the central government rather than bother using the local courts.

Now many judges are leaving the profession, citing low pay and high pressure. The caseload of all levels of courts went up significantly following the recent reforms, while changes to judicial procedure in 2014 had already declared that judges should bear “lifetime responsibility for case quality”. A former judge in Beijing, now earning much more as a commercial lawyer, says that reforms have made things better for lawyers, who have more confidence in the system, but worse for judges, who find their ability to benefit from their position more limited.

Experts say reforms are trying hard to reduce corruption at local levels, not least to limit the damage it does to the party’s reputation nationally. But the possibility of any kind of institutional, independent checks and balances is still a long way off. On July 22nd a Beijing court gave no reason for rejecting a lawsuit filed by Yanhuang Chunqiu, an outspoken liberal journal, over the demotion of the journal’s chief editor and the firing of its publisher. It is a measure of how ossified the overall system remains that some of the small changes in local cases are greeted with such optimism.