Readings for August 3

1. An important story emerged this weekend in the blogosphere: Chinese legal scholar Xu Zhiyong was taken from his home by police last Wednesday and has not been seen since. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:
Xu might not have reached Marshall status yet, but he is as close as China gets to a public-interest icon. He teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He has also run the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on many of China’s path-breaking cases. He and his colleagues had investigated the Sanlu milk scandal, in which dangerous baby formula harmed children’s health, and assisted people who had been locked up by local officials in secret undeclared jails. All of those activities are emphatically consistent with the goals of the Chinese government, even if they angered the local bureaucrats who were caught in the act.

Xu has never set out to undermine one-party rule; he is enforcing rights guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution. He has enough faith in the system that he joined it: in 2003, he ran for and won a seat as a legislator in his local district assembly, one of the few independent candidates to be elected in an open, contested election. He even received the recognition, rare among activists, of being profiled last year in a Chinese newspaper. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” he said at the time. “I am determined to prove to the citizens across the country that politics should be desirable.”

His work naturally angered parts of China’s bureaucracy, and pressure on him mounted. On July 14th, the Open Constitution Initiative, also known as Gongmeng, was fined 1.42 million RMB for “tax evasion.” Then it was banned. Xu was to have had his day in court, except he was picked up before he could. Separately, a young colleague named Zhuang Lu has also been detained, and her whereabouts are unknown. It is easy to look at China’s list of high-profile detentions and rationalize them: That guy was a cowboy, or, things in China are improving, and we have to keep it in context. Sorry. Not this time. Xu is no cowboy.
James Fallows has a good collection of suggested further readings on Xu’s detention at his blog, including links to important materials at CDT and Chinese Media Project.

2. Michael Meyer has a new piece in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated on post-Olympics Beijing:
What is the legacy of the Beijing Olympics? Western perceptions of China tend to plant their standards at the poles of enchantment and apprehension: Witness the reaction to the opening ceremonies, during which many viewers' impressions slid along a continuum of awe at the sight of thousands of drummers and flying sylphs to the uneasy realization that a production of that scale is only possible in a nation with an enormous population and resources, and a government powerful enough to mobilize them. If they can do this, what can't they do?

The performances of Chinese athletes during the Games confirmed the country's formidability. Shortly after Beijing was awarded the Olympics, in 2001, China devised Project 119—an initiative named for the number of gold medals awarded (only one to a Chinese athlete) at the 2000 Games in track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing, and canoeing and kayaking. The plan was to boost the country to the top of the medal standings. China finished with its highest total ever, 100 medals, 51 of them gold (sidebar, page 70). Only the U.S. won more, 110 total, though just 36 were gold.

Yet despite the Beijing Olympics' spectacle and success—officials claimed the Games made a $146 million profit—the capital is feeling the hangover that comes after hosting the world's biggest-ever coming-out party. Beijing is learning, as host cities have in the past, that the Games' influence is often extinguished with the torch. (The hangover was not soothed, of course, by the simultaneous near collapse of the world's economy.) A year after the Olympics, Beijing residents still cannot drink the tap water, or surf an unfiltered Internet, or exercise in safe air.
In the article, Meyer returns to the neighborhood he wrote about at length in his book, The Last Days of Old Beijing, and weaves the story of Beijing's Qianmen neighborhood with his discussion of the remnants of Olympic spirit in the capital:
The redevelopment of our neighborhood has been tabled for lack of funds. At her courtyard home, as her father's pet pigeons flap in circles overhead, my former student Little Liu, now 12, teaches me the Chinese term for "global economic crisis."

Little Liu once anticipated the Beijing Games the way I used to Christmas Eve, but now the event feels very far away to her. "The Olympics showed foreign countries that China is a friendly and developed country," she says in English. "But now it's over." She shrugs and switches to Mandarin. "All the activities about the Olympics at school have been replaced by ones about psychological health, like 'Don't snatch purses' or 'Don't cheat people online.' And the posters with the Olympics slogan One World, One Dream were changed to ones praising our neighborhood's 800-year-old history and culture."

I cannot confirm these replacements firsthand; fears that foreigners might carry swine flu meant that I was forbidden to enter the grounds of the school where I taught for three years.
Moreover, Meyer emphasizes that the Olympics did not create the openness some international observers hoped for:
Beijing's Olympic legacy doesn't compare with that of Seoul, whose 1988 Games cajoled the then one-party government to allow direct elections and liberalization. No such defrosting is taking place in Beijing, where plainclothes police are everywhere, including outside the studio of Ai Weiwei.
3. China gets “Simified”: In the recently announced first expansion pack for the videogame The Sims 3, the latest installment in the Sims franchise originally created by designer Will Wright (also of SimCity), players will be able to take their Sims to China. The Sims allows players to control individuals or families of “Sims,” designing homes for them and guiding them through professional and personal choices (Sims can become famous in their chosen professions, have babies, age, and so on). In addition to China (specifically, “Shang Simla, China”), the expansion will also allow players to take their Sims to France and Egypt. In an interview, the game’s producer noted that the Sims won’t just be going on vacation—players will be taking their avatars adventuring, interacting with the virtual destinations:
Visiting real world locations has always been a draw for our players. There is a great push in our community to always bring more reality into the game be it through modders making celebrity hairs or recreating famous buildings on the exchange. Taking your Sims to real-world based, but Sim-inspired locations is a natural extension of that desire. Taking your Sim to a generic destination is one thing, but taking your Sims to the Great Pyramids is a big deal for us, and we're really excited about it. When players get into the game they will see that we're utilizing and building upon the innovations offered by The Sims 3 to create situations that would not have been possible before. It doesn't necessarily represent a shift in what the game is about, you'll still find that although your Sim is visiting Egypt, it's a Simified Egypt; we treasure our quirkiness. ..

The Sims 3: World Adventures isn't really about "visiting" at all; that implies you are an observer of another culture or destination. In this expansion pack, you are directly participating in the places you are travelling to, and it's very different than just being there. Your sims will start out at a kind of "base camp" and will have to earn their way up to being able to have a local home to travel to. While camp will be where your sim starts, it's all about getting out into the world and encountering what experiences are to be had. Your sim might start walking downtown to meet some locals and be asked to help find a lost artifact that will kick them off on an adventure that might lead to a secret nook of the location or into a lost tomb.
So far, we have not seen any screenshots from Shang Simla--all releases appear to be of Sim Egypt.

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