Monday, July 28, 2008

China from the Inside

With the Beijing Olympic Games looming, the rest of the world is going to be shown a heavily sanitised version of modern China. This 4 part documentary gives amazing insight into the real modern China through unprecedented access to everyday events.

PART ONE - Power & the People

It isn't easy, running China, with its 1.3 billion people and 56 officially recognized ethnic nationalities. It's a vast mix of languages, living standards, beliefs and customs. Run it successfully, and you have a prosperous, innovative, powerful empire to rival any the world has seen. Make mistakes, and the chaos will be vast and terrible.

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as economic boom strands millions at the margin. Meanwhile rampant corruption is sapping people's trust in the Party. Officials are increasingly seen not as public servants but as profiteers.

This episode films patrols along China's border with Kazakhstan, Party meetings, officials in Tibet trying to impose authority at the grass-roots, a village election, and a corrupt embezzler in prison, reprieved from a death sentence. Chinese people throughout, from farmer to Minister, speak frankly about the problems the country faces and the ways forward.

The Party attracts eager young recruits and is trying to re-invigorate its older members. They visit sites of communist achievement, like the Red Flag Canal, hoping to be inspired by the revolutionary zeal of the past. "If all Communist officials today were like those who built this," one Party member exclaims, "the Communist Party would rule forever."

PART TWO - Women of the Country

China's women have always been under pressure: from men, from family, from work. Now more and more are under new pressure -- from themselves -- to take control of their lives; to get an education; to have a career; to marry for love. It's a slow, difficult process, and it is changing China.

Mass migration from the countryside to the cities is increasing prosperity, but fracturing families. It also gives women new roles -- whether running the farm back home, or as wage-earners in the city. Xiao Zhang has lived in Beijing for 14 years, cooking and cleaning. This episode follows her home to her village 600 miles away for Chinese New Year, where she is reunited with the children she hasn't seen for a year. The cameras capture the visit of the local Birth Planning Officer to check on young wives, the plight of unwanted girl babies and abortion issues, and a village wedding which turns nasty.

The film also explores the discrimination suffered by Xinjiang's Muslim women, the hardships of life in Tibet, and China's tragic suicide figures: China has one of the highest suicide rates for women in the world: 150,000 a year. One every four minutes.

Finally, we see a glimpse of urban life where the younger generation of women has left the countryside for factory work in the cities. The hours and conditions are tough but the women are slowly gaining confidence and independence.

PART THREE - Shifting Nature

China is trying to feed 20 percent of the world's population on 7 percent of the world's arable land. A third of the world uses water from China's rivers. But rapid industrialization and climate change have led to bad air, polluted rivers and drought. Environmental activists, Party officials, academics and scientists are in a daily struggle over the damage to nature in China.

Environmental campaigner Huo Daishan has been trying to save the heavily polluted Huai River, which provides water for 150 million people. Research took him to its main tributary, the Shaying, into which over a million tons of raw human sewage and untreated waste water are dumped daily. Rather than clamping down on polluters, local government protects local industries.

Along the Huai's main tributary, 50,000 people suffer from cancer. In one village alone, 118 people have died. The Deputy Minister of the Environment accepts that many cancer cases are related to environmental pollution, but says he is powerless to shut down polluting companies.

Other stories explore northern China's dire water shortage, which is being remedied by channelling water from the south in what will be the biggest hydraulic project in world history. A project in the arid Ningxia region has benefited nearly half a million people, but elsewhere relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval.

PART FOUR - Freedom an Justice

How free are the Chinese people? How free to worship as they please? To learn the truth from the media? To hear the truth from the Communist Party and the government? How can people with a grievance negotiate with the state?

Tibetan Buddhism has long been feared as a rallying point and cover for Tibetan independence. Worship is permitted on the Party's strict terms -- neither government employees nor students are allowed to practice. A study in contrasts, official Catholicism -- administered not by the Vatican but by the Communist Party -- is far from China's unofficial churches with 40 million adherents who want nothing between them and their God. The film also explores Falun Gong and the threat it posed to the Chinese government as well as examining the limits on the right to assembly and press freedom.

The second half looks at popular grievances: forced evictions, government cover-up of the AIDS problem, corruption and land grabbing. There were 87,000 officially-recognized cases of public disorder in 2005. The courts frequently refuse to take on sensitive cases, forcing ordinary people to petition government -- a frustratingly ineffectual process. The cameras go inside a "Re-education through Labor" camp to which women are committed without trial for up to four years for drugs, sex or property offences -- or for petitioning.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has acknowledged the problems facing China's rural population. The Party's answer is to build what it calls a "New Socialist Countryside" with free education, improved healthcare, no agricultural tax and an extra $6 billion. But with corruption rife in local government, will the money and the measures reach the people?

The final sequence in the series is the story of what happened to Taishi Village, which sought to use the law to impeach and remove its corrupt leaders. Praised by the leading Party newspaper in China one minute, the village was overrun with police and militia the next. The corrupt old leaders were reinstated by local government amid violence, intimidation and arrests.

Buy this amazing documentary series on DVD...

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