08-20-2013
China reins in extravagant celebrations

The Chinese authorities have asked provincial governments and TV stations to “put an end to extravagance” and “to be economic in celebrative events”.

The national directive issued on August 13 said that the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) will rein in the number of celebrative programs on satellite TV stations. The stations should file for approval to SARFT two months in advance and stagger their airing schedules.

It also asks TV stations to encourage social participation in the celebrative programs, while at the same time reducing the appearance of and spending on big stars.

The directive came following a series of national requirements from the central Chinese government, including a ban on radio and TV adverts that encourage extravagant gift-giving and the "three bans" imposed on public servants -- referring to cars, banquets and foreign travel.

Cultural and art events have been playing an important role in enriching social life and celebrating the achievements of a modern socialist country, but some are redundant and focus solely on grand scenes, stage effects and big-budget productions. The spectacles lead to squandering and unreasonable comparison, the directive noted.

But celebrations organized by financially stressed governments or local enterprises are dangerous as they damage the image of the Communist Party of China and the governments. They have even led to a catalogue of complaints from society, it added.

A county official was quoted as saying that impoverished counties rely on outside investment for development. But with no rich resources on hand, the local governments have to hold celebrations to attract the attention of investors and their superiors.

China Youth Paper said that in 2010, celebrations, seminars, forums and other events put on by local governments and central government organs cost a total of 4.05 billion yuan ($661.2 million).

In relation to the policy, the Spring Festival Gala, produced by Central China Television Station, will focus on “soft power”, said staff at the station. Unlike previous editions that boasted big productions, the 2014 edition, to be directed by famous film director Feng Xiaogang, will be “simple, humorous, close to life and entertaining”.

The policy was greeted with mixed response from citizens. Some say that it is a good step in regulating the market and ensuring the best use of public funds. Others doubt its rationale.

“When preparing celebrative galas, we Chinese people tend to focus on stage effects alone, rather than content. We think abstract art is fashionable, but in fact, it is out of touch with the people,” said Mango朵朵, a Sina Weibo user.

“SARFT asks the TV stations to be thrifty and not invite big time stars. But they don’t realize that the main attraction of the celebrative galas is the stars,” said 988忘记距离微博达人.

“When less is spent on celebrations, less will be earned by the stars,” said 米屑也叫畅麟.

“Good policy. The call for thrifty celebrations is a restriction and a reasonable consideration. Let our art production return to art itself, to simplicity, to humanity, to feelings, to life and to the people,” said 长春能见度.

08-01-2013
Time to Say Good-bye to Those Old Bookstores?

The news about the possible disappearance of those bookstores, the ones with real books in them, has been made headlines for some time now, as people gaze away from the printed page to the new e-books and mobile devices.

As is the case in many countries, those old wood-and-brick bookstores in China are seeing a drastic decline in popularity and, as a result, sales these days, as can be seen in the closure of some fairly prominent stores. The Third Polar, for example, once Beijing’s biggest bookstore, was shuttered just last year -- after years of losses. Then there’s O2Sun, an independent chain, which pulled the plug on its operations in Beijing and the southeastern city of Xiamen, in 2011 because of a shortage of capital, declining sales, and rising costs.

By some accounts, around 10,000 of these traditional bookstores went out of business, between 2007 and 2009, and 50 percent of the private ones closed in the past decade. State-backed stores, on the other hand, seem to have fared well in spite of the challenge posed by online stores and digital publishers. Xinhua, for example, which has China’s largest, and for that matter, only countrywide bookstore chain, recorded total sales of 79.9 billion yuan, in 2012, and that was an increase of 12.3 percent over 2011.

But a closer look at the industry shows that it’s tough for most of the physical-book retailers to attract customers and stay afloat, as more and more they just serve as a book showroom where shoppers can research items and compare prices -- before making the purchase online.

There are many things contributing to the problem that traditional bookstores face. Zhai Defang, the GM of the Sanlian Taofen Bookshop, explained it to Beijing Times in this way: “First, there are the online bookstores that sometimes post unfairly low prices to attract readers, affecting the development of the entire industry. Second, the traditional bookstores suffer from higher rents. Third, Chinese bookstores have to pay higher taxes compared with their foreign counterparts.”

And, as e-books rise in power and influence, traditional stores will be furthered squeezed and end up with their backs to the wall, which does not sound good. According to a report from the Chinese Press and Publications Academy, in 2012, e-book sales amounted to 3.1 billion yuan, or about four times the previous year figure; the number of e-book readers already broke the 100 million barrier, back in 2010.

So, bookstore owners are haunted by the fear that their days are numbered and they may follow their American and European counterparts, such as Borders, into the dustbin of history. However, the demise of physical-book bookstores is deeply troubling for some, especially at a time when people are scrambling to get by in a period of economic upheaval.

Here are some people’s responses:

“I support physical bookstores. They’re where culture lives. How can we allow our culture to go adrift?” 阁楼上的钟摆的地盘 on her Weibo account.

“Despite the convenience and cheaper products that the Internet age has brought, small bookstores scattered about add a cultural touch to cities……I hope physical stores still have a place to grow and that cities dot lose their places for culture and self-enhancement.” 萱的时光机.

But, the opposite view can also be heard from people who believe that the traditional business model is out-of-date and online bookstores are active players in the market, which means a difficult adjustment for traditional retailers. For example:

“Few bookstores are attractive these days. Most are just rigid and anonymous In an age when personality prevails, and those featureless ones will not survive.” 姝潺.

“Traditional bookstores are a cultural landmark. The government should provide more support to them. As people’s tastes and reading habits change, the owners have to focus more on readers’ needs.” 漫天飞舞童鞋.

“Books sell much cheaper online than in the physical stores and speedy delivery is assured. I also like traditional bookstores and don’t want to see them closed, but they’re really average, just run-of-the-mill.” IS榴莲味.

07-02-2013
Does the Law Have the Power to Bring Families Closer?

A Chinese law requiring family members to visit their aging parents went into effect July 1, but was met with mixed reactions from youth.

The law stipulates that family members who live separately from their elderly parents should visit the elders on a regular basis, or risk being sued.

In addition, the law requires family members to care for aging parents emotionally, and should not ignore or snub them, according to China.org.

Statistics show that by the end of 2011, senior citizens above 60 totaled 185 million in China, 13.7 percent of the total. Some estimate the number may exceed 200 million by the end of 2013, and 300 million by 2025.

As the aging population continues to increase, China faces many serious challenges ahead. Apart from the massive demand of healthcare and social welfare, the “empty nest” phenomenon -- a term to describe aged parents living alone due to their children working in other parts of China -- highlights the departure of traditional values in which children honor and care about the old.

Culturally, the elderly are highly respected in China, and it is an ironclad obligation on the part of children to support the elderly in Chinese tradition. As reflected in what Confucius once famously said,”when your parents are still alive, you should not go on a long journey; if you have to do so, you must have reasonable reasons.”

But such values have dramatically changed as the country becomes more modern. Since reform and opening-up launched in the 1980s, millions of people have begun to work in relatively affluent towns and cities, leaving their kids and parents at home.

Sadly enough, those migrant workers have little chance to visit those they left behind due to the arduous tasks in offices and modern assembly lines, as well as overcrowded trains and coaches bound for their hometowns during the holidays.

While some Internet users praised the law for its attempt to raise the public awareness of the emotional support for the elderly, many lament that it is pathetic when the government has to make laws to bring the family closer, doubting whether the law could be effectively carried out because the details have yet to be worked out.

For example, the law doesn’t specify how often visits are required and how the measures will be enforced if the children are brought to court by their parents.

“The law asks the children to visit their parents regularly, but what about migrant workers from rural areas. Many of them have not gone back home for years, is it illegal? Plus, what if they cannot get train tickets to return home before Spring Festival?” asked Sina Weibo user 士今再来.

“I support the law. It tells us to spend more time with parents to show emotional support for them. We want to do so, but the question is we have so few holidays,” said Lily呼吸ing.

“We have to make sure the companies will grant our leave and make it easier to buy tickers during the holidays,” said another user.

06-13-2013
When An Exam Becomes A National Obsession

Nothing is so deeply embedded in the Chinese psyche than the maxim that it pays to go to college, but for the college-bound youth, the biggest problem is how to pass the national college entrance examination, commonly known as Gaokao.

Starting on June 7 every year, Gaokao is almost the sole prerequisite for entrance into all the mainland’s colleges and universities at the undergraduate level. Many people, especially those from poor rural areas, view the exam as the best chance to secure a college diploma and a decent job after graduation.

Though the admission rate reached 75% last year - compared to 4.8% in the late 1970s when the exam was resumed - Chinese society still feels the intense pressure, and the students are – unsurprisingly - those most affected.

To make the cut, candidates have to devote their time to the core subjects: Chinese, mathematics, English, and a comprehensive science or liberal arts. Some children end up with a mountain of books on their desks – and many are unable to take the whole weekend off during the months prior to the exam.

In face of pressure from both family and society, children from relatively well-off families now often look towards foreign universities and thus abandon Gaokao. But for the others, their future hinges on the two-day test - and they have to fight it out.

Considering the huge number of candidates - 9.2 million this year - the exam has been compared to a stampede of “thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of horses across a single log bridge.” That may explain why it may seem that the whole country has gone insane during the tests. Every year, the same scenario plays out: road blocks are set up around the schools and construction sites are ordered to halt work so as to limit noise.

In Hubei province, some universities have forbidden students from leaving their campus so as to prevent them from acting as stand-ins for Gaokao candidates. In Jilin, exam sites have banned bras with metal clasps –which may contain some sort of wireless communications. And, even more extreme - in some regions, female students were reportedly asked to take birth control pills to avoid menstruation at the time of the examination.

Many people lament the fact that the nation is once again gripped by the Gaokao fever.

The media has carried articles analyzing this phenomenon, and the Workers’ Daily said that the Gaokao remains a watershed event that leads to two dramatically different lives.

But a college diploma is by no means a guarantee of a job, said the Beijing Times, adding that the future of the college students depends on other factors such as their majors, skills and the overall social and economic climate.

For example, the college graduates of this year are finding it even more difficult to secure jobs, while companies are complaining about the shortage of qualified workers, the paper said. A survey shows that by the end of April, only 35 percent of this year’s graduates have received job offers, 12 percent lower than the previous year.

Also, many believe that Gaokao is another stark illustration of the flaws in an education system that emphasizes memorization to independent thinking and creativity.

CCTV.com said that this system which focuses on scores above all else means that primary and secondary education is devoid of meaning and value, and a quality education -which stresses the all-round development of the students - is beyond reach if we continue to select the students based on their scores.

Other debates center on the transparency and equality of Gaokao, discrimination resulted from different admission standards in different regions, and bonus marks for students with “exceptional or special talent”.

In a post on Sina Weibo, 延续键盘上的心跳 said: “Gaokao has robbed the public of their reason and humanity. The destiny of the Chinese people shall not be controlled by such an exam.”

“Gaokao sparks social debate every year. It is a perennial topic. Does Gaokao need to be reformed? Does it alone determine the direction of our life? And without Gaokao, how will the colleges select the students?” said user 崇界.

Reforms concerning the content and form of the national exam have been made over the past decades. In 2001, the age restriction was lifted, and this year, for the first time, migrant students are allowed to take part in the exam away from their home regions, in a move to boost equality in education.

In addition, many provinces customize their own exams in light of their economic development and education levels. Some colleges and universities even have the privilege to prepare their own entrance exams, including written tests and interviews, to judge the candidates’ aptitude, creativity and emotional quotient.

“If we don’t speed up reform of the enrolment system with courage and wisdom, Gaokao will continue to bear the inflated expectations of the public, and social anxiety will be not be fade away,” said China National Radio.

The question that experts and the general public are now considering concerns how – and not if - the system should be changed.

Contact the author of this article or email xuxinlei@chinadaily.com.cn with further questions, comments or tips.

05-17-2013
Old is the New Young in China

The post-80s generation in China is widely and perhaps unfairly characterized as narcissistic, self-centered, and coddled. But this negative description of the 200 million Chinese people born roughly between 1980 and 1990 now include a new word: aging.

“It seems that the post-80s generation has grown old overnight,” said an editorial in the People’s Daily on May 14. They have begun to recall their childhood as the ‘good old days’ and say they are getting old before their parents, the national paper said.

Nostalgic feelings have swept the post-80s generation, as evidenced by the popularity of the online song Li Lei and Han Meimei (Li and Han were the names of two characters in the English text book used by Chinese junior high school students), and the impressive box office of So Young, a film featuring the life of college students in 1990s. It grossed 45 million yuan on the opening-day in the Chinese mainland.

The post-80s generation was born after the introduction of the family planning policy. Growing up in a modern China that buzzes with impressive economic growth and rising living, this generation has access to ample entertainment and creature comforts which their parents never imagined. So why do they always look backward, and what deprives the youth of their vitality?

The newspaper argued that the post-80s generation has had to deal with a spate of growing pains, such as endless homework in their childhood, intense competition in society, the helplessness and pressure born out of urbanization, and spiritual confusion and identity embarrassment, to name just a few.

Sina.com, one of China’s largest web portals, made a penetrating analysis of the aging youth and attributed the problem to social inequity, lack of vacations and anxiety about retirement.

First of all, the generation gets a bitter taste of life the moment they graduate from the colleges. As China expanded college recruitment in the 1990s, more students were pushed into the job market. This year, about seven million college graduates - an increase of 190,000 from last year - will have to find jobs to feed themselves, but vacant jobs have been reduced nationwide due to the slowing down of economic growth.

For privileged students, it is not such a big problem. As seen in recent news reports, children of government officials have pulled strings and installed themselves in government bodies or state-owned enterprises, while their poor and marginalized peers are trapped in low-paid and insecure jobs.

As nine-to-fivers in the office, the generation has fewer days to relax. In 2011, CNN released an online list ranking countries in terms of guaranteed paid vacation days. China, with an alleged 21 days, was the country with fewest days of paid leave, compared to Brazil (41 days) and Russia (40 days).

But many workers in the private sector and labor-intensive industries said they would never take the leave on account of their heavy workload, fierce competition and even fear that they could lose their job.

Worse still, the generation, in their 30s, finds it increasingly hard to feed their family in a time characterized by high inflation and stagnating salaries, as their parents grow old and their children grow up.

An Ran, 26, now works as an executive in a Beijing-based state-owned enterprise. Despite the stable job and social security system, she has bought herself commercial endowment insurance.

“I feel deep pressure now, both economically and spiritually. I have to prepare for my retiring days,” she was quoted as saying. In the past, a job in a state-owned enterprise meant a gold rice bowl (cradle-to-grave security), but today as inflation continues to increase, pensions provided by such enterprises are becoming insufficient, she said. If you just rely on the pensions, “life will be terribly sad.”

In addition, government corruption, skyrocketing house prices and a worsening environment have eroded the generation’s faith in the country.

“If a young person feels old, it is about his or her mentality. But if a large number of youth feel they are aging, it is about the social environment,” said user 散华礼弥丶肆 on his Weibo account.

“We have no idea of what youth is about. We have no hopes, no dreams; only a desire for money and power,” said user 寂寞午后的猫.

Contact the author of this article or email xuxinlei@chinadaily.com.cn with further questions, comments or tips.

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