Melinda Liu

Stories by Melinda Liu

  • A Worried World

    The Democrats' victory in last week's U.S. midterm elections thrilled many Europeans eager for George W. Bush to get his comeuppance. But not every nation is celebrating. Led by incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Dems are notoriously tough on human rights, trade and environmental issues. "Every one of our trading partners should be concerned," says Daniel Griswold, director of the Washington-based Cato Institute Center for Trade Policy Studies.China, in particular. During the last Democrat-dominated Congress, Pelosi was a vocal critic of Beijing's human-rights record; expect nothing less this time around. Then there's trade. New York Rep. Charles Rangel—likely to become the next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade agreements—has already called for tougher measures against Beijing.Russia will also come under the human-rights microscope. Even allies like India may have reason to worry. The country's burgeoning info-tech industry will likely be a...
  • Pragmatism or Principle?

    The last time U.S. Democrats dominated Congress, a dozen years ago, China was still recovering from the traumatic 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Although the economy was growing at an impressive rate, China was still a net exporter of oil, and Beijing authorities were diplomatic introverts on the international stage. Nancy Pelosi, in those days merely a member of the rank-and-file in the U.S. Congress, was one of China’s most vocal critics. She blasted Beijing for its human-rights record, opposed giving China most-favored-nation trading status for a decade and argued against allowing Beijing to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. In 1991, she and two congressional colleagues held a demonstration in Tiananmen Square, unfurling a banner reading: “To those who died for democracy.”China is now a much different country, assertive in its foreign policy and increasingly comfortable with showing its clout. Has Pelosi, now poised to become the influential...
  • China's Reaction: Tightening the Screws

    Once upon a time Beijing officials and scholars would have scoffed at the idea of effecting Chinese-style regime change in Pyongyang. But in the wake of Kim's nuke test, an unprecedented debate has broken out over Beijing's North Korea policies. Last Friday four major Chinese banks stopped making financial transfers to North Korea--a tactic that could quickly pinch a weak economy that relies on China as a link to the international financial system. And this year China has reduced food exports to Pyongyang by two thirds. "I've never seen the Chinese leadership so resolved to be tougher towards North Korea," says Zhu Feng, head of Peking University's international-security program.Among some close advisers to the government, the idea of a Beijing-friendly palace coup has gained new currency. China certainly has the means: it provides 11,000 barrels of oil to North Korea every day , accounting for more than 70 percent of Pyongyang's total energy supply. Beijing stopped oil deliveries...
  • Bigger Isn't Always Better

    Kim Jong Il's big bang may not have been so big after all. North Korea's nuclear detonation sent enormous diplomatic shock waves through international capitals, to be sure, and governments are still scrambling to respond. But technical experts from Beijing to the Beltway observe that it was small by traditional standards and could have been a failure, or at least less than an unalloyed success. The explosive yield of Pyongyang's test apparently was little more than half a kiloton, just a fraction of the explosive yield range that wanna-be nuclear powers historically have aspired to. No first-time test by any of the seven previous declared nuclear powers is thought to have been less than nine kilotons.North Korean authorities expected to conduct a nuclear test in the four-kiloton range, and told Chinese counterparts so in a 20-minute warning before the imminent detonation, according to Washington reports quoting an unnamed U.S. official. But American experts say what actually took...
  • China's Dilemma

    North Korea's apparently successful nuclear test has sent shock waves through international capitals and promises to alter the security landscape of North Asia in alarming ways. But it creates an especially difficult diplomatic challenge to China and Chinese leader Hu Jintao.Long seen as Pyongyang's most important ally and the only country with enough leverage to influence Kim Jong Il's behavior, the Chinese President had engaged in an extraordinary flurry of diplomacy since Pyongyang announced its intention to go nuclear a week ago. On Sunday Beijing took the unusual step of hosting Japan's new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, on an official visit to Beijing. Hu met Abe for a top-level summit that thawed a half-decade of chilly Sino-Japanese relations. And the rapprochement took place amidst surprisingly positive atmospherics, with both Chinese and Japanese officials heralding a turning point for the better in their ties. Clearly, the urgency of the North Korean threat had been a...
  • Corruption Probes: Life ... At Club Fed

    In the countryside outside Beijing, what looks like a luxury guesthouse is rising amid fruit orchards, replete with a fitness center and individual villas. Of course, the construction site also features high walls and security guards--lots of guards. NEWSWEEK has learned that the compound, near the district of Pinggu, is actually going to be a five-star detention facility capable of housing dozens of senior cadres under kid-glove "hotel arrest" while they undergo investigation for wrongdoing. Call it China's equivalent of "Club Fed."With one key difference. Shanghai's disgraced party secretary Chen Liangyu, who was purged from the Politburo last week, and the hundreds of other cadres caught up in anti-corruption probes across the country have not been officially charged with crimes in the Western sense. Instead, they're being confined and interrogated by the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Discipline and Inspection Commission. In a press conference last week, commission head Gan...
  • Nuke Jitters

    North Asia's diplomatic landscape could be about to look wildly different. It's about something more than North Korea's imminent threat to detonate its first known nuclear test device—perhaps as soon as Sunday, Oct. 8, the anniversary of Kim Jong Il's ascension to leadership of the ruling Workers Party in 1997. There's another force, far more quiet, that could turn the region upside down. Hu Jintao is finally making his big move.After watching his performance as China's president since early 2003, most outsiders—and even many Chinese—had dismissed him as weak and indecisive, beholden to the policies and the Politburo he inherited from his predecessor in the post, Jiang Zemin. But two weeks ago Hu suddenly began shaking things up. First he axed one of his biggest adversaries on the Politburo, Shanghai party secretary (and senior Jiang loyalist) Chen Liangyu, in the highest-level purge in 11 years. Chen's removal has set off a major political housecleaning: several other Hu rivals and...
  • Online: A Virtual Gold Rush

    With his longish hair, casual polo shirt and baggy shorts, Li Zhi looks like the entrepreneurial boss of a small-town computer company, which is what he used to be. Now the thirtysomething Li runs an unusual sweatshop in the Hubei-province city of Wuxue, the kind of place where a farmer might buy a computer in town and transport it home by donkey cart. Wuxue also has high-speed Internet access and hundreds of residents playing the popular online role-playing game called World of Warcraft. Some 200 of them work for bosses such as Li, single-mindedly playing Warcraft to collect in-game currency and trade it for real-world cash. Li's so-called gold-farming operation is modest, but profitable.If you think Chinese have an image problem in real life, take a look at the virtual world. World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, or MMOG, that boasts more than 7 million players worldwide--with some 5 million reportedly in China. The game--which has been called an...
  • Silent Games

    For a while many foreign correspondents thought authorities were “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” That’s a Chinese proverb meaning one target is attacked in order to intimidate another. When we saw our Chinese contacts harassed, detained, physically assaulted and sentenced to prison over the past year, it was tempting to assume they’d been “soft targets” for a regime intent on warning us, the international media, to stop sticking our noses into sensitive topics.But we were being naive. Beijing’s goals are far more sweeping than the chicken-and-monkey metaphor could encompass. Today’s targets are not just domestic media and foreign correspondents, not just our Chinese sources and local assistants. Less than two years before Beijing hosts the 2008 Summer Olympics, authorities are in the midst of a concerted—and disturbing—effort to slam stricter controls on what Chinese know and how they know it. The aim of the recent crackdown is not only to silence individual ...
  • Tibet Rides the Rails

    Lhasa is not quite hot enough to have its own stock exchange, not yet. But on the trading floor of the Tibet Securities Company, a large hall where share prices from the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges roll across giant screens, the action has been heavy since Beijing's much touted railway to Tibet neared completion. Between mid-May and July 1--when the Qinghai-Tibet rail line was inaugurated--trading volume jumped from $1.25 million to nearly $2 million a day. "Business shot up because of the opening of the railway," says director Wang Deqiang. "And now, more and more people are opening new accounts."What a difference a train makes. The new line has cut transport costs by a third and is expected to bring 4,000 additional visitors to Lhasa each day. That's a shot in the arm for tourism and restaurants; in 2004, Park Hyatt contracted to build Lhasa's first five-star hotel, and a $1,000-a-day luxury train service is slated to start by 2008. But the more subtle effects are what...
  • Bound to the Tracks

    The Beijing-Lhasa express is midway through its 48-hour, 2,500-mile maiden run, and Ivor Warburton is riding high. Outside the train, the snowcapped Kunlun Mountains gleam above the Gobi Desert in the remote Chinese province of Qinghai. Inside, the British businessman and rail buff is envisioning a deal with the Chinese government to introduce $1,000-a-day luxury-class service on the newly opened line between Qinghai's capital, Golmud, and the legendary Tibetan city of Lhasa. But his workaday plans are swept away by a sense of history in the making. "A train is the most physical manifestation of a country's unification," he philosophizes. "Just think how people regard the golden spike in America."More than a century since the opening of the transcontinental railway in Utah, Warburton's analogy holds true. But in this case what many people see is not so much a golden spike as a nail in Tibet's coffin. Ever since Chinese communist forces marched into Lhasa in 1951, Beijing has spared...
  • Flying High

    Even on her journey of a lifetime, Beijing official Yang Hong felt terrible. As the railway ministry's boss of dining services, she had to ensure that some 800 passengers on the inaugural Beijing-Lhasa train were adequately fed and watered. Her staff brought onboard 100 cases of water and soft drinks, 1,100 pounds of rice, and 3,000 wheat buns (especially for the last meals, when the air was too thin to boil rice.) Now near the highest rail station in the world—Tanggula Pass—Yang had a pounding headache due to the altitude. She rested her head on a dining-car table graced with orchids and carnations. One of her staff reported that, after delivering 500 boxed meals to passengers that morning, his feet had gone numb. All seven chefs were suffering from nausea. Slightly green around the gills, 26-year-old Zhang Weihua breathed in oxygen through tubes in his nostrils connected to a special wall outlet while slicing celery in a cramped kitchen packed with jumbled sacks of zucchini,...
  • Rock Star CEOs

    Even as China’s economy zooms forward at warp speed, Chinese CEOs till tend to be low key and secretive, like the apparatchiks of old. Perhaps remembering the Maoist days when wealth and fame attracted nothing but political headaches (and worse), they show caution, not charisma. And because few speak English, Chinese CEOs are little-known in the West. A new breed of Web entrepreneurs is changing all that.Dubbed “Internet heroes,” these mavericks promote their own personalities as much as the corporations they run. They hog the limelight, glad-handing with the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. At a high-profile Internet forum late last year in Hangzhou, reporters thrust a forest of microphones at Charles Zhang, the stylish boss of Chinese Web portal Sohu.com. Then part of the press horde hived off in pursuit of William Ding, the 34-year-old CEO of highly profitable Netease.com. Shanghai-based Timothy Chen Tianqiao of Shanda Interactive, whose multi-player online games (and sales...
  • Climate Control, Beijing-Style

    The rainy season has come to northern China, and it’s a brave new world out there. Actually the natural rainy season doesn’t start until July. But the season of man-made rain is upon us, and Chinese rainmakers have been busy. Over the past month they've mobilized cloud-seeding aircraft, artillery and rockets to enhance rainfall. "We've ordered technicians to try to make it rain again today, but so far they haven’t reported back on the results," says Zhang Qiang, a businesslike woman who heads the Beijing Weather Modification Office (yes, that’s the official name of a real Chinese government agency). "We did it many times last week to increase the rainfall."Not content with simply making it rain, now China's weather modifiers have taken on another meterological mission: to help guarantee perfect weather when Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in 2008. "In China, we haven’t done this type of thing on a very large scale yet," says Zhang during an interview in a west Beijing compound...
  • Road Rage, Chinese Style

    Finally, I decided to take the test to get a Chinese driver's license. Beijing streets are so crowded, chaotic and polluted that driving is pretty stressful these days, at least compared to the way it used to be. And there’s no place to park. Because of all the mayhem, I’d boycotted the idea of getting a license for years.I used to love driving in China. In 1980, when I arrived in Beijing for my first posting, few Chinese had private cars. The streets were spacious, wide-open thoroughfares that beckoned to those of us with wheels; we would pull over to the curb and park virtually any time, anywhere, even in Tiananmen Square. In those days foreign residents could import cars but weren’t allowed to roam very far while driving them. Beijing to Tianjin—a journey that takes about an hour today—was the furthest we could drive.By the mid-'80s there were loads of Chinese drivers willing to take a foreigner long distances in their vehicles, so long as the price was right. One summer I...
  • War of Wills

    This week's long-awaited summit between Hu Jintao and George W. Bush in Washington has sent diplomatic sherpas in both countries into overdrive. One last-minute development was a visit to Beijing last week by Washington's assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas A. Shannon Jr. His was the first-ever China trip by the State Department's point man on Latin America. And his message to Beijing was blunt: tread carefully in America's backyard, where China has lately been cultivating economic and military ties. "We want to ensure that China respects the larger consensus forged [in LatinAmerica]: that democracy is the system that the region wants to have and supports," said spokeswoman Jan Edmonson. Congressman Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of a congressional subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, framed U.S. concerns about Beijing's intentions even more bluntly: "It's extremely important that we don't let a potential enemy of the United States become a...
  • The Most Important Phrase You’ll Never Hear

    The hoopla over Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington next week has begun. Beijing’s pre-game warm-up for Sino-U.S. presidential summits almost always includes buying a few Boeing aircraft (in this case, some 80 737’s), releasing political prisoners (a Tibetan nun, so far), and dispatching Chinese officials and executives to snarf up American goods. Already a 200-person foreign trade delegation—the largest that the mainland has ever sent abroad—is fanning out to more than a dozen U.S. states to sign $15 billion in new deals.The centerpiece of this diplomatic apparatus, however are words—in particular, the carefully engineered catchphrases that distill the hopes, ambitions and national interests of China for world consumption. Among the hundreds of Chinese diplomats, entrepreneurs, sherpas, translators, cooks and security guards that will alight on American’s shores in the next few days, the man who has arguably done more than anyone to articulate China’s dreams to the...
  • China's Panda Politics

    They spend most of their lives asleep. They bite. They're absurdly inept at sex. But in the realm of diplomacy, giant pandas have few rivals. For more than a thousand years, China's rulers have used the coveted beasts to win allies abroad. The 20th century's most celebrated pair, Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling, arrived in Washington after Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972. Now Beijing is hoping two other furry ambassadors can help resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts, the 56-year armed standoff between mainland China and Taiwan. When Chinese officials unveiled a pair of cubs early this year, calling them "a gift" to the island, the people of Taiwan went wild. Polls say more than 65 percent of Taiwan's population are in favor of accepting the mainland's offer.But Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, is urging his government to say no. He fears that the pair would be what the press is calling "Trojan pandas." Skeptics see the animals as a perfect symbol for Beijing: no...
  • The Last Word: Li Datong--Loosening Up 'Under Pressure'

    Early last year, New York Times researcher Zhao Yan was detained by Chinese authorities after the paper published an article accurately predicting that Chinese leader Jiang Zemin would retire. His editors said Zhao wasn't involved in the scoop, and recent reports that charges against him had been dropped were greeted with a sigh of relief. But China is hardly embracing the idea of complete media freedom. The country's Internet police have been more active than ever in their efforts to control bloggers. Even Zhao himself has yet to be released. NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu spoke with Li Datong--whose own hard-hitting weekly, Freezing Point, was suspended in January but allowed to resume publication on March 1, without him at the helm--to get his thoughts on Beijing and the media. Excerpts:LIU: You've been removed as editor. What are you doing now?LI: I've been transferred to work in the News Research Institute of the China Youth Daily (under which Freezing Point is a weekly supplement)....
  • Freezing Point

    These are dark days for the Chinese media. In recent months the number of mainland journalists behind bars has grown to 39, more than any other country. Editors have been sacked or demoted. And the Internet police have been more active than ever in a campaign to restrict sensitive content in the mainland’s proliferating blogs.Against this bleak backdrop, people welcomed last week’s news that court charges against jailed New York Times researcher Zhao Yan have been dropped. More than a year ago, Zhao was detained in what was seen as a gauge of official displeasure at the newspaper, after its Beijing bureau chief published an article citing anonymous sources and predicting—accurately—that Chinese leader Jiang Zemin would retire the following day. The paper denied that Zhao helped dig out the scoop, and his detention sent a chill through the media on the mainland, both Chinese and foreign.As of Thursday, a week since the good news about Zhao, he still hasn’t been released. His friends...
  • Can the Sage Save China?

    China's official buzzword these days is "harmony." Whether the audience is Chinese or foreign, rich or poor, Beijing's leaders are spreading the message: can't we all just get along? After becoming president in 2003, Hu Jintao made the pursuit of a "harmonious society" his personal mantra. Last week Prime Minister Wen Jiabao echoed the same sentiment before the current session of China's Parliament; the gathering has focused on improving health care and education for the rural poor, who have increasingly been left behind by China's economic boom. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing has got into the act, too, trying to market the message abroad. "The Chinese nation has always pursued a life in harmony with other nations, despite differences," he said recently. What few of China's top leaders acknowledge out loud, however, is that Hu's slogan actually harks back to a famous--and ancient--Chinese personality: Confucius.After about a century in the political wilderness, the Great Sage, who is...
  • Virtual Heroes

    Earlier this week I was wandering through a flea market in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province in China’s Wild West. Among stalls selling (mostly fake) antique porcelain and Tibetan artifacts redolent with the aroma of yak butter, I spotted a small crimson-red cigarette box bearing the image of Lei Feng, a chubby-faced soldier wearing one of those goofy, floppy People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hats.Lei was a big name in the 1970s when Maoist-style egalitarianism was the height of political correctness. Chinese citizens were exhorted to “learn from Lei Feng.” Millions emulated Lei’s generosity and parroted his desire to “make the world more beautiful everyday.” In the early ‘80s, during my first posting in Beijing, I read articles about how Lei’s altruism ran so deep that he’d washed and darned the socks of fellow soldiers in secret, so that his comrades-in-arms wouldn’t know whom to thank. Of course, these days I figured China’s “me generation” had little use for Lei,...
  • Energy and Empire

    With violence and chaos in Iraq growing ever more intense, many Americans have asked me this week about China and the Iraq conflict. Although I'm based in Beijing, I was in Baghdad for the fall of Saddam Hussein, witnessed Washington's "shock and awe" bombing from the receiving end and have reported from inside Iraq yearly since Saddam's fall. Right now, I'm on a national speaking tour in the United States, and the questions are coming from those who've seen at my speech venues the giant posters of the China and Iraq cover stories upon which I've worked.At first blush you might think there's little in common between Beijing and Baghdad—except perhaps the proliferation of Chinese restaurants in the Iraqi capital since Saddam's fall. (At least two in the Green Zone, and another in the red zone where bombings and gunfire eventually made it impossible for customers to enjoy a sit-down meal—but Chinese takeout survived nonetheless).In fact the Iraq conflict—and whether the bloodshed...
  • A 'Single' Church

    Despite a serious illness two years ago, Aloysius Jin seems in fine form. He switches continuously between French and English, and cracks a joke about Prince Charles's succession to the British throne ("He's impatient, he's been waiting so many years"). Jin also speaks German, Italian and Latin--languages he mastered while studying theology in Rome in 1949 and 1950, just as the Chinese Communists were taking power in his homeland. Today, Jin, 89, heads the Archdiocese of Shanghai and is a key figure in China's state-sanctioned Catholic Church. Jin, who says he comes from a long line of Shanghainese Catholics ("maybe 10 generations"), was long considered a pawn of the Chinese government. But now he may be helping to forge a long-awaited rapprochement between Beijing and the Holy See. ...
  • Bystander No More

    Iran's nuclear crisis is testing China's new proactive diplomacy. On Monday the conservative Iranian newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami's Web site issued a sharp challenge to Beijing's leaders over their actions in the nuke showdown.Reminding readers of former Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping's ties to the deposed Shah of Iran, the paper wrote that just hours after “defenseless and innocent people were shot down in a hail of machine-gun fire” during anti-shah unrest in Tehran in 1978, Deng paid a visit. "Not only did he have an official meeting with the shah and announce his full support for the shah's regime, he even went to kiss the hand of the shah's wife.” The shah's fall several months later made the Chinese the world's “biggest diplomatic losers,” the publication said, leading to the blunt warning: “Today China's in the midst of Iran's ‘nuclear revolution' and is about to make the same mistake that it did during the Islamic Revolution.”Iranians are piqued because China voted in favor of...
  • China 2.0

    If you're a China watcher, you don't just listen to what top Beijing leaders say, but also to how many times they say it. This month President Hu Jintao has embraced a new mantra, stressing "sustainable development," "innovation" and "a resource-saving, environment-friendly society." He uttered those buzzwords in his New Year's address, then at a high-profile science and technology conference, and then again last week during an inspection tour of Fujian province. In a significant departure from his predecessors' focus on no-holds-barred GDP growth, Hu is calling for nothing less than a quantum shift in China's economic-development model, deeming it "an important and urgent strategic task."China has already achieved a quarter century of unprecedented economic growth. Now Beijing is essentially saying that it needs to keep growing in a more responsible way, emphasizing environmental protection, more energy efficiency and cutting-edge technology. Software mavens might call this new...
  • All Aboard

    China is a nation on the move--especially now, at the beginning of the much-awaited Spring Festival vacation. Also known as Chinese New Year, and based on the lunar calendar, this is the longest and most popular holiday of the year. And in China, big means really big. Many of the country's 100 million-plus rural-born migrant workers leave, or even quit, jobs in the city and travel to the countryside to spend the first day of the new lunar year with family.They're on the move already, armies of migrants carrying massive suitcases and cloth bundles--often balanced on shoulder poles--bulging with clothes, toys, electric appliances and other gifts for relatives back home. Hundreds of millions of such family reunions are scheduled for the period from Jan. 14 to Feb. 22, during which time more than 2 billion journeys will be made by rail, road, air and water. Some 700,000 buses will be on the road. Three hundred extra trains are being laid on to help cope with the anticipated 144 million...
  • High-Tech Hunger

    Don't be fooled by Wang Xiaoyun's demure demeanor. The 39-year-old mathematician is an instrument of China's campaign to become a tech power. She is also a legend among Western cryptographers. "Please don't write too much about my research; it's so difficult for journalists to get the technical details right," Wang pleads in rapid-fire English and Shandong dialect. She has a point: let's just say she and two colleagues shocked the cryptography world last year when they exposed a weakness in a key U.S. government encryption code called SHA-1, thought to be virtually unbreakable. Renowned MIT cryptographer Robert Rivest, who helped develop the SHA-1 algorithm, calls the breakthrough "stunning." (The SHA-1 "hash" is used, among other things, in technologies that transmit credit-card numbers over the Internet.)Which explains why experts from Wall Street to Washington, from Downing Street to Delhi, are beginning to pay attention to Chinese scientists like Wang--and the government...
  • Panda Politics

    Once again the rival regimes in Beijing and Taipei are engaged in a war of words, but this time the topic is pandas. Specifically a cute, cuddly, just-can't-resist pair of giant panda cubs which Chinese authorities have offered to Taiwan as a "goodwill gesture." Problem is, Taiwanese authorities are trying hard to resist what some call the mainland's "panda ploy."Taiwan Premier Frank Hsieh said the island was unlikely to accept the creatures because to do so would "compromise our sovereignty." The reasoning goes like this: Pandas are an endangered species, and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, pandas can only be lent--not given--by China to other countries. Taiwan has no pandas; the animals are native only to mainland China, where 1,590 live in the wild and 190 are being kept in zoos and breeding centers.But the Beijing regime considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland--by force if necessary. So China can claim that...