Stories by Sarah Schafer

  • China’s Failure to Beat Illiteracy

    China has pledged time and again to wipe out illiteracy, which makes the story of Zhou Jihan quite awkward. Not because she has yet to master her Chinese characters, but because there are still many millions of Chinese struggling like her to learn to read and write as adults. That's a shame Beijing would prefer you did not read about.Zhou, now 36, grew up in a poor family in a remote village in western China. Because even the local primary school charged high fees, Zhou's parents made what the whole family considered an easy choice: Zhou's brothers went to school, and she and her sisters stayed home to work on the farm. "I never went to school once in my childhood," said Zhou. "We followed the tradition of paying more attention to the boys of the family than to the girls." She's proud to have memorized more than 1, 000 Chinese characters, but must learn 500 more to be considered literate. But Chinese authorities had promised more than painstaking progress.In 2000, the Chinese...
  • The U.S. In China: Profit Over Principles

    When critics accuse U.S. companies of moving jobs to China to exploit cheap labor and sweatshop conditions, businesses always argue that their presence has helped improve labor standards and even forward democracy. Now the same companies that pat themselves on the back are lobbying to weaken a draft Chinese labor law—and workers' rights activists are calling them hypocrites.The proposed law would require employers to sign contracts with all workers and to pay severance to fired employees, and tighten job protection for older workers and sole breadwinners. It would also give the party-run union more power in contract negotiations and setting workplace rules. Designed to quell unrest over working conditions, withheld wages and long hours, the law has already been amended to make it more acceptable to foreign firms and is due to be approved as early as this summer. Critics say efforts to water it down further show how U.S. firms put profits ahead of principles in China while staying...
  • Taking China to Court

    Environmentalists have found an all-American way to challenge the worst polluters—class-action lawsuits.
  • Never Too Late to Say ‘I’m Sorry’

    Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week that his emergency talk with Kim “has not been in vain.” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that Kim told Tang, “We have no plans for additional nuclear tests.” The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Kim had expressed regret to Tang, who said: “he is sorry about the nuclear test.”But when Tang met Rice, who’s currently touring the region to build support for U.N. sanctions aimed at bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, he didn’t say Kim vowed not to test again. Nor did he recount any expressions of North Korean remorse. “The Chinese did not, in a fairly thorough briefing to me, say anything about an apology,” said Rice, who believes the North Koreans “would like to see an escalation of tensions.” And on Friday, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that 100,000 celebrants gathered in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung square to “hail the success of the historic...
  • Strength From Their Faith

    Growing up in communist China, Li Heping had always been taught that religion was nonsense. But when friends invited the Beijing lawyer to an underground Protestant service six years ago, he felt an intellectual duty to learn more about their beliefs. "The government says we Chinese are atheist, but I thought I should give the Christian view a fair hearing," Li says. A year later, another friend asked him to come to a Bible study session. Listening to strangers read from the New Testament that night, Li studied the faces around him and reflected on his life.A son of "hill peasants" from a village in central China, he had beaten severe odds just by making it to college, where he earned a degree in law. As a young attorney, he continued fighting the odds by defending clients in a justice system where the accused are presumed guilty and trials are often a formality. It was exhausting work, and the pay was paltry. Yet sitting among the Christians in a friend's apartment, his...
  • Blogger Nation

    Wang Xiaofenghails from northeastern China, a region known for its freezing winters and for its theater, in which performers improvise banter to musical accompaniment. Wang grew up on a farm, and for most of the frigid year there was nothing to do but huddle by the fire trading zingers with his family and friends in imitation of the performers they admired. As an adult he worked as an entertainment writer, most recently for a magazine called Life Weekly in Beijing. His reviews were circumspect: even when he hated a performance, he tempered his criticism for fear of offending the government's propaganda department. When he read his first issue of Rolling Stone, he lamented the fact that he could not write so openly or caustically. Then, in 2004, a friend introduced him to blogging. Wang was delighted. For the first time since childhood, he got in touch with his inner smart aleck.Wang quickly discovered that in the freewheeling world of blogs, there are a thousand ways to make a...
  • Periscope

    Five months after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as president of Iran, some leading figures in Tehran's "mullahcracy" who backed him as a candidate are desperately trying to rein him in. Last week Iran's Parliament rejected his third nominee for the vital post of Oil minister. And tougher fights loom ahead, as his opponents marshal their forces in the judiciary and the regular Army. Clearly Ahmadinejad has lost the full faith of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the Islamic republic. The reason: the new president's choice of mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.The man is ultra-fundamentalist with a mystical bent. He is affiliated with the Hojjatieh movement, which is preparing for the return of the 12th imam, who disappeared down a well in the ninth century. The group's teachings undermine the authority of any contemporary "supreme leader," like Khamenei. Thus, in supporting a president who venerates the missing imam above all else and who increasingly holds the...
  • Even China Can't Hide a Toxic River

    Long before the disaster hit, Hu Fengbin was ready to sue. The Beijing lawyer had often suspected that a petrochemical plant, located upriver from his childhood home in Harbin, was one of the country's worst polluters. When he heard that toxins from an explosion at the plant had flooded the Songhua River last week, causing Harbin to shut down its water supply, he was ready to strike. Hu found the perfect client for his case, an irate yet articulate restaurant owner whose business had lost money due to the water stoppage. The owner thought she'd take on government officials. But Hu persuaded her to go after the state-owned petrochemical plant--a safer target. "We've hated that plant for years," Hu says. "We always thought of it as a time bomb."Can Hu's case succeed? The ruling Communist Party often crushes attempts at grass-roots activism. But environmental protection is one area where Chinese activists are managing to make themselves heard. Increasingly, brave lawyers, feisty...
  • Building In Green

    Can China Move 400 Million People To Its Cities Without Wreaking Environmental Havoc? Eco-Urban Designer William Mcdonough Says Yes--And Beijing Is Listening.
  • HELP WANTED

    Chief executive Li Hsu had a problem. The head of Fiber-xon, a manufacturer of components for communications networks that's headquartered in California but whose main operations are in China, spent three months interviewing for a vice president of operations. He finally landed one--who left three months later for a better offer. For another top job, Li scoured the mainland for recruits before finally poaching one from one of his Taiwan-based vendors. In China, "it's easy to recruit low-level talent," Li says. "But if you want someone who's topnotch it's hard."China faces a critical shortage: experienced, highly skilled managers. The numbers are astounding. The country has some 25,000 state companies, 4.3 million private firms and massive industrial overcapacity. But it has too few experienced managers for even the elite firms. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that even the relatively small number of Chinese companies trying to expand abroad will need up to 75,000...
  • China Buys American

    Fu Chengyu says Americans won't fear his company, once they get to know it better. Fu is CEO of the China National Offshore Oil Co., which recently placed an unsolicited bid to buy Unocal of California for $18.5 billion. By far the largest Chinese bid for an American company, the move stirred fears in Washington that CNOOC is the spearhead of a Chinese campaign to secure world oil reserves, at U.S. expense. As legislators lobbied a reluctant White House last week to block the deal, Fu compared the backlash to America's misplaced fear of Japan in the 1980s. "Personally I think that the Chinese are being misunderstood all the time," he says. "They have one heart, two eyes. They are not monsters."Fu insists his company is "quite different" from other Chinese state firms, with more independence from Beijing. One of the big three Chinese oil companies, CNOOC is far more nimble than the other two, both behemoths with tens of thousands of employees in factory campuses that include...
  • DVD'S: 'TRAVELING' TO CHINA

    Movie studios lose more than $3.5 billion per year because of bootleggers. So last week Warner Bros. released "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" on DVD in China on the same day that it debuted in U.S. theaters--a new move in the battle against the Chinese bootlegging industry. The studio hopes Chinese customers will favor the more expensive, legit copies of the chick flick (priced at $2.75) over later, lower-quality bootleg ones (usually priced between 60 cents and $1.80). "This could be huge," says Jim Cardwell, president of Warner Home Video, about the initiative. Warner Bros. will evaluate how the DVD sales fare and then decide if the same strategy would be used for more high-profile titles. Other studios will also be watching. Although a price difference of $1 doesn't sound like much, it makes a difference in China, where the average salary is a little more than $1,000 a year. Also, opportunists could buy huge numbers of the real DVD at the low Chinese price and ship it to...
  • PERISCOPE

    U.S. AFFAIRSWeary Old WarriorDuring the war in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush nicknamed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld "Matinee Idol." Women of a certain age swooned over Rummy's wartime, tough-guy insouciance. But Iraq has been rough on the 72-year-old Pentagon chief. Between the Abu Ghraib scandal, the seemingly irrepressible insurgency and his recent dismissive comments about the lack of armored vehicles for U.S. troops, the pressure for Rumsfeld to step down has reached a crescendo in Washington. Sen. John McCain declared that he has "lost confidence" in him. Conservative commentator William Kristol slammed Rumsfeld for "arrogant buck-passing," and called on Bush to replace him. Even former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott blasted Rummy for not listening to the "uniformed officers" in the military. Lott's home state of Mississippi is deeply dependent on military contracts. Apparently he doesn't expect Rumsfeld to last long enough to take those contracts away.The...
  • In The Shadow Network

    In the gritty industrial city of Kaohsiung, a gleaming 85-story office tower stands out against a seaside skyline of short, drab buildings. A Taiwanese developer built the tower six years ago, hoping Taiwan and mainland China were about to end a 50-year standoff and open up direct trade, travel and communication links. Today, the developer is bankrupt, the tower is nearly empty and the "three links" across the Taiwan Strait remain just a dream. The five-star Splendor Hotel that serves as the building's anchor tenant slashes room prices to attract a bare minimum of guests and is struggling with a second hotel, built with the same dream in mind, in the nearby city of Taichung. "If we don't get three links, we'll never recoup our losses," says Nancy Hu, general manager of the Splendor.In both Taiwan and China in recent years, businesses have quietly built a massive network of roads, ports, airports--a multibillion-dollar shadow network of facilities for the day the two sides finally...
  • Onward, Christian Soldiers

    When they praise the Lord, they close the windows. In a packed classroom in China's southern Henan province, 35 young Christians stand behind their desks singing the Hallelujah prayer. These students have pledged the next three years of their lives to this illegal seminary, one of the many run across China by members of the Chinese Protestant underground. Tucked away in a two-story apartment donated by a fellow believer, these future preachers study, eat and sleep together, girls in one room, boys in another. If the students want to leave the school, they must do so one or two at a time, at night, so as not to make the neighbors suspicious. They often go weeks without venturing outdoors. After the last Hallelujah, they open the windows.Their faith doesn't come without sacrifice. One 24-year-old woman bursts into tears when she talks about her little brother, whom she hasn't seen in months. "It's OK," says the former migrant worker, jutting out her chin as she struggles to regain her...
  • PERISCOPE

    ESPIONAGEListen Up, EveryoneThere was outrage at the United Nations last week when a former member of Tony Blair's cabinet claimed that British intelligence had conducted electronic surveillance on Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the lead-up to the Iraq war. But there wasn't much surprise. Many diplomats already assumed that wiretapping was rampant. Former Australian diplomat Richard Butler says he held sensitive meetings in Central Park. Former chief Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix believes he was tapped. Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Mexico's former U.N. ambassador, told NEWSWEEK, "If you are in a room and you begin a conversation that is delicate for any reason, you say 'Let's go outside' or 'Please do not continue'."The allegation comes right after British officials closed another wiretap controversy by absolving former intelligence officer Katharine Gun of breaking Britain's Official Secrets Act--even though she admitted leaking a top-secret memo to a British newspaper. In the memo,...
  • SCIENCE: BRAVE NEW BABIES

    Sharla Miller always wanted a baby girl, but the odds seemed stacked against her. Her husband, Shane, is one of three brothers, and Sharla and her five siblings (four girls, two boys) have produced twice as many males as females. After the Millers' first son, Anthony, was born in 1991, along came Ashton, now 8, and Alec, 4. Each one was a gift, says Sharla, but the desire for a girl never waned. "I'm best friends with my mother," she says. "I couldn't get it out of my mind that I want-ed a daughter." Two years ago Sharla, who had her fallopian tubes tied after Alec's birth, began looking into adopting a baby girl. In the course of her Internet research, she stumbled upon a Web site for the Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles, headed by Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, where she learned about an in vitro fertilization technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. By creating embryos outside the womb, then testing them for gender, PGD could guarantee--with almost 100 percent certainty-...
  • How To Prevent Another Outbreak

    At this time of the year, the animal markets in southern China's Guangdong province are usually crowded with civets, raccoon dogs, snakes and even kittens, destined for local restaurants. Entrees in this part of the world are traditionally kept alive until moments before they land on the dinner table. The practice would be nothing more than a cultural curiosity if it weren't so bad for the world's health: animals and humans living in such close quarters tend to pass around viruses until, once in a while, one turns into an epidemic. Last year one virus happened to cause severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. By the time the world took notice--in March--this new bug had slipped into the countryside, through the airports of Beijing and Hong Kong and beyond.Now southern China, the world's most efficient virus factory and ground zero for most of the globe's influenza epidemics, is revving up for another cold and flu season. This year, though, SARS has lost the element of surprise....
  • The Small Screen

    Aalo Maity barely remembers life before her tiny Indian village got its first television set. She only remembers that after, life seemed unbearable. Every night she would gather with other villagers in a hut to watch soap operas that showed people in pressed clothes strolling while savoring ice cream from pretty cups. "In my hut we ate soggy rice and lentils and I wore darned saris," Maity recalls. "I wanted a better life." So she and her husband, Gaurang, leased out their land and found jobs in New Delhi--Aalo works as a maid, Gaurang drives an auto rickshaw. "From the time we got a television our lives changed, at least in our dreams," says Maity.Across Asia, hundreds of millions of people are moving from villages and farms to ever-expanding cities. Multiple forces conspire to draw them to the urban jungle--hunger, employment, education--but television's dream weaving surely ranks among the most powerful. "Migration has always been fueled by the desire to attain a better lifestyle...
  • How To Make A Virus

    It's time to feed the pigs. a Chinese farmhand goes pen to pen filling troughs with slop--a gray, foul-odored amalgam of unidentifiable garbage purchased from restaurants in nearby Guangzhou. The pigs squeal with delight and tuck into their midmorning snacks. There's a lot of squawking going on, too. Chickens, which also have free run of the farm, crowd the troughs for their share of the feast. Unfinished morsels from last night's meal, including clamshells and other seafood leftovers, still litter the ground. Amid all the ruckus, a young boy squats over a basin of water, washing cabbage leaves. A second course for the animals? "No, this is people food," he says--lunch for the farmhands.Like many livestock farms in southern China's Guangdong province, this one probably isn't licensed by the local authorities. The farm manager, a short and stern woman, would allow visitors only on the condition that she and the farm remain anonymous. And unregulated farms aren't the only places where...
  • Tracking A Killer Virus

    Dr. Clive Cockram remembers the last time he slept in the same bed as his wife. It was the morning of March 10, the day he and his colleagues at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong found themselves at the forefront of one of the most troubling epidemics in a decade. At noon, his chief of staff announced that the hospital's own doctors and nurses had begun filling up the emergency wards--as patients. They reported trouble breathing, severe muscle pain and high fever. Their mystery illness wasn't responding to treatment. The healthy staff took to dressing from head to toe in protective gear. To avoid infecting his family, Cockram kept to a separate bedroom and wore a surgical mask at home. Many of his colleagues slept in their offices. In a few days, the wards filled up with more than 90 patients. "It was heartbreaking," he says. "This was a new disease, and we didn't know what to do. We felt so helpless."The disease, dubbed SARS, for severe acute respiratory syndrome, has been...
  • China's Family Ties

    Clan roots run strong--and deep--in the village of Da Kengkou, in Anhui province. Nine out of ten families in the village are surnamed Hu. A thousand years ago, so legend goes, the Hus erected a clan temple here. A soothsayer, steeped in the art of feng shui, advised the clan to invite a family named Ding to live in their midst; the word ding means "nail," and the Hus needed something to anchor their clan's roots, he said. But some Hu elders were anxious: how could they ensure the Dings wouldn't eventually outnumber the Hus and grab power in the village? The fortuneteller had a solution: he cast a spell over the Dings, ensuring that each generation would have only one surviving son, thus limiting their numbers.Did it work? A family surnamed Ding has lived in Da Kengkou ever since the spell was cast--and to this day, with just a few exceptions, 24 generations of Dings have had only one surviving male descendant each. The Hus and the Dings get along just fine. "I've never thought of...
  • The World's New Culture Meccas

    Austin, USA: Southern Sound FactoryHank Stringer has no doubt who butters his bread. Two years ago he moved his recruitment company, Hire.com, to the old Austin Opry House. He kept the stage intact and named all the conference rooms after the musicians who once played there. On Mondays at 3 p.m., executive staff meetings are held in "Stevie Ray Vaughn." Weekly sales updates take place in "Talking Heads." And the product-steering committee convenes every Wednesday in "Muddy Waters." "Back in the early '90s, it wasn't so easy to attract talent to Austin. But I found a common theme of interest in the candidates," Stringer explains. "They all wanted to hear about the live-music scene. So I made it part of my pitch to take them out to clubs and expose them to the great artists in town. People loved it. And they fell in love with Austin."Austin, Texas, is not the first place you'd expect to find a flourishing creative enclave. It's surrounded by cities with gaudy high-rises, towns...