Category Archives: Chinese society

Reinventing “lived traditions” on demolished urban villages: Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho mall vs. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (part one).

From courtyards to mallyards: Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho building.

One day we (Lu Jian and I) would like to live in a courtyard house that we have “WangLued” (an architectural verb to be explained below). We love the “amateur” architects Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu. My feeling is that their historically-engaged work is increasingly important in China, where big-bucks developers have denigrated the built heritage, not least by bringing in Western “starchitects” to build computer-generated Cathedrals to new wealth and narcissistic consumption. However, that is just the view of a left-wing “waigouren”. Lu Jian – my Tianjinese wife with expertise in Chinese construction – similarly loves Wang and Lu’s work but also views the new developments in a more positive light.
An iconic example of the new cathedrals is the late Zaha Hadid’s (1950-2016) Chaoyangmen Soho mall located near Beijing’s 2nd ring road. The mall on Chaoyangmen Lu is the second of “Hadid-Zaha’s” four collaborations with Soho China, a property development company whose CEO Zhang Xin regards their buildings as “forming the fate of the city”.
SOHO China CEO Zhang Xin posing on the roof of her Galaxy Soho.
Like the majority of Hadid-Zaha’s later  3D-designed oeuvre, the Chaoyangmen Soho’s design is typically biomorphic and flowing.The futuristic structure provides the sorts of journeys that make one want to glide or roll around its curves, rather than merely walk like a pre-cyborg humanoid.
Chaoyangmen Soho: Cultural reinvention or socio-cultural death?

Regardless of the plastic-organic beauty, fans and critics have argued over whether the Chaoyangmen Soho provides social, historical and economic value.

Like Beijing’s (also RIBA  award winning) Olympic Birdcage , the Mall was built on land cleared of a historic neighbourhood. The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre’s He Shuzdong described the demolished urban villages as “the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional hutong and courtyard houses, the landscape formation, and the style and colour scheme of Beijing’s unique vernacular architecture.”


merge_from_ofoct (9)That destruction of public cultural heritage is part of a China-wide trend that ? in the capital ? has seen more than half the historic urban areas destroyed by what Beijing’s preservation watchdog calls “greedy developers” working “hand-in-hand with some corrupted officials”. Soho China’s CEO Zhang Xin agrees that property development (like other business) is generally ruled by “gaunxi” (relationships, or “who you know”), but argues that Soho’s development is free of corruption.


dezeen_galaxy-soho-by-zaha-hadid_sq1The relationship of the new mall to its urban-historical context was discussed in the English newspaper The Guardian

The paper recorded He Shuzdong’s criticism that the mall had illegally destroyed the city’s built heritage. RIBA, however, praised it for the “rare generosity” of its public spaces.


Hadid?Zaha told The Guardian that the mall provides “a reflection of traditional Chinese architecture where courtyards create an internal world of continuous open spaces.” These varied public spaces “directly engage with the city … reinterpreting the traditional urban fabric and contemporary living patterns into a seamless urban landscape”.


Zhang Xin views Hadid-Zaha as one of the architects “who understand what the next generation requires; connecting communities and traditions with new technologies and innovations to embrace the future.”


Public use of the mall-yards and associated commercial space is one measure of the success or failure of Hadid-Zaha’s reinvention. Micha? Jurgielewicz argues that its current emptiness points to a design failure. Visitor experience of the mall tends to support Jurgielewicz’s argument. There are many photos of the Chaoyangmen Soho building on Tripadvisor, from Chinese and foreign visitors, most of which show it to be sparsely populated.


One visitor’s review summed the common experience: “Very photogenic place, but an absolute ghost town. Functioned more like a park than a real office building. But worthwhile to visit if one’s interested in modern architecture”.  On the days of our visits, we also found that the mall’s many retail attendants outnumber the shoppers, while the prices of their luxury goods (tai gui le!) exceed the spending power of most urban village dwellers.

If Chaoyangmen Soho has become one of China’s many urban ghost towns, then  Hank Dittmar may have been correct in describing its formal reflection of historic courtyards as “merely writing an obituary, not keeping the culture alive.”

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Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho mall vs. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (part two).

Part two: The lifeworld of the hutong: “tian peng, yu gang, shi liu shu; lao ye, fei gou, pang ya tou”.

Before comparing the Amateur Architecture Studio’s approach to heritage in their Ningbo History Museum (2008) to that of Chaoyangmen Soho’s reinvented mall-yards, we might pull up a stool under a pomegranate tree, and pause to reflect on the nature of the urban village culture, and what it might mean to “keep it alive”.

pomegranite tree1

He Shuzhong describes the hutong way of life as the one thing that best represents ancient Chinese culture, and sociologist Qing Qing Yang suggests that “the Hutongs themselves are a live archive of history”. The term ‘hutong’ refers specifically to a laneway, connecting the living compounds of houses (generally belonging to one family) and courtyards (often shared by several families whose houses face onto the courtyard). More broadly, the hutong area refers to all three elements (the lane, houses, courtyards). The use of the term hutong to describe a residential area had become widespread in China by the time of the Yuan dynasty (from 1271 onwards).

Different elements of the hutong’s material structure have particular historical meaning. For example, as Mr Li, a Beijing Hutong Dweller explained to Mr Yang

“If you go and look around these formal courtyards you will find most of them have men dun, which tell the visitors information about the household. For example, a box shaped men dun means that the master of the family is a civil official; while if it is a drum shaped round men dun, then the master of the family is a military officer. If there is a lion on the men dun, then the master of this family must be related to royal kinship. If the lion is in a standing posture, then this family has a higher social status, while if it bends over, then it means it is from a relatively lower social level”.

men dun

Qing Qing Yang explains that when people chose a marriage partner, the traditional standard men dang hu dui (????) applied, which meant the gate of the two families, which shows the family status, should match each other. While men dun and many other features of hutong buildings have become redundant in a literal sense, they are still highly valued by residents, for the histories and memories they evoke.

Yang suggests that the hutong, the courtyard and the house are all experienced as aspects of home, rather than separate spaces. Hutong were originally only wide enough for pedestrians and bicycles, and so provided “a haven for kids to play in without fear of an accident”. Lu Jian, who often stayed in her grandparent’s (Tianjin) courtyard house concurs that the freedom of the hutongs was one of the pleasures of childhood.

hutong nanhar

The home-courtyard-hutong space was shared among inter-generational family and neighbours. Yang gives the example of the pomegranate tree grown on a trellis across a hutong. The shade of the tree provides a meeting place where neighbours pull up stools to sit and talk and ? as can often be seen in the Beijing hutong? play mahjong. Shared outside washrooms also provide an opportunity for togetherness, and Yang suggests that the residents wearing of sleeping clothes in the street shows their feeling of home includes the hutong. Lu Jian recalls the sharing of food among the different families who ate together in her grandma’s courtyard; if someone went to the market and got fresh fish, crabs, or shrimp, then they would be shared with the neighbours.

chess under tree

“Communality” and an extended sense of being at home were and are pleasures of the hutong. On the other hand, conflicts among neighbours could sour things, especially as the home-courtyard-hutong life provides for little privacy and escape. Moreover, as Jonah Kessel suggests, the hutong’s living conditions were often poor: space was cramped, buildings suffered from crumbling bricks and leaking roofs, residents relied on coal for winter warmth and had to venture outside to the communal washrooms.

While preservationists would like to see heritage areas (say, within Beijing’s 2nd ring) authentically maintained and restored, it isn’t clear that residents are adverse to modification (and downright fakery) if it enables the preservation of material memories (everything has a story behind it), and continuity of the positive aspects of the hutong way of life. Many former inhabitants have moved to high rise apartments where they appreciate the better facilities (especially the privacy of one’s own washroom) but still long for the tree-lined hutongs, courtyards, and collective way of life. Often a compromise is preferred; residents would like to stay, but have their facilities improved. That may require difficult choices ? if having a washroom installed means losing a sleeping space, which relation needs to go?


Much of the compromising done in still existing hutong areas has been with tourism. To the extent that this enables a continuation of a hutong way of life, compromisers may be content to have come part of a “living museum” (as Yang describes it). However, over-commercialisation in some areas has pushed the compromise too far for the maintenance of the social lifeworld of the hutong. In such cases Yang suggests that these hutong have become an “empty shell”.

How then, might displaced hutong residents view the Chaoyangmen Soho mall? Despite RIBA’s claims that it’s public spaces represent a generous democratisation of Hadid-Zaha’s work, and the architect’s own claims of seamless cultural reinvention, its doubtful the displaced compromisers regard the mall-yards as providing for the continuation of “lived traditions”. It seems more likely they share the preservationists’ view that the Soho represents a kind of luxury-brand gravestone for the hutong way of life. If so, we might (in part three) ask, does Amateur Architecture’s more historical approach better support socio-cultural continuity and, if so, for who?

Reinventing “lived traditions” on demolished urban villages: Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho mall vs. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (part three).

The Ningbo History Museum: Re-animating “lived traditions?

When Hadid?Zaha, Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu met on the occasion of Wang’s Pritzer prize in 2012, they might have discussed their different ideas of reinvention, heritage and lived traditions. If so, it may have been a tactful conversation as Wang and Lu have rebuked contemporary architecture’s contribution to the large-scale demolition of historic urban villages and their way of life. Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum (2008) provides a good subject for comparison, not least because it was built on a site cleared of urban villages ? like the Chaoyangmen Soho site ? in order to provide for commercial, residential and public space development.Where Hadid-Zaha claimed to have provided conceptually ‘reinvented courtyards’ within a high-end commercial development, Wang and Lu’s publicly-funded museum seeks to reanimate the beauty of the villages, their built materials, and their lifeworld.

Ningo history museum lu

In a short video for Dezeen, Wang Shu indicates some of the ideas of reinvented heritage he and Lu Wenyu used in the design and process of building the museum. Integral to the design is the use of the villages’ demolition materials, including around 2 million pieces of brick and tiles collected from the rubble.The Dezeen article on the Ningbo Museum describes how these were used in “a traditional technique called wa pan, in which multiple elements of different sizes are packed together “.

The reuse of local historical materials is key to the “amateur” approach and its critique of contemporary Chinese architecture. Wang told the New York Times

Everywhere you can see, they don’t care about the materials …they just want new buildings, they just want new things. I think the material is not just about materials. Inside it has the people’s experience, memory — many things inside. So I think it’s for an architect to do something about it.”

laneway wapan

The participation of the local artisans in the museum’s wa pan building practice reinvents “lived tradition”, with some artisans re-learning their lost local tradition, while the process involved the artisan’s selection of materials and their placement in the cladding design. Wang differentiates these uses of materials as intrinsic to the lived experience of the building from the idea of historical objects placed within a museum display, whereupon they are positioned as belonging to the non-present past (he says they have become “dead”).

The spatial design of the museum also reanimates the lost lifeworld of the villages. As Evan Chakroff (2012) observes the museum is organised around two courtyards open to the sky is “a familiar form of traditional Chinese residential and temple”, which visitors access through a low gateway. Inside the visitor’s journey proceeds via large staircases and other smaller punctures that reflect “the courtyards, pathways, and captured spaces of traditional Chinese gardens”.


The museum’s “roofscape” has “the human- scale proportions of a traditional Chinese village”; the “voids slashing through the building intersect at angles that instantly recall the pitched roofs of local vernacular architecture”; while the cuts ‘reflect the width of historic pedestrian lanes’. The walls show the wa pan method mixed with bamboo-molded concrete. Here we can see the manifestation of Wang and Lu’s idea of historical reinvention where materials are used in relation totradition rather than in simple repetition: the structure relates to its history as a “new creation”.


Wang and Lu’s building invites the visitor to view the urban development from the standpoint of local history as lived tradition. if the museum re-historicizes the urban environment for the Chinese (national) visitor, it is also more specifically intended to re-memorialise for the displaced local villagers. In this it is consistent with the egalitarian public service ethos of the Amateur Architects, who view themselves as fellow artisans, on a continuum with the local craftsmen and women who built the museum’s wa pan cladding. “WangLuing” then ? the Amateur approach ? includes this egalitarian love of craft alongside the trans-historical reanimation of the lifeworld of pagodas, temples, and courtyards.

Conclusion: Reinventing for who? Reinventing towards what?

The question of what audience an architecture performs for seems relevant when comparing the different kinds of reinventions provided by the Ningbo History Museum and the Chaoyangmen Soho mall. Arguably, Hadid-Zaha’s mall speaks to Beijing’s growing middle and elite classes, both the consumers intended to flanuer their way around the mall-yards, and the displaced hutong dwellers whose property compensation may have contributed to their upwards socio-economic mobility. Perhaps the mall’s role in the political economy contributes to that upward movement. Possibly it’s mall-yards and economy are generous democratic contributions.

On the other hand, its emptiness suggests that it has not successfully reinvented the once-thriving lifeworld of the demolished hutongs, not for displaced residents, nor for middle-class and elite consumers. Nor has it yet become the engine of innovation and economic growth envisioned by its developer, merging seamlessly with the surrounding city. Soho China CEO Zhang Xin asserts, Chaoyangmen Soho is one of the buildings “forming the fate of the city”. If so, is it just one of Beijing’s vanity project for the extremely wealthy, one symbolising their power ? and the powerlessness of the displaced villagers? in a form less phallic than that of China’s tallest tower competition? The fate being foretold in Zhang’s hopes for the reinvented mall-yards may just be one of inequality and forgetting unless it’s subject to radical reinvention (for example, cheap public housing, public health facilities, libraries, education). That kind of public spirited transformation would be at odds though, with the anarchic capitalism of Patrick Schumacher, Zaha Hadid’s architectural practice partner and now CEO.

Amateur Architecture’s Ningbo History Museum, in contrast, is dedicated to remembering a lost lifeworld for the displaced urban villagers. For the visitor, the museum’s material and form reanimates the presence of the historical villages and their way of life and frames the contemporary city through that experience and view. For the local craftsmen, the building reflects their involvement in the construction of the building and the reanimation of traditional building practices (wa pan) that express the layers of local history. Wang and Lu assert that the building serves the memories of the displaced local villages, it enables their remembering. The structure, form, and experience of the building contrast with the internal exhibition, which is exactly the kind of mimetic reflection that Wang and Lu described as evidencing a lifeworld’s death.

exhibit ningbo a

Who is it useful to, this built lived tradition? Is it visited by the displaced villagers whose memories and history it seeks to honour? What might it mean to the displaced migrant farmer who may not have received any compensation? Would the displaced villager now living in a compensation-purchased high-rise return to visit, like the Beijing villagers tourist-visiting hutongs in order to remember? Does the museum generate economic activity that supports the strata that formerly belonged to the urban village?

Or is it intended as a place for critical reflection, a material standpoint from which a privileged viewer might desire the positive elements of the hutong lifeworld, and condemn its demolition? As such a standpoint, the Ningbo History Museum is, albeit in a conflicting way, as futuristic as the Chaoyangmen Soho. Literally grounded in dialogic history (the wa pan cladding forms the base, and was selected with the local craftsmen), it also speaks of a relationship to nature (the upper-level concrete is molded by bamboo).
museum city scape

The visitor views the surrounding city through lines of perspective guided by history/memory/nature, and these lines suggest a trajectory for future ‘development’, one that conflicts with the dominant trajectory of buildings like Zhang and Hadid’s mall on Chaoyangmen Lu.

My Days of Mercy review – death penalty drama, with added romance

My Days of Mercy review – death penalty drama, with added romance

3 / 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars.

Ellen Page is fighting to save her father from lethal injection when she falls for Kate Mara’s pro-execution lawyer


Love across the battle lines … Ellen Page, left, and Kate Mara in My Days of Mercy.
Love across the battle lines … Ellen Page, left, and Kate Mara in My Days of Mercy. Photograph: Signature Entertainment

Bridging America’s divided soul is the task Israeli film-maker Tali Shalom Ezer sets herself in her second feature, a romance-cum-road-movie-cum-capital-punishment social drama. Ellen Page, playing 10 years younger, is twentysomething anti-execution activist Lucy Morrow, whose father is due for lethal injection for the alleged murder of her mother. She falls in love across the battle lines with Kate Mara’s lawyer, one of the pro-capital punishment protesters she regularly sees at demonstrations around the country.

Possibly in a genre of two with Monster (2003) – the lesbian death-row romance – My Days of Mercy is considerably lighter, the effervescent chemistry between the two leads saving it from Sundance-y overearnestness. Mara has a wry authority over an admirably chippy Page, who has been press-ganged by her sister (Amy Seimetz) into career activism: “How was your proboning?” she needles her sibling’s lawyer lover. The film’s early, quasi-romcom tone means the film must straddle a tonal divide, too, as Lucy’s father’s execution date approaches. Structured around several protests before the final showdown, it emerges as a slightly ungainly hybrid: Four Killings and a Funeral, almost.

Director Ezer and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk (The Babadook) have a knack for crisp visuals that pop with graphic-novel succinctness, like the final-meal platters that open each section. But as My Days of Mercy quietly builds in power, in its back half, this tendency means the film falls short visually for what is, on paper, a courageous choice of climactic scene. It doesn’t find a way to fully convey the profound impact of watching the act of institutionalised murder. Coupled with the weakness for spats between Page and Mara to force the final act to a head, this ambitious film isn’t quite a full-bore success.




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“…lesbian death-row romance….”.

The film sounds terrible but if the movie is good, the last line of the review could’ve been “the film “kinda lingers’….”


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(Old joke from 1970s/1980s comedy show Not The Nine O’Clock News but probably goes back to music hall)



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Sounds terrible





Why China Executes So Many People

The Atlantic


Suspects listen to their verdicts at a court in Kunming, Yunnan province, November 6, 2012. (Reuters)

Zhang Jing has only seen her husband four times in the past four years. This Thursday, it will have been be exactly two years since they last met.

And she may never see him again.

That’s because Zhang’s husband, Xia Junfeng, a former street vendor in the northeastern city of Shenyang, was sentenced to death in 2011 for stabbing to death two chengguan, who are much-maligned city management inspectors responsible for enforcing law and order.

The sentence is now under final review by the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing. If approved, Xia will not be able to appeal and will be executed.

Zhang, 37, still adamantly believes that her husband is innocent.

“They charged him with intentional homicide. But how could my husband have ‘intentionally’ killed someone if they first beat him up?” Zhang questioned. “He was only defending himself. If he’d known what would happen, would he still have done it? Of course he wouldn’t have. Even if he escaped the death penalty, he’d lose freedom for the rest of his life behind bars. Isn’t that a very painful thing?”

“Also, why didn’t they call defense witnesses to testify in court? Why only call upon the chengguans‘ witnesses? I feel it was very unfair,” she said.

Cases like Xia’s, where there’s a chance that the accused could be innocent, are the focus of the anti-death penalty efforts in China. “Even those who strongly support the death penalty don’t support condemning an innocent person to death,” said Teng Biao, a human rights activist and founder of the non-profit Beijing-based China Against Death Penalty. Teng also served as the defense lawyer for Xia in his appeal.A report released last month by the human rights group Amnesty International said that, as in previous years, China executed more people last year than the rest of the world combined. While the official number is unknown — executions are considered state secrets in China — most estimates place the number at around 3,000. By contrast, 42 people were executed in the United States last year.

Opposition to the death penalty exists in China but faces many obstacles, including pro-execution government propaganda, class and income inequalities, and the lack of an independent judiciary. Another issue, alas, is popular indifference. But while anti-death penalty activists say public education is needed to get the message out, they believe change ultimately needs to come from the top — something that they’re not optimistic about at all.


The death penalty has deeply-entrenched roots in China, and the notion of sha ren chang ming, the Mandarin equivalent to “an eye for an eye”, is rife in Chinese literature and tradition. But a judiciary beholden to the interests of the Communist Party arguably has a bigger impact.

“If the case is deemed to be detrimental to social stability, the government might order the courts to issue the death penalty,” said Liu Weiguo, a Shandong-based rights lawyer. Even some supporters of the death penalty, like Guangzhou lawyer Cheng Zhunqiang, say that its legitimacy depends on the existence of an “extremely fair and just” judiciary, which China lacks. The current judicial system is unfairly skewed against the disenfranchised, and the application of the law is utterly arbitrary.

Prominent human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan recalled a typical example: Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai and convicted murderer, was given a suspended death sentence due to mental illness. Meanwhile, a villager from the impoverished southwestern province of Guizhou that Liu represented was refused a psychiatric assessment by the judges who eventually sentenced him to death.

The poor are further disadvantaged because they cannot afford to “buy back” their lives by offering financial compensation to the victim’s family in return for them not pressing charges. This issue loomed large in the case of Zhang Jing. “We’re just hawkers. We don’t have money. We can’t afford to compensate. It’s impossible,” she said.

Besides these legal questions, death penalty opponents contend that the government’s propaganda seeks to convince people that killing is appropriate in certain circumstances. Six decades of Communist rule have inculcated the idea that an individual life can be sacrificed for the greater good, a belief exemplified by the one-child policy.

There’s also a sense, reinforced through propaganda, that killing “bad people” is inherently just. In March, national television ran live footage of the run-up to the execution of four foreign nationals convicted of murdering 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River, an event that received international media attention. Shortly after the execution, Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalistic state-run newspaper Global Times, declared to his 3.6 million followers on Weibo that “it is necessary to resolutely pursue revenge and send a stern warning to those who kill Chinese people.”

These efforts appear to be working. A survey of respondents in Beijing, Hubei and Guangdong conducted in 2008 by the Max Planck Institute revealed that almost 60 percent supported the death penalty. Unsurprisingly, capital punishment provides great legitimacy to the Communist Party, which claims to be satisfying popular sentiment and public indignation when it executes corrupt officials. China is one of the very few countries that has the death penalty for economic crime and has shown little mercy with disgraced government officials. And, in a country in which free speech isn’t guaranteed, the public hears few arguments against the death penalty in the national media.


Chinese opponents of the death penalty know they face a daunting environment.

“Very few people are aware of the concept of abolishing the death penalty, let alone the consideration of societal improvement and benefits that comes with getting rid of the sentence. Only an extremely small minority knows about it,” said Beijing-based human rights lawyer Li Heping. “An overwhelming majority, including some members of the legal profession, think that the death penalty is a right and proper punishment. They have not thought about this issue in depth.”

Liang Xiaojun, who works with Teng Biao, pointed out that China Against Death Penalty is China’s only grassroots organization that pays close attention to the death penalty issue. “The movement is not on track yet. We were only recently set up, so our influence is still quite limited,” he said.

For now, death penalty opponents are aiming to limit its use by first abolishing the sentence against non-violent crimes. China currently has 55 offenses that are punishable by death — the most in the world. Of these, 31 are non-violent offenses. But in the long term, death penalty opponents have a much higher aim: to completely overhaul the way the practice is judged in Chinese society.

Will this happen? Ultimately, most activists believe change requires leadership from the top. Many countries that abolished the death penalty did so before public opinion had swung in favor of ending it. The Communist Party, with its lack of political opposition, would face few hurdles should it choose to change this policy. Nevertheless, few Chinese are optimistic.

Back in Shenyang, Zhang Jing said she’s mentally prepared for the ruling, which could come any day.”I don’t dare give myself even a little hope. I’m afraid I won’t be able to take it,” said Zhang. “If the sentence is upheld, that means justice no longer applies. What can you do?” Her voice trailed off.

“I hope the death penalty can be abolished, not because of my husband’s case, but because I know that there’re many wrongful convictions,” she said. “But it’s a long, long road ahead. I don’t know when it’ll happen, I don’t know how many lifetimes later, but definitely not within my lifetime.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to

Zi Heng Lim is a journalist based in New York City.


Pre-Execution Reality TV Show on Death Row?

Pre-Execution Reality TV Show on Death Row?

Henan Television’s legal channel has been airing the reality show Interviews Before Execution (????) since 2006. Due to its online availability [zh], the program has been widely viewed across China. The show has lately been covered extensively by foreign media, most notably in a recent BBC This World documentary. An article in BBC News Magazine describes the show and its culturally-relative quality:

In Henan Province, in central China, millions of people have been tuning in every week to watch an extraordinary talk show called Interviews Before Execution, in which a reporter interviews murderers condemned to death. The show ran for just over five years, until it was taken off air on Friday.

Every Monday morning, reporter Ding Yu and her team scoured court reports to find cases to cover on their programme. They had to move quickly, as prisoners in China can be executed seven days after they are sentenced.

To Western eyes the show’s format may seem exploitative, but Ding disagrees.

“Some viewers may consider it cruel to ask a criminal to do an interview when they are about to be executed.

“On the contrary, they want to be heard,” she says.

“Some criminals I interviewed told me: ‘I’m really very glad. I said so many things in my heart to you at this time. In prison, there was never a person I was willing to talk to about past events.’”

An article in The Independent further describing the program mentions that some episodes previously available online have disappeared, and suggests that the BBC coverage may result in the show’s cancellation:

There were question marks yesterday over the future of one of China’s most popular television shows, “Interviews Before Execution”, in which death row prisoners are interviewed shortly before their execution, after its presenter was the subject of a BBC documentary.

The aim of the show, which has been broadcast by Legal TV channel for the past five years and is anchored by Yu Ding, is to highlight the deterrent effect of the death sentence by showing prisoners, sometimes minutes before they are shot or killed by lethal injection.

However, the show may have become the victim of its own success after international TV stations, including the BBC, made documentaries about the programme.

[…]There was confusion last night about the future of the show. News reports yesterday that suggested it was being cancelled because of “internal problems” were denied by officials at Legal TV.

NBC News’ Behind the Wall provides some translated dialogue, and describes the controversy surrounding the show in China. The article also suggests that rumors of the show’s cancellation may not be reliable:

Ding was particularly blunt with one unrepentant interviewee, saying: “I’m glad you got caught. You are a scumbag.” One episode featured a man yelping, “I’m sorry,” and kneeling down on the ground hours before his execution. In another, right before his execution a convict asked her: “Can I shake hands with you?”

[…]”Many people say I’m an angel and devil. I never thought myself as an angel, because it’s work that puts me into contact with these people. I see myself more as a witness,” Ding told the BBC in their 50-minute-long documentary.

[…] A BBC report on Monday claimed the show was taken off the air by Henan TV last Friday. When NBC News reached Henan Legal Channel and asked about it, we were told that was not the case.

The temporary “disappearance” of the show is apparently only making room for a new show, and “Interview before Execution” will come back on air in about six weeks.

However, on the channel’s official website, no links to Ding Yu’s program can be found, while information about other shows is available.

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Interviews Before Execution,’ China Death Row Reality TV Show, Canceled


‘Interviews Before Execution,’ China Death Row Reality TV Show, Canceled

A reality-TV fate worse than being spurned by that final rose on The Bachelor actually exists; in fact, the participants on one Chinese television program were all put to death, with no Running Man-esque opportunity to survive — but the controversial program couldn’t get a stay to prevent its own demise.

Interviews Before Execution,” first broadcast on Henan Legal Channel Nov. 18, 2006, according to the BBC, interviewed a prisoner on death row every week in cruel and voyeuristic detail. The Daily Mail notes that sometimes interviews were recorded just minutes before a prisoner’s execution, and that many confessed crimes and begged for forgiveness as their time on Earth ran out.

Help us tell more of the stories that matter from voices that too often remain unheard.

“We want the audience to be warned,” Lu Peijin, director of the channel that produces the show, told “If they are warned, tragedies might be averted. That is good for society.”

Journalist Ding Yu interviewed more than 200 convicts on “Interviews Before Execution,” ABC News writes, in many cases meting out details about the grisly crimes they committed.

But what began as a planned public deterrent to crime turned into a popular phenomenon rivaling American Idol in the United States, capturing 40 million viewers per broadcast and rocketing Ms. Ding to fame, according to The New York Times.

Ms. Ding doesn’t believe her show was exploiting convicts. She was quoted by The Daily Mail:

“I feel sorry and regretful for them. But I don’t sympathise with them, for they should pay a heavy price for their wrongdoing. They deserve it.”

Ding acquired the nickname “Beauty with the Beasts,” the BBC reports.

Though not broadcast throughout China, the controversial “Interviews Before Execution” drew its best ratings on an episode featuring Bao Rongtin, an openly gay man who murdered his mother and violated her dead body, according to The Daily Mail. The show prompted additional episodes featuring the prisoner, and in his final conversation before execution, he implored Ms. Ding to shake his hand, which she did, but to which she later confessed to second-guessing. The BBC notes that homosexuality is still considered a taboo in China.

“I had never come close to a gay man, so I really couldn’t accept some of his practices, words and deeds,” Ding told the BBC.

The BBC and PBS International have picked up rights to the documentary, “Dead Men Talking,” according to the New York Times, which details the show’s explosive popularity. PBS International‘s website describes the film and its additions by the BBC as taking “viewers into the nightmare worlds of violent criminals sentenced to death—and of the TV journalist who is their last connection to this world.”

The international spotlight on the show comes on the heels of the show’s cancellation, according to ABC News, which the news outlet confirmed with Legal TV Channel, the station in China’s Henan province that produced and broadcast the show. The cancellation was attributed to “internal problems.”

In China, the BBC notes, 55 crimes are punishable by death, including murder, treason and bribery. Crimes such as tax fraud, credit fraud and smuggling relics were only recently removed from the list of capital offenses. The New York Times notes that the exact number of yearly executions in China remains a state secret, though Amnesty International and other groups estimate the country as the leading executioner in the world.

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China’s rural migrant workers deserve more respect from the city-dwellers

Sat, August 25, 2012.  The Guardian UK  By: Hsiao-Hung Pai

The people who make up half of China’s urban workforce are marginalized and patronized, yet they are indispensable

On China’s Valentine’s Day (the seventh day of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar, which fell on 23 August this year), 30 migrant workers were taken by surprise when they were invited to a business networking dinner by several college students in Shanghai who, during their summer internships, had happened to see the migrants’ miserable working life on the city’s construction sites. The move by the students, who wore T-shirts saying “Invite a Migrant Worker to a Meal” was televised as a primetime entertainment.

This says much about the social attitudes towards migrant workers, who often come from the vast interior of the country. They make up half of China’s urban workforce and account for half of the country’s GDP. They are indispensable, and yet are the most socially marginalized group of workers in China.

Yet rural migrants continue to suffer from deep-seated prejudice and discrimination. Not only are they denied access to public services in the cities due to the hukou (household registration) system, they are also subjected to day-to-day exclusion and abuse. You see them being talked to and shouted at like children in public places; you see them banned from hotel lobbies and posh restaurants. And as an angry blogger pointed out when observing open discrimination against rural migrants, he said that the “No Dogs or Chinese” signs put up by western colonialists in the 1920s and 1930s have been replaced by the “No Dogs or Peasants” signs at shopping malls in the cities. How have these become acceptable?

Since Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up (gaige kaifang) era, the media has led the way in manufacturing images about rural migrants and reinforcing prejudice against them. The word “peasant” (nongmin) has always had negative connotations, either implying ignorance and lack of education or carrying a patronizing tone, addressing passive masses receiving benevolence from the rulers. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the media began to widely use to the term “blind flow” (mangliu) to describe rural-to-urban migration, portraying an irrational, senseless and out-of-control migration of labour into the cities. This negative language has long shaped public views and sentiments towards rural migrants and further Nongmin deepened the prejudice against them.

Nongmin is a permanent social status that entails someone’s inferior educational and cultural background as well as economic capabilities. As a segregated social class, nongmin carry the subordinated status with them wherever they migrate. I had a Chinese publisher questioning me about the dialogue I wrote for a rural migrant when he discussed politics. She said: “How can a peasant speak like that? They aren’t intelligent enough to analyze things that way.” I also had a Chinese reporter saying to me: “Don’t trust what the peasants tell you; they would mislead you.” Neither of them has had any experience working with anyone in the rural communities.

This raises the question about the media’s distance and lack of knowledge of the “rural” of which social imagery they have been shaping. Interestingly, Owen Jones, in his Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, talked about a similar process where the media lacks contact with and knowledge of the class they are belittling. The media take on the role of demonizing the working class, Jones says, and providing moral justification for the state to deny that class of entitlements.

Similarly, the Chinese media manufacture “inherent” moral deficiency and characteristics of the nongmin in order to justify their lack of rights and entitlements. Thus the idea that nongmin are inherently much less intelligent and unable to make sense of their own reality; thus the idea that nongmin are “a blind flow of labour crowding into the cities” and they “create social and economic problems” for the urbanite. It is the equivalent of the Daily Mail in the UK – Jones quotes the Mail’s remarks on the “council-estate working class”: “These are the people who are getting sentimental about a vicious killer; they have no values, no morality and are so thick that they are beyond redemption.”

And then see Chinese bloggers condemning migrant workers in Yunnan who held a protest with their children holding placards “Hand over my parents’ sweat and blood money!” in order to claim back owed wages. One blogger sneered: “What kind of parent would let their kids beg money for them?”

As China’s rural migrants have had this class distinction stamped on them permanently, the only way their demands for social justice and equal rights can be justified is through the promotion of national economic interests and the greater good. One way to advance the rural migrants’ case for better access to public services in the cities is to argue that they could power consumer spending growth in China. As China Daily reports this week, “The 230 million-strong migrant workforce drives China’s economy, but a lack of access to education, health and other services … forces massive saving, restraining Beijing’s efforts to shift growth’s focus to consumption from investment.” No media are able to talk about migrant workers’ basic rights.

Social attitudes will take a long time to change in China, and the media is guilty of delaying that change. Rural migrants need to be treated as citizens, like everyone else, not as passive nongmin to be receiving occasional goodwill and charity. Much more needs to be done than taking migrants to a Chinese Valentine’s dinner.


“China’s Rural Migrant Workers Deserve More Respect from City-Dwellers”

The Guardian UK


  1. Where do migrant workers come from?
  2. How many migrant workers are there? How do they contribute to China’s GDP?
  3. What does the life of a migrant worker look like?
  4. What is hukou?
  5. How are migrant workers treated by other Chinese?
  6. What is gaige kaifang?
  7. What is nongmin?
  8. Who is responsible for giving peasants such a bad image?
  9. What is mangliu?
  10. What are the perceptions of mangliu?
  11. What does life look like for the nongmin/Chinese peasants?
  12. Why would the media want to portray the nongmin so badly?
  13. How can the nongmin get social services and equal rights for themselves?

What is the summary of this article? Summarize the article in 1 paragraph.

















Ant People

China’s “Ant Tribe” Lives In The World’s Most Cramped Apartments

Photos from the fringes of China’s biggest cities. Toilets built under bed lofts, groups of renters crammed in underground windowless rooms — how the great migrations towards cities create cramped living conditions.

Posted on November 27, 2013

Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

A viral comic about the plight of China's underemployed urban young living in very cramped quarters:

A viral comic about the plight of China’s underemployed urban young living in very cramped quarters

Many of them are migrant workers toughing it out in China’s most desirable cities, though Hukou residency quotas mean many cannot become legal city residents or partake in their low-income housing and public services. In Beijing alone, an estimated 100,000 of them live in windowless underground hovels, while elsewhere they live in buses, shipping containers, and dangerously cramped bunks. They are China’s “rat people” and “ant tribe,” a category that includes older workers priced out of above-ground apartments and, increasingly, underemployed college graduates who have to share a bedroom with six strangers to make rent (“rat people” refer to people living in underground rentals, while “ant people” refer to recent grads in cramped quarters).

The photos below show how blue and white collar migrants alike are getting shut out from the cities’ official Hukou resident system (which the government plans to reform) and priced out of the cores of cities into to the fringes and undergrounds.

A resident waits to use the communal bathroom and washing area of a basement hostel on the western outskirts of Beijing.Sim Chi Yin / VII Mentor Program


n the communal kitchen of a condo in western Beijing, the landlord posts a rent collection notice: “starting August, rent will be due on the first day of each month. New renters are exempt. “Sim Chi Yin / VII Mentor Program
An employee of a mail delivery service showers under her bunk bed at her rental.
An employee of a mail delivery service showers under her bunk bed at her rental.
Two employees of a construction material company share an apartment in Wuhan city. An open shower (and what looks to be a squat toilet) sits at the base of a ladder leading to the top bunk.


Master Yan, who declined to give his full name, teaches and practices Chinese martial arts in an air-raid shelter basement with 130 rooms for rent.Sim Chi Yin / VII Mentor Program
Parents cook at a public kitchen of a rental building in Hefei, Anhui province.Jianan Yu / Reuters

Master Yan, who declined to give his full name, teaches and practices Chinese martial arts in an air-raid shelter basement with 130 rooms for rent.

78 year old Leung Shu shares a floor (divided by cage-like metal capsules) with 4 other roommates in Hong Kong.Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images
Xiao Cao, a street performer, shares an eight-square-meter apartment behind a public rest room in Shanghai with his partner.Aly Song / Reuters


Migrant construction workers live and share dinner on a bus in Shenyang, Liaoning province. Their construction manager bought the scrapped bus for his workers at 26,000 yuan ($4,190). Sheng Li / Reuters
A cluster of shipping container apartments on the outskirts of Shanghai. The landlord charges 500 yuan ($80) per month for each container.Aly Song / Reuters
Dai Yusheng and his wife live and work in city sanitation in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. He makes 14RMB per hour ($2.28) and lives in a windowless underground



A recent college grad practices kickboxing in his Beijing rental, which he shares with three other roommates.

A typical “ant tribe” living arrangement for recent college grads.
A TV series and two novels depicting the plight of the “ant tribe” generation. The squalid living conditions of China’s urban poor is becoming a widely-discussed phenomenon.
Chinese internet giant Sohu streams a 33-part soap opera called “The Ant Tribe’s Struggle.”
Chinese internet giant Sohu streams a 33-part soap opera called "The Ant Tribe's Struggle."
Chinese internet giant Sohu streams a 33-part soap opera called “The Ant Tribe’s Struggle.”

Two Weibo users debate the phenomenon.