Category Archives: Chinese society

The Guardian view on Hong Kong: policing the crisis

Brutal treatment of protesters and a government that will not listen have inflamed a dangerous situation


Hong Kong protests: student shot and man set on fire during clashes – video

Hong Kong is unrecognisable. In less than six months a global financial centre known for its efficiency and pragmatism has become consumed by rage and violence. On Tuesday, as police stormed a university campus to arrest students, and their teargas and rubber bullets were met by petrol bombs, parts of the campus looked more like a conflict zone than a seat of learning.

The initial trigger for all this was the now-withdrawn extradition bill. But the government’s response, and in particular police brutality, has fired the protests. The latest escalation was sparked by the death of a student who fell from a building following police clashes with protesters last week. Most responded passionately but peacefully – with an estimated 100,000 gathering this weekend for a vigil. Others have ramped up their stance.

As activists disrupted the morning commute for two days in a row, and attacked property associated with support for the Hong Kong government and Beijing, footage showed police officers shooting a demonstrator in the torso at close range; driving a motorbike into protesters repeatedly; and beating a person inside a church. Meanwhile another horrific video showed a man being sprayed with flammable liquid and set alight, apparently by a protester with whom he had been arguing, in an indefensible attack that has appalled supporters of the movement as well as those bitterly opposed to it.

The government appears to see that assault, and the wider destruction, as an opportunity to drive a wedge between those taking part in protests and the rest of the population: Carrie Lam, the chief executive, described demonstrators as “enemies of the people”. Some residents are no doubt shifting. Yet the real and profound disagreement remains that between the government and the population of Hong Kong – as Ms Lam’s historically low approval ratings indicate. Even people who disapprove of some or many of the movement’s means understand that, unlike the police, it has no command structure. They also see protest actions as spawned by police violence and a government that can only crack down, never compromise. Attacks by thugs on crowds of protesters and the targeting of leading activists have further hardened opinion.

Nor does the news that the city is now in recession, due in large part to the movement, seem to have made a significant dent. And despite Monday’s disruption and violence, white-collar workers in the city’s centre applauded activists and passed them supplies. In a survey taken a few weeks ago, more than four out of 10 respondents said protesters had used excessive violence; but almost seven in 10 said the same of police. Nearly nine in 10 backed an independent inquiry into police actions.

The true responsibility lies not with rank-and-file officers but with those commanding them. A public inquiry and an amnesty for protesters who have not committed violent crimes might still take some steam out of the movement. But these look unlikelier than ever. The alternative is probably ever-escalating violence. Hong Kong’s government must rely on the police because it does not have the support of the public. And it cannot command public support because residents understand that it is not there on their behalf but that of Beijing. That is why the right to choose their own leaders has become a central demand.

John Tsang, the city’s former financial secretary, defeated by Ms Lam for the chief executive post, observed on Tuesday that, given the imbalance of power between protesters and the government, the government should take the initiative to de-escalate the force it is using. This seems like a statement of the obvious but from a pro-establishment figure it is striking. Yet it will almost certainly go unheard. Beijing appears more determined than ever to rely upon increased repression and a few economic sweeteners. But neither trigger-happy policing nor bungs can resolve this political struggle.


  • Guardian Pick

    It is hard to explain life and politics in Hong Kong right now. Think of the lack of any political antennae and empathy of Teresa May and ramp it up many times. Think of the inertia of the most stolid and conservative of regimes in history and cover it in superglue.. Think of any person you know who can only make the wrong decision on everything. Then you have Carrie Lam and her government.

    As soon as I heard of the face mask ban, (advised agains…

    Jump to comment

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Hong Kong’s reluctant police officer: ‘It’s not for us to deliver punishment’

The battle with protesters is splitting the police force between those seeking power and others protecting freedoms

Security forces stand guard as protesters take part in an anti-government protest in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
One Hong Kong police officer says the force has become ‘a tool of authorities for stability maintenance’. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Larry Yeung* cuts a lonely figure in the police force these days.

He joined more than 20 years ago because it appealed to his sense of justice. Proudly showing off his graduation tie, he reminisces about his desire as a young recruit to serve society and help the disadvantaged.

“I abide by what the force has taught me,” he says, showing a list of values and mission he signed up for. Among them is “upholding the rule of law”, “impartiality and compassion” and “respect for the rights of members of the public.”

But the recent political crisis in Hong Kong, which has seen police using violent tactics to crack down on increasingly radical protests, has tested his loyalty to the force.

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during a protest in Hong Kong, China August 31, 2019.

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during a protest in Hong Kong in August. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

“Police should protect citizens, but instead, we’ve become a tool of the authorities for ‘stability maintenance’,” Yeung says, with a rueful smile. “Our top officials are hiding and we’ve become their shields.”

Animosity between police and citizens has grown to an alarming level as ever-increasing amounts of tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and water cannon have been used to deal with the resentful crowds.

On 1 October, police fired a live round for the first time, injuring an 18-year-old in the chest. Three days later, a 14-year-old was shot in the thigh. In the past four months more than 2,700 arrests have been made.

Police fire tear gas to clear pro-democracy protesters during a demonstration in Hong Kong.

Police fire tear gas to clear pro-democracy protesters during a demonstration in Hong Kong. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Protesters have also resorted to increasingly radical acts in what they see as justified retaliation. Masked activists have thrown bricks and petrol bombs at police, trashed metro stations and shops seen as pro-Beijing. They have lit street fires and even attacked police or people suspected of being undercover officers or just being pro-government. Earlier this month, a home-made bomb exploded and a police officer was slashed in the neck by a protester.

Police remove barricades under a poster displayed on a wall with remnants of thrown eggs and graffiti sprayed by protesters outside the police headquarters in Hong Kong early on June 22, 2019.

Police remove barricades outside the police headquarters in Hong Kong in June. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Indiscriminate beatings by police gave rise to rumours of covered-up deaths. Widely circulated stories about physical and sexual abuse in a remote police detention centre have led to an unprecedented level of anger and resentment against officers.

Yeung disapproves of his colleagues’ behaviour, something that has driven a wedge between them.

“When we were in the academy, we were taught to use only the minimum amount of force. It’s not for us to deliver punishment,” he says. “But now, the majority of the police think the ‘rioters’ need to be punished … they attack people indiscriminately, even non-protesters.”

Hong Kong police chase down a couple wearing facemasks in the Central district in Hong Kong on October 5, 2019.

Hong Kong police chase down a couple wearing facemasks in the Central district in October. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

“The awful thing is, the majority of police don’t see it as a problem.”

“When they watch footage of police beating people, they shout for joy: ‘Yeah, we’re hitting the cockroaches!’,” he says. “They don’t give any consideration to their high ideals of freedom and democracy.”

Asked why police have resorted to increasingly brutal acts, Yeung says many of his colleagues were angry and felt entitled to abuse their powers.

“It’s the ‘Lucifer effect’– power drives people crazy. They’re angry and they need an outlet. But this is sacrificing the reputation of the police force.”

A police officer chases after a flashmob protester inside Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong, China September 1, 2019.

A police officer chases after a flashmob protester inside Hong Kong International Airport. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Yeung says officers are no longer required to be accountable for their acts. While dealing with protests, riot police officers now wear black masks and do not show their warrant cards and their police numbers on their uniforms. Internal rules require police to write a report every time they use batons, pistols and pepper spray, but many simply don’t bother anymore, he says.

Yeung has tried to make his colleagues see things from another perspective, but this has led to him being labelled a traitor.

“I tried to explain to them what civil disobedience is about. Like, if your boss refused to grant you your entitled holidays, then you take sick leave. It’s about fighting against the system through legal means,” he says.

The government has repeatedly refused to establish an independent commission to investigate police brutality, and this is sparking more even more public anger as it is one of several demands that protesters insist must be fulfilled.

Yeung believes the authorities’ endorsement of harsh crackdown is actually fuelling protests.

Last month, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper reported that China’s public security minister had become a deputy head at the Communist party’s Hong Kong Macau liaison committee – an unprecedented move analysts say has bolstered the control of the city’s police force by China, which sees crackdown as a natural response to unrest

“I think they want to push terror to an extreme. Beat them and arrest as many as you can, and people will be too scared to come out again,” he says of his bosses’ attitudes.

A woman holds a cross in front of the Mongkok Police Station as riot police holding shields stand guard during a standoff with protesters after an anti-government rally in September.

A woman holds a cross in front of the Mongkok Police Station as riot police holding shields stand guard during a standoff with protesters after an anti-government rally in September. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Yeung sympathises with the protesters: “If I wasn’t a policeman I’d be out on the streets like them.”

Even though Yeung thinks differently from many of his colleagues, in the eyes of protesters, he is still a “black cop”.

“One time, a group of young people yelled at me when I was inside a police van. I held up my arm as if to say it has nothing to do with me. But how can I not be one of them?”

“I have not come out to correct my colleagues’ faults – that is complicity.”

Asked whether he had thought about resigning, Yeung, in his 40s, says he has a young family and that makes it difficult. “But I won’t rule out that possibility,” he says.

A schoolmate of Tsang Chi-kin, 18, who was shot in the chest by police during violent pro-democracy protests that coincided with China’s October 1 National Day, holds a placard during a sit-in protest at a school in Hong Kong on October 2, 2019.

A sign condemning the shooting of Tsang Chi-kin, 18, who was shot in the chest by police during violent pro-democracy protests that coincided with China’s National Day on 1 October. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Yeung, a Christian, insisted that his mission was to help the weak and to speak up about inequality. He maintains he can only support a government that serves the people.

“If the country is built with flesh and blood, if people’s freedoms and lives have to be sacrificed for ‘development’, I’d rather not have that,” he says.

“The very least I can do is to refrain from doing evil myself and to remind my colleagues not to get excessive. But they often ask: ‘So, which side are you on?’”

*name has been changed to protect identity

If Beijing does not budge, the struggle for Hong Kong will last decades

Police violence has further radicalised protesters, and China’s ‘one country, two systems’ formula lies in tatters


Anti-government protesters react in front of skyline building at Tsim Sha Tsui is in Hong Kong, China October 27, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

‘Vast numbers still turn out for unauthorised protests, wearing masks to taunt the administration and underscore its impotence.’ Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

“Is there any way that Hong Kong can avoid becoming another Northern Ireland?”

This was the first question posed by a well-known Hong Kong activist at the start of a recent interview. A few months ago, the comparison to decades of civil unrest would have seemed absurd. But after 21 weekends of protests, the endgame seems further away than ever before. The escalating weekend insurgency and the police brutality deployed in response have marooned the territory in a cycle of violence that is doing serious damage to its economy, rule of law and public trust in its institutions.

Over the weekend, the assault on the rule of law intensified, after a court banned the harassment of, pestering or interfering with Hong Kong police, or assisting or inciting others to do so. This temporary injunction criminalises a whole range of previously lawful acts – including taking photos of policemen, heckling the police and singing anti-police protest songs. One of the injunction’s stated intentions is to outlaw the disclosure of officers’ personal details, to prevent “doxxing” (publishing identifying information online about them). But its effect will be to create a two-tier system providing more legal safeguards for police than ordinary citizens, turning Hong Kong’s predictable legal environment into an arbitrary, unequal one.

This month, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, activated the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance, not used since 1967, to make the use of face masks punishable by a HK$25,000 (£2,339) fine and up to one year in prison. The arbitrary suspension of public transport and the use of illegal assembly charges against protesters has also created a de facto curfew at weekends.

In Hong Kong, the abnormal has become normalised so quickly that the international community – distracted by Trump and Brexit – can hardly keep up. This week, there was surprisingly little attention given to the government’s formal withdrawal of the extradition law that originally sparked the crisis – in part because protesters’ demands have multiplied. Now the most serious challenge for Beijing and Hong Kong is the widespread call for universal suffrage – but the most pressing issue is protesters’ insistence on an independent inquiry into police behaviour.

‘More than half of Hong Kongers have zero trust in the police.’ Riot officers fire teargas during a rally against police brutality on Sunday. Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Since June, police have arrested at least 2,580 people, including a 10-year-old, and fired 5,100 rounds of teargas – not to mention pepper spray, beanbag rounds, sponge grenades, rubber bullets, chemical-laced blue-dye shot from water cannons and live ammunition. One recent poll indicated that more than half of Hong Kongers have zero trust in the police, an astonishing breakdown in trust for a force once touted as “Asia’s finest”. Meanwhile, police have unleashed a dystopian parade of outlandish charges against citizens. These include a 19-year-old who was shot in the chest by police being charged with assaulting police, and being put under arrest while still in intensive care. Students carrying a plastic butter knife and laser pointers were detained for possessing offensive weapons. A couple taking their three-year-old for a bike ride were threatened with arrest for illegal assembly.

On the ground, police tactics against protesters regularly violate the force’s own guidelines, including targeting the press with pepper spray and teargas, and flashing lights to prevent reporters filming officers beating protesters. These tactics have radicalised demonstrators, who now regularly throw bricks and molotov cocktails at police, as well as vandalising businesses linked to pro-Beijing figures.

This breakdown of law and order has been exemplified by a wave of attacks on pro-democracy figures by the Triads organised crime syndicates. In the most violent of these, Jimmy Sham, a civil rights activist who organised the mass marches, was attacked by at least four men with hammers and left lying on the pavement in a pool of his own blood.

The escalation of this conflict on the streets has polarised Hong Kong society, and is sending the territory into recession, with tourism arrivals down 40%.

Beijing has repeatedly attempted to internationalise the crisis, using economic leverage to try to muzzle minor celebrities and multinational companies with business interests in China. The first target was the Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific, which was forced to sack at least 20 employees for showing support for the protests on social media. More recently, those showing public support for Hong Kong – including the YouTube star PewDiePie, online gamers on Blizzard and even the Houston Rockets basketball team have all been censored on China’s internet.

On the ground though, there is political stasis. Beijing has denied as a “political rumour” a Financial Times report that Lam may be made to resign next year, to be replaced by another unelected leader. Indeed, such a move would achieve little.

In any case, authorities may soon see the extent of voter alienation at the ballot boxes; at the end of November, district council elections could redraw the political landscape at the grassroots level, given the 386,000 new voters who have signed up. The authorities are boxed in: any political reforms that fall short of concessions or real dialogue would likely worsen the situation, as would no action at all. If Beijing’s long-term strategy is to stall while accelerating Hong Kong’s absorption into the Greater Bay Area – Beijing’s answer to Silicon Valley, which would connect 11 southern Chinese cities – that, too, would heighten the sense among protesters of having little left to lose.

Either way, Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula is in tatters. All attempts to intimidate protesters with police violence and mass arrests have instead radicalised the movement. Now Hong Kongers are girding themselves for a long struggle ahead. Vast numbers still turn out for unauthorised protests, wearing masks to taunt the administration and underscore its impotence. As the weeks pass, the issues become ever more intractable, the conflict more entrenched and society ever more divided. If the government does not budge and the violence continues to escalate, Hong Kong’s own Troubles may last for decades.

Louisa Lim is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited and a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer and journalist based in Hong Kong

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Patriots are not Fragile

[T]he overwhelming majority of our people are patriotic and love the party with strong political conviction.

“This country is not fragile. I suggest society have more access to the outside internet, which will benefit the strength and maturity of China’s public opinion, scientific research, external communications, and China’s national interests …

Hu Xijin

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.”

merge_from_ofoct (9)

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.”

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