Sunday, February 27, 2005

Hainan Part 2: Eastern Hainan - The Vicious Empress And Women Soldiers

Eastern Hainan: The Vicious Empress And Women Soldiers

We visited neighbouring places long associated with our family. We got on a bus through the eastern coastal highway, past coconut groves and many prawn farms. Fresh water has become scarce in recent years and local farmers have been switching to commercial prawn farming, which is highly profitable given the increased demand for prawns from a new middle class. However prawn farming comes with a price – the destruction of mangroves and the diverse wildlife that live there.

Hainan has long been proclaimed by the Chinese Government of a treasure trove of biodiversity. Numerous species of fauna and flora live in the coastal mangroves and inland tropical rainforests. Yet in the rush towards modernization, only lip service is paid to conservation. It has been estimated by some sources that as much as 80% of the coral reefs and 80% of the tropical rainforests were lost in the past three decades. These have led to the destruction of fishing grounds and soil erosion. Many endangered animals are hunted for restaurant tables. All this in a province that proclaims itself as an Eco-province.

We dropped by Qionghai City[1], another county where many have overseas Chinese family connections. My maternal grandfather was born here in the last years of the 19th century, before he emigrated to Singapore. I hadn’t done much research about the origins of Mum’s family. After all, her surname, Li (nothing to do with the Li indigenous people of Hainan), is the most populous in the world, with more than 100 million members.

What I have found so far indicated six major migrations of Li to Hainan over a thousand year period, the first of whom was Li Xiaoyi[2], a Tang Dynasty general of royal blood, who, together with many members of the nobility and civil service, was accused of plotting rebellion when they disagreed with Empress Dowager Wu Zetian[3]. He was initially sentenced to death but subsequently commuted to internal exile in Hainan in 684 A.D. with his family.

Li Xiaoyi was luckier than another official, Su Yuan[4], who in 655 A.D. opposed Emperor Gaozhong[5]’s plan to divorce his wife and made beautiful and ever-scheming Lady Wu empress. Wu killed her baby daughter and then blamed the empress. The Emperor believed Wu, divorced his wife and made Wu empress. Su was then accused of planning rebellion and exiled to Hainan.

A year later, unable to forgive Su even though he was in exile, Empress Wu accused Su of further plots, sentenced him to death and sent an imperial executioner to remote Hainan. In Hainan, the executioner found that Su had by then died in exile, but dug out his coffin and desecrate his tomb. Empress Wu confiscated all of the properties of the Su clan and condemned his family members to exile in Guangzhou as slaves.

Empress Wu soon became the real power behind the throne, and murdered and exiled the Emperor’s children and loyal officials. She gained even greater power after Emperor Gaozhong died in 683 A.D. and seven years later, she officially became the first and only female emperor (instead of mere empress consort) in Chinese history.

She was one of the most remarkable women in Chinese history – she expanded the borders and developed the economy. But she was also a brutal tyrant and a cunning, Machiavellian. She killed her daughter to gain power, and then murdered two sons and a grandson so as to officially become China’s ruler. Thousands of officials were executed or exiled for real or imaginary plots. Eventually, she trusted no one but a few male lovers, who were executed when Wu was overthrown at the age of 82, by one of her sons in a coup d’etat in 705 A.D., and died a year later.

From bustling Qionghai City, we switched to another bus to Boao[6], a small town at the mouth of Wanquan River[7] that flows to the Pacific Ocean. Once a sleepy fishing village whose only minor claim to fame was due to an exiled Mongol prince’s love for the Wanquan River and a beautiful lady who lived on its banks, Boao suddenly gained prominence in 2001 when it was selected to be the host of the annual Forum for Asia[8], a gathering of Asian political and economic leaders modeled after the World Economic Forum at Davos.

Within a few years, several five star hotels and conference centres were built in Boao. Package tourists in pseudo-Hawaiian Aloha-style shirts on the Sanya coast are now brought here where they get onto a cruise on the Wanquan River to a sand bar which the Chinese tourism propaganda proclaim as the world’s narrowest. It is one thing to rationally identify something as the world’s largest country or tallest mountain, and quite something impossible to identify the smallest and narrowest. I have seen more than my fair share of sandbars round the world to know a silly claim. But then this is China, and Chinese tourist propaganda, like their American equivalent, is full of such misrepresentations.


Qionghai was where communism began in Hainan, and where the Red Women’s Detachment[9] achieved fame. This was a guerrilla company made up of women who fought bravely against the Kuomintang regime in the 1930’s.

They were immortalized in what have become a classic Chinese communist revolutionary ballet movie (1961) called “The Red Women’s Detachment”. Here’s a description of it from the

“On tropical Hainan Island, a group of courageous women pursue the communist battle against the Nationalists. Wu Qionghua[10] joins the group and becomes a proud leader after having suffered pain, humiliation and loss. The evil landlord Nan Batian[11] had killed her father and taken Wu as his slave. She tried to escape but was always captured and punished. She was eventually freed by Hong Changqing[12], a communist agent disguised as a rich overseas Chinese arms dealer.

Wu joins the female detachment of the Red Army led by Hong. However, obsessed by her desire to seek revenge on Nan Batian, she is injured and endangers her comrades. Through correct communist education she is able to transform her personal hatred into class solidarity. After Hong is burnt to death by Nan Batian, Wu leads her women’s detachment in a successful offensive against the tyrant. He is captured, paraded through the streets and executed. Wu now takes over Hong’s command and continues the battle.”

The movie, set in an exotic tropical island involving many beautiful actresses and colourful tribes, won immediate popular acclaim and numerous awards in China, including the 1962 Baihua Prize, which was the Oscar of Chinese movies. However, ballet was soon denounced as bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionary – contradictory it may be - as the Cultural Revolution began in 1965. The Red Guards stormed the theatre and bullied the artists. A brief respite came when Mao’s wife Jiang Qing[13], the most vicious of the infamous Gang of Four, showed interest in the performances, and transformed it into her personal vehicle for ultra leftist propaganda.

Studies have shown that 45% of the artists involved in the movie suffered some form of persecution and 15% were denounced as counter-revolutionary, which came with terrible consequences for the individuals and their families. The dashing actor[14] who acted as Hong, however, took advantage of the times to persecute other artists, was Jiang Qing’s favourite. He was made Vice-Minister of Culture. However, with the fall of Jiang Qing after Mao’s death, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Most tragically, it weren’t just the artists in the movie who had suffered. The original members of the Red Women’s Detachment were caught up in the chaos that overcome China during the Mao era. Of the five detachment leaders who survived the battles with Kuomintang, Japanese invaders killed one during WWII, two became widowed when their husbands were killed by the Communists after the Revolution for being Kuomintang-linked. These two, as well as one other lady, were persecuted and physically tortured during the Cultural Revolution. No wonder they say revolutions tend to devour their own children.


The story of Moh, a neighbour, is similar to so many other personal tragedies suffered by the Chinese people during the past decades of political chaos and civil conflict that had plagued China.

Moh’s father was a schoolteacher when the Communists took over Hainan in 1950. A group of Red Guards entered the village where they, together with some “converted revolutionaries” within the village, began their campaign against “oppressive feudal landlords”. In this part of China where many have relatives abroad, the newly arrived revolutionaries from the interior of China regarded many villagers as potential spies of “foreign imperialist powers”. The “Nanyang[15] wives”, wives of the local men who were working in Southeast Asia, were sometimes bullied and harassed by these Red Guards. Some of these Red Guards even showered unwelcome amorous attention on these poor women.

It was as a result of one of these incidents that Moh’s father reprimanded the Red Guards for their behaviour in public, which turned him the public enemy of the new powers. He was soon accused of being a spy and a supporter of the old feudal regime. He was put on a kangaroo trial and humiliated in public. The pressure became too much to bear, and one day, he committed suicide.

The then teenage Moh was suddenly orphaned, and my grandmother, a “Nanyang wife” herself, took Moh into the household, treating him as though he was her son. This was why our families have always been close. After Uncle Shan left the village to work elsewhere, Moh has continued to look after our family home and other properties. But it was after Dad had told me this story that I could appreciate why elderly Moh and his sons have been so helpful and accommodating to our every requests during our visit to Taijia.

We walked through the village’s prawn farms and narrow country lanes. Prawn faremers busy piling their catch onto a refrigerated truck. Young men were playing volleyball, Hainan’s favourite sport, in the small court by the local shop. Noise of fire-crackers from some houses at the far end of the village. “huan-ke visiting from America and Denmark,” explained the villagers.

These friendly people, many of whom were neighbours and relatives of the family for centuries, greeted us warmly wherever we went. It was a strange feeling realizing that these peasants were somewhat related to my family. It was equally bewildering as I wondered which of the older folks here were those Red Guards who had wrecked the lives of fellow villagers more than four decades ago. But such was the reality of people who had lived through traumatic years that shaped China in the 20th century.


We got onto an express bus to Haikou, capital of Hainan. This is a city of 800,000 people, a lower mid-size city by Chinese standards. Haikou is a city of skyscrapers, but many of which are empty or never completed. Hainan was one of the first places in China to be opened for foreign investments when the country took its cautious first steps in economic reforms in the 1980s. The island was made a separate province and its government given considerable autonomy in economic and investment policies, as well as the right to freely import goods and equipment.

Instead of developing the manufacturing capabilities of the island, the provincial leaders of Hainan turned the island into a corruption racket. US$1 billion of China’s foreign currency reserves, originally meant for the import of capital investment, were wasted to import cars and electrical appliances duty-free. Those were the days before China’s transformation into the world’s manufacturing hub and every official in China craved for foreign-made cars, washing machines, radios, televisions and all the comforts of life so readily available to ordinary people elsewhere.

Hainan resold the cars and electrical appliances to the Mainland which were then banned from direct imports – 89,000 cars were imported by Hainan in 1984, more than the whole country’s purchase of cars in one year. The local officials then pocketed the ridiculous profits made from such transactions. Haikou boomed as money flowed in, and speculative land deals that were struck led to the mushrooming of skyscrapers.

The scam was discovered and officials punished. Haikou’s fortunes sank and have never fully recovered. Economic development has since stagnated. Whilst foreign investors have flogged to other parts of China, Hainan has remained a backwater despite being a coastal province with a huge Diaspora abroad. Haikou’s forest of skyscrapers has remained largely uncompleted, and is today symbol of failures and excesses of China’s early muddled exploration into capitalism.

There is some hope. A new governor was appointed in 2004. Governor Wei Liucheng[16] was previously the president of China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC)[17], one of China’s giant petroleum companies. Hainan is a key base of China’s potentially lucrative offshore oil reserves. Governor Wei might well be the man needed to develop this strategic resource critical to energy-hungry China. He is also a well-connected person internationally and perhaps one who could persuade international investors to Hainan. A robust petrochemical industry may help address the lack of diversity of Hainan’s economy, which is still largely dependent on agriculture, despite the higher profile of tourism. There is some manufacturing, but development in that area is hampered by the lack of a large population base and expertise.

Tourism is one of Hainan’s key industries. More than 14 million tourists visited Hainan in 2004, of whom 309,000 are from abroad. The rest were domestic tourists from the north of China. Even then, most tourists spend their time on the southern coast around Sanya, whilst the Hainanese Diaspora concentrate around the eastern Hainan, in the counties of Wenchang and Qionghai.

As Chinese tourists now begin to travel abroad, they may find the exotic, warmer beaches in Thailand and Bali more attractive. Hainan will probably continue to attract those domestic tourists who are intimidated by traveling abroad, or have only just begun to travel. Given there are 1.3 billion people in China, there will always be people who travel for the first time and looking for a coastal resort where people speak the same language. Even then, Hainan’s challenge is to continue to retain its uniqueness to capture the high value-added tourists.


Wugongci[18], Shrine of Five Officials, is an interesting place to study how Hainanese people view themselves. This huge complex of memorial temples in Haikou was first constructed in the 19th century when China came under the threat of being split by the Great European powers. Indeed, the French had shown great interest in possibly adding Hainan to its Indochinese possessions. In 1872, the Treaty of Tientsin[19] signed as a result of the Second Opium War in which British forces defeated China, Haikou was made a treaty port, i.e., forcibly opened to international trade and missionary activities. Local authorities had probably built Wugongci to reinforce the idea of Hainan as a Chinese territory.

The core building in Wugongci commemorates five officials who were exiled to Hainan, while other surrounding buildings commemorates other Chinese historical figures such as Su Dongpo[20] and Fupo Generals[21], all of whom for some reason or other landed up in Hainan. It emphasizes that Hainan as a key part of mainstream Chinese history.

It was interesting that the five officials stayed in Hainan for between six days and ten years about a thousand or more years ago. Whilst it is certainly undeniable that Hainan was then seen as a tropical hell, it is debatable whether the relatively short stay of some of these officials was adequate to signify anything at all. One of them, Li Deyu, who was a Tang Dynasty Prime Minister, was exiled after losing a palace power struggle, although the most immediate cause of his exile was related to his opposition against allowing commoners to participate in the imperial civil service examinations – what is more reactionary than this? Perhaps, it was all about “yuan fen[22]”, which is a Chinese concept that implies a shared fate or destiny that links different people together.

Su Dongpo was one of China’s greatest poets and a patriotic official who was exiled to Danzhou[23], western Hainan in 1096 A.D, where according to some cynical records he spent time counting passersby and eating three hundred lychees a day. Here in this shrine, there are frescoes devoted to how Su taught half naked Li tribal people Chinese agricultural techniques, medicine, wine-making and Chinese language. Very much of a Su-brought-civilisation-to-the-native theme. There’s also a fresco on Su promoting racial harmony between Li and Han Chinese. This is all so CCP! Eternal friendship between the Happy Natives and their Big Brother Han who bring civilization to the land!

The Fupo generals refer to two Han Dynasty generals who conquered Hainan 2000 years ago. There are temples and sites all over Hainan dedicated to these two generals who came here on the way to crush a short-lived rebellion by the Trung Sisters of Vietnam[24] to liberate the country from Chinese rule. The Trung Sisters are martyred heroines of the Vietnamese people today. The sisters were sources of inspiration of subsequent Vietnamese battles against the Chinese, French and American invaders, and are worshipped as gods by many Vietnamese as well. The Fupo generals, whose forces crushed the Trung sisters and also defeated the local Li tribes, are seen as pioneers by the Han-Hainanese of today and they have become gods to the many who pray to them for health, fortune and prosperity. History is written by the victors.

[1] 琼海市
[2] 李孝逸
[3] 武则天
[4] 韩瑗
[5] 唐高宗
[6] 博鳌
[7] 万泉河
[8] 博鳌亚洲论坛
[9] 红色娘子军
[10] 吴琼花
[11] 南霸天
[12] 洪常青
[13] 江青
[14] 刘庆棠
[15] 南洋
[24]交趾 (今越南) 之征氏姐妹: 征侧、征贰

Hainan Part 1: The Island of Paradise And Hell - My Own Family Saga

My long awaited Hainan story... here's part 1 of 5...

Hainan: The Island of Paradise And Hell
- My Own Family Saga

Hainan, a sub-tropical island province in the southernmost of China 34,000 square kilometers in surface area, this is a land of ethnic as well as biodiversity. Hainan first became part of the China during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). Central control for the next thousand years was mainly exercised through a series of coastal colonial fortresses and frontier settlements, occasionally besieged by the seemingly never-ending tribal rebellions of the indigenous Li[1] people who had moved inland to the deep jungles in the inland of Hainan as their lands were taken over by Mainland settlers.

Over the last millennia, successive spurts of settlers came from Fujian[2] Province and other parts of the Mainland, especially whenever civil conflict broke out. A separate tongue and culture evolved in Hainan from this admixture of Min-nan[3] (southern Fujian), Mainland and the indigenous Li peoples.

Hainan, with its humid tropical jungles and malaria-infested swamps, was for a long time, the Chinese equivalent of the proverbial Darkest Africa. Dissident ministers and officials or simply anyone who had lost favour with the emperor were exiled to Hainan. This was the Chinese Siberia – a land that Li Deyu[4], a Tang Dynasty prime minister who was exiled to Hainan in 849 A.D. and died one year later, called the “Gate To Hell[5]” and lamented that it would take half a year even for a bird to fly from the imperial capital to Hainan[6].

Today, however, Hainan is China’s answer to Hawaii. On the sunny beaches on the southern coast of Hainan, millions of sun-seekers from the new Middle Class of China’s northern cities indulge in the sun, sand and the sea. What the ancients saw as abhorrent, the modern men sees as paradise.


Taijia: Barbarian Guests

Uncle Shan and Dad picked me up at the George Soros-invested Meilan[7] Airport of Haikou[8], capital of Hainan, and we sped on the largely empty motorway towards Wenchang[9]. Wenchang, one of the two major counties in eastern Hainan where most of the Hainanese Diaspora had originated, was where my family had lived since the 17th century. Mum and Dad, along with Aunt Neo, wife of Dad’s late elder brother, had flown here from Singapore a week before. Uncle Shan, although born in Singapore, lived in China most of his life and is a Chinese citizen.

According to the local government website, whilst the county has half a million inhabitants today, descendants of Wenchang emigrants number about more than 1.2 million. Hainan has long been a poor, neglected part of China. Between the 19th century and 1949 when the Communists took over China, the Hainanese people, especially those who live in the more densely populated eastern coast of the island, had been emigrating to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Being a frontier province, Hainan had suffered from neglect by the Chinese government who for a few decades had preferred to develop the inland provinces, which were further away from Taiwanese bombers. For many years, Overseas Hainanese have been remitting funds to support their poor relatives in Hainan, and since economic reforms in China began in 1979, have been investing heavily in businesses in the province, as well as sponsoring schools, roads and various infrastructure projects in the land of their forefathers. Even then, Hainan’s GDP per capita is about US$1,000, close to the national average but far lower than the other fast developing coastal provinces of China (e.g., Guangdong US$2,000, Shanghai US$5,600).

After about an hour plus on the motorway, we turned into a two and half kilometer dirt track through countryside interspersed with rice paddies, prawn farms, coconut plantations and groves of fruit trees. And then a signboard “Taijia Village[10]”. Taijia Village has over 200 inhabitants, many of whom are somehow closely or distantly related to my family. Interestingly, there are more descendants of Taijia emigrants in Singapore than inhabitants of Taijia, although, increasingly, few of these Taijia-Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, care much about this link with the ancestral village. Even then, like many villages in eastern Hainan, Taijia Village is full of well-restored (complete with satellite dishes and modern amenities) but empty houses belonging to the Hainanese Diaspora whose members come by once in a while from abroad.

Dad was born in Taijia in 1938. Economic and political chaos in China in the 19th and early 20th century subsequent years have forced many people in Taijia to flee to Southeast Asia. Dad and his elder brother were brought to Singapore by their parents fleeing the Japanese who invaded Hainan in 1940. Stubborn resistance by the Hainanese brought massive vengeance from the Japanese, who killed one third of the island’s male population. Dad’s younger brother, Uncle Shan was born in Singapore but was brought to Hainan after WWII by Grandmother who had to return temporarily to deal with family matters.

Then came the Communist Revolution in 1949, and the British colonials in Singapore decided to stop the movement of population between Singapore and China in order to stem “Communist infiltration”. Father and his elder brother grew up in Singapore without their mother, and Uncle Shan, who was with his mother in China, grew up in China without his father, who was in Singapore. Grandfather and grandmother passed on in Singapore and China respectively without meeting each other again.

Dad only met his brother again in 1986, when we visited China. I still remember that emotional scene – Dad hugging Uncle Shan, both crying. My family, like that of many others in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, were divided by the Cold War. Do any of you – especially Westerners - ever understand why the issue of Taiwanese independence is more than just native Taiwanese desire for democracy and a separate identity? To many ethnic Chinese in and outside China, it is the result of the Cold War and Big Power manipulation that have divided families and nations.


We drove through narrow lanes with quaint traditional farmhouses with small courtyards, and then stopped beside one with a few coconut trees in front. “Here it is, our family home,” Father said.

I walked through the gate, refitted in traditional style with an elegant Chinese rooftop and a plaque with the words “Yin Chuan Di”[11] which indicated the region in northern China where the family originated more than 2000 years ago. I found myself in a pretty garden courtyard with an old ancestral hall standing at the far end and a modern house constructed a few years ago by the side.

And there was Mum and Aunty Neo waving at me at the ancestral hall. The ancestral hall is the most important building in any traditional Chinese family complex. This is where the altar dedicated to one’s ancestor can be found. Except for the fact that the family moved to Taijia in the 17th century, no one knew when this ancestral hall was built. Dad and his late brother remitted money 15 years ago to restore the building which fell into disrepair, because Uncle Shan by then was living in Wenchang City 18km away.

On the traditional terracotta tiled rooftop and outer walls of the building were painted ceramic carvings of dragon and other traditional symbols of longevity, good health and wealth. Some joss sticks were stuck on ledges at the door to offer protection to those who enter, and pieces of red paper bearing messages of good fortune were stuck on the door and over it.

Major family decisions took place in the ancestral hall, where the ancestors were informed about family weddings, deaths, new business ventures and all major events. The centerpiece of the ancestral hall is the ancestral altar. Traditionally, offerings were placed everyday to honour the ancestors, as well as more elaborated prayers on the first and fifteenth day of every lunar month, major festivals, and on the death anniversaries of ancestors.

The altarpiece is a beautifully carved wooden work, with intricate floral figurines and symbols of fortune and wealth. There used to be elaborately carved family tablets and ceremonial vases on the altar but they have since disappeared during the chaotic era of the Cultural Revolution (1965 – 1975). In fact, fanatical Red Guards had once rampaged through the village, destroying family altars and all symbols of traditional culture and what they saw as “feudal practices”. Grandmother had courageously buried the altar in the backyard where it survived. Today, the altar looked somewhat worn-out and we have suggested that it should be painted in lacquer to restore it to its former glory.

On the ceiling, about five meters high, were talisman with words of good fortune and brightly coloured frescoes of country-scenes and local flora and fauna, which according to the government website, are unique characteristics of village architecture in Wenchang county. Really cool!

Around the courtyard were buildings which used to house the concubines of a wealthy 19th century ancestor, who was showered with presents from the emperor, for saving the latter during an incident nobody now remembers, while as a captain of a trading boat on which the emperor was traveling incognito. These buildings have since collapsed from disrepair and typhoon, which strikes this region from time to time. A few years ago, Dad and his brother funded the construction of a new house on the side of the courtyard.

We set off for the village temple 50 meters from our house, and made offerings to the ancestors and village gods. Firecrackers were set off to honour the ancestors and gods while we kowtowed to the temple altar. Inscriptions on the temple walls and an outdoor opera stage indicated that Dad and many family friends in Singapore had contributed funds to the rebuilding of these over the last two decades – once again an indication of the importance of the Diaspora.

Dad and another Taijia-Singaporean also “informed” the ancestors and village gods that the Taijia association in Singapore had closed for good, and asked for their “understanding” of the circumstances that have left to the unfortunate decision. Sacrifices were also offered and fire crackers set off on behalf of the defunct association to honour the ancestors and the gods.

We returned to the house, where more than a hundred and thirty villagers have gathered for a lunch hosted by us, at a fraction of the cost of a similar meal in Singapore. More firecrackers setting off, and the villagers gave us – whom they call “huan ke[12]”, literary “guests from barbarian lands” – small tokens of appreciation for hosting the lunch – ranging from more fire crackers to fruits, fish and live octopus!

How times have changed. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, visiting Overseas Chinese often found themselves besieged by poverty-stricken distant relatives they hardly knew, who asked for cash, household appliances, bicycles, and gifts of any kind imaginable, which gave the impression that these people were greedy, rude and uncouth. During the last decade, drastically improved standards of living have given the people a sense of confidence and social grace. Now they welcome us as friends and relatives and expect little more than a greeting and respect for our shared past.

[1] Li (黎族), also known as the Hlai.
[2] Fujian Province (福建省) – A coastal province in southeastern China, which is the origins of major Overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
[3] Min-nan (闽南), literally meaning southern Fujian, one of the two major dialects spoken in Fujian. Also the predominant mother tongue spoken of most Taiwanese, Chinese-Philipinos and Chinese-Singaporeans.
[5] 一去一万里,千之千不还。崖州在何处,生度鬼门关!
[6] 独上高楼望帝京,鸟飞犹是半年程,青山似欲留人住,百匝千遭绕郡城
[7] 海口美兰机场
[8] 海口市
[9] 文昌市
[10] 泰家村
[12] 藩客

CNN: Singapore a hit with medical tourists

Singapore a hit with medical tourists

From CNN Correspondent Eunice Yoon
Friday, February 25, 2005 Posted: 0414 GMT (1214 HKT)
With its advanced medical facilities, Singapore is attracing hordes of medical tourists.

(CNN) -- To Californian resident Eva Dang, Dr. William's Chong central clinic looks like any other office near her home.

Except his office is based in the southeast Asian city of Singapore.

Dang decided to take the 24-hour flight over the Pacific Ocean nearly 8,800 miles (14,000 kilometers) away for a dental appointment.

With medical costs climbing in many parts of the world, she is one of a growing number of patients who are looking for cheaper alternatives outside their home countries and having a holiday at the same time.

Many are finding such a place in Singapore.

With its advanced medical facilities, the city state is positioning itself to compete in the growing medical tourism industry.

"It's just as good as America", Dang says. "Doctors are very professional and caring and very attentive."

And cheaper, too.

If Dang had decided to have her procedure -- a new set of titanium teeth -- back home, it would set her back $56,000. In Singapore, the cost is about $41,000.

So when she took into account her insurance wouldn't cover the operation, she thought it made good sense to book the air ticket.

What's more, she can get to relax by the pool in a tropical climate, grab some food at the hawker stalls and catch the sights at the same time.

"We have something they might not be able to find at home," says Dr. Tat Hon Chan, from Singapore's Tourism Board.

The former British colony, which now has a population of 4.3 million people, isn't the only country marketing medical services.

Nations around Asia have been scrambling to promote their medical services and add more tourism dollars to their faltering economies.

Thailand and Malaysia are also offering medical and spa packages to attract foreign patients to stay at their hotels and hospitals.

However, Singapore benefits from its squeaky clean image and reputation as a regional medical center -- something expatriates such as American Gary Sweitzer appreciates.

"The doctors and nurses in Singapore have saved my life", says Sweitzer, who was rushed to Singapore from neighboring Indonesia after a hit-and-run accident.

If Singapore plays its cards right, the growing medical services field could help save its economy too after being hard hit by the global recession and technology slump at the turn of the century.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Middle class society a long way off in China

Middle class society a long way off in China
By Deng Yuwen (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-02-18 00:48

There is still a long way to go before the much-anticipated middle class becomes a mainstream, accountable group in China.

The talk about China's middle class among research institutes and experts has been growing as the country's economic advancement gallops apace.

A man walks past a billboard featuring two Chinese characters which read "zhong chan," meaning "middle class" or "middle property" in this file photo. [newsphoto]

There were, according to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), 35.18 million middle class members in China last year, which is about 2.8 per cent of the total population.

BNP Paribas, a French bank, defines members of China's middle class as well-educated professionals with an annual income between 25,000 yuan (US$3,010) to 30,000 yuan (US$3,610), or household income between 75,000 yuan (US$9,040) to 100,000 yuan (US$12,050).

According to this criterion, about 13.5 per cent of the country's population now belong to the middle class.

Last month, a study conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) claimed that China's middle class is formed by those whose annual household income of a three-member family is between 60,000 yuan (US$7,230) to 500,000 yuan (US$60,240). About 5.04 per cent of the population falls in this category.

Obviously, as the definition varies, so does the final head counts.

In my view, income should not be the only index used to define the middle class. Other elements such as social status, profession, social contacts must also be taken into account.

Many people are aspiring to join the ranks of the middle class, which features high income and a perceived elegant life-style.

Moreover, the emerging middle class in itself is of great significance.

A recent survey in South China's Guangdong Province, one of China's most affluent regions, found that most of those surveyed thought themselves to be middle class.

It is a stark contrast with just a decade ago when there were hardly anyone who dared to aspire to join this social rank.

But our optimism about the swelling middle class should be well guarded.

The current hullabaloo among the public, media and research institutes alike misses the point.

They are putting too much focus on the concept of a middle class while failing to delve into the substance of what the middle class is and what affect it has on society.

It should be pointed out that the middle class is not simply a concept.

A lot of challenges must be removed before a middle class society can be whipped into shape.

In China, such challenges abound.

If nearly half of the population do join the ranks of the middle class by 2020, as forecasted by CASS and NBS studies, then who will provide the hundreds of millions high-paid jobs needed to sustain the life-style so sought after?

A considerable portion of the current middle class members are employees working in foreign ventures.

To some extent, their footing is not solid because job availability will be affected by the flow of international capital.

Even if more such jobs were in place, there are other pressing challenges the nation needs to overcome to usher in a middle class society.

According to the World Bank, only when urbanization is over 50 per cent and the service sector accounts for more than 50 per cent of the economy, is it possible for a middle class to become a mainstream, accountable social group.

However, China's urbanization is now less than 40 per cent and its economy is still dominated by industry.

Resolving the employment issue of laid-off workers from State-owned enterprises (SOEs) and transfer of farmers to cities, for example, are two thorny problems.

In addition, there are still 30 million farmers and 20 million urban poor who need to shake off their poverty curse.

Without the settlement of these problems, a middle class society will never come into being.

A middle class society also calls for a well-developed rule of law in which private property, individual rights and the right to participate in public affairs are well protected and guaranteed.

We should remain cool-headed as we brace the middle class mania currently carving up our socialist society.

For there is a long way to go before the middle class becomes the mainstay of China.

(The author is an editor at the Beijing-based Study Times newspaper)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Bush's Sex Scandal: The Futility of "Abstinence Only" Sex Education

Bush's Sex Scandal



New York Times


Published: February 16, 2005



I'm sorry to report a sex scandal in the heart of the Bush

administration. Worse, it doesn't involve private behavior, but public conduct.


You see, for all the carnage in President Bush's budget, one program is

being showered with additional cash - almost three times as much as it

got in 2001. It's "abstinence only" sex education, and the best

research suggests that it will cost far more lives than the Clinton

administration's much more notorious sex scandal.




Mr. Bush means well. But "abstinence only" is a misnomer that in

practice is an assault on sex education itself. There's a good deal of

evidence that the result will not be more young rosy-cheeked virgins - it

will be more pregnancies, abortions, gonorrhea and deaths from AIDS.


Look, I'm all for abstinence education. I support the booming

abstinence industry as it peddles panties and boxers decorated with stop signs


and "Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date" T-shirts.


Abstinence education is great because it helps counteract the peer

pressure that often leaves teenagers with broken hearts - and broken



For that reason, almost all sex-ed classes in America already encourage

abstinence. But abstinence-only education isn't primarily about

promoting abstinence - it's about blindly refusing to teach contraception.


To get federal funds, for example, abstinence-only programs are

typically barred by law from discussing condoms or other forms of

contraception - except to describe how they can fail. So kids in these programs go

all through high school without learning anything but abstinence, even

though more than 60 percent of American teenagers have sex before age



In the old days, social conservatives simply fought any mention of sex.

In 1906, The Ladies' Home Journal published articles about venereal

disease - and 75,000 readers canceled their subscriptions. Congress banned

the mailing of family planning information, and Margaret Sanger was

jailed in 1916 for selling a birth control pamphlet to an undercover



But silence about sex only nurtured venereal diseases (one New York

doctor, probably exaggerating, claimed in 1904 that 60 percent of American

men had syphilis or gonorrhea), so sex education gradually gained

ground. Then social conservatives had a brilliant idea: instead of fighting

sex ed directly, they campaigned for abstinence-only programs that

eviscerated any discussion of contraception.


That shrewd approach succeeded. In 1988, a survey by the Alan

Guttmacher Institute found that only 2 percent of sex-ed teachers used an

abstinence-only approach. Now, the institute says, a quarter of them do.


Other developed countries focus much more on contraception. The upshot

is that while teenagers in the U.S. have about as much sexual activity

as teenagers in Canada or Europe, Americans girls are four times as

likely as German girls to become pregnant, almost five times as likely as

French girls to have a baby, and more than seven times as likely as

Dutch girls to have an abortion. Young Americans are five times as likely

to have H.I.V. as young Germans, and teenagers' gonorrhea rate is 70

times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands or France.


Some studies have claimed that abstinence-only programs work, but

researchers criticize the studies for being riddled with flaws. A National

Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy task force examined the issue and

concluded: "There do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with

strong evidence that they either delay sex or reduce teen pregnancy."


Worse, there's some evidence that abstinence-only programs lead to

increases in unprotected sex.


Perhaps the most careful study of the issue involved 12,000 young

people. It found that those taking virginity pledges had sex 18 months

later, on average, than those who had not taken the pledge. But even 88

percent of the pledgers had sex before marriage.


More troubling, the pledgers were much less likely to use contraception

when they did have sex - only 40 percent of the males used condoms,

compared with 59 percent of those who did not take the pledge.


In contrast, there's plenty of evidence that abstinence-plus programs -

which encourage abstinence but also teach contraception - delay sex and

increase the use of contraception. So, at a time when we're cutting

school and health programs, why should we pour additional tax money into

abstinence-only initiatives, which are likely to lead to more

pregnancies, more abortions and more kids with AIDS? Now, that's a scandal.






Thursday, February 17, 2005

Market-imposed hunger adds to Timor misery

Market-imposed hunger adds to Timor misery 

By Ben Moxham

Asia Times


The East Timorese newspaper Suara Timor Lorosae reported on February 7 that at least 53 people had died of starvation in the village of Hatabuiliko since October. "There is absolutely nothing to eat," said Domingos de Araujo, the sub-district secretary, and "those still alive are looking for wild potatoes in the forest."


Reports from districts in East Timor continue to filter in: 10,000 people are staving in Cova Lima; 10,000 households are going hungry in Suai; and Los Palos, Baucau, and Manufahi districts are all reporting a food crisis.


The government's National Disaster Management Office has quickly counseled against overreaction, because this is not "starvation and hunger like in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere". Instead, what is happening "is known as 'food shortage'", it said, and this "happens every year".


Therein lies the deeper tragedy: this is not extraordinary news. Regardless of whatever definition the government is playing around with, hunger is so common in East Timor, the world's newest and poorest country, that November to March is referred to as the "hungry season". Last year, food aid was distributed to 110,000 people in 11 of the country's 13 districts, and in a 2001 survey, 80% of villages reported being without adequate food at some time during the year.


While a tough drought shares some of the blame, the question that screams to be asked is: Why is a nation of fewer than a million people - one that is supposed to have received more donor funds "per capita" in the last five years than anywhere else - starving?


The more things change

Since the independence referendum of 1999, an estimated US$3 billion in aid money has been swirling around board rooms, expensive foreign restaurants in Dili, and the US-dollar bank accounts of international consultants, rarely making the desperately needed trip beyond the city limits of the national capital. In one government department, a single international consultant earns in one month the same as his 20 Timorese colleagues earn together in an entire year. Another consultant charged the United Nations Development Program $8,000 for his first-class air ticket from his island tax haven. These stories add up. A recent European Commission evaluation of the World Bank-managed Trust Fund for East Timor noted that one-third of the allocated funds were eaten up in consultants' fees, to say nothing of overheads and tied procurements. But the problem is far deeper than the financial waste of the international aid industry.


Dili's development elite no doubt blame the past. To be sure, the departing Indonesian military destroyed 70% of East Timor's infrastructure and displaced two-thirds of the population during its bloody exit in 1999. Indeed, since the Portuguese first landed on the tiny island almost 500 years ago, the Timorese struggle to overcome hunger and control their systems of food production has been intimately tied up with their struggle against foreign occupiers.


For the farmers of Hatabuiliko and some 40,000 families across the mountain provinces, coffee is the symbol of this struggle. The Portuguese expanded the industry in the 1800s with the usual brutal colonial formula of land dispossession, forced labor and cultivation. The Indonesian military took over the industry in 1976 with such ruinous exploitation that coffee farmers were in effect forced to fund their own genocide. This left the sector in a state that Timor's Planning Commission described in 2002 as "non-viable".


Since the independence vote in 1999, the donor-prescribed dismantling of state supports for the industry, combined with an oversupplied and deregulated global coffee market, has consigned farmers to misery. Coffee, the nation's flagship export, earned a dismal $5 million in 2003 (total exports were only $6 million), the result of prices being a mere 19% of their 1980 value, and in 2002, the lowest-ever in real terms.


Free Timor, free market

Under the larger donor blueprint of Timor's reconstruction, the market has been radically liberalized, all state support has been curtailed, and the government has been cut in half, restricted to 17,000 staff under World Bank/International Monetary Fund-imposed macroeconomic conditionalities and a miserly national budget of $75 million. There's no need for big government, according to the development elite, when the state should stick to being a cheerleader for a "dynamic private sector", riding high on an export-led economy fueled by foreign direct investment.


Last year, a group of rice farmers in Bobonaro district spoke about how they were faring in this brave new globalized world. They lamented that imported rice from Thailand and Vietnam - now representing as much as 55% of domestic consumption - undercuts anything they can produce. While the former Indonesian occupiers invested heavily in infrastructure, subsidized basic commodities and farm inputs, and provided a guaranteed floor price for farmers, the new occupiers have scrapped all of that. These days, farmers visit their World Bank-designed and privatized Agricultural Support Center to purchase farm inputs at prices so high it pushes their production costs above the selling price of rice.


With rural life a struggle, Timorese have flocked to Dili looking for jobs. Last July, I visited Domingos Frietas, an old friend bringing up a family of five squatting in a house in Dili. He is forced to scratch around for more work because his monthly part-time teaching salary of $50 just isn't enough. A dollarized and liberalized economy, combined with the inflationary spending of the aid invasion, has dragged up the price of living beyond the average Timorese wage. Rice alone is $15 for a sack that lasts one month. Malnutrition levels in the capital are among the highest in the country.


"Electricity is so expensive, about $15 a month, if we could pay," said Domingos. That is a massive increase on the couple of dollars charged under the Indonesians. Most cannot and will not pay the tariff under the new user-pays and partly privatized system.


Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is asking people not to "politicize" the food crisis, advice bravely ignored by Abilio dos Santos, a government disaster-management official, who pointed the finger at his employer: "Timor-Leste government has neglected the starvation." He's right, in some ways. For this financial year, the Fretilin government budgeted just $1.5 million for the Ministry of Agriculture, a pitiful amount considering that 85% of the nation relies on agriculture for their largely subsistence livelihood.


This is a radical departure from 1975, when the same party protested against famine with anti-colonial defiance: "We are a nation of farmers, but still our people go hungry?" Thirty years later, the question is still asked. But instead of revolutionary songs, Fretilin is forced to dance to the donors' tune. If they don't? "Put bluntly," states a leaked US congressional memo on activities in Timor, "it seems likely that assistance levels will decline if East Timor's government pursues economic or budgetary policies which were unacceptable to donors."


Like the Indonesians and the Portuguese before them, East Timor's donors dictate policy in agriculture. "Most donor assistance is focused on the rice sector," said Ego Lemos, spokesperson for the sustainable agriculture organization Hametin Sustainabilidade Agrikultura Timor Lorosae or HASATIL (Strengthen Sustainable Agriculture in Timor-Leste). For example, an estimated $18 million of donor funds will have been spent on rehabilitating irrigation schemes from 1999-2006. But increases in rice production have been modest. Few farmers are planting a second crop in land that is dry, and occasionally ravaged by intense floods that bring irrigation-destroying sediments. In fact, rice was never a key staple in Timor, and it was only under the Indonesian occupation that production expanded. "During these 24 years we must eat rice," said Ego, who bemoaned the fact that international donors have continued this trend, neglecting more appropriate upland crops such as maize.


And what of the donor-prophesized arrival of foreign direct investment and the private sector?


"[With] start-up costs 30% higher and operating costs 50% higher than the rest of the region, there aren't too many areas for investment in this country," said one government investment adviser. One chicken factory near Dili was forced to shut down because imported chickens are only half the price of the local product.


Meanwhile, the economy is steadily contracting and unemployment is skyrocketing, with 15,000 people entering the workforce each year. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) conceded at the last donors' meeting that these pressures are "reinforcing widespread poverty and serious underemployment". The deepening crisis of Asia's poorest country should be apparent to all. Indeed, donors have been wondering why Timorese farmers and workers aren't blossoming into productive micro-capitalists, just as the textbooks tell them.


Local wages are too high, said the IMF in its latest report, praising the government for resisting "the introduction of populist measures" such as a minimum wage. (The World Bank led by example, forcing Chubb security to cut the salaries of the Bank's security guards from $134 to $88 per month.)


The Timorese people are not ambitious enough, said one donor-commissioned trade report, recommending the engagement of an institute to teach Timor's "low-income youngsters entrepreneurship". They should forget about their rice and chickens, and diversify into "market-dynamic commodities," the US Agency for International Development and the World Bank recommended.


But for Ego, the sustainable agriculture activist, this logic sidesteps reality. "Every farmer has to grow cash crops, for example, vanilla, coffee and so on, under this policy, but this is not looking at the question, 'Do people have enough to eat?'" Ego said. Even if a handful of farmers can produce niche commodities for fickle Western consumers, the rest of the country will continue to suffer, or simply disappear like the 53 men, women and children who died of starvation in Hatabuiliko. Under the free market, Timor is just a tiny half-island of surplus humanity.


Is it so offensive for a nation as poor as Timor to be allowed instead to adopt policies that support and protect 85% of the population? To heal Timor's deep colonial scars, "the government should subsidize the rural poor by investing in basic infrastructure", said Maria "Lita" Sarmento from the local land-reform and conflict-resolution organization Kdadalak Sulimutuk Institute (KSI), meaning "streams come together". "We don't need expensive technology; we just need to support our traditional systems," she added.


Ego spoke of alternative ideas for agriculture, many of them inspired by the annual farmer-organized agricultural fair "Expo Popular".


"We need to block imports of food that we can produce here," he said, adding that the argument that people will starve as a result is "nonsense".


"We have the means to feed ourselves but we need the right policies and the right assistance. In times of crisis, people are relying on yams, taro, banana, jackfruit and so on," said Ego. "We need to develop our natural food sources, not to develop a dependence on food aid, and the hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers they dump on us."


The tragedy of the famine in Timor is that the will to provide the humble assistance Ego and Lita speak of - to say nothing of the years of struggle and international solidarity - has been debased into the World Bank's policy architecture. The other barrier is the Australian government, which lays claim to $30 billion of the $38 billion of gas and oil resources in the Timor Sea. This is famine-preventing revenue that belongs to East Timor under international law.


Yet the work of Timorese such as Lita and Ego shows that the independence movement is starting to paint new slogans on old banners, pushing the idea of sovereignty beyond the parliament buildings and out into the fields and forests, as Timorese attempt to regain control over their systems of food production.


Hatabuiliko is perched at the foot of the summit of Mount Ramelau, the tallest mountain in East Timor. From the top, one can see nearly all of the small and beautiful island: a spine of mountains barely 90 kilometers wide, splitting the ocean like a wedge. Since October, people have being dying in this village, just 100km of winding mountain roads away from the capital. Since October, dozens of aid-industry elite have passed through the village on tourist pilgrimages before parking their four-wheel-drives on the other side to begin the ascent. Many would have hired a guide from Hatabuiliko. So why didn't any of them notice? Is the disconnection between donors and Timorese reality so complete that those dying of hunger become an unremarkable part of the landscape?


Last year I spent one cold night in the church at Hatabuiliko. I don't know who among the people I shared a meal and a few happy hours with have died. Those who remain must be asking why their nightmare continues.


Ben Moxham is a research associate with Focus on the Global South, a research and advocacy organization based in Bangkok, Thailand. For the past two years he has worked in East Timor monitoring the reconstruction process with local organizations and the government. He can be reached at


(Copyright 2005 Ben Moxham.)