Friday, December 31, 2004

Looking over 2004, about all you can say is, well, that could have gone better. As to what's coming up... we have a massive rescue and recovery effort in the Indian Ocean disaster zone (see here for a list of charities taking donations), and an upcoming election in Iraq, fraught with peril, where the Shiite coalition which will surely have a majority if there are enough votes to count is promising voters that they will immediately move to kick us out. (Which isn't the worse thing that could happen, if we have the sense to leave where we're not wanted). But you don't need me to tell you any of that.

So, here are two brief news stories reflecting on other likely future events. First, a bit of whimsy: having just sold off its cell phone division to Cingular, AT&T is already announcing plans to get back into the cell phone business, by reselling services from Sprint. Come on, folks. Do you want to be in the business or out of it? Make up your minds!

Second, China. Earlier this week, I noted that Communist China is the new homeof echt-feudalism. Chinese nouveaux riches are moving into the Chateau Zhang Laffitte, a replica of an old French nobleman's palace, to which the developers have added more gardens and a moat. To complete the feudal theme, it is actually built on land expropriated from peasants.

Well, here's a look at the class resentments this sort of thing is stirring up. On the street in Wanzhou, two people got into a scuffle. One was a porter, scraping by carrying heavy items on his back, and sweeping the floors of hair salons so the hair can be collected into wigs. The other was a big shot -- who may or may not be a public official. The porter accidentally got a little mud on the big shot's girlfriend's dress. The big shot said something sneering to the porter. The porter replied, "I sell my body, just like a prostitute". The girlfriend took that unkindly. As to what happened next, reports vary, but the story that spread all over Wanzhou through cell phones, pagers, and the old-fashioned grapevine telegraph was that he said he could pay $2500 or so, and have the porter killed. That story, in turn, triggered a riot in which tens of thousands of people wrecked city cars and burned City Hall.

The central government has reacted with alarm. Provincial officials were reprimanded. The porter was put through a forced and thoroughly scripted Rodney King moment on local TV, which convinced no one, and has left him subject to sneering attacks now from the local poor, for letting himself be used as a propaganda tool. But this isn't the only incident of its kind -- on another occasion, 10,000 farmers stopped work on a dam project, and the army had to be called out to restore order.

The Chinese government is obviously worried about this, and part of what they're doing is stronger police measures. But police measures can't be the whole strategy, at least not if it's going to work. So we can assume the Chinese leadership is working on other tactics for distracting the plebs from their personal problems. Maybe bread and circuses. Maybe war.


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