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August 14, 2009

The China Hand: What Rule of Law?

by Dinda Elliott

Nibbling on dim sum at Shanghai's Jinpu Club with the Chinese head of one of China's largest private mutual funds, it's hard not to feel like this city is thoroughly modern. None of the clattering boisterousness of gritty Chinatown eateries here. In the chic, high-ceilinged club, groups of financiers, young Chinese men and women in professional gear talk quietly over shrimp dumplings, egg tarts and tea; they could be in any financial center, from Hong Kong to New York. "Stock market regulation has improved dramatically," says my friend, popping a morsel of braised beef tendon into his mouth, "and rule of law is coming, too." Nobody here seems in the slightest concerned that Beijing is rounding up some of China's brightest lawyers and throwing them in jail.

Such is the contradiction of today's China. The economy is growing at a lightning-fast rate of 8 percent annually, and according to Newsweek probably will surpass Japan by the end of this year. Life for most people is without question freer than ever. You can criticize the government and do just about whatever you like. But if you try to take on the system, you'd better watch out. That's exactly what some of China's best and brightest lawyers--generally idealistic patriots--have been doing, in hopes of promoting reform and true rule of law.

Xu Zhiyong, a 36-year old Peking University-trained lawyer known for defending Chinese victimized by unfair arrest or consumer fraud, was seized on July 29 and is still in detention. His firm, the Open Constitution Initiative law firm, challenged secret detention centers and represented parents of the 300,000 children who were struck ill by dangerous milk additives. People who know Xu, like Suzy Jakes, a former Time magazine correspondent, attest to his unfailing belief in the rule of law.  Yet his law firm has basically been shut down, and Beijing has deleted Xu's virtual identity, removing his blog from the internet and blocking all Twitter commentary about him. Xu is not the only one: Gao Zhisheng, a Christian lawyer who defended religious rights, migrant workers, and democracy, disappeared last spring. Why is it that in China, one kind of rule of law--regulation of the stock market, for example--is heralded but the other--protecting the rights of individuals--can get you thrown in jail?

Further reading:
* CNT explored the neighborhoods behind the skyscrapers in "Secret Shanghai" (Oct. 2008)
* The U.S. economy may still be in a slump, but Hong Kong is partying
* Shanghai: A mix of turn-of-the-century European villas, Deco apartment buildings, and sparkling new shopping malls
* Shanghai's World Expo Transformation
* Is Hong Kong turning Communist? Or are the Communists turning capitalist?
* Dispatches: On the road


I have just had one of my most unpleased travel experiences and I have traveled all over the world. I always thought a wonderful way to see the country would be from an Amtrak cross country sleeper car. On Friday afternoon I set out on a cross country trek from Washington DC to San Diego California, by Amtrak train. The trip from Washington DC to Los Angeles was by Amtrak sleeper car. I was going to spend 3 nights in an Amtrak sleeper car. One night from DC to Chicago, change trains in Chicago for a two night trip to Los Angeles. Change train in Los Angeles for a 2.5 hour train ride to San Diego.

The trip from DC to Chicago was uneventful. The bulk of the traveling was done at night so I was a little disappointed about not seeing lots of scenery. The upper bunk did NOT have a window so my images of falling asleep while the landscape passed were thwarted. We arrived in Chicago Saturday morning with a 6 hour layover before boarding the Southwest Chief for Los Angeles. After sightseeing in Chicago, we boarded the Southwest Chief sleeper car. Before we left the station in Chicago a fowl smell overtook the sleeper cabin. It smelled like sewage. It lingered then passed after a few minutes. Soon the train took off and the adventure was underway. Soon after leaving the station the smell of sewage appeared again, lingered a few minutes then passed. I assumed it had something to do with the area the train was travelling. Unfortunately it soon became a pattern every 15 minutes or so the entire sleeper car would be overcome with the smell of sewage. The smell would linger and then pass. The smell was coming from the vents. Yes, the vents were emitting the smell of sewage again and again. It soon became unbearable. We entered the lounge car to get away from the smell. We had paid for an expensive sleeper car, but were unable to use it because the smell of sewage was being vented into the room on a regular basis. Four hours out of Chicago, I saw the conductor passing thought the lounge car and mentioned this problem to him. He said he would get back to me since he had to attend to boarding passengers. One hour passed and I had not heard from the conductor. However I could see him having a conversation with staff in the dinning car. I asked him about the smell. Again he told me he would get back to me. Finally someone told me that no other sleeper or coach seats were available, and the lounge car closed at 10:00 PM. The problem was that when the sleeper car in front of my sleeper car flushed their toilets the smell was vented into my sleeper car. For 2 nights and 3 days the customers on my sleeper car were bathed in toilet smells coming through the vents. You can imagine the horror of the experience. We passed through many large train stations between Chicago & Los Angeles&&&.nothing was done. We were told they would take care of it in Los Angeles. How would that benefit passengers on the train? The train trip ended in Los Angeles. We were told to complain to 1 800 USA Rail. The problem started Saturday and did not end until the train arrived in Los Angeles Monday morning. Customer relations for Amtrak is closed on the weekend. When you called 1 800 USA Rail you are told to call back on Monday. Monday morning 9:00 AM I began calling 1 800 USA RAIL. While I could get through to make a reservation, I could NOT get through to customer relations, I was just forwarded to music. I attempted to find someone to complain to in the Los Angeles & San Diego train stations. In both places I was told to call 1 800 USA RAIL. I was told that typically there are so many calls on Monday to customer relations that you can not get through. I have now spent 6 days while on vacation in San Diego attempting to get thought to customer relations on the 1 800 USA RAIL number. I have literally spent hours listening to the music on hold and have yet to be able to speak to anyone at Amtraks customer relations about my experience. Not being able to get through to complain about Amtrak on the 1 800 USA Rail is either an insidious plan by Amtrak or a grand omission. Neither is acceptable. However I was able to get through to the Department of Transportation who forwarded me to the Federal Railroad Administration. They told me that while they do not regulate the toilet problem on Amtrak (they get involved in things like derailments) it is the number one Amtrak complaint. Seems my experience is far from unusual. Unless you are a fan of sewage smells, stay far away from Amtrak especially on long haul trips. During my week in San Diego every time I heard a train whistle it brought back smells of the sewer. Fortunately, I am flying back to DC.

After the horrendous experience with Amtrak I contacted 8 regulatory agencies including; Federal Railroad Administration, Dept. Of Transportation, Transportation Safety Institute, National Transportation Safety Board, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration detailing my experience. I was shocked to discover that this aspect of Amtrak travel is NOT regulated. Dont you think regulation would be appropriate?

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