New Year’s message censored – how will the new Chinese government respond?

Joel and I spoke at two local book clubs the other day – happily people are still reading “Rabbit in the Moon” and seem anxious to engage in discussions about China – not only about the events we wrote about in our novel (i.e. the short-lived student democracy movement that was brutally squelched at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989), but also the changes in the country since then. They were especially interested in understanding how the new leader Xi Jinping, who has expressed a commitment to more openness, is dealing with dissent.

Like Joel and me, they’d read the New York Times report about how Chinese reporters and editors working for the reform-minded Southern Weekly newspaper complained after the propaganda chief altered a front page New Year’s message. And unlike 1989 when there was no Internet to help spread news of dissent, today more and more dissenters in China are testing the limits of government censorship by going online.

Last week, because the journalists felt the intrusion of the propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, went above and beyond even current censorhip practices (Internet censors are constantly checking for key words like “Tiananmen” or “Charter ’08″, the online proclamation that China should embrace democracy which sent Liu Xiabo, winner of the 2110 Nobel Peace Prize to jail for 11 years), they published their  complaints on Twitter-like microblogs called weibo.

The original New Year’s message titled “China’s dream, the dream of constitutionalism” reflected the journalists’  hope that China would become a country ruled by law and the constitution. Here’s what they had written: “Only if constitutionalism is realized, and power effectively checked, can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently.” The version altered by the propaganda chief that ultimately appeared in the paper, was titled “We are now closer to our dream than ever,” and praised the work of the ruling Communist Party, leaving out any of the original references to constitutionalism, democracy and equality.

According the the New York Times article, within 24 hours of reading the weibo posts,  the Central Propaganda Department in Beijing deleted them, shut down the Southern Weekly journalists’ accounts and warned all Chinese newspaper editors and reporters not to discuss the New Year’s greeting on any public platforms.

Like 1989, this push-back from the government, only created more controversy. On January 4th, a group of prominent former Southern Weekly journalists including the director of the China Media Project based at the University of Hong Kong  issued a strongly worded open letter criticizing minister Tuo Zhen’s actions, describing them as “dictatorial”,  “ignorant and excessive”. The letter, which demanded that the central government fire Tuo, not punish the Southern Weekly journalists, and allow the paper’s editorial committee to resume normal operations, was later endorsed by more than 50 former journalists in a separate online letter. Chinese citizen supporters carrying posters calling for freedom of the press protested in front of the newspaper’s office complex. Celebrities in China protested via their microblogging accounts.

Now it will be interesting to see how the government reacts. The New York Times quoted Zhang Lifan, a political commentator’s weibo from Friday January 4th: “The incident will testify to the direction of political reform.”

Not surprising, word is that the new government is not happy. Despite Xi Jinping’s promise of more openness, there has been a recent stepped up policy of suppressing any public criticism of the Communist Party, particularly via social media on the Internet.  The central government does not want to be told what to do by a local newspaper, but they also don’t want the situation to become another Tiananmen.

A real life drama. We’ll all be watching.


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January 12, 2013 · 2:23 pm

Do you want to live forever?

One of the primary themes in our novel, “Rabbit in the Moon” is finding the secret of longevity. We started with the premise: what if someone in 1989 had succeeded in extending man’s lifespan well beyond that normal limits? Then we asked: who would want such a discovery and what might they do to get their hands on it? 

At the time we wrote the book, we assumed most people would want to live to be at least 150 – as long as could live a quality life. But interestingly, as we’ve gone around the country speaking to book clubs and library groups, not everyone agrees. Many of the reasons they give us are those that make our fictional character Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng ultimately decide not to give mankind his secret.

In this essay by David Ewing Duncan a contributor to Science Times, Duncan says that he has polled audiences as we have and come up with many of the same responses. Read it here and let us know your thoughts: 

How Long Do You Want to Live?


SINCE 1900, the life expectancy of Americans has jumped to just shy of 80 from 47 years. This surge comes mostly from improved hygiene and nutrition, but also from new discoveries and interventions: everything from antibiotics and heart bypass surgery to cancer drugs that target and neutralize the impact of specific genetic mutations.

Now scientists studying the intricacies of DNA and other molecular bio-dynamics may be poised to offer even more dramatic boosts to longevity. This comes not from setting out explicitly to conquer aging, which remains controversial in mainstream science, but from researchers developing new drugs and therapies for such maladies of growing old as heart disease and diabetes.

“Aging is the major risk factor for most diseases,” says Felipe Sierra, director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute on Aging. “The National Institutes of Health fund research into understanding the diseases of aging, not life extension, though this could be a side effect.”

How many years might be added to a life? A few longevity enthusiasts suggest a possible increase of decades. Most others believe in more modest gains. And when will they come? Are we a decade away? Twenty years? Fifty years?

Even without a new high-tech “fix” for aging, the United Nations estimates that life expectancy over the next century will approach 100 years for women in the developed world and over 90 years for women in the developing world. (Men lag behind by three or four years.)

Whatever actually happens, this seems like a good time to ask a very basic question: How long do you want to live?

Over the past three years I have posed this query to nearly 30,000 people at the start of talks and lectures on future trends in bioscience, taking an informal poll as a show of hands. To make it easier to tabulate responses I provided four possible answers: 80 years, currently the average life span in the West; 120 years, close to the maximum anyone has lived; 150 years, which would require a biotech breakthrough; and forever, which rejects the idea that life span has to have any limit at all.

I made it clear that participants should not assume that science will come up with dramatic new anti-aging technologies, though people were free to imagine that breakthroughs might occur — or not.

The results: some 60 percent opted for a life span of 80 years. Another 30 percent chose 120 years, and almost 10 percent chose 150 years. Less than 1 percent embraced the idea that people might avoid death altogether.

These percentages have held up as I’ve spoken to people from many walks of life in libraries and bookstores; teenagers in high schools; physicians in medical centers; and investors and entrepreneurs at business conferences. I’ve popped the question at meetings of futurists and techno-optimists and gotten perhaps a doubling of people who want to live to 150 — less than I would have thought for these groups.

Rarely, however, does anyone want to live forever, although abolishing disease and death from biological causes is a fervent hope for a small scattering of would-be immortals.

In my talks, I go on to describe some highlights of cutting-edge biomedical research that might influence human life span.

For instance, right now drug companies are running clinical trials on new compounds that may have the “side effect” of extending life span. These include a drug at Sirtris, part of GlaxoSmithKline, that is being developed to treat inflammation and other diseases of aging. Called SRT-2104, this compound works on an enzyme called SIRT1 that, when activated, seems to slow aging in mice and other animals. It may do the same thing in humans, though this remains to be proven.

“Many serious attempts are being made to come up with a pill for aging,” said Dr. Sierra, though he suspects that there will not be a single anti-aging pill, if these compounds end up working at all. “It will be a combination of things.”

For over a decade, scientists also have experimented with using stem cells — master cells that can grow into different specialized cells — to replace and repair tissue in the heart, liver and other organs in animals. Some researchers have succeeded in also using them in people. The researchers include the urologist Anthony Atala of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who has grown human bladders and urethras from stem cells that have been successfully transplanted into patients.

But another stem cell pioneer, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, believes that stem cell solutions will be a long time coming for more complex organs. “We’re a long way from transplanting cells into a human brain or nervous system,” he said.

ANOTHER intervention that might thwart the impact of aging is bionics: the augmentation or replacement of biological functions with machines. For years cardiac pacemakers have saved and extended the lives of millions of people. More recent devices and machine-tooled solutions have restored hearing to thousands who are deaf and replaced damaged knees and hips. Physicians use brain implants to help control tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease. Researchers also are working on a wide range of other machine fixes, from exoskeletons that protect joints to experimental devices that tap into the brain activity of paralyzed patients, allowing them to operate computers using thought.

Curiously, after learning about these possibilities, few people wanted to change their votes. Even if I asked them to imagine that a pill had been invented to slow aging down by one-half, allowing a person who is, say, 60 years old to have the body of a 30-year-old, only about 10 percent of audiences switched to favoring a life span of 150 years.

Overwhelmingly the reason given was that people didn’t want to be old and infirm any longer than they had to be, even if a pill allowed them to delay this inevitability.

Others were concerned about a range of issues both personal and societal that might result from extending the life spans of millions of people in a short time. These included everything from boredom and the cost of paying for a longer life to the impact of so many extra people on planetary resources and on the environment. Some worried that millions of healthy centenarians still working and calling the shots in society would leave our grandchildren and great-grandchildren without the jobs and opportunities that have traditionally come about with the passing of generations.

Long-lifers countered that extending healthy lives would delay suffering, possibly for a very long time. This would allow people to accomplish more in life and to try new things. It would also mean that geniuses like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein might still be alive. Einstein, were he alive today, would be 133 years old.

That’s assuming that he would want to live that long. As he lay dying of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 1955, he refused surgery, saying: “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”

David Ewing Duncan is a contributor to Science Times. This essay is adapted from his most recent e-book, “When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension and What Happens If It Succeeds.”

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First emperor Qin may have used “just-in-time” production methods for his weapons

We set much of the plot for our medical mystery/thriller “Rabbit in the Moon” in Xi’an in Shaanxi province. If you’ve ever traveled there, you’ve certainly seen the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor who unified China. In 210 BC, Qin was buried surrounded by terra cotta likenesses of over 8,000 of his personal soldiers as well as 150 calvary horses and 130 chariots with 520 horses. Each clay soldier carried swords, axes, spears, lances and crossbows made of the bronze.


The tomb was first discovered in March, 1974 by local farmers when they were digging a water well. Still not completely excavated, the site draws crowds of tourists who marvel at the individually sculptured faces of the soldiers.

Scientists have been particularly interested in how the bronze weapons were made.  A recent study of 40,000 bronze arrowheads published in the Journal of Archaeological Methods and Theory argues that these weapons were manufactured within various multi-skilled units that would have included a master artisan and a quality control supervisor rather than in a Ford motor car assembly line model. The authors state that “this system favored more adaptable and efficient logistical organization that facilitated dynamic cross-craft interaction while maintaining remarkable degrees of standardization.”

If true, this ancient “just-in-time” approach was a precursor for the same method favored by companies like Toyota today.

The distance between each carved soldier is quite small, so the assumption is that they were placed in the pit fully outfitted with their weapons. According to the researchers, this suggests that the weapon manufacturers had to coordinate their work with the statue carvers in order to keep the production flow efficient. Given that Qin was known to deal harshly with those who didn’t please him, there must have been incredible pressure on the 700,000 indentured slaves, prisoners of war, skilled artisans and others said to have worked on his mausoleum complex. Skeletons in iron shackles unearthed at the site suggest they didn’t always make the grade.

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Still no “secret of longevity”

Since one of the premises in our novel “Rabbit in the Moon” is that a Chinese scientist in 1989 has actually found the secret of longevity, we are always interested in the results of current scientific research on the subject.

Starting in the 1980’s, researchers like the late Dr. Roy Walford  at UCLA, have hypothesized that eating a severely calorie restricted calories can prolong life. This was based on original work with rats done in the 1930’s. The idea became so popular, that many proponents of this theory began trying to extend their own lives by reducing their calorie intake to less than 1000 calories per day.

However, just last week, the results of a 25 year long National Institute on Aging sponsored project in which rhesus monkeys were fed diets restricting their calories by 30 percent as compared to a control group seems to have refuted this (at least in monkeys). The study, which was published online in the journal Nature showed that the skinny monkeys did not live any longer than those kept at more normal weights. Interestingly, monkeys put on the diet when they were older showed some improvement in lab tests such as cholesterol and blood sugar (males only) and triglycerides (both genders) However, the causes of death — cancer, heart disease — were the same in both the underfed and the normally fed monkeys.

Rafael de Cabo, lead author of the diet study, said he was surprised and disappointed because he had expected an outcome similar to that of a 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin which concluded that caloric restriction did extend monkeys’ life spans.

Unfortunately, in that Wisconsin project, the authors disregarded about half of the deaths among the monkeys studied, claiming they were not related to aging. If they had included all of the deaths, they would have had to conclude that there was no extension of life span.

The good news is that science prevails here – someone has a hypothesis; they set up an experiment to prove it; they publish the results regardless of the outcome (i.e. present the facts); and then other scientists try to replicate the study in order to be sure that the results are accurate.

Still, this does not mean that cutting calories to a reasonable level in order to improve health is not a good idea.

The researchers of this study plan to continue it until the youngest monkeys are 22 years old. While they recognize that the data seems to rule out any notion that a low-calorie diet will increase average life spans, they hope to find that the diet increases the animals’ maximum life span by keeping them healthier.

So stay tuned.

And in the meantime, read “Rabbit in the Moon” to learn Dr. NiFu Cheng’s secret of longevity!

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Kindle special!!

For a limited time, Oceanview is offering the Kindle version of “Rabbit in the Moon” for only $1.00!! The international thriller won several literary awards including the Gold Medal, Florida Book Award; First Place, Royal Palm Literary Award (Florida Writers Association); and Silver Medal, Foreword Magazine.

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“Left-over women” in China

CBS news recently highlighted a growing issue in China: successful working females who are still single by age 30 are being labeled “left-over women”. The term has been officially adopted by the government and has clear perjorative implications. According to the CBS piece, Chinese men want to marry younger women who they consider to be more subservient. The irony is that as a consequence of the one child rule  introduced in 1978, many Chinese parents went to great lengths to have sons rather than daughters, so the pool of women  today is far outnumbered by men. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be at least 30 million more men than women in China.

A Chinese blogger (Offbeat China) describes these so-called “left-over women” as having “three highs”: they are highly educated, highly paid and highly independent. The blogger goes on to say:

“The age threshold of being a leftover women keeps lowering in recent years. It used to be 30 years, now 25. But sometimes will find girls around their early 20s claiming that they are leftover women. There are also different hierarchies of leftover women. Single women between 25 and 27 are the “fighters” (剩斗士, sheng dou shi), meaning that they still have the courage and energy to keep looking for true love. Leftover women between 28 and 31 are the “doomed to be left” (必剩客, bi sheng ke, pronounced the same as Pizzahut in China), meaning that their chances of being ever married is very low and they are oftentimes too busy working to land a husband. Those between 32 and 36 are “leftover fighting Buddha” (斗战剩佛), meaning that they survive the cruel professional world but still remain single. Women of 36 and older are “leftover goddess” (齐天大剩).”

Many of these successful women say they would rather remain unmarried than marry someone who is not their equal. Whether a spoof or real, in this Youtube video, a  young woman sings about the situation. The lyrics say “if you have no house, no car and no money in the bank, don’t think of marriage with me!”

This phenomenon is more common in urban areas in China where the best educated women making high salaries tend to live. It is also an issue in other Asian countries such as  Japan, Taiwan and Singapore. Last year the Economist reported that about a third of Japanese women in their early 30s and more than 20 percent of Taiwanese women in their late 30s remained unmarried. At least half those women will never marry. In Singapore, 27 percent of college-educated 40- to 44-year-old women were single.

How this will all play out remains to be seen. Let us know your thoughts by commenting here. Thanks!

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Despite new economic freedom, still no mention of Tiananmen

As we wrote in an earlier post,  this month marked the 23rd anniversary of what the Chinese government refers to only as “the June 4th incident”. Yet that “event” became a pivotal moment for the nation as leaders made a deal with its citizens: you can get rich (in fact, Deng declared “to get rich is glorious”), but don’t try to bring down One Party Rule.

Our recent trip to SE Asia included stops in south China and Hong Kong. With each visit since 1989 we’ve seen extraordinary changes. China has made impressive economic gains: second largest world economy, over 300 million people living middle and upper middle class lives, and almost 100 billionaires. The big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou on the mainland are so modern, it’s hard to find much of old China  there.


(photo of Guangzhou)

And Hong Kong- well that’s like New York on steroids.


(photo of Hong Kong)

What continues, however, is the fear by the government of any kind of rebellion resembling the failed 1989 student movement, or worse, the successes of the recent Arab Spring. Internet censors are constantly checking for key words like “Tiananmen” or “Charter ’08”, the online proclamation that China should embrace democracy which sent Liu Xiabo, winner of the 2110 Nobel Peace Prize to jail for 11 years.

Even Apple has had to tailor its iPhone sold in China to satisfy the government.  A recent online Daily Feed article stated that “development testers have found that when you ask about Siri about Tiananmen Square, or ‘the events of June 4, 1989,’ they receive confused or nonsensical responses. Attempts to even ask for directions to Tiananmen Square return similarly garbled results. This last detail is particularly odd because, apart from its role as site of pro-democracy protests, Tiananmen Square is a major landmark in Beijing. From a geographic standpoint, not being able to locate it is roughly akin to an American iPhone saying it doesn’t recognize the phrase ‘Central Park.'”

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