ChinaFile

'We Want to Flourish'

ChinaFile Watch what happens when a young Egyptian woman and a young Chinese woman discuss free speech.

When Shen Yitong left her home in China to study French at Cairo University in 2008, she didn't know that she would come to think of Egypt as a second home, or that she would see revolution come upon the country so suddenly. Her parents came from peasant backgrounds and they devoted everything to supporting her education, including moving from a smaller city in northern Jilin Province to the capital city, Changchun, in 2004. 

I met Shen while in Cairo for an arts festival in the spring of 2013. The toppling of then-President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 reverberated through the small Chinese expat community there, whose members number in the thousands. Outsiders to the factional disputes, Chinese expat fates are still intertwined with their outcomes -- in part because they live in Egypt, but also because they are Chinese citizens, for whom the tradeoff between political freedoms and the uncertainty of regime change has immediate resonance. 

I filmed Shen during January and February; she has since left Cairo to start a Master's degree in Paris. This short film, produced for ChinaFile, focuses on a conversation Shen has with a close Egyptian friend, Asma El Nagar. El Nagar works for a Chinese company in Egypt after having studied Mandarin at Cairo University. The two friends laugh over a meal of Lanzhou noodles and converse in rapid-fire, relaxed Mandarin with occasional Arabic mixed in. 

As their conversation turns to current events, the two friends draw parallels between the Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Neither is a historian, political commentator, expert, or activist, and this film does not aim to portray them as authorities. In fact, before coming to Cairo, Shen, like many of her peers at home, had never heard of the events that transpired in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. There are of course many strong distinctions between the August 2013 Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters. What they do have in common is they are both examples of overwhelming state violence against civilians. In both Egypt and China, these events are marked by an inability to freely discuss or even commemorate them without fear of retribution.

Alison Klayman for ChinaFIle

ChinaFile

Watch: A Chinese Lake -- and a Way of Life -- Is Disappearing

ChinaFile An area that produces more than half of China's grain is losing its water.

If you drive south from Beijing on the highways that cut across the North China Plain, some of the first things you notice are the invisible rivers. The road arcs upward above the cornfields and a sign insists you are crossing, "The Hancun River Bridge," "The Liuli River Bridge," "The Sha River Big Bridge," or "The Especially Big Bridge" over the Qin River. But on most drives, this information functions mainly as history. Underneath the bridges there is nothing but more corn, or a pile of dust shifting in the breeze.

Water supplies on the North China Plain, an area that is home to 200 million and produces more than half of China's grain, are among the scarcest per capita in the world. Centuries of damming and diversion for irrigation and flood control and recent decades of heavy industrial pollution have left the region parched on the surface and sinking deeper every year into the emptying aquifers beneath. China's leaders are racing to replenish the region with water from other parts of the country, but in the meantime the wells get deeper with every passing year.

Perhaps nowhere do the threats to the region's water supply appear more menacing than on Lake Baiyangdian, the massive wetland known as North China's kidney. In living memory, the lake teemed with fish, flushed pollutants from rivers that passed through it, and regulated the region's climate. Today, it is shrunken and poisoned, barely able to support the people and animals who live on its waters, let alone the country beyond.

In "Staying Afloat: Life on a Disappearing Lake," Chinese filmmakers Lynn Zhang and Shirley Han Ying train their camera on the people who have been both perpetrators and victims of Baiyangdian's decline. They show us not just how its current predicament came to pass, but also the urgency of making sure Baiyangdian does not follow the region's rivers into history. --Susan Jakes

Lynn Zhang and Shirley Han Ying