This blog is becoming a bit of a hybrid of what’s going on in Asia and how Trump and his cronies are working to destroy the U.S. as we know it.  The latter part of that last sentence may be a bit of hyperbole, though after some of the speeches at the CPAC conference, including Bannon’s, I wonder how much of that sentiment is really hyperbole. Yet that is a thought for another time or perhaps it will just continue to unfold in the messy way it has since Trump won the election.

Yesterday, Trump rolled back Obama era protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the bathroom of their choice.  Putting aside the legality of such a move given that the original decision was supported by Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, Trumps move raises two interesting points.  One, it’s a policy decision that re-opens the culture wars that the Republican Party and many voters were hoping to move beyond.  Two, it’s a relatively low-stakes policy move on the part of the Trump administration consistent with his seeming “do-little” approach to governing since taking office a month ago.

During the last presidential election, cultural issues related to gender and sexuality seemed to take a backseat to economic and national security issues.  The 2016 election was certainly a far cry from 2004 when it seemed that cultural issues were guiding both the left and right.  Think about what Trump campaigned on – jobs and national security, with which I am including immigration.  While I am sure there are many conservatives who are applauding this move, it’s interesting how muted the support has been from members of Congress who seem to want to avoid the controversy that engulfed North Carolina on a national level.  While polls show the American public pretty evenly split on bathroom access, if Americans were asked where they prioritize this issue relative to jobs, health care, the economy, national security, or even Russia, I am sure that this issue would be a rather low priority in terms of on what Americans want their politicians to focus.  Congratulations President Trump on firing another shot in the culture wars and taking the heat off of your ability to actually get things done that voters care about.

So the second point is that we now have one of Trump’s first major policy dictating who should be using which bathrooms in our nation’s schools.  The move does not seem like it’s going to do much to bring jobs back to the Rust Belt or Coal Country or help protect our borders, yet this is one of the matters on which he is expending his political capital.  It’s actually quite Trumpian in its simple logic.  He knows full well that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act or bringing back manufacturing and mining jobs are herculean, if not impossible tasks.  He also has the attention span of a gnat and such policy prescriptions would never fit on a single page, so he turns to something that is both easy to understand and execute on, while satisfying conservatives that he remains true to their principals.  I don’t know what’s worse in a Trump administration, barely governing or barreling full steam ahead and running into all sorts of potential roadblocks.  I’d argue the latter because at least then there is a chance of failure, which would hopefully set us up for something better than what we are currently getting.  This barely governing approach that involves throwing some red meat policy moves to his supporters could turn into a war of attrition where the opposition in all its forms simply grows tired and gives up before turning back the tide on what could be the end of America as we know it.

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My apologies for being offline the the past three weeks, but I was back in the States for Chinese New Year to see family and friends, as well as take care of some work over there and just returned to Asia this past Monday where I’ve been busy working and setting up my new home in Hong Kong.  So it’s fitting that I am sitting at my beloved Starbucks in the Garden City Mall in Shenzhen about an hour or so before I am due to move out of my room here and bring all of my worldly possessions to Hong Kong, meaning all four suitcases-worth.

Heading home for any extended period of time and then returning to China means that I have some room to process all that’s happened during the time I’ve been here, as well as answer questions from family and friends about what they might have seen or heard about China in the news.  The two topics dominating any conversations I had about China were either the stock market and economy or the continued crackdown on political and civil liberties, including the ongoing case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers.

Having some space from China, I still feel that this is a country heading in the wrong direction at the moment.  It’s not that it can’t or won’t turn itself around, but almost daily there is another news headline that makes me shake my head and wonder what’s really going on here.  The latest was President Xi’s visit to the country’s major news and media organizations in China explicitly telling them to act as a mouthpiece for the party.  This new policy is another attempt to exert greater control over another aspect of Chinese society that has the potential to create social instability.  However, like many previous moves, this one smacks of insecurity and coming at a time when there are questions around China’s ability to manage its economy, it’s clear this is another attempt to mask potential problems that may exist in the system.  If these problems somehow were brought to light, there is a real fear that people would not be happy and social unrest could erupt.  Definitely not a move of a leader in control of his country.

Beyond that, I have been thinking more about Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and other cities that see themselves as other in the context of Greater China.  Hong Kong is probably the most salient example of this trend in light of protests over the years against certain actions taken or policies put forth by the mainland.  The largest of recent memory being the Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014 triggered by Beijing shifting the goalposts on universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  The alleged kidnapping of the booksellers has only added accelerated this feeling of “other-ness” that seems to run deep among Hong Kongers.  However, more interesting and something that only really hit me this morning as I was being driven around Shenzhen in an area known as the Hi-Tech Park where some of Chinas biggest tech companies have their offices including Tencent, ZTE, and DJI. I saw all these twenty-something tech workers running to work and the scene could have just as easily been one from Silicon Valley.  Shenzhen is a city trying to build its future on technology and finance as it firmly sheds its industrial past.  More interesting is the fact that very few people in Shenzhen are actually from Shenzhen, so the city does not have to hew closely to a long-established culture.  Many people (mainly foreigners visiting or living here, including myself at times) bemoan the lack of a deep-rooted culture.  But my riding partner that morning who has lived here for quite some time even though she is not from here framed this lack of a deep-rooted culture in a positive way that I had not considered before.  She claimed that this lack of culture meant that the city was building something new from the ground up, which made Shenzhen much more open than any other Chinese city that is hemmed in by its past.  You can see it in all the new skyscrapers, shiny shopping malls, and tech companies pushing the Chinese innovation storyline.  But I had not thought about it in terms of what it means for a city and its outlook, as well as its place in the national narrative.  The conversation was sparked by my question about whether Shenzhen was different than other parts of China and upon receiving an emphatic “yes”, I followed up and was presented with this theory.  If Shenzhen can perhaps be added to the “other” category because of its short history, lack of a strong local culture, and welcoming people from all over China with easy access to Hong Kong, I wonder what this means for the future of the city and more importantly, China as perhaps other cities begin to see themselves as different than the rest of the country, which would be a rather backhanded way of unravelling the social cohesion that President Xi working so hard to maintain.  Something to be explored further in another post, but wanted to get it out there because it’s something I feel like I am going to be thinking about for quite some time.  But now I must finish packing and make my way back to Hong Kong.

It’s New Year’s Eve here in China with the Year of the Monkey slated to begin at midnight and Shenzhen has the feeling of a bit of a ghost town with the streets largely empty of traffic, stores all closing early so that people can spend time with their families, and those that are out moving at a rather languid pace as the week-long holiday gets underway.  I feel a bit like a Jew on Christmas Eve in that my family is 8000 miles away in Jersey, but I can’t even enjoy Chinese food for dinner because all of those restaurants will be closed this evening.  So instead I went down to Sea World, the expat haven of restaurants, and took out some hummus and a Cobb salad from Element Fresh so that I would not go starving this evening.  It’s probably also a good thing that things are relatively quiet today because I need to pack for my trip tomorrow back to the States, which is really a full day endeavor because I cannot stand packing.

It’s been a few days since I last wrote and the past week really felt like everyone going into vacation mode knowing that school would be closed for the week.  I was in double vacation mode because I knew that I was also heading back to the States.  But even though it felt like an odd week, it does not mean that China was taking a break from its usual assault on the senses.

Last night was perhaps one of the odder encounters I’ve had since being here this time around.  I had just taken the ferry back to Shekou after a day in Hong Kong furniture shopping, setting things up for my new apartment, and catching a few drinks with friends.  Trying to be economical, I took the bus from the ferry terminal back to my apartment.  It’s actually quite easy because the ferry terminal is only a ten-minute ride from Apartment One and all the buses that run by there also stop at the ferry terminal, so it would have been irresponsible not to take the bus.  Anyway, I’m sitting on the bus talking to one of my best friends back in New York when I notice an older white man in a leopard-print fleece and his Chinese lady friend get on the bus one stop later and sit directly across from me.  I don’t pay them much attention beyond noting the fleece and continue on with my conversation. Two stops later, they get up to get off the bus and the old man stops right in front of me, puts his hand on my knee and with his boozy breath on my face hisses with a British accent ,”Go back to where you came from you f*#king Moos-lim.”  I was startled and in that split second decided not to engage with this man. It also took me a second for what he said to register because it was so absurd.  He then exited the bus and the few people still on, along with the driver just looked at me.  They knew something had happened, but were not quite sure exactly what.  There were so many things wrong with that moment from his inherent hatred of Muslims to mistakenly identifying me as one to getting in my space and touching me.  I guess my coloring is a bit darker than most people and I am sporting a bit of a winter beard in preparation for winter back in the States, but I had been yammering away in English to my friend and for the life of me cannot figure out what prompted this man to lash out at me in that way. It’s alarming on a deeper level because even if I was Muslim, such treatment is inexcusable an constitutes harassment for something for which one should not be harassed.  A day later I am still baffled by this man’s behavior and while I can easily chalk it up to his inebriated state, there’s always truth in the drink and I believe that this interaction is no exception.

As I watch the presidential race play out and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) distrust and even outright hatred for Muslims on display, including in yesterday’s latest GOP presidential debate when President Obama received flack for visiting a mosque to show solidarity with American Muslims, I experienced some of that here in Shenzhen, China from an old white man in a leopard-print fleece at 9:45pm on a Saturday night.  I wasn’t going to explain what had happened to the bus driver or the other passengers because China has its own complicated issues with Muslims, often using the rationale of terrorism to harass and imprison the Uighurs in Xinjiang who often rail against the Chinese government for more freedom and autonomy.  Even though I am not Muslim, I am alarmed that such hatred exists and that this man would shower his hatred upon a total stranger who was doing nothing by minding his own business having a conversation on his phone.  As for a larger takeaway, I am not sure I have just one, but there a lot of hatred out there and if it’s not Muslims, it can just as easily be another group of people, most of whom have done nothing to deserve such blanket hatred.

Not only am I baffled, but I am shaken that this stranger got up in my video like that motivated purely by his own hatred.  As a Jewish gay American, I have plenty of other identities that easily arouse irrational hatred in people, so while I had this experience based upon something I’m not, I’m acutely aware of the dangers that exist out there in people who harbor prejudices and are not afraid to act upon them.  It was definitely a wake-up call and just drives home the idea that irrational hatred and prejudice is the same for all of us, no matter the specific target, and it’s something those of us who are still rational should do everything in our power to fight and eradicate.

新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le) Happy New Year!

 

Surprise, Surprise

January 30, 2016

China is getting on my nerves.  The internet the past two weeks has been particularly finicky and not having an IT background, I just imagine someone sitting in a room sifting through all of my chosen websites to browse to make sure I am not looking at anything all that bad before deciding to release them to my screen.  I am sure it doesn’t work like that, but whatever it is, it has become a definite problem and a real sap on my productivity, not to mention pissing off the powers that be at work because emails seem to get lost in transmission.  I know that we’ve been upgrading our network at work to install a building-wide VPN, but even at home or on my phone, I find that the connections cut in and out and my VPN becomes less and less stable the longer I am here.  Putting these frustrations into sharp relief is the fact that I was in Vietnam and Hong Kong the past week where the internet in both places was blazing fast.  I mean I could download an entire episode of the Real Housewives of Atlanta at the Hanoi airport while waiting in line for 10 minutes to board my flight.  Here in Shenzhen I spend whole evenings trying to get through one episode of many an hour-long show.  I read surveys of corporates operating in China and the challenging IT / internet environment with the Great Firewall is one of the top frustrations that comes along with having operations here.  I see it first hand at work with all the difficulties of linking up to our servers in the States and maintaining an efficient network for everyone to use.  When you think about these problems coupled with the fact that there are whole swaths of the internet off limits to Chinese residents without a VPN, one has to begin to wonder what effect all of this has on the economy. Interestingly, the leadership here is placing great hope on the internet and innovation associated with it to lead the next surge in growth, but can it do so when the national network is running rampant with censors blocking anything and everything deemed sensitive or a threat to national security.  It’s the latter category that’s most worrisome because nearly anything can fall within the ambit of a threat to national security.

It’s this continued crackdown on any dissenting voice that only adds to the worry about what happens next in China.  Seemingly every other day there is another story out of this country about arrests of people promoting human rights or a high-level government official being taken down for corruption.  On the human rights front, it’s easier to understand.  Beijing does not want anyone giving voice to people who may feel disenfranchised or wronged because of government policies.  The anti-corruption campaign seems to have no real rhyme or reason when it comes to its targets as it’s been evenly spread across the country.  Though interestingly, through this handy interactive graphic, you can see that Guangdong province has fared the worst of all the jurisdictions in the country, meaning that it’s had more take-downs than anywhere else.  Without oversimplifying too much, Guangdong may stand out more than other places because as home to both Guangzhou and Shenzhen, two of the country’s largest and most economically open cities, as well as it’s distance from Beijing and proximity to Hong Kong, the province has a history of doing its own thing and identifying more closely with its southern neighbor rather than Beijing due to its shared dialect of Cantonese. Historically, China has always been a hard country to govern with the hinterlands (including Guangdong) demonstrating a tendency to disregard missives from the central government.  Viewed with these ideas in mind, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign could be seen as an attempt to prevent history from repeating itself again by taking out those perceived troublemakers.  But the anti-corruption campaign has had the perverse effect of hampering reforms by leaving public officials both scared to implement new ideas for fear of falling into the crosshairs of the anti-corruption campaign and worse for the long term, removing people who could have provided a constructive counter-opinion to those pushing current policies.  All in all, it’s still too early to tell how much of this anti-corruption campaign is PR and a way to take out dissent within the ranks or a real attempt to clean up the Chinese government at all levels.  However, I would still put my money on the former and venture to say that it’s more of an attempt to consolidate power around Xi and his small circle of confidantes rather than a wholesale clean-up of the Chinese government where no one is above the law.  In the end, it’s probably just going to be a smaller group of people who remain above the law – those who tow Xi’s line and support his policies.

Increasingly, I worry for the future of this country.  When I was younger, I was an idealist and thought China was going to show the world how to develop in a different and better model than what had been done in the U.S. or Europe.  Now I fear that the country is heading in a direction that is unsustainable.  It’s not just about the economy, but also about simultaneously creating a real space for a population that is growing ever wealthier to be able to vent and express their opinions.  At this point in time, the government seems to be unwilling to create that space, or if it does, it’s done so in the same way that it tries to micro-manage the economy, from the top down.  One of these days, something is going to happen from the bottom-up and it’s not going to be as a result of the government’s doing and it’s that moment I am truly fearful of because it’s going to catch a number of people by surprise and one thing this government does not like is surprises.

I’m giving some solidarity with my snowbound friends and family on the East Coast of the US right now as they get hit with their first major snowstorm of the year.  While there isn’t any snow here in Shenzhen, it’s damn cold.  We’re experiencing a polar vortex of our own with temperatures hitting record lows.  It’s 45 degrees in Shenzhen and it feels even colder because most homes don’t have heat and even with heat, they are built without any real insulation since it’s normally warm and humid.  Add the humidity factor into it and it feels even colder because it’s that raw, wet cold that gets into your bones.  I am sitting here at . . . where else?  . . . Starbucks in the mall in my winter parka and wool beanie because someone had the bright idea to leave the front doors of the mall open even though it’s freezing outside.

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Freezing at the mall

Trying my best to type without gloves, but it’s not easy.

I’ve been meaning to write for the past couple of days, but the combination of work and Internet problems from being behind the Great Firewall have made it hard to sit down and do so.

You’ve probably noticed that the stock markets have had a wild week with most of the turbulence being traced back to the much-discussed slowdown of the Chinese economy.  The government reported it’s growth for 2015 of 6.9%, which while the envy of most other countries, was the slowest rate in 25 years.  It’s hard though to tie the gyrations of the market to just the slowdown of the Chinese economy.  That would completely leave out human nature and the irrational impulses of investors or perhaps the all the rational follow-the-herd mentality that often pervades markets.  A sell-off in one market is usually going to lead to a sell-off around the world, especially in this day and age when everything is so interconnected.  But I did not set out to turn this post into a lesson about markets, investing, or even the global macroeconomy.

China never ceases to amaze me in how screwed up and fascinating a place it can be, usually all in the same moment.  The five booksellers from Hong Kong are still missing, though two have kind of turned up.  One who was allegedly abducted from Thailand (and is a Swedish national) went on national television to confess to killing a young girl in a drunk driving incident in 2003 and the other, Lee Bo, who is a British national, is somewhere in Guangdong province, but no one knows exactly where or why.  It’s galling that nearly a month after Lee Bo went missing, we still do not know where he is. Worryingly, the Hong Kong government has asked the central government and Guangdong officials and all they could get out of them nearly three weeks after he went missing is that he is indeed on the mainland.  Chinese officials do not think that the HK government merits a detailed response and so the HK government and its people still remain in the dark about whether mainland law enforcement officials actually came down and abducted Lee Bo, as well as the other four missing men who are connected to this particular publishing house.  What’s more troubling is that the mainland allegedly took these men away because they did not like the content of the books these men were publishing, which tended to be gossipy take-downs of top mainland officials.  All of this adds up to some serious violations of “one country, two systems”, which was the policy that has undergirded the handover of HK from the British to the Chinese.  China has become more and more brazen about violating this policy and the Hong Kong people are truly powerless to stop it.  In the grander scheme of things, it unfortunately dovetails with a number of other moves on the mainland that reflect a central government still attempting to snuff out any sort of dissent.  From President Xi telling government officials that some questions should not be asked to the continued takedown of government officials on charges of corruption to the conducting off war exercises off the coast of Taiwan the other day, nearly a week after the election of Tsai Ing-wen, reflecting a Taiwanese electorate that increasingly sees itself as Taiwanese and not Chinese.  In one bizarre move last week, nearly 45,000 people, mostly from the mainland, criticized Tsai for her pro-independence stance.  It’s known the comments came from the mainland because they were using simplified Chinese characters versus Taiwan, which uses the traditional ones.  It’s bizarre because Facebook is still blocked on the mainland unless you have a VPN, so many suspect it was the work of government-enlisted individuals who were able to evade the Great Firewall to post on her page.  While some Taiwanese supporters pointed out this irony in reply comments, Tsai probably had the best post of all replying, “”The greatness of this country lies in how every single person can exercise their right to be himself or herself.” (“這個國家偉大的地方就在於每一個人都有做自己的權利”)

Tsai FacebookPretty brilliant reply to what was probably a coordinated mainland response seeking to rattle her so soon after being elected.

And that my friends is a bit of what went down this week that leaves me sitting here shaking my head wondering what’s next, but still insanely intrigued and fascinated by the things that happen in this country.  Stay tuned for more.

Zombies at Christmas

December 6, 2015

I am having one of those weekends where I am frustrated with China and it’s many contradictions.  As long as I have lived in and studied the country, it still does not make sense to.  I know that’s the reason it’s held my interest for nearly twenty years, but sometimes I reach a breaking point and then it passes.  Between having to deal with spotty phone connections, wrestling with my VPN so that I can communicate with the outside world, and the inability or express frustration in Chinese because my teachers only taught me happy words, at about the month point I am frustrated.

On Friday I went up to Guangzhou for work. It was my first time back in over five years and while I was only there for a few hours and pretty much toured a school and sat in the train station, I had a two-hour drive up from Shenzhen to think about China and my time here so far.  The drive was up the 广深沿江高速, which literally translates to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Along the River Expressway.  It runs up from Guangzhou through all of the factory towns of the Pearl River Delta, including Dongguan, through to Guangzhou.  Those factory towns are the ones that you read about in the newspaper closing up shop and moving to Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, other ASEAN countries, or inland China where labor is less expensive.  These factories are the ones that churned out jeans, iPhones, bras, shirts, printers, and many other goods over the years.  Now driving up the highway, many are either abandoned or look like they’re about to be abandoned.  But to counter those abandoned factories I saw lots of cranes putting up apartment blocks.

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View from the car headed towards Guangzhou

The thought that’s always front and center when I see these new apartments is “Who is going to live here?”, which from the number of so-called ghost cities in China is a plausible question.  However, this is the Pearl River Delta and if there is one trend I have noticed over the last 15 years it’s that there is a strong push to urbanize the entire corridor from Shenzhen to Guangzhou.  So there is little doubt in my mind that these towers will be filled and one day between the two cities there will be an unbreakable stretch of these towers.  So what happens to the abandoned factories?  Assuming there are no toxic chemicals on those sites, which is a big if, then towers will go up.  I’m not sure if China has the equivalent of Superfund sites like we do in the States, and if they did, I am not sure there would be enough political will to designate them as such.  It’s the unknowing or inability to know, assuming one wanted to know that drives me nuts about China sometimes.

It’s the holiday season, even here in China.

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Christmas tree at entrance to my apartment complex

Between the random Christmas trees and holiday music blasting in the shopping centers, including the ubiquitous “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey, it adds a surreal dimension to life in China.

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Holiday festivities at the Garden City Mall

Maybe its my frustration speaking, but there is something zombie-like about taking in this whole China experience as a foreigner.  I already disconnected because of certain personal uncertainties, but Shenzhen is a city built on commerce.  In fact, it’s really the reason it was ever conceived by the central government 30 some-odd years ago.  People mill about in a frenzy of eating and shopping, though I see very few shopping bags, which might lend some anecdotal credence to the stories you read of China’s economy slowing down.  It’s kind of like what it was like going to a mall during the last recession in the States.  People were there, but they weren’t spending.  The malls are more like entertainment zones with hockey rinks, playgrounds, movies, and restaurants.

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A hockey game at Coastal City Mall

Some days it feels like all people do here is eat and shop.  There is no real pervasiveness of the news like back home where big cities have tickers on buildings with the latest stories or elevators at work have the little screens with the day’s top news stories.  No tickers in China and the elevator at my school has pictures of pandas and penguins to go along with the date and time.  It’s a bit of an over-generalization to say that no Chinese people care about current events, but the government has put in place a number of distractions to ensure that people pay as little attention as possible to the world outside, unless it’s necessary to stoke nationalist sentiment as a bulwark for the government.  Of course there are intellectuals and people concerned with these sorts of matters, but they are on the fringes of society.  There are no cable news programs outside of CCTV and other government-run outlets, so there’s no real widespread forum from which people can get alternative opinions.  For better or worse, Donald Trump and his rallies get air time on television and we have a relatively robust network of columnists and commentators trying to make sense of things in our country.

This past Friday, China celebrated its second National Constitutional Day, commemorating its constitution that is supposed to provide for all kinds of freedoms that exist only on paper.  There were no noticeable celebrations here in Shenzhen.  In fact, it seems like the way the government decided to commemorate it was to continue snuffing out various forms of expression, ironically the same kinds guaranteed in the constitution.  Included in that snuffing out was a recently published book by a Tsinghua University (referred by some as the MIT of China for its science and engineering prowess) historian about China’s constitutional transformation.

I guess my frustrations this weekend started small, but have now led me down this path of wondering what is really going on in this country.  It’s hard to tell what lurks beneath the veneer of iPhones (and may iPhone wannabes), fancy shopping malls, and the smiling faces roaming about these shopping malls.  I guess only time will tell.

The Real China?

December 1, 2015

“Where is the real China?”

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been asked variations on this question from the American teachers at our school for which this stint in Shenzhen is their first time in China.  I struggle to come up with a good answer because I am not sure I actually know the answer.  Depending on the day and my mood, I recommend checking out Beijing for a good contrast between the old and new China with a bunch of government formality thrown in for good measure.  Or maybe I extol the history in Xian with its terra cotta warriors and ancient city walls still standing.  Or even Yangshuo (阳朔) for its beautiful scenery and Yongding (永定) with its tulou (土楼).

Maybe Shenzhen is actually the best representation of the real China. 30 or so years ago it was nothing more than a 50,000 person market town through which the Guangzhou – Hong Kong through-train passed.  Now it’s a metropolis of over 15 million people, depending on how many of the surrounding towns you include in that count, and home to an endless supply of high-end malls, one of China’s two stock exchanges, and extreme wealth on display throughout the city.   This dramatic transformation, which at this point has been noted by anyone who has spent time here or in any number of China’s other Tier One and Tier Two cities, is almost a given when speaking about China. However, the teachers for whom Shenzhen represents their introduction to China, something rings hollow about the city and the experience.  It’s not that it’s not pleasant or convenient, but it almost feels too easy and not what they expected of China.  But I have to wonder what they expected China to be if not a temple of consumerism and capitalism with very little in the way of apparent angst about the country’s problems and where it’s going.

Just an aside to note that I must give props to my dad for bringing to my attention Andrew Jacobs’ “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind“, which was published in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  In short, it’s his take on where China is at after spending almost eight years on the ground.  It means more to me that my dad brought it to my attention because I’d like to think that it’s my being here on the ground that caused him to stop and read it whereas if I wasn’t here, there might have been the chance that he would have skipped over Jacobs’ piece.   Thanks, dad.

Jacobs notes this disconnect between the shiny veneer of consumerism and deeper problems that lurk beneath this surface.  He writes, “[T]he Communist Party, largely through fear and intimidation, seems to have trained much of the population to channel their energies into the pursuit of consumerism.”  This sentence gets to the heart of what is so strange about China, especially to Americans who are so used to the constant bombardment of negative news that makes it hard to enjoy Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Most Chinese people seem rather oblivious to the problems around them, including a slowing economy, rapidly degrading environment, disadvantageous demographics, and the detention of anyone who dare challenge the regime.

Shenzhen is even more of a conundrum because it should embody the idea that the further one is from Beijing, the less reverence they have for the government and its policies.  That actually may be true to an extent in Shenzhen, which is richer and freer than most other parts of China, but the vacuum that exists from seemingly not caring about social and political matters is what makes the city feel so strange.  Its proximity to Hong Kong and relatively porous border only heightens the strangeness. Shenzheners cross quite regularly between the two cities, but it’s mainly to shop in Hong Kong because of its better selection of Western good and lower prices.  Yet, Shenzheners bring little else back with them except bags and suitcases full of purchases.

To an American like myself who goes back and forth quite frequently and have been doing so for over a decade, I still marvel at the feeling of how different Hong Kong is from the moment I step off a plane, train, or boat. I don’t know for certain, but would guess that most Chinese people crossing the border just see the city as a giant shopping mall.

Foreign Policy is running a special series on education and the relationship between the U.S. and China.  Zara Zhang, a Chinese student at Harvard, writes about her experience there and acting as a bridge between the U.S. and China.  Her experience at Harvard is a fascinating read, especially as someone who has taught top university students in China.  Among her many observations, one stood out for me at the end of her piece, “If China will one day become a more democratic and open society, it will probably be a result of the effort of this large group of culturally hybrid individuals whose heads are now used to Western thinking — but whose hearts are unchangeably Chinese.”

I have thought about this point a lot and I think it’s what any Western country that hosts a large number of Chinese students at its high schools and universities thinks, too – that by welcoming Chinese students into the halls of Western education, they’ll be imbued with ideas of freedom and democracy and bring those ideas back home to clamor for change.  The question that is not answered is whether those ideas will be subsumed upon returning home once those same students start working and realize that the current system is better set up to reward those with degrees from top universities.   Another way of thinking about it is this – will coming home and joining the existing system prevent these idealistic students from carrying out the reforms they may have been so excited to see through when sitting in a classroom in New Haven, Melbourne, or Oxford?  I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see where the Zara Zhang’s of China are in ten years’ time.

Jacobs’ point that the government has so successfully turned people’s frustrations and desires for change into a force for consumerism could mean that even successive generations with more exposure to people and ideas from outside China might not be enough to correct the social and political problems that China faces if it’s to make that jump from purely an economic juggernaut to a true global power.  For those who wonder if Chinese people actually care about these social and political problems, Jacobs makes it clear that there are people who are disgruntled, but they’re powerless against the huge tide of people who would rather shop than think about what ails their country, especially since there are a lot fewer restrictions on spending money than doing other things.

And for those looking for the real China, if you’re in a city like Shenzhen, you’re probably experiencing it every day.  Just walk to any one of the many malls on a Saturday afternoon and wander around taking in the people milling about and there you have it.  Happy shopping.