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.

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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!

 

I’m back in Linyi after a three day weekend in Shanghai and determined to finish what I started over five hours ago over a coffee at a Wagas in Shanghai and then tried to finish in the airport, but to no avail when my flight actually left ten minutes early.

When I exited the airport in Linyi, there was a row of taxis just sitting there with the engines off and the drivers gathered in a circle talking.  Unlike taxis at airports in the States, these guys were just waiting to screw around with me.  I went to the first taxi in the queue and he offered to take me to my hotel for 80 renminbi.  I knew the trip to the airport last Thursday was only 45 renminbi, so there was no way I was going to pay nearly double for the same trip.  I went down the line and asked if they would use the meter and they said they would, but then would quote me an exorbitant price.  Frustration setting in, I found a cabbie who was honest and willing to take me to my hotel with a meter running.  The cost to get back?  30 renminbi.

I am beginning my final week of teaching tomorrow and it’s not even a full week because Thursday is going to be wrap-up/review and Friday I am giving my final.  Then it’s off to Hong Kong Saturday.  But that’s next weekend, so I am going to focus on sucking up as much of Linyi as possible in the remaining days.

Shanghai was great for a quick weekend getaway.  My time in the city felt so disconnected from the previous two weeks in Linyi and even different than the few days I spent in Beijing at the start of my trip.  Having already seen two of China’s “showcase” cities, I am going to end my time away in Hong Kong, arguably the third such “showcase” city.  What’s interesting is that two of the three have strong historical foreign influences (Shanghai and Hong Kong) and today remain meccas for expats looking to set up shop in Asia, so whenever I am in places like Shanghai or Hong Kong, I am always wondering how Chinese these cities really are.  Having not been back in Hong Kong for nearly two years, I am going to reserve judgment on that locale, but will most certainly weigh in once I am there.

Before I launch into my Shanghai thoughts, I must say I am amazed at how prevalent wifi is in China.  Two years ago Starbucks, hotels, and a few trendy cafes would have offered it.  But now it’s everywhere.  Hotels offer for free, most restaurants and cafes have networks set up, and even in the lobby of my hotel in Linyi, I can get free wifi.  One thing that’s interesting, but not surprising is the arbitrariness of having to register to use the network.  The government has made a big deal about stepping up its efforts to police the internet and monitor its users.  The previous incarnation of this overbearing policy was the crackdown on internet bars, which now seem like a quaint part of the not-so-distant past with the advent of smartphones and the ability to get online wherever and whenever you want.  In public places like airports, Starbucks, and hotels you either need to register with your mobile phone number (airports and Starbucks) or click through policies in a browser window and agree to abide by certain policies (hotels).  However, many cafes and restaurants dispense with identifying who is using their network, which is in violation of the law and makes it impossible to trace back users of those networks.  Just a little musing on the whimsical nature of law enforcement in China, much akin to how mobile phone providers are supposed to take a copy of your ID when buying a sim card, but yet someone like me can wind up with four sim cards and not once having had to show my idea to procure them.

With that said, I have a lot of thoughts running through my head about Shanghai, China, the future of this country, and being a rock star expat and not all of them will make down on this page because I am still processing. I made it clear the other day that I am more of a half-assed expat flying in and out of Chnia, but walking through Xintiandi earlier this afternoon with Amy, we stumbled upon a bunch of white guys screaming on stage as they played their instruments.
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These guys were screaming so loudly that it was impossible to tell if they were singing in Chinese or  English. They also were not very good, yet drew quite a large crowd. If these guys were playing in Sydney, London, or New York, they would have been a nuisance. But in Shanghai expats and locals were bopping along with little kids dancing and everyone enjoying the ruckus.  Shanghai has that feeling of a city where anything is possible. People leaving behind their lives back home to start over. I noticed this in Beijing, too, but Shanghai is a far more comfortable city to live in than even Beijing.  Beijing is more comfortable with being Chinese and could be seen as more provincial when compared to Shanghai, which is open to the world and can come across as seeking to be anything but Chinese. These white guys rocking out in Xintandi, the expats we saw out at the bars and clubs last night, the 外国人 (white guy in Chinese – waiguo ren) with the local girlfriend, or the European or American with a business idea, there are so many people who have converged on this city to try and make their dreams come true.  Such a convergence gives the city a surreal feel because the energy is really unlike anywhere else, even New York with its constant influx of people trying to make it there.

Shanghai feels like it is still on the expressway of development and in the four years since I was last here, new buildings and fads have popped up creating new wants and desires.  I’m sure in four more years, there will be more new buildings and fads, but is this change deeper than just new buildings?  I’m not sure.  The changes I saw this visit are for the most part on the surface, including this massive construction site just south of Nanjing Xi Lu being developed by the same people who did Sanlitun in Beijing.  Seeing a site like this one makes me wonder not only who is going to make use of this planned mix-use development, but what it all means for a city and country that seems to be preoccupied with the next best, brightest, and biggest thing.
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But the deeper question that hangs over all of this development is whether all of this development will be accompanied by something longer-lasting such as a change in mindset.
Last night’s dinner was a fairly international crowd. Five out of six were American, with some of Korean and Chinese/Taiwanese descent, as well as a native Korean and myself. All but two were or are lawyers and four currently live in Shanghai with Amy and myself coming from Tokyo and New York, respectively. With the scene set, I can now discuss one part of the conversation that stuck with me.  I was talking about my students and how they were struggling with the objective theory of contracts and the reasonable person standard that is so common in American law because it leaves room for case by case analysis.  Such analysis creates a gray area, as opposed to the black and white answers I find my students are more comfortable with.  One of my dining companions was talking about providing legal advice to his Chinese clients and how even when he raises the the possibility that something may not go as planned when drafting an agreement, his clients merely respond that it will get done the way they want it to get done because that is how it is going to get done.  There is no room for the possibility of contingencies and caveats, which require thinking hypothetically and creatively about a problem.  The other people at the table generally agreed with the assessment that in China it can be hard to get people to think about this gray area when posed with questions or problems.  It’s like when I ask my students a question and they start to give the wrong answer and I encourage them to explain the logic behind their answer, even if it’s wrong.  I can see that they do not want to continue down this path if they think the answer is wrong and quickly back down rather than try to make a case for their answer.  When I have given short answer questions on tests, my students ask what would be be the right answer and I tell them that there is no right answer.  I swear that you can see the wheels turning in their head as they try to comprehend this reply.  I then try to explain that their grade will depend on their reasoning, not if the answer is right or wrong.  It’s a mindf&$k for them and I know it does not register when I explain.  I am not saying that no one in China thinks this way because that would be an absolute statement and there is no such thing as an absolute when it comes to matters like this one.  However, I will say that such thinking is endemic to Chinese society because it is the way the education system is designed and perpetuated in the workplace, village, and other social settings.  Thinking outside of the box would be anathema to the government’s attempt to control the flow of information and the thoughts formed from such information. I think back to all of my encounters with students and the difficulty they tend to have with critical thinking. It’s what I also hear from U.S. law firms with whom I speak when they are recruiting in Asia – the holy grail when hiring Chinese lawyers is someone raised in China who received their law degree in the States, or even better their undergrad and law degrees in the States. The rationale is that such people are more able to seamlessly go back and forth between Chinese and western clients because they can easily switch their mindset.
Shanghai gives off the impression that it wants to be anything but Chinese with an outlook towards the rest of the world instead of inward towards the rest of China, but is this orientation enough to change what lies beneath – a way of thinking that does not readily tackle problems flexibly and critically?  There is certainly going to be some more unpacking of my action-packed weekend in Shanghai, but now I must get prepare for the week ahead and catch up on my sleep after staying out too late the previous night and dabbling in the city’s rock star expat scene.

I have my first morning class today after two days of starting class 2pm, so this post is going to be short because no matter where I am in the world I tend to treat morning as the time to cram in every possible task I can think of in as limited a time as possible.  It’s why I can get up at either 6am or 9am and I only still get to work at 11am.  Give me more time in the morning and I will find more things to do.

In yesterday’s class, my students and I were talking about torts.  I am fully aware that it is a little ridiculous that I am covering this topic with rising Chinese sophomores who can barely give understand me when I asked why the sky was so hazy yesterday in one class period when American law students get a whole semester to digest the topic.  But I digress.  I was talking to my students about negligence and the idea that the action needs to be foreseeable.  A bunch of the guys in my class are gamers and I know that they play Need for Speed, which is a racing game.  I came up with an example where a guy was playing need for speed and then went out driving his car as if he was still playing the video game and hit a child.  I asked the class if the parents of the child could sue the gaming company for negligence?  Most said no because the gaming company was in the business of making money and providing products that help people relax and have fun, which was kind of the right answer without stating that it was not foreseeable that someone playing Need for Speed would actually go out and imitate the game.  The example was based on a real case with a much more violent game where a teenager then went and shot people dead.

At the end of class, the guys who play games came up to me and asked me if I knew about Warlord, which is a much more violent game than Need for Speed.  Even in my gaming ignorance, I had heard of it.  My students then told me that the game is very bloody and violent, so the Chinese version has no blood.  I was not sure if there was a question in here, so I asked my students if they had played the real version and all of them pointed to this one guy and said that he goes “underground” to find the real game and play with Korean players.  They asked me if the game caused people to do violent things in America and I said no, that generally people get their violent tendencies from elsewhere and a video game would not be the sole cause of such outbursts. I asked them if the game was just as violent without the blood and they said yes.  I was trying to get them to see how arbitrary the law was in China without telling them such.  After some more back and forth, they told me that the Chinese government prevents blood from being shown because they think that it will make people violent.  However, they did not seem convinced.  Hearing this from my students is just another example of the government’s attempt to control the population and maintain a veneer of harmony in ways that do not always make sense, and actually make the government look ridiculous.  Removing blood from the video games, combined with the fact that PS3 from Sony cannot be sold in China for various reasons unknown to me, are just other attempts by a government desperate to solidify an increasingly shaky hold on its population.  Could gamers be the forefront of a revolution, inspired from the blood and violence of games like Warlord?

I am off to class, but more later.

There has been a lot of buzz over the past few months both in the blogosphere and from more traditional media like Russell Leigh Moses at the Wall Street Journal, Geoff Dyer at the Financial Times, and Jerome Cohen in the South China Morning Post about  the impact of awarding Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize and Wen Jiabao’s recent comments about political reform.  However, what has either been hinted at or ignored completely is analysis of these events in the context of what the average Chinese person wants.  An article I wrote, based upon my own experiences and conversations had on the mainland and thoughts about the likelihood of Western-style democracy coming to China, was published today on the East Asia Forum.  The article can be read here.   Any and all thoughts are welcome.

September 14, 2010

There’s nothing like some good Sichuan (川菜) food to put one in a better mood.  One of the other professors at the university recommended this place down by the river that took some finding because it’s alongside the river and below street level, so all you can see from the road is the hint of a flat roof.  But it was worth the search.  One of the downsides to being alone in China is that it’s a shame to eat Chinese food by oneself.  I understand “family- style” in a completely different way because there are so many dishes I wanted to order, but I could only eat so much by myself.  As it is, I ordered a green vegetable (空心菜), some ma po tofu (麻婆豆腐), and cold rice noodles in a spicy sauce (凉粉) and downed most of alone, but there were so many other things that I was tempted by.  The restaurant was awesome; some of the best 川菜 I have had since my days in GZ where Celia and I would go to the place by the east gate of campus and where they knew our faces.  This place was called 麻辣专说, which appears to translate to “spicy specifically said” and it was definitely spicy, but I still had to ask for more hot sauce.

The restaurant was situated along the river, across from the ubiquitous neon-lit television tower that seems to be so common in those Chinese cities aspiring for a certain cache.  

The Chinese love their neon and towers all in one

Linyi’s riverfront is actually quite pretty with manicured gardens, large weeping willows, a winding bike/walking path, and plenty of benches to relax on.  However, the river is quite polluted and the air pollution is unlike anything I have experienced.  It’s even worse than GZ, which is known for having some of the worst pollution in the country.  But driving along the main drag that fronts the river was quite relaxing and it was one of the first times in China that I found myself remarking on the natural beauty of an urban setting. 

Today was also my second class, which was rather uneventful.  I gave a three-hour lecture on criminal law and cyber crimes.  My students have a lot of material to digest in a short period of time in a language that is not their own.  I give them a lot of credit, but it’s hard to feel like I am getting through to them when the time is so compressed and the material so dense.  I guess it’s also hard in a lecture of 113 students, which makes it nearly impossible to create an interactive classroom setting.  Quite the opposite of my seminars that I was able to teach at Zhongda last year.  As I may have mentioned in my last post, I have been assigned this assistant who is the head of the youth league for her grade at the business school, so it means she is well liked by the faculty and the party faithful on campus.  It also means that she gets to escort around the foreign visitors, which is kind of ironic because we have the most potential to influence her ideological bent.  She is very sweet, conscientious, and helpful, but also a major kiss ass.  She is also a great source of feedback for how the class is taking to my teaching.  I asked her today what I could do to get students to speak up if they have questions.  She told me that the students do not feel comfortable holding up the class for everyone else, which is why they do not ask questions.  Of course it reverts to the classic individual-society tension that seems to exist in all aspects of Chinese life.  Could you imagine an American student not asking a question because s/he did not want to inconvenience his or her classmates?  No, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in the American classroom because the individual is the only one who gets ahead, but Chinese students are thinking about the good of the entire class, so when I ask if anyone has any questions, I just get a bunch of blank stares. 

Part of the business school where I am teaching

The main library as seen from the business school

I also learned that Linyi Normal University is like many other “normal” universities located around China; these schools tend to prepare students to go into teaching in their respective fields.  So while Linyi has 16 or 17 different schools, including business, foreign languages, and the sciences, the emphasis is on preparing people to become instructors or

Dorms on foreign (left side) and Chinese (right side) students

professors.  Linyi Normal is the only university in Linyi with about 40,000 students and as explained to me, the reason cities like Qingdao have more universities is that they are more desirable places to live and academics are more inclined to come teach there.   With so many students, the campus is massive and has housing for all of the students.  In the picture on the left, the Chinese dorms are the pink buildings with no A/C and clothing hanging from the balconies, while the foreign dorms are beige with A/C and all other modern conveniences.  It’s always interesting to see that dichotomy in housing with the rationale given to me by certain Chinese students for such disparate treatment being that the foreign students pay more in tuition.  I guess it makes sense, but it would also make me somewhat resentful as a Chinese student to live right next-door to those buildings.  The campus is also very new, so the trees have barely taken root and it has lots of open space with many construction sites strewn about.  Though I must say that it does not feel as desolate as the Zhuhai campus did at SYSU, which was basically a bunch of buildings in the middle of nowhere and no thought was given to design or layout.   It will be interesting to see this campus in 20 years when the vegetation has grown in and the buildings are all complete.

Before I sign off, the mystery of the jew’s ear has been cleared up.  It is a type of fungus, so many thanks to my friends who wrote to reassure me that it was a legit fungus drink.

It’s the night before my first class and the weirdness that is China continued to confront me.  I was approached by a guy asking me if I spoke English because he was looking for a foreign manager for his new club.  I am trying to imagine what this club is like and who they would be trying to target with a foreign manager since there are so few foreigners in this city.  On two separate occasions, I had taxi drivers ask me what I was getting paid as an instructor at the university and whether I had a girlfriend.  I had forgotten about the girlfriend question and as soon as I said no, he asked me whether I was going to find one here in Linyi. 

However, the most interesting moment came this afternoon when I was speaking with Yao, the daytime manager behind the front desk at the hotel.  Yao speaks pretty good English and was really helpful by providing restaurant recommendations yesterday.  Today, he asked me what I thought of the restaurant he suggested I eat dinner at last night.  After telling him about how great the dumplings were, he asked me where I was from and after I told him New York, he said he loved that city, but had only seen it in the movies.  I tried to tell him that the New York of the movies is not like the real New York.  He then asked me if any Chinese cities were like New York and I said Shanghai, but he shook his head and said that most Chinese people do not think Shanghai is anything like New York.  He couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was that differentiated the two cities, but he was so certain in his belief that they were different.  He also purported to speak on behalf of “most Chinese” when he gave me this response, which took me back to the days when my students would make sweeping generalizations about “all Chinese people”.  I then proceeded to ask him about all of the new construction and seemingly empty apartments that abound in Linyi, including right across the street from the hotel.  Yao told me flat out that 90% of the people cannot afford them and that the buildings were constructed so that the government could make money.  He told me developers got loans from the banks, the government skimmed 20% or some amount like that off of what the developers received as payment for the right to build on the land.  Then the developers hope to sell their apartments to repay the banks.  Yet, if the developers cannot raise enough money to pay back the banks, there is really no such thing as recourse for the banks to avail themselves of.  Thus, the loan does not get repaid, the banks lose money, and there are a lot of empty buildings dotting the Linyi skyline.  It’s actually staggering the number of new buildings around the city that are eerily empty.  Only in China could the local government decide that they want to build the equivalent of a new city on the north side of the river because that is what they are doing here in Linyi.  Keep in mind that the “old” city has its fair share of new construction.  Below are two pictures taking from the bridge crossing the Benghe River by my hotel.

One of the many new towers going up around People's Square in the center of town

View of Northeast Bank of Benghe River

The number of new buildings being constructed and lying empty is not a problem unique to Linyi.  Google “China real estate bubble” and you are inundated with links to articles, blogs, and other resources about an impending real estate bubble in China.  Seeing it first-hand drives the point home.  Hearing about it first-hand from Yao drives it home a little harder.  He told me that he makes  40 yuan per day for eight hours of work behind the desk at the hotel.  That is a little more than five US dollars.  He said he would have to work like this for 20 years before being able to hope to afford a new apartment and he said he makes more than a lot of the other workers in the city.  Based on that nugget of information, one wonders who is buying all of the apartments in Linyi.  What will happen to them?  Will they just remain vacant and decay as time goes by and they are not maintained?  Will developers have to drop prices and take a hit like the many foreclosure sales occurring in the States?  It’s hard to know when there is no moral hazard since the developers do not really have to pay back the loans since the banks can’t go after them for the money.  There is simply no legal mechanism to make that possible and if the government is receiving kickbacks, it’s not going to be fixed by administrative fiat, either. 

Where does that leave China?  Yao also pointed out how everything is becoming more expensive and that it is harder and harder for him and other young people to gain a foothold anywhere, including carrying out the Chinese tradition where a man provides his wife with a new home when they get married.  Was Yao angry about the state of things?  It was hard to tell.  He was implicitly railing against the government when he discussed the kickbacks, but like Americans, he also emanated a sense of resignation that this is the way things are and that there is nothing he can do about it  At least in America, for better or worse, we get to go to the polls and vote out our leaders who we feel are not competently doing their jobs.  There is no such mechanism in China.  Will the government’s calls for harmony be overwhelmed by the rise of a new working class that cannot afford the same basics as the rich?

Oh, and just for kicks since I saw this on the shelf of the grocery store and I still cannot figure out what it is supposed to really be because one cannot package “jew’s ear” in a can.

How's they get a jew's ear into that can?