Now that I got my little rant about the state of affairs in U.S. presidential politics, I can turn back to what’s really important – the fact that Pokemon Go has finally come to Hong Kong.  No, I’m kidding about the importance of that event, but it’s fascinating how quickly the Pokemon Go phenomenon has swept the world.  What I find alarming and once again is something that you wouldn’t pay much attention to as an expat in Hong Kong or occasional visitor to mainland China is any and all press freedoms remain under constant assault.  First it was yesterday’s article in The Guardian questioning how Hong Kong’s main English daily, The South China Morning Post (SCMP) conducted an interview with a Chinese activist released from a year in secret detention before she had even seen either her husband or lawyer.  In the interview, she expressed contrition for her activism and the SCMP is only saying that it was aided by an intermediary that it refuses to name, leading many to believe that this confession was orchestrated by the government in the same vein of the on-air confessions pulled from those who have run afoul of the Chinese government.  Then today I was reading about how the Chinese government is cracking down on original news reporting on online web portals like Sina, Sohu, and Netease, which have built up significant investigative reporting arms over the years as more traditional print media like the Southern Weekend have been sidelined by the government.  The Cyberspace Administration of China is relying on a 2005 internet regulation to crack down on these news sites and is now saying they can only publish social and political news that has been sourced from government -controlled news agencies.  In recent years, these websites have covered stories that tend to resonate deeply with the general public including corruption, natural disasters, chemical contaminations, and other social-related issues.  Sina, Sohu, and Netease are like Facebook, Twitter, and Google both aggregating stories from other sources and printing original stories.  Not only will Chinese netizens lose a valuable source of candid and practical news about things like contaminated running tracks at Chinese schools, tainted food, and government officials abusing their positions of power, but it’s another attempt the central government to stamp out alternate narratives and further control the flow of information its citizens receive.  Perhaps it’s because of next year’s 19th Party Congress and the party’s fear that such news will sow discontent ahead of that event, so better to start now to control the official narrative.  Yet this most recent move combined with what has been a slow, but steady erosion in the quality and independence of the SCMP’s reporting since the paper was taken over by Alibaba at the end of last year is a real one-two punch in the face of independent journalism.  Now no one on the mainland expects the press to be free, but these online news sites actually served a public good bringing stories and issues to light that affected large swaths of the population and might not have seen the light of say in the government-controlled media for fear of inciting dissent.  But when press freedoms in Hong Kong come under attack even though they are supposed to be preserved until at least 20147 under the Basic Law, it’s hard not to take such actions here as a harbinger of worse crackdowns on press freedom to come both here and in China.

 

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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.

Divorced from Reality

January 17, 2016

I spent a large chunk of the last week sitting in meetings with our Chinese partner talking about expansion throughout China over the next several years and one thing I was struck by was how all of the conversations were completely divorced from the macroeconomic reality in China.  There was no mention of China’s economic troubles, whether it be the falling stock market, an oversupply of housing, falling economic growth, overcapacity in the manufacturing sector, or any number of statistics that point to a rapid deceleration of the the Chinese economy.  The only thing that came up was the devaluing the the Chinese renminbi and its mention was prompted by the Americans in the room.  Equally absent was any discussion of the current political situation in China, though that is slightly less surprising.  However, on the whole if we were sitting in a roomful of American or European business executives, the economic climate would have certainly been a part of the discussion and even maybe one or two political quips, including some comment about how unfathomable Donald Trump’s candidacy is and the sad state of American politics.  But there was none of that in these meetings.

It’s often something I wonder about when I see people wandering the mall or around me at a restaurant – what do they think about what’s happening in their country?  Do they even know what is happening in their country?  It’s very likely they may not be fully aware of what is going on since they would need a VPN to read foreign news sources and the Chinese media is largely silent as to the country’s economic doldrums.  Plus most people are too busy watching tv shows and movies on their phones to pay attention to the news, whether it’s CCTV or one of the many government publications sitting untouched in the newsstands around the city.  My meetings last week confirmed for me that there is a disconnect between what the reality of what is happening in China and how people are engaging with that reality.

Much has been written about the housing glut in China and no matter what city I travel to, I’m usually greeted with too many cranes to count as I drive into town from the airport. So many cities seem to be all about building new central business districts replete with malls, office buildings, and more apartments.  And yet the question is the same – who is going to move here?  If the government is seeking to continue its drive to urbanize and move the rural population into the cities, I cannot imagine that they are going to be re-settled in these luxury housing developments that continue to rise all over the country.  The malls are a whole other phenomenon.  How many luxury malls does a country need? Apparently there is no limit, but when I was in Chengdu I walked through a few of these new malls and some were eerily empty, both of people and stores.  Apparently the SCMP and I went to some of the same malls.  In Shenzhen the malls seem to be more for strolling than shopping with most people just wandering the mall, taking pictures, eating and drinking, but not really holding shopping bags.

I think at this point there is no disagreement that the Chinese economy is slowing down. The problem is that nobody quite knows how much.  The official statistics are less telling. It’s more about reading between the lines or anecdotal evidence of such a slowdown. It will be interesting to see what number the government announces on Tuesday for 2015 GDP growth.  There is so much gray when it comes to this country and not only on the economic front.

Over two weeks ago, Lee Bo, a publisher of books critical of the Party disappeared in Hong Kong. He was the fifth person to disappear in connection with this particular publisher.  He was last seen at his warehouse in Hong Kong before New Year’s and since then there have been a series of odd occurrences including phone calls to his wife from a Shenzhen number where he is speaking Mandarin rather than the Cantonese he uses at home and a letter to his wife that he is going to be away for awhile taking care something on the mainland.  The Hong Kong government has asked Beijing where he is and over two weeks later they still have not received an answer.  The issue at stake is that because of the whole “one country, two systems” between HK and China, Chinese law enforcement officials are not supposed to be coming into HK and taking away HK residents.  They are supposed to go through proper legal channels if they have reason to want to interrogate someone.  Coming in and secretly ferreting a HK resident across the border is a serious violation of the principle behind “one country, two systems”. It’s more than problematic that Beijing has not given the HK government an answer as to  Lee Bo’s whereabouts and shows a serious lack of regard for HK and its autonomy.

So I digress.  The point of all of this writing was that I still wonder if Chinese people actually know what’s going on with their own country or simply do not care.  I don’t know if I will ever be able to get a straight answer.

December 21, 2015

I’ve been in Hong Kong since Friday afternoon catching up with old friends and meeting new ones, which has been really nice after the relative isolation of Shenzhen.  I forget how everyone is connected here and how willing people are to then connect you with others both in the city and around the region.  It’s a small city, which sometimes makes it feel like a village with high-rises all around.  But if HK, is a village than Asia is like a metropolitan area.  My friend El actually referred to the region as a “neighborhood” where HK, Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, and any of the other cities in the region are only a stone’s throw from one another and people move seamlessly among these regional metropolises.

No matter how many times I leave and re-enter HK, I am still amazed at how different the vibe is here versus the mainland. It’s been starker the past few weeks because I have been hanging out up in Shenzhen, which is about 15-20 miles from Central in HK, but still feels like a completely different world.  The differences are not just in how much more pleasant HK feels when you cross the border or how you can basically find every creature comfort you might be missing from home.  It’s an energy in the air that still has not been snuffed out by Beijing after nearly 20 years of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach to governing HK.  Though it’s not like China hasn’t tried, whether it was passing an anti-sedition law in the early 2000s, revamping the education system to make it more China-friendly, or most recently in Alibaba’s purchase of HK’s largest and oldest English-language daily, The South China Morning Post.  This most recent event has raised some alarm bells in the city because while Alibaba is private, much of its success comes from maintaining close ties with the government in Beijing.  While Jack Ma has promised to maintain the paper’s independence and journalistic freedom, it’s hard to imagine him picking the SCMP’s journalists and editors over Beijing if a story were written that somehow displeased Beijing and the Party.  I mean, even in China you read about things being posted online, whether on Sina Weibo or directly on a newspaper’s website and then immediately the post is deleted.  I just read an article about a landslide in Shenzhen over the weekend, which fortunately was in the NW part of the city and nowhere near where I would have been in Shekou, so as far as I know, everyone is okay.  But in an article from the NYT, it was noted that the Weibo page of a local newspaper noted that the debris and dirt pile was illegal, but had been approved by local officials. Then somehow those posts were eventually deleted.

It’s the hint of transparency or journalistic freedom that quickly gets buried (sorry, no pun intended in light of the recent landslide) by the authorities that makes China so hard to comprehend.  I always struggle with how to describe China to people who have never been there, especially when I try to draw a contrast between the mainland and Hong Kong.  I read an op-ed in the SCMP last weekend by George Chen or Mr. Shangkong, reflecting his Shanghai and HK ties, where in his farewell column he muses about what makes HK different than Shanghai. His conclusion – freedom.  He extols the freedom of choice, to think freely and express those thoughts without fear of being silenced.  This freedom flows into everything else that makes HK feel so different than the mainland because as Mr. Shangkong points out, without this freedom, we don’t get ideas and thoughts, which are the things that get us not only closer to the truth, but to solutions to the problems that vex our society. Freedom alllows for iterative thinking to come up with creative ways to move forward.  In China, the government already knows what it would like in terms of a desired outcome and if you put forth an idea that comports with that outcome, great.  If not, you may be rounded up and put in detention.  What ends up happening is that sometimes you get a good idea that moves society forward, but you’re just as likely to get a bad idea without any escape hatch.

Take a look at the recently completed World Internet Conference in Wuzhen where President Xi Jinping gave an opening speech where he reiterated China’s desire to censor the internet on its own terms and basically told the rest of the world to leave them alone.  Though my favorite quote from his speech was when he said, “As in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace: Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee for freedom.” I read that and can barely make out any distinction between “freedom” and “order”. It sounds more like total control of the internet from the Chinese perspective, or perhaps freedom as long as it aligns with what the government wants.  Deviate from that point and you’re in trouble.

So I go back to Mr. Shangkong and why HK feels so different from the mainland and perhaps it’s this freedom that has survived nearly 20 years of Chinese control.  But it’s not like this freedom is guaranteed forever. It’s only good up until 2047 when the “One Country, Two Systems” period will come to an end and no one knows what will come next.  Heck, China could change its mind and end it sooner or continue doing what it has been trying to do since it took HK back, chip away slowly at the freedom that makes HK so special.  Either way it goes, what makes HK special is in danger from a central government hellbent on taking HK down a peg or three to the level of the rest of the country.

Controlling the Narrative

August 13, 2012

It’s been over a month since I returned to the States from China and I have been wrestling with how to come up with an appropriate epilogue to capture my thoughts on my most recent trip to that part of the world.   I have also been wondering how to wade back in and write about China all the way from the States.  Between all of the coverage of Gu Kailai’s trial in Hefei and countless articles about whether China’s economy is heading for a hard or soft landing, I feel the need to write.  I’m not weighing in because I’m just a guy sitting here in New York, but given the time I’ve spent on the mainland, it’s hard not to feel something when reading the news about what is going on in China.

Upon returning, everyone asked me how my trip was and what was going on in China.  It was really nice of people to ask, but I felt at a loss for words because for anyone who has been following this blog, it’s hard for me to provide a succinct answer that accurately captures all my thoughts on China.  That loss for words was translated into “it was great” and “China was a crazy, chaotic, and fascinating as always”, but such top-level statements did little to capture what I really thought or felt about my time there.  It’s true that being in China was great and that it was crazy, chaotic, and fascinating, but whenever I am there my brain works at ten times its normal speed trying to process everything I am experiencing.  Being on the ground is an assault on the senses in the best way possible.  Reading about Gu Kailai’s trial, I wish I was still on the ground trying to take the pulse of the people around me and gauge how much the average Chinese person really knows about what is going on.  Instead I pick up my Financial Times or read the stories online and shake my head at how transparent it is that this trial is not about justice for Heywood’s death, but merely an act in a play that culminates in the once-in-a-decade transfer of power occurring this fall.  Even reading quotes of lawyers and residents in Hefei, where the trial is taking place, show how little the average person really gets what is going on.  It’s not a coincidence that Bo Xilai’s name was only mentioned once in the trial in connection with the name of the servant who helped Gu poison Heywood.  In China, it’s usually what is not said that clues people in as to what is really going on.  Keeping virtually silent on Bo Xilai and his connections to the various parties involved in the trial says more than almost anything else that came up in the trial, including the sensationalist detail that while Heywood was throwing up after drinking tea and alcohol that Gu poured poison down his throat.  By not mentioning Bo Xilai’s name, the government made it very clear that this trial is just part of the attempt on the part of the central government to smooth over any divisions before the upcoming transfer of power.

The trial is why I find China so interesting.  It captures a country obsessed with spinning a narrative that is supposed to only be edited by the powers that be.  The problem is that more and more people are trying to rewrite this narrative in their own words and the central government does not like it.  Bo Xilai was one of those people trying to gain power from his pulpit in Chongqing and he was taken down when his power became too great.  I am curious to see what or who the government targets next in its quest to consolidate control over the narrative.

The trial is only one of the many things running through my mind as I process my trip and my own relationship with China going forward, so this post will be the first of many mini-epilogues as I try to wrap up this part of my narrative on China.

Power to the People

July 3, 2012

Just a quick word before heading to bed.  After a wandering around Central in a suit for meetings with law firms and quick jaunt to Jordan across the harbour to see my tailor, Louis, I met up with friends to go to a 川菜 (Sichuan) private kitchen in Wanchai and then a Taiwanese dessert place in Causeway Bay for some shaved ice.  The good food aside, my first meeting this morning was in the building (and quite possibly the same floor) where Salomon Smith Barney’s offices used to be when I was an investment banking analyst.  Walking down the escalator and across the overpasses this morning towards the harbour was kind of trippy because I used to do the same walk over ten years ago.  The feeling wasn’t quite deja vu because I was fully present in the moment and could easily link it back to the past event, but it was one of those moments when you realize in some ways how far you’ve come and in others you are still very much the same person you were all that time ago. with just a touch more awareness.

As you all know, there were protests this weekend in Hong Kong against many things including the swearing in of the new Chief Executive, the environment, housing prices, human rights on the mainland, education, jobs, and practically any other social, political, or economic cause that you can think of.  When I asked Hong Kongers I know how they feel about things here, they express a lack of trust in C.Y. Leung, the new Chief Executive, but there is also a resignation that nothing is going to change anytime soon.  I don’t know if that resignation comes from the wisdom (or jadedness) of older age or from a very practical view that as long as China calls the shots from Beijing, change in this city is not going to come anytime soon.

I read an interesting op-ed piece in Monday’s South China Morning Post by Lau Nai-keung, who is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee.  What this means is that Lau is on the committee that makes sure that the Basic Law is being follows. The Basic Law Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that enshrines its freedoms and way of life until 2047.  One could argue that Lau is a Beijing sympathiser and his op-ed piece is not the most clearly written, but it tries to lay out an argument that pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong are looking to use people power to both weaken the government’s hand and force Beijing to allow universal suffrage for the Chief Executive in 2017.  The piece also seems to argue that the pro-democracy forces are just waiting for China to collapse so that Hong Kong can go its own way as a truly autonomous city-state more akin to Singapore with real elections.  While it’s an interesting notion to think about Hong Kong as an independent city-state, I am not quite sure what Lau is arguing for except that if the pro-democracy forces keep pushing people power, then the chances that a national security law will be implemented as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law will be nil.  It sounds to me like Lau wants this law passed as one who has been ordained to uphold the Basic Law, warts and all.  It also sounds like he remembers quite well what happened when the Hong Kong government tried to pass a national security law in 2002 and sparked the largest protests to date on Handover Day in 2003 with upwards of 350,000 marching in protest of the law.  The man is afraid of what the people might demand and what Beijing may decide when pushed to the brink, but yet he does not offer any real solution to the problem except to almost blame pro-democracy forces of “peacefully subverting the system” as provided for in the Basic Law. 

I need to give this some more thought, but I have been thinking about it since it’s so timely and sometimes half a thought is better than none.

Through the Haze

June 12, 2012

Upon opening my eyes this morning, I noticed a strange smell in my room.  It smelled like something was burning, but it had the slight tinge of incense.  Then I opened my curtains to my hotel room and was greeted with this sight.

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The view from my 12th floor hotel room looking south towards the bus station and the rest of Linyi was obscured by a thick haze.  I thought it might have been fog, but there is not that much humidity in this part of China and the temperature was not quite right for fog.  At breakfast I found out that the smoke had something to do with farmers lighting things on fire in the surrounding villages, but that’s all I was able to gather this morning.  Hopefully when I get to the university this afternoon, someone will be able to tell me what is going on.  As I write this post, it’s still incredibly hazy outside to the point where what was supposed to be a perfectly clear day looks anything but.

Yesterday was my first day of class and my students just finished their freshman year, so they are young.  I am reminded of my students in Zhuhai when I was teaching in Guangzhou.  They are shy, embarrassed to speak English because they have so few opportunities to practice, and snap pictures of me as I am teaching.  It was a bad sign when one of the class monitors came to meet me at my car and walk me to class, but could not answer basic questions about the classroom building and where the administrative offices were located.  How was this student going to follow a lecture about intentional torts and negligence if he could not answer such basic questions?  When I got to my classroom, the students all clapped as I entered.  While it was flattering, I was their teacher and not a performer, so I quickly silenced the clapping and set about getting ready for class.  Class itself was pretty uneventful.  I introduced the U.S. court system and different ways of solving disputes in the States, while trying to get my students to tell me how things worked in Chinese courts.  Sadly, they did not know much about the Chinese court system.  Then again, before law school I am not sure how much I could have really told you about the way the courts worked in the U.S.  One of my students’ fathers is a judge, so that is the class’ only connection the Chinese legal profession.  I asked my students how many of them wanted to work for companies and many hands went up.  When I asked if any wanted to be farmers, they started laughing.  As I was teaching, I worked hard to break the concepts down as much as possible without losing the meaning of the lecture.  It was less important that they know the specific names for the three levels of federal courts and remembered that there were three levels (District, Appellate, and Supreme Court) and that you had the right to appeal decisions at the lower level.  It was after class that my students opened up a bit.  I stayed around for an extra 20-30 minutes and was asked all sorts of questions including whether I played any sports or engaged in online gaming. Some students snapped pictures from afar on their camera phones, others twittered in the corner.  After the first break, I noticed that some of the kids did not come back to class.  In speaking to one of the other University of New Haven instructors this morning, I found out that they had instituted a fingerprinting system to take attendance before and after class.  However, no such system was evident yesterday afternoon.  Keeping track of attendance was also a problem last year, so perhaps I can get the administration to bring back this system for my class this year.

The campus itself has grown dramatically.  They are building a new stadium that looks like something that should be at a Big 10 school and no one could tell me what sports would be played there, but at least the building looks impressive.  The library is also nearly done and it is MASSIVE.

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In other typical China going-ons, I learned this morning that there is no class on Friday the 22nd because it’s a national holiday.  Did anyone tell me before I wrote up my syllabus?  No.  Did any of my students tell me when looking at my syllabus?  No.  But to be fair, they also may not have known.  Did the Linyi University administration tell me yesterday?  No.  I found out from Ms. Lu, one of the other UNH instructors and she also had been given no advance warning that there was a holiday on the horizon.  The moment took me back to my Zhongda days where entire class schedules would be rearranged without telling us.  We would only find out upon showing up to class at the time we thought we were meeting to be greeted with an empty classroom.

I joined a gym yesterday – the Yinzuo Gym, which is the same one I joined last time I was here.  Once again, I was in the middle of my workout when I looked up to find six pairs of eyes on me and a series of thumbs up, all for merely stretching after a run.  And I was reminded how good Chinese food is in China, which sounds like a Captain Obvious moment, but I went back to my Sichuan (川菜) restaurant on the river that I frequented quite often last time I was here and had a simple dinner of cold spinach dressed in sesame oil with peanuts and yu xiang rou si (鱼香鞣丝), which is basically shredded port, mushrooms, ginger, and a really tasty spicy sauce with a hint of sugar.  It never tastes in the States like it does here and it was like eating a perfectly balanced piece of heaven. Of course I had to ask for extra chili sauce on the side because it would not be right without it.

Now I must prepare for day two.  Still no sign of the haze abating, which just baffles me because I cannot think for the life of me what might be causing such reduced visibility.  Perhaps my students will be able to enlighten me.