It’s been quite some time.  Again.  I feel like weeks go by in the blink of an eye out here and I think about all of these things I want to write about, then something else comes up to keep me away from doing it.  But one of the smartest and wisest people I know, my mom, suggested I set aside some time every week or two to write something, which should help me get back into the habit of doing it more regularly.  And it’s not because I have not wanted to write, but more because the demands of work and challenge of disentangling work from what I want to write since often my ideas arise from something I am doing for work has made it easier to just not write at all.  Yet that’s not why I started this blog or in the grander scheme of things, why I cam back to Asia.  I am here this time around because for the rest of my career, I want to help others better understand China. Unfortunately, you can’t understand what’s going on here by just sitting in the U.S. and reading about things.  I wanted to be back on the ground experiencing what’s happening here first hand and hopefully get that much closer to becoming an “expert” on the region.

So now that I’ve given some context to my absence, I can write about what’s been on my mind of late.  As you know, I now live in Hong Kong and I am always careful to make a distinction between the city and the rest of China.  I don’t know if others are as exacting about the relationship between this city and the mainland, but as someone who has been coming here since 1998, one year after the handover from the UK to China, and considers himself an amateur scholar of China who has also lived up there, I know that there are major differences between the two territories.  However, of late it seems like those lines get blurred more and more.  The latest incident surrounds Lam Wing-kee’s return to HK after spending nearly eight months on the mainland.  Lam was one of the five booksellers detained in China for selling politically sensitive books in HK, a city that is supposed to have the right free speech, so the publication and sale of these books would not be a problem here.  However, China claims he was selling these books to mainlanders and actually shipping and bringing them to the mainland, which is not allowed.  That right there should give you a sense as to how different the two places are.  I have often written about and remarked on how devoid of what’s going on around them many mainlanders seem to be, existing in a kind of middle world where most of what they know is spoon-fed to them by the government-directed propaganda machine.  Anyway, Lam returned to HK to supposedly get the hard drives with the bookstore’s customers’ names on it and turn it over to the Chinese authorities.  Instead, as soon as he returned at the end of last week he held a press conference detailing his captivity in China, including what the special operations forces made him do.  Now there has been damage control on all sides with the Chinese government and pro-Beijing politicians in the city trying to discredit him and those decrying the dismantling of “one country, two systems” and advocating greater independence holding him up as a hero.  While there may be some inconsistencies in Lam’s story, I attribute part of that to being held in captivity and ill-treated by his captors for months on end.  Anyone’s memory would be a bit hazy at best after an ordeal like that. I am also skeptical of those trying to discredit his story, especially those from the Chinese government or affiliated with it because if there was nothing to hide, this ordeal would not have dragged on for eight months and Beijing would have been forthcoming with details from the get-go.

Yet I digress.  I write about this incident again because I am either asked how I like HK since being back or listen to people visiting for a week or two extol the city’s virtues, of which there are many.  But for someone just dropping in and out or even those expats who live in the pure expat bubble, China’s ever-encroaching shadow over the city wouldn’t register for most of those people.  Perhaps I read too much or it’s just something to which I am particularly attuned because of my background and history with this part of the world. but it’s happening and it’s unclear what the next move is on either side – whether it’s those here advocating for a change in the relationship between HK and China whereby HK has more autonomy or those in Beijing who see any dissent from the people of HK like a baby throwing a tantrum, albeit  very public tantrum that must be quieted.  What I wonder is to what lengths will Beijing go to actually prevent this simmering situation from exploding.  Acquiescing is not really an option for Beijing, so there is either an uneasy tolerance with subversive moves to quiet the dissenters or something more overt and potentially more explosive.

When I am asked about how I feel about HK or listen to people go on how awesome it is, I try to explain that it’s a city that while still cool in so many ways, feels like it’s lost its way. When I first came here in 1998, it felt like a magical place that was a real hybrid between East and West with an incredible infrastructure and everything just seemed to hum.  Now I wonder if the power outages in the MTR stations and rows over the size of garbage bins on the street portend something worse for this city – a place with no leadership and no plan to differentiate itself in the face of a ruler intent on snuffing out the things that made this city so special.  It’s telling that the leader is the Chief Executive (CE) and since the handover there has not been one CE who people would consider to have been an effective leader.  Of course when China is the one effectively picking the CE and so famously pushed off universal suffrage in 2014, sparking the Umbrella Protests, it’s in their best interest to not choose a leader who actually dares to lead too much.  For if they chose a leader with leadership capabilities who could actually serve the people, that same leader might also rally his or her people to turn against Beijing.  So rather than pick someone who could accomplish something or give this city back it’s purpose or raison d’etre, Beijing chooses feckless and ineffective individuals who are basically their puppets to lead this city down a path of meandering mediocrity.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I love this city and think it still has a lot of potential, but without someone at the helm who has vision and actually represents the people, you are going to have a city that merely exists rather than inspires.  On top of that, you have a legislature that is sort of elected by the people and definitely represents elements of the population that would never find a voice in the CE’s office.  But the CE does not come out of the legislature like he or she would in a parliamentary system and the CE is not elected by the people, so you have a figurehead who is also divorced from the rest of the city’s governing structure and ultimately answers to one – Beijing.

I fear I paint a rather helpless picture and at times it feels that way.  There is a resignation underlying most things in this city that HK is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. I’d use more colorful language, but I think you get the point.  Resignation is not inspiring and it’s unclear where the city goes from here.  Stay tuned.

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.

IMG_0150 2

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.

The China Bubble

November 15, 2015

Let me start off by saying that what happened in Paris yesterday is one of those events like 9/11 that defy an adequate description.  All that we can do is let all those affected know that our thoughts and prayers are with them as they make sense of these barbaric and senseless attacks.  What’s strange sitting here in China in one of the country’s largest cities is the lack of any outward awareness that the attacks had taken place.  Now I did not go to the newsstand outside my apartment complex and look at the headlines, nor did I check out CCTV news to see if it was being discussed on television, but I also did not notice any more of a police presence in the streets or in public spaces.  If you look at today’s Global Times, the English-language newspaper published by the government’s People’s Daily, you’ll see mention of the Paris attacks, but it shares billing with a landslide in eastern China.  I guess when you already live in something of a police state, there isn’t much of a need for additional police on the streets since surveillance is already undertaken on such a massive scale.  Even the control center in our school here probably rivals what’s in place at secondary airports around the world.  The number of screens for one building was astonishing and we’re merely talking about keeping tabs on students.  While we take the safety of our students seriously, I think this high-tech room came part and parcel with the building in which we happen to have our school, which was built by our Chinese partner here.  My point in all of this is that China is already theoretically well-policed with cameras everywhere, the Internet scoured for unsavory posts by an army of censors, and everyone registered with the government so that their whereabouts are always known.  I say theoretically because its surveillance system has not been tested in ways like Paris, Madrid, or New York have been tested.  When there is an attack in Xinjiang allegedly perpetrated by Muslims frustrated with Chinese rule, we don’t actually know how the government goes about finding its suspects because there is never mention of a video capturing the incident or interception of cell phone or internet chatter about planning the attacks.  I guess I wonder how robust China’s security apparatus really is and how much of it is mere bluster with the government just creating suspects to fit a convenient narrative.  My only experience with surveillance in China was when I was living in Guangzhou and someone wiped out my bank account by obtaining my ATM password.  I roughly knew the date and time when this happened, so I went back to the bank figuring that with the 20 cameras in the tiny ATM vestibule, they’d be able to find the perpetrator.  Guess what the bank told me?  Those cameras actually didn’t work, but were just for show to deter criminals.  It was one of those moments where I just shook my head and only later started wondering how many of the other cameras around the city were just for show.  Even today when I see a camera mounted on a street light or outside of store, I wonder if it actually works.   Aside from the cameras at our school, without proof, I am not that sure.  So I am currently in a police state and theoretically I should be safe here, but China is relatively untested when it comes to terrorism outside of attacks from Tibetans and Uighurs protesting Chinese rule. As China continues to rise and seeks to play a bigger role on the global stage, it’s going to get entangled in countries far from home and one can only wonder what happens then.  Hopefully we defeat this scourge of terrorism before anyone here has to find out.  Yet it’s odd being here in what I call the China bubble when a tragedy occurs like what went down in Paris.  Without the Internet and ties to my friends and family back home, I would be hard-pressed to find out anything from my immediate surroundings about what’s going on in the world at large.  It’s frightening sometimes to think about how easy it is to render a population unaware.  Even in the States where people don’t always pay attention to the news, anyone in a major urban area would notice an increased police presence.  China seems to sometimes exist as if it’s cut off from what goes on outside its borders.

Where Is The Chaos?

November 14, 2015

It’s my first weekend in Shenzhen and what i can’t get over is how calm this corner of China is.  Shenzhen is not known for much aside from the fact that it was one China’s first Special Economic Zones (SEZ) established in 1980.  Before that, it’s claim to fame was being a small market town through which the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong passed, but did not stop.  Now it’s a metropolitan area of nearly 18 million people, so calm is usually not something associated with a city of this size and one that is home to a particular form of rough-and-tumble Chinese capitalism.  But calm it is.  Right outside my apartment complex is a tree-lined street with a single lane of traffic each way.

工业九路 as seen from outside my apartment complex

工业九路 as seen from outside my apartment complex

It’s almost idyllic in how quiet it is with people strolling to and from the mall and Walmart a short walk away.  I even ventured a bit further afield today to Ole, which is a state-owned Western supermarket, in a massive mall near Window of the World, a theme park filled with miniature versions of the world’s 130 most iconic tourist attractions.  This 45 minute trip involved a ride on the Shenzhen subway, which was also remarkably pleasant, and navigating the city’s bus system, another relatively pain-free experience.  Ole itself had a great selection, including wine and liquor that are hard to find elsewhere in China since there are no corner wine shops or liquor stores, but the prices were insane knowing what things cost back home.  A box of Post Great Grains was nearly US$10, a small container of blueberries was about US$7 dollars, and a tiny container of Greek yogurt was almost US$4.  I bought some cheap muesli and splurged on pumpkin seeds to toss in because I couldn’t buy much else in good conscience knowing I would be making a trip down to Hong Kong next weekend where imported goods are infinitely cheaper.  All in all though, it was a nice way to get out and see a bit more of the city while checking out another Western supermarket.  I am a bit like a kid in a candy store when I am abroad and get to go into a grocery store.  My friends think it’s weird that I find such an excursion relaxing, but I think it comes from being an actual kid and going into grocery stores in different parts of the U.S. with my parents and marveling at the regional variations in what was carried.  I guess some things don’t change the older we get.

On a different note, one of the interesting things about these first few posts from China is how devoid they are of any of the usual craziness associated with being in China.  I am not sure exactly why that is, but it could have to do with Shenzhen’s distance from Beijing and history of being granted a bit more freedom than other areas of the country.  Or the flip side of that is Shenzhen’s proximity to Hong Kong and the relative ease with which people go back and forth across the border, which leads to a greater identification here with its neighbor to the south than with the rest of the country.  Though what is lacking in Shenzhen is the superiority complex of a city like Shanghai because no one is actually from Shenzhen.  It’s a city of immigrants. Everyone here comes from elsewhere in China and the city has not been around long enough for any real civic pride to develop, so you feel that people are here because they wanted to avail themselves of the opportunities that came along with Shenzhen being an SEZ, but have not quite developed the sense that their’s is a city that is better than others.  Regardless, there is something beneath the surface that sets this city apart from many others, but I have not quite found it.  That is what further exploring will hopefully uncover.

However, when getting set up to have a temporary life here, I was reminded of the reach of the Chinese state.  Right now I have a Chinese mobile plan, internet in my apartment, and a Chinese bank account.  All were set up in a day, but there was a sequence that had to be followed to make it happen.  First I had to get a local phone number, then I needed to open a bank account, then I had to go back to the China Telecom shop to give them my bank account number, and finally i had to give my phone and bank account number to the internet provider.  All of these steps involved copies of my passport.  What was also strange was how the other cell phone providers, China Unicom and China Mobile would not give a foreigner a cell phone plan. It seemed rather arbitrary and even the Chinese people who helped me acquire these services admitted that if we had tried a few other shops of either company, one would have let me get a plan.  China is still this odd mix of government control and an arbitrariness associated with asserting that control.  If you knock on enough doors, someone will answer, even if it’s against the law for them to do so.  If you’re paying for something, it’ll probably take a lot less doors before someone answers because ultimately money seems to win the day here.  Always an important lesson to keep in mind when transacting in China, though the higher the stakes, the more one must be careful because you never know when the government may actually decide to enforce its laws and then no matter who you paid, trouble could ensue.

Two unrelated thoughts before I head off to the gym.  One, I spent the day at our school here in Shenzhen and it’s a pretty cool place.  The building was initially designed for offices, but it has been repurposed into a school.  The marble lobbies, study corners with potted plants, and dramatic balconies were definitely not a part of any of the schools that I attended, but it works and the students running around couldn’t appear to be any happier.

Second, some readers paying close attention to my last post (which I always appreciate) noticed that I had taken half a Xanax when I flew over here.  Just to set the record straight, I have only taken Xanax once before on a long-haul flight and find it helps me sleep better than Ambien on such journeys.  While there is nothing wrong with taking Xanax, it’s not yet something I have found I need outside of on the occasional 15-hour flight.