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.

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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.

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.

Epilogue No. 2

September 12, 2009

In the past week I found myself confronted with the following: wandering around a Barnes & Noble being inextricably drawn to books about China, reading about a Wal-mart security guard beating a customer to death in Jingdezhen (景德镇), Jiangxi province, and attending a continuing legal education class about China’s new anti-monopoly law (which you will recall, I gave a talk about at the business English salon at Zhongda).  The common theme in all three moments was the presence of China, which after more than two months of being back in the States, I either cannot escape or I do not want to escape.  It’s like a relationship that ends for no real good reason, thus you keep wondering why exactly it ended.  I knew I wanted to come home after a year in China, but aside from my fellowship being over, missing my family and friends, and the desire to date again, I had no other reasons for coming home and could have easily turned into one of those people who wake up one morning and realize that they have spent the last seven years of their life in China.  But that was not what happened to me and now I am back in New York, doing something very similar to what I did before I left and living around the corner from the apartment I lived in before I left.  Sometimes it feels like I never left at all, but then other times the memories of China come flooding back.

As I walked around the bookstore, my eye was drawn to anything that had to do with China, both fiction and non-fiction. Of the four China-related books I had picked up (and one about Japan to be inclusive), I settled on Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang because she writes about Dongguan (东莞), which was down the road from GZ and a place I passed every time I took the train from GZ to HK, so it felt near to my year spent in GZ even though I really did not meet many factory girls during my time in China.  People are always asking me about the factories in China and about people protesting about lost wages or other injustices perpetrated at these factories and the reality is that while these factories are no more than a 45 minute ride outside of GZ, they might as well be a world away. In my daily going-ons, I did not have much contact with factory workers and if I did, I did not really know it unless I was riding an overnight hard seater back from Yongding in Fujian in a car full of migrant workers and me.’  But I am interested in reading Leslie’s account of the factory girls that were so near to my experience, but never once did our paths cross.

As for the Wal-mart story, I just shake my head at the absurdity of the tragedy that befell that poor woman who shoplifted.  Sure she committed a crime, but to be beaten to death for such an act is something that does not surprise in the context of China’s overarching absurdity.  Of course it’s not like people don’t die while shopping at Wal-marts in America, but there is something about being able to envision something that many other people cannot that makes such a story that much more interesting.  I’ve seen some of the guards at stores in China and they are some scary-looking folk, made even scarier by the weapons and riot gear they are either carrying or have close at hand.

Finally, this continuing legal education session I attended about China’s anti-monopoly law.  It was on the 22nd floor of some office building in midtown Manhattan, but upon stepping into the conference room where the session was to be held, I could have been in a conference room in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Beijing.  The room was filled with Chinese people, Mandarin was being spoken, and there was very little in the room to indicate that I was smack in the center of New York City.  I don’t know if it’s a testament to globalization that moments like these feel like they have no specific place or the fact that office buildings are office buildings no matter where you go in the world and it’s not at all linked with the romantic notion of globalization.  All I know is that I sat there for two hours listening to a talk about China’s new anti-monopoly law and what it means for global M&A transactions that China can now review deals the same way the EU and the US have been doing for years.  What was oddly missing from the discussion was direct commentary on the political and opaque nature of how things are done in China.  The point was obliquely referenced in how the regulations are vaguely drafted, but there seemed to be an unwavering faith that the Chinese government would be a responsible player in the international community when so much evidence exists to the contrary, especially if China’s national interests are going to be hurt or there is a possible threat to the government’s legitimacy or power.  I find it hard to ignore the political elements surrounding the implementation of any Chinese law when recent evidence like the detention of Chinese Rio Tinto employees for spying or the use of anti-vulgarity laws to control speech on the internet show that the government is not above coloring outside the lines of its own laws.  But in this room filled with risk-averse lawyers and a whole bunch of Chinese lawyers and law students, this conversation was not happening.  I wanted to know what these people would tell a client contemplating a transaction in China or whose deal would be subject to Chinese merger review.  Lawyers like to know what the risks are, but how do you explain risks that no one really understands. Perhaps I am more cynical than most, but the only harmonization that is going to take place in China in the near-term is among its people as the government tries to maintain stability and harmony in the face of China’s 60th anniversary on October 1 and beyond.

Even back in the States, I am unable to avoid China.  Sometimes it sneaks up on me and other times I go forth seeking it out.  For more than ten years, China has been seeping under my skin and spending a year on the mainland has just accelerated that process.  There are certain experiences we have that are hard to completely get away from, and sometimes we don’t want to completely lose what we gained from those experiences just because a particular part of it has ended.

I’ve been reading about the Uighur uprising and the subsequent Chinese government response with a certain amount of sadness and lack of surprise.  What I find interesting is the province’s top Party official has invoked the death penalty to punish anyone who is found guilty of perpetrating the violence.  The death penalty is a big black mark on China’s criminal justice system since the country kills more people each year than any other nation in the world and to invoke this cruel method of punishment against unknown targets is even more troublesome.

In my classes this semester we had discussions and debates about whether the death penalty should be abolished in China and most of my students said that the death penalty was necessary in China in order to promote a harmonious society and bolster economic growth.  I’m not sure about the latter point, but the emphasis on the nebulous concept of harmony that I have denigrated more times than I can count in this blog as a justification for the death penalty is in line with how most of my students stake out positions on controversial issues.  They start with a very general justification for a certain policy position, continue to speak in generalities, and then conclude without providing any concrete examples. For example, harmony as a justification for the death penalty.  Then some comments about it’s important for Chinese society to be harmonious.  Finally concluding that harmony should be maintained at all costs, including the possibility of erroneously killing some people when invoking the death penalty.  Errors such as these are a small price to pay when harmony is at stake.

What my students do not seem to get or articulate is that the Chinese government sometimes uses the death penalty at inappropriate times, such as this uprising in Xinjiang (新疆), when using such methods makes today’s Chinese government seem less associated with the economic juggernaut that China has become to much of the world and more akin to the China of the Cultural Revolution and all its attendant chaos and injustice.  However, my students do not view the government’s actions or policies through such a lens and are unwilling to criticize the government when they also depend on that same government for their jobs and livelihoods.

I understand the difficulty attached to criticizing your own government.  We as Americans seem to have made criticizing our government and its actions a national pasttime, which is also not always the most productive approach to building a successful civil society.  But at least such criticism keeps all the parties involved vigilant about trying to do better. Perhaps China will one day reach this point, but I’m not holding my breath that this day will arrive anytime soon.

Happy belated New Year!

I have been back in the States for a little over a week and I still get a little thrill that I can access my blog without logging into a VPN. Leaving China 8000 miles away has given me some time to gain some perspective on the last five months there, but that perspective will have to wait until a later blog post.

I’ve been wanting to write for the past few weeks about an op-ed piece Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times last month, but alas, grading final exams left me little time to do much blogging.  However, now as I hang out in suburbia with my parents, I have plenty of time to indulge my random musings.  

On December 23, 2008, Thomas Friedman wrote “Time to Reboot America” in The New York Times.  The gist of the piece (and I am oversimplifying somewhat, but not all that much from what was actually written) was that China can build extremely efficient airports and train stations, but the U.S. still has freedom of speech, and thus we can still assert our leadership in this new century.  It’s true that China has censorship and America does not, at least not to the same extent.  America has great raw materials to make this country a leader again, but we’re squandering those resources by letting our education system, scientific research, and infrastructure atrophy.  However, there’s something missing in the logic of Friedman’s piece.  

China may have censorship, but there is also something else at work in China that portends more disparities between the US and China aside from mobile phone service and airport efficiency.   After spending a semester in the classroom with Chinese university students, I am beginning to better understand quotes included in these articles from everyday Chinese people. There was a recent article about love blooming in the relief camps in Sichuan province in the aftermath of last May’s devastating earthquake titled “Romance and Recovery in Quake Area.”  Part of the article discussed the slow speed of recovery and there was a quote from a farmer in one of the villages destroyed by the earthquake in which he expressed his understanding that the government had other problems to focus on, thus explaining the slow response to rebuilding the earthquake-ravaged areas.  The farmer, He Yifu said, “The government pays attention to those living on the side of the road, not those far away.  But I understand the government has its own difficulties.”  

If I had read this article six months ago and come across this quote, I would have been outraged that a Chinese citizen whose town had been completely destroyed in an earthquake and who was living in a makeshift tent village was okay with the government’s slow response to his plight and millions of others like him.  However, I think I better understand where this sentiment comes from. There is a real concern among many Chinese people about the government’s image and a belief that the government knows best. One group of students in my Zhuhai class was writing a letter to the editor about the handling of Yang Jia’s case, the man who stabbed six policemen in Shanghai after previously being arrested and allegedly beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle.  Yang was then sentenced and executed in November 2008 for his actions, even though questions arose about the circumstances surrounding his treatment by the police and the fairness of his trial.  My students’ main point was not about the mishandling of the case or any unanswered questions, but how this episode affected the Chinese government’s image and how the government needed to take steps to repair its image. Forget about Yang Jia’s family and the possibility of injustice being perpetrated, my students deemed that the top priority ought to be repairing the image of the Chinese government.

While the recent economic troubles afflicting China may challenge this conventional and received wisdom of Chinese people like my students, there are plenty of Chinese people who are quick to forgive the government and blame external factors for their woes. Even with the recent economic trouble, many people are quick to blame the U.S. for China’s problems, which may be partly true, but it is the Chinese government’s responsibility to navigate this downturn at home. Perhaps as my students realize how difficult it is going to be for them to get jobs or internships,, they will begin to include the government as one of the parties responsible for their misfortunes, instead of being so concerned about not tarnishing the government’s image.  Yet, until that moment comes, the large percentage of the Chinese population willing to go to bat for their government, along with its efficient airports and mobile phone service, may be a far more powerful force helping China to take the 21st century away from am America with its open and innovative culture, but inability to pull its people together to rise above these short-term troubles.