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

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

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

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

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Greetings from Chengdu!  Being the good Jew I am, I decided to head to Chengdu Christmas morning for a long weekend of eating spicy Sichuan food and seeing some pandas.

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Giant panda climbing the IFS Chengdu, yet another luxury shopping mall in China

Okay, not exactly that panda, though the city makes good use of its panda connection by plastering the creatures all over the city.  Upon landing in the airport, many of the information signs were framed by pandas and that theme has been a constant since that point.

It’s my first time here and a city I have wanted to visit for a very long time. The original motivation was my love of Sichuan food (川菜), but lately everything I have been reading about China mentions the relatively newfound prosperity of its inland cities, which would include Chengdu and Chongqing.  Having only been here for 24 hours, I attest that Chengdu definitely appears to be on the up-and-up.  The IFS above is home to Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Zegna, two Starbucks, Muji, Uniqlo, a bookstore where I could buy new English books, a huge Western supermarket that is part of a Hong Kong chain, the requisite ice skating rink, and even a bowling alley.  The inside is your typical white marble, soaring ceilings, and the cleanest floors I have ever seen, probably due to the ever-present crew mopping and sweeping as you’re moving around the mall.  However, IFS is just one of many luxury malls in this area of Chengdu, which also includes the retail-filled pedestrian streets of Chunxi Lu (春熙路) and Imperial Examination Alley (正科甲港), an Isetan department store, a number of other Western luxury brands, and numerous Chinese brands.

I guess it makes sense given that Chengdu has become one of the richest cities in China.  The Milken Institute released a study this fall of the best performing cities in China and chengdu came out number one, beating Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing.  Putting aside studies and government statistics touting GDP growth and per capita incomes, just the feeling I get walking around the city is that it’s one of growth and possibility.  Now one may argue that most of China feels like this and many places do, even in spite of the recent slowdown of the economy, but having spent the past month and a half in Shenzhen, I can sense a different energy here. Shenzhen is right next to Hong Kong and was created to rival its neighbor to the south and serve as a laboratory for economic liberalization on the mainland, so its people are used to being favored and there is also relatively seamless mobility between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, obviating the need to replicate a lot of the shopping in HK north of the border.  I mean, one would think that Shenzhen would have had it’s own Kiehl’s store before Chengdu, but you can only find it at the Shenzhen airport in duty free.  Chengdu has one in the Isetan by the IFC.  Not that Kiehl’s is a barometer for economic development, but the fact that a company like that went to Chengdu after Shanghai and Beijing says something about the city and its place in China’s economic hierarchy.

Chengdu is an inland city and only part of a central government push within the last ten years or so to promote growth inland away from the coasts.  With that promotion, an economic tiger was released as the city promoted its lower labor costs to attract global manufacturers in the aerospace and electronics sectors, including Foxconn, which produces Apple’s iPhone.  Anyway, not to devolve into a boring economics lesson, but the takeaway is that Chengdu has a buzz that is not always as readily apparent in some of China’s larger, more established Tier One cities.

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View of central Chengdu from my hotel

Of course this still being China, I marvel at how well the central government has been able to wall off the country from the rest of the world.  I’ve written a lot about the mystery behind Chinese people becoming more global as they travel the world, but seemingly bringing nothing back from the travels except luxury goods and souvenirs. Forgetting that when you fly domestically in China, you’re not allowed to turn on any electronics, I was left watching some bizarre Korean movie on my flight from Shenzhen to Chengdu.  When I arrived, I thought I would either be given or be able to buy a Financial Times or Economist at the Ritz Carlton or find another hotel with a gift shop at which I could buy one of these publications to read on the way back to Shenzhen, but to no avail.  Even the Page One, where I eventually found English books, had a magazine section with only Monocle and In Style in English, neither of which I was particularly interested in buying.  Putting the availability of Western media aside, I am sitting here in a Starbucks (where else?) in another new luxury mall called The ONE and it’s one of Starbuck’s new Reserve locations with pour-overs and siphoned coffee.  The place is packed with young and old, alike, and many on iPhones or Macs enjoying coffee, pastries, and quiche.  At this particular moment I feel like I could be anywhere.

Yet, with all of that said, there is something about Chengdu that reminds me of the China I knew 15 years ago.  Perhaps it’s the layout of the city with back alleys still filled with little stores and food stalls or the mix of old and new buildings that co-exist side-by-side, though I have the feeling that won’t be the case five years from now since so many look like they’re being readied to be torn down for new construction.  I guess Chengdu is a city that while growing rapidly, still retains elements of what it was.  It has long had the reputation of being one of China’s most laid-back cities and for a city of nearly 8 million people, still moves at a remarkably more languid pace than Shenzhen.  Maybe it’s part of a next wave of growth where people won’t be in such a hurry as they modernize and seek to retain some of what makes a particular place unique?  Or perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that unlike Shenzhen or even some of the other Tier One cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou, Chengdu is a city filled with people who are actually from here or the surrounding areas, which would go a long way to preserving those qualities that make the city special.

As I was leaving my hotel this morning, I was chatting with one of the members of the concierge staff, Roland, asking him for restaurant recommendations while I was here.  He told me that he had just transferred from Beijing two months ago because his wife was pregnant and they wanted to escape the pollution,, traffic, and mayhem of Beijing.  I asked him how he liked Chengdu so far and he remarked that it was more laid-back than Beijing.  He attributed this to the fact that home prices were so much lower than Beijing, so people didn’t have to work so hard, thus they had more time to relax and enjoy life.  Probably the most interesting reason of all for why Chengdu feels so different, yet one that not only makes the most sense, but is very telling as to what is potentially being lost as the country rushes to modernize. As an American, I know all about a country that does not seem to have enough time for leisure as our workweeks get longer and longer and people fear taking holiday because they may fall behind at work.  Let’s just hope that Chengdu doesn’t go the way of the rest of the country and lose what makes it special.

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.

Houses of Cards

June 27, 2012

A short while ago, an email came in with a link to an article that is an interview with Chen Guangcheng on the New York Review of Books’ blog.  Chen is the blind dissident who left China recently to study at NYU Law School in New York and is actually from Linyi.  To be more accurate he is from Dongshigu, one of the villages that is overseen by the Linyi city government.  When I write about all of these new high-rise towers that keep sprouting up further and further from the center of the city, the land for the towers were formerly villages annexed and cleared by the city government to continue the city’s growth.  Before Linyi grew into the city that it is today, it was really a collection of small villages with the town of Linyi at the center.  To fuel economic growth and boost the profile of local leaders, villages began being annexed and the high rises you see in my pictures are the result of the city’s growth.

There were some things that really stood out in the interview because of the fact that I am sitting here writing from a hotel that was probably built on part of a village that no longer exists.  The massive Linyi University campus was probably also one or more farming villages at some point in time, but are not part of the city proper.  The interviewer asks Chen if he thinks urbanization is beneficial because then people can move off the land to get jobs in the city and earn more money.  This was his response:

No, I don’t think it’s beneficial. Right now it’s a blind urbanization. Cities grow up naturally over time. Now they’re trying to do it all at once. The main thing about urbanization now is to make the economic statistics look good—to build and pump up economic activity.

Chen basically backs up a lot of what I have been thinking and writing about when I look at Linyi’s development, especially versus cities like Shanghai or Beijing that have a more solid economic foundation because they are home to headquarters of large companies, the creative classes, or are seats of government power.  He continues on saying that many times when these villages develop into towns and cities, the people who resorted to more traditional ways of making a living are often left out in the cold as the real estate developers, banks, and government officials profit:

I think for those who go to the city and work there’s a benefit. But the current way of villages being turned into towns—I don’t think there’s an advantage to that. People in the village often rely on ordinary kinds of labor to earn a living, like working in the fields, or raising geese or fish and things like that. So now what happens? They turn a village into one high-rise apartment building and that’s all that’s left of the village. Then the land is used for real estate projects controlled by the officials. Where are the people supposed to work? How is that supposed to function?

I often wonder what people do in a city like Linyi.  Aside from the typical service jobs that exist in any city – salespeople, waiters and waitresses, tellers, barbers, etc. – there are only so many people who work in offices who would earn enough money to be able to afford the thousands of new apartments being built.  Others I have spoken to here say that businessmen who travel to Linyi for work will purchase an apartment to stay in rather than stay in a hotel and those people with enough money will buy two or three apartments as investments.  Fine.  Even with those people purchasing apartments, the fact remains that such housing remains out of reach for many who used to live in a village and are now having urbanization shoved down their throats.  I think of the manager in the Binhe Hotel, where I stayed last time I was in Linyi and his tale of how he works multiple jobs and still did not have enough money to buy an apartment.  There must be many more like him than the people who can afford two or three apartments or the businessmen who fly in from Shanghai or Beijing and would rather stay in an apartment than hotel.  I read Chen’s words as a warning that this haphazard urbanization without the necessary jobs to support it could be a disaster as people become increasing disgruntled about being shut out of life in the place where they are supposed to be living.  

The corollary to this point is the number of shopping malls being built.  If people cannot afford apartments, how are they going to shop in all of these luxury malls that are springing up all over the city.  Just coming off a weekend in Shanghai, my mind is boggled by the amount of conspicuous consumption in that city, but at least the jobs are there to support that consumption to some extent.  I am not saying that there is not money in Linyi, just not the type of money to sustain the level of future development envisioned for this city.  I even wonder if Shanghai can support all the new malls that are going to come into existence in the coming years.  As my friend Paul put it, part of the gamble as a retailer is picking the mall that is going to be a success.  With more and more malls that increasingly look alike, we begin talking about high-stakes Vegas odds because the development is not being carried out with any thought to the local population and what the people may want.  It’s still very much a “build it and hopefully they will come” mentality.  

The building of malls divorced from what makes business or economic sense is a problem in the Chinese economy at large and something I’ve thought about since college.  Many economic decisions made at the top are divorced from what may be good for the macro-economy.  Rather these decisions are made because of political forces that trump the economic, thus there is a heightened likelihood of a degree of failure.  At the most basic level, the need to maintain a certain level of economic growth to ensure that the population remains happy, the implicit social contract that drives China’s economy, is a policy for political survival that does not always jive with economic realities.  How many new airports, coal mines, highways, and train stations does this country need?  The Linyi airport is lovely, but barely has any flights to justify what I am sure was a hefty price tag.  However, the airport is a fixed asset investment and can be counted in the GDP numbers reported by local officials, which in turn get reported up the chain to Beijing and make the economy look like it is humming along.  We were actually joking at dinner last night that the speed and quality with which these projects are constructed ensures that they will have to be rebuilt in a few years so then the government can just count the project again.  That statement was made slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s kind of true.  It may take ten years or more for a new airport to be built in the States, but at least when that airport is up and running, it is built to last 50-75 years or longer.  In China, so many new buildings begin to look like they should be condemned only a few years after going up.  I think of the campus of the university here.  It was only a built a few years ago and already the fixtures outside the buildings are rusting, the doors inside are warped, and there are cracks in the walls all over the place.  I can only imagine what a lot of these new apartment towers look like, especially those that are half empty.

Economic policy divorced from economic reality is not sustainable.  It’s easy when you have money to pump into capital improvement projects, but it’s much harder when you need to affect rational human beings.  It’s why the authorities in Beijing have been more successful at building high-speed trains (success in building them, but not necessarily in operating them safely) than getting consumers to open their pocketbooks and re-orient the economy towards more domestic consumption and away from export-led growth.  Having the government build an airport or train line that is eventually going to be run by the government does not require rational policies because all the players’ interests are aligned by the desire to make money, which travels in a vicious circle and rarely trickles down to the average person.  However, getting people to change their shopping behavior requires rational thought because for all of the government’s attempts to control the people, some things are so intrinsic that they cannot be controlled by a higher power.  A person worried about having enough money for health care, retirement, education of their children, and to put a roof over their head and food on the table is not going to automatically start buying more discretionary items just because the government tells them to do so.  For that to happen, rational policies are necessary like state-subsidized health care, better education at a lower cost, safeguards for retirement, and the like.  While the government talks about such social safety nets and academics write papers urging the government to begin using some of its largess to build such programs, they are still not being being created.  Why?  Because such programs will not bear dividends until much later in time and the government thrives on short-term gain in the form of easily obtainable economic growth to justify its existence.

Chen is spot on when he points out that the development path China is currently on is not sustainable because for all the wealth sloshing around in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other large cities, there are huge swathes of the population unable to partake in this life and the government is not taking the necessary steps to bring them into the fold because they are blinded by their own desire to protect their positions of power.

Four days to go and this time Saturday I will be in Hong Kong.  Though right now I am sitting here with a terrible head cold and all I want to do is lay down in bed.  However, the blogging continues because the thoughts do not stop.

Hollister, the U.S. clothing brand owned by Abercrombie opened its first store in China in Shanghai.  It’s a store that I would never set foot in when I am in the States, except that one time in Soho to see the shirtless models walking around, but then had to run out because the combination of the strong scent of cologne and low lights left me feeling woozy and claustrophobic.  I broke my own rule when I went in Shanghai this weekend, but I went purely out of curiosity to see who they would have working in their China store.  After a walk around the entire store, I noticed that there were no men working in the store, only scantily clad Chinese women.  Not sure what to make of this finding, but I’m left wondering if they had trouble finding Chinese guys to match their look.

Anyway, that was a digression, but one that I am still thinking about three days later because it was so bizarre.  What’s really been on my mind lately, especially as my time out here starts heading into the final stretch, is the sense of isolation that creeps up on me after spending a few weeks away from home.  Isolation is not necessarily a bad thing and it does not mean that I do not communicate with people back home, whether via text, phone, or email. It’s more of an internal isolation where I feel cut off from what is going on back home.  This time around has not been as extreme as two years ago because I am still doing work and plugged in to the office back in New York, so that serves as an additional tether.  It’s more of a mental isolation.  I can’t trouble myself with things back home because there is not much that I can do about them when I am 7000 miles away.  In some ways it’s liberating because I can’t do anything about dating, which preoccupies so much of my time back in New York. The same goes for any of life’s other pressing questions that vex me on a daily basis when I am home.  I think back to my year in Guangzhou and that was extreme isolation because it was like pushing the pause button on my life and having a completely separate existence in China for a year’s time.  Anyone who has spent significant periods abroad has probably experienced this feeling.  It’s also probably more acute in places like China or Japan that are culturally so different from the States, least of all because of the language barrier that exists for even the most fluent speakers of the local language.  When you live overseas for a long, but fixed period of time, you make friends, re-create semblances of your life back home, but at the back of your mind is the knowledge that at some point you will release the pause button and resume your life back in the States, leaving behind much of what you built in your adopted country and really only taking the experience with you when you board that plane home.  I’m not discounting these experiences because I would not trade my years away for anything, but as I get older and I have a few experiences being way under my belt, it’s something I think about because it’s hard when you are doing it for the first time.  I know what to expect and I am lucky to be able to have these three to four week bursts of isolation that are more therapeutic than anything else, but I also empathize with those people who are doing this for the first time and went somewhere for the experience and are wrestling with the consequences of their actions as they navigate life after pushing the pause button.

Yes, this post was a bit self-indulgent, but I am sick and it’s something I have been thinking a lot about because so many people I know have picked up and moved overseas at some point in their lives and while everyone may be affected to different degrees by pushing the pause button, they have still pushed that button because it’s still impossible to be in two places at once.

With that said, I am going to turn in soon and hopefully make a dent in this cold.  Until tomorrow . . . 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just wanted to write an addendum to my last post. After an amazing Thai dinner catching up with my friend Paul and his wife, Nicha, I returned to my new hotel on the Bund to this view.

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The Bund is the waterfront promenade built by the Germans and now is a stylish area of Shanghai filled with luxury hotels, designer stores, bars, and restaurants. The view is across the Huangpu River towards Pudong, the new part of Shanghai that was only built up starting in the 1990s and is today home to many multinational companies.