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.

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Hanoi Happenings

January 27, 2016

I’ve been in Hanoi for the past two days on a work trip, but in running around the city have managed to take in and get some feel for what’s going on here.  It’s been nearly 15 years since I was last here, which makes me sound quite old.  Frankly, it’s odd to think I can utter that I did something like come to Hanoi “15 years” ago, but I guess that’s what happens when it feels like the years breeze right by.  But I digress.

Hanoi feels like a bit of a boomtown given all of the changes taking place around the city. When I was here 15 years ago, I was dodging bicycles trying to cross the street.  Now it’s more cars and motorbikes with only the occasional bicyclist pedaling along.  I tend to use the means by which people get around a city in Asia as a proxy for that city’s level of development and this marked upgrade is a clear sign that Hanoi on the up and up.  The other noticeable thing is that the cars are generally brand new and quite nice, meaning a lot of Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis interspersed with the still nice (and probably expensive due to import tariffs) Mazdas, Toyotas, and Lexuses.

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View from elevator in Sofitel Plaza Hotel

Aside from the cars, I noticed all of the new construction around the city.  A lot of is Korean and Japanese financed with Korean brands like Lotte and building names like Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower dotting the landscape.  When I was here 15 years ago, the charming French colonial buildings were really all there was to see, but now as you look out at the horizon, one notices more skyscrapers and apartment blocks going up similar to what has happened in many Chinese cities.

And that was the comparison that I found myself making – Vietnam to China.  It’s as if this country is 15-20 years behind where China is in terms of opening up and developing. However, as I sometimes think China is moving backwards as it grows by aggressively going after foreigners and trying to limit investment opportunities, Vietnam seems to be moving in the other direction and reaching out to bring in investment.  Even the relative surface things like being able to by an International New York Times or log onto Facebook or Google are different than in China where the Great Firewall and extreme censorship makes all that impossible.  But it’s not like Vietnam is a thriving democracy.  The government is Communist and wields enormous power, but appears to be less insecure than China’s leadership when it comes to inviting in and letting foreign influences stay in the country.  Perhaps that will change going forward, but right now Vietnam feels like it it is waking up and welcoming in the world and China is increasingly looking to its massive domestic market to spur the economy as the country tries to throw its economic might around to influence and make friends around the world (see President Xi in Iran within the last week).  Another interesting point is that China is pushing boundaries in the South China Sea and Vietnam is none to happy about it, so perhaps in some perverse way, China’s actions are pushing Vietnam onto a path of relatively more openness.  Either way, Hanoi definitely buzzes with an energy that I find quite interesting and look forward to seeing where it takes this city and the rest of the country.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral . . . another French legacy

 

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.

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.

Intelligent vs. Smart

June 19, 2012

I’m almost at the halfway mark of my time teaching in Linyi and like most things in life the older you get, the time here is flying by.  I’m thinking back to a week and a half ago when I was battling jet lag in Beijing and calling my parents every hour on the hour from 3am until 8am China time because they were the only ones who could soothe my jet lag-induced angst.  Now I find myself re-integrated into Linyi life and constantly surprised at how familiar the city feels to me after only being back for a week and a half.  It’s still an isolating existence in a lot of ways because even when I am around people, I find myself speaking in either halting Chinese or slow and booming English.  But I will say that being back has been good for my Chinese and I find that the lessons I have been taking in New York have actually helped with my pronunciation because I am getting less blank stares upon first speaking whereas it used to take three or four tries before anyone understood me.  Of course I need to think about my tones beforehand because if I just start speaking, it has the potential to end up as a disaster.

I have some downtime because my classes were re-arranged from morning to afternoon, without any real advance warning as is the norm in China.  My writing may be a bit disjointed because there are a few strands of thought that I want to address and I am not sure if they are all interrelated, but I am going to try my best to bring it all together.

A good friend of mine, myBITblog, who has been living in Hong Kong for the past few years and an ardent and valued supporter of my writing, commented on my post last week “Fill in the Bubble” that the American media could be construed as just as controlled and controlling as the media in China and that Americans rarely look beyond the box given them.  I tend to agree with my friend that many Americans do not care to look beyond their own backyards, but I think the choice to be parochial is different than being programmed to be parochial.  Many Americans may not choose to look beyond their own worlds, but they have the option to do so.  If I do not want to read only the conservative op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or similarly liberal op-ed pages of the New York Times, I can go out and augment those views with a wide array of opinions across the spectrum.  We may have the opposite problem in America of too much choice to the point where we can pick a news source most closely aligned with our opinions and never venture too far beyond that, but I still argue that the breadth of choice is what is lacking for many people here in China.  That is not to say that there are not bloggers, authors, and others who operate at the fringe of public discourse who present alternative viewpoints, but most people either do not have access to these voices or worse, do not care to seek out these voices.  The New York Times this past weekend had an interesting article about how Chinese writers need to be more nimble to evade sensors, but I wonder how many people actually seek out these writers who are creatively dodging the paranoia of the government to express themselves.

I think back to my student Qi Zhichao who asked me about mercy killings, which required him to think beyond the given course materials.  At dinner with the other two professors from UNH we were talking about our students and state of university education in China.  We have been exposed to the same students during this summer session, so it was possible to canvass opinions on certain students that made an impact in our classes.  If you remember, I had a student two years ago, Karen, who met me at my car every morning, helped me with daily classroom tasks, and accompanied me to lunch.  She is graduating this year as one of the top students in her class and passed her civil service exam with flying colors, so she will be returning to her hometown of Jinan (also the capital of Shandong province where I am based) to work for the government.  Over dinner we all acknowledged that she was very smart, but I proffered that I did not think she was very intelligent.  The difference being that she can take a test like nobody’s business, but she did not think beyond what she was told to think about.  She did very well because she mastered all of the courses thrown her way and worked very hard, but she was not a thinker.  Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with studying hard and getting good grades, but that does not make a person intelligent.  Perhaps it’s the bias of my liberal arts education, but there is more to be said for someone who thinks beyond what they are told and draws connections between topics to ultimately think for themselves.  Qi has displayed signs of going beyond just what he is told in class, but students like that are few and far between.  Smart does not always equal intelligent.  Perhaps there are more of them at the top schools like Beida and Tsinghua, but I think it’s a byproduct of an education geared to massive tests that determine the next step in your education that leaves little room for people to think outside of the box.  And it is for this reason that I think the media in China can get away with just following the party line without any real push back from the general population.  Sure there are magazines and other publications that offer alternative viewpoints, like Caixin, which occasionally publishes articles from economists whose ideas on the economy may be at odds with the government’s vision.  But the overall effect of the government’s near ultimate control over the media is that a population has been trained to not only care very little about thinking outside the box, but more importantly, not really having the choice to go outside if they so desire.

The education system is one of the main tools that the government has at its disposal to control future generations.  During the same conversation at dinner, we were talking about the poor oral English skills of our students and how they have very little opportunity to practice speaking English.  Apparently the university is looking to cut back on English instruction because they do not want to spend the money, but they have plenty of money to build a new stadium that would not be out of place at a Big Ten school and a golf course in the middle of campus.

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I also found out last night that the students in my class are part of a program where over the course of four years, they take all the classes that they would take at the University of New Haven in the Business program.  Most of the classes are offered in intensive bursts like my three-week U.S. Business Law class, but upon completion of all these courses, they are eligible to receive a B.A. from UNH in addition to the degree from Linyi University.  This arrangement is obviously very good for Linyi University because they can market this program to attract students from all over Shandong, as well as around the country with the lure of receiving a U.S. degree without having to go to the U.S.  The students in the program can also opt to go to UNH for their senior year, but for many students this decision is too expensive.  Now I think it’s a great program for these students, but if their English skills are not up to snuff, how much are they really learning during the course of their studies.  I am inclined to think that as part of this program, there should be a greater investment in teaching English to give the students the language skills to back up having received a B.A. from an American university and giving the graduates greater opportunities that come along with being truly bilingual.  My students complain all of the time that their English is not that good or worse, they barely say anything because they are embarrassed by their perceived poor English skills.  Linyi University should be investing in bringing more instructors to the school to teach the students oral English to solidly position their graduates for brighter futures, but instead the president of the university wants to cut back on this item in the budget and the result will be students whose English skills become even poorer.

Where am I going with all of this rambling?  There are definite problems in the Chinese education system (as there are in the American system), but I think what I am witnessing is a tension that plays itself out all across Chinese society – how to continue advancing as a society while maintaining control over that advancement.  The government has done an admirable job of growing the economy over the past 30 years and moving large numbers of people out of poverty.  However, as the government seeks to position China for the next 30 years, it’s trying to maintain it’s tight grip on people’s expression of ideas and thoughts while moving towards a knowledge-based economy.  Maybe they can do it, but there is something oxymoronic about building a knowledge-based economy when the knowledge is not freely developed and exchanged.

Fill in the Bubble

June 14, 2012

This year has been and will continue to be a big one for China.  It’s the year of Bo Xilai’s purging from the Party, a high-level purging not seen since the time of Tiananmen in 1989.  It’s also the year Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer fled to the U.S. to go to law school and nearly sparked a diplomatic meltdown in U.S. – China relations.  It’s also the year of the once-in-a-decade transfer of power at the top when Hu Jintao and Wei Jiabao step down to make way for new leaders.  Reading about all of these events in the States, you would think that the country was on edge and that the tension would be palpable upon arriving in the country.  Aside from a few more police than usual in Beijing, you would have no idea in cities like Linyi that the country has been “rocked'” by these events.  I don’t even know how much the people really care about Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, both of whom have been mentioned in the Chinese press, albeit with a heavy pro-government slant.  What I feel and hear about are the more real concerns students have about finding jobs after graduation, being able to afford an apartment in which to raise a family, and why the streets are so crowded with traffic.  I am not saying that something is not afoot in China, but I think it’s going to be problems of the average person that will be one of the major catalysts for change in this country.

When I was in Beijing, I remarked on all of these foreign influences in the form of fashion and art that I saw around the city.  Come to Linyi and there are none of these influences.  What I find so remarkable is how the government so far has done an effective job of controlling the type of information that makes its way into the country.  Go into any bookstore or browse any newspaper stand and you will not find one foreign current events publication. If I wanted to buy a Financial Times or Economist, I would have to go into a bookstore in a foreign hotel or show my passport upon check-out at a store that actually sells such publications.  Chinese people cannot buy these publications lest they be influenced by the heretic ideas contained within.  It’s crazy because everything the people know about is carefully filtered by the central government, rendering a population somewhat neutered when it comes to thinking for themselves.  I encountered the effect of such neutering today in class when I asked my students to pretend they were judges trying to figure out if I intended to enter a contract.  I wanted them to tell me what factors they would look at to determine my intent.  They were scouring the copies of the Powerpoint they had for an answer and I told them that it was not in there.  It took ten minutes before one student told me he would want to see the actual contract.

This one student, Qi Zhichao (齐智超) is the one.  When I say “the one” I mean that whenever I have taught, there has been one student who reminds me of a character in a Kafka novel.  It is as if they are struggling against the limits of he world in which they live and feel a sense of alienation, though they may not necessarily describe it as such.  Figo, one of my students in Guangzhou to whom I gave a copy of Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs before I left, was the best example of such a lost soul.  He actually stumbled upon Kafka in the Zhongda library during one of the breaks.  Figo had questions and thoughts that were out of place with his peers and as a result he felt cut off from them because he recognized he thought about things differently.  I remember during one of my office hours where he railed against society’s preoccupation with the community over the individual.  Figo was definitely one of the ones.  Qi just finished his freshman year, grew up in Linyi, and stayed in Linyi for university.  Figo came from a village in Guangdong province to Guangzhou, one of the biggest and most open cities in the country to study at one of the best schools in the country.  Their circumstances are different, but there is something about Qi.  He is the one who answers most of my questions to the class, he asks questions about the material during breaks, and he stays after class to ask questions.  We were talking about the death penalty the other day and how some states have outlawed the practice.  During break he came up to ask me about euthanasia and whether it was murder.  Such a thought is very uncharacteristic for almost any student I have taught in China because he went above and beyond what we were discussing to connect the dots and bring in a concept that was nowhere to be found on the Powerpoints.  I’m not saying my other students are stupid, I am just saying that they are usually not very good at thinking for themselves.  While waiting for the driver to go back to the hotel after class, Qi came outside to chat with me.  He told me that he wanted to go Shanghai for college to get away from Linyi and experience life, but his gaokao (高考) score was not good enough.  The gaokao is the test at the end of high school that determines where you go to college.  It varies by province, but the test is 2.5-3 days long and covers seven or eight topics ranging from chemistry to history to English.  He seemed really sad about being stuck here and said he wants to leave Linyi after college, which is uncharacteristic for kids here.  I told him to keep working on his English and then he could go to Shanghai and find a job with a company that will value his language skills.  I also told him to keep thinking for himself because that skill combined with his language abilities will make him incredibly valuable to Western companies.  The conversation was cut short because the driver began honking his horn, but I sensed a curiosity that has been borne out by his classroom conduct.  Coincidentally or not zhichao (智超) means “to transcend knowledge”, which is definitely an appropriate name for this student.

For ever Qi there are thousands of students who live in a bubble.  China feels like a bubble most of the time.  If I did not have my internet connection and a VPN, I would be severely limited in what I knew about the outside world.   Most Chinese people are not searching the internet for the Financial Times or other Western publications if they are searching for news at all.  The government has really done an effective job at controlling what comes in to the country while simultaneously shaping what the people internalize and process when they are exposed to outside influences.  I think there used to be a belief that as more and more Chinese moved into the middle class and began traveling and studying abroad, they would return with ideas picked up on their travels.  So far that has not happened.  I have written a lot about this idea in this blog, but it’s not going to be change that is influenced by external forces.  The clamoring from change is going to come about as the social contract continues to fray, that is when the government is unable to continue giving the people increases in their standard of living in exchange for relative passivity.  The social contract will fray to such a point that people will want something different because what they have has ceased to work.  Will it be violent?  Not sure.  Will it be swift?  No.  It’s going to be a gradual process and if the Party is smart, it will try to evolve from within and open itself up to greater competition to help take the pressure off of it and its leaders.

On a lighter note, I was once again given thumbs up at the gym today by one of the trainers.  Except this time, I returned the thumbs because he was working out and I was curious as to how he’d take my gesture.  If you’re wondering, my thumbs were returned with even more thumbs.  At one point I was doing an exercise for my triceps and he came over to touch my triceps as I was working out.  He then proceeded to do the same exercise and stopped midway through because he said it was too hard.  Later on when I was stretching out, he came by to tell me that I taught him something new today and that he’d like to continue to learn from me.  I learned the words for bicep and tricep, ertouji (二头肌) and santouji (三头肌), which mean two-headed and three headed muscle, respectively.  Ah, Linyi continues to fascinate me.

Until tomorrow . . .

I’m sitting in a tiny coffee shop near the 体育西路 metro station and I can actually access my blog without going through the Yale VPN that I have been using all year because WordPress has been blocked by the mainland censors.  It’s funny that I can access my blog using the Chinese internet, but the New York Times this morning reported that YouTube has been blocked in China due to the posting of some pro-Tibet videos showcasing violence against the local population.  Ah, the inconsistencies of an authoritarian regime never cease to amaze me.

Last weekend I was in Anhui province for our Yale-China spring conference.  Anhui is a rural province located due east of Shanghai and it was my first time there.  We met to talk about teaching, to visit the school where four fellows are based, and spend time together before the fellowship ends in June.  We visitied Xiuning Zhongxue (休宁中学) and had a chance to sit with the students during English library hour, similar to what we did when we visited Yali Zhongxue in Changsha last semester.  However, there were noticeable differences between the students of the two schools.  In a group of twelve girls, every single one of them came from a family where both parents were farmers.  There was a definite difference in socio-economic status from the other parts of China I have lived and visited.  It was interesting to spend time in a part of China that is so rural and less developed than GZ or the other cities I have spent time in.  In addition to spending time at the conference, we took a trip to visit some UNESCO World Heritage villages that are signature examples of Anhui architecture, white, almost stucco-buildings with dark roofs.  I managed to squeeze a run in through the fields outside the school grounds.  A common local crop is rapeseed and the yellow flowers of the plant were in bloom.  It’s also known as youcaihua or 油菜花.  So there were fields of these yellow flowers as far as the eye could see.  I would post pictures, but my computer is temporarily down for the count, so I am borrowing this one from my friend, Carol who was also there.

The Fields of Rapeseed Flowers in Anhui

The Fields of Rapeseed Flowers in Anhui

One of the things I noticed as I was running through the fields was the amount of garbage that was on the side of the path, as well as in the stream running through the fields.  One possible explanation for this abundance of waste is that there is a lack of a developed waste removal system, so people just dump things wherever they can.  It definitely marred what was otherwise a beautiful run through these fields with water buffalo alongside the path the whole way.

We returned from Anhui late Sunday night and I have been teaching all week.  In my “Persuasive Rhetoric Through Current Events” class, I am doing a unit on satire and American humor.  On the first day of class, I asked my students about satire in China and they all yelled out “caonima” 草泥马 or the grass-mud horse I blogged about last week.  I was flustered at the mention of a taboo topic and played the ignorant foreigner as I asked my kids to explain it.  After they did, all I said was that the grass-mud horse was an excellent example of satire.  Once again I wondered if their mention of this topic was a test or the beginning of a genuine dialogue about satire in China.  Before I could explore that avenue further, the conversation moved on to different types of satire and talk about watching the Simpsons in class.  This morning I actually showed an episode of the Simpsons from Season 18 where Homer becomes a volunteer fireman after taking sleeping pills.  My students enjoyed it and were able to pick up on the main themes being satirized.  I am looking forward to when they have to write their own satirical skits in two weeks.

So here I am in China blogging without a VPN while millions of Chinese people are unable to access YouTube.  Sometimes censorship is so unfair.