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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Zombies at Christmas

December 6, 2015

I am having one of those weekends where I am frustrated with China and it’s many contradictions.  As long as I have lived in and studied the country, it still does not make sense to.  I know that’s the reason it’s held my interest for nearly twenty years, but sometimes I reach a breaking point and then it passes.  Between having to deal with spotty phone connections, wrestling with my VPN so that I can communicate with the outside world, and the inability or express frustration in Chinese because my teachers only taught me happy words, at about the month point I am frustrated.

On Friday I went up to Guangzhou for work. It was my first time back in over five years and while I was only there for a few hours and pretty much toured a school and sat in the train station, I had a two-hour drive up from Shenzhen to think about China and my time here so far.  The drive was up the 广深沿江高速, which literally translates to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Along the River Expressway.  It runs up from Guangzhou through all of the factory towns of the Pearl River Delta, including Dongguan, through to Guangzhou.  Those factory towns are the ones that you read about in the newspaper closing up shop and moving to Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, other ASEAN countries, or inland China where labor is less expensive.  These factories are the ones that churned out jeans, iPhones, bras, shirts, printers, and many other goods over the years.  Now driving up the highway, many are either abandoned or look like they’re about to be abandoned.  But to counter those abandoned factories I saw lots of cranes putting up apartment blocks.

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View from the car headed towards Guangzhou

The thought that’s always front and center when I see these new apartments is “Who is going to live here?”, which from the number of so-called ghost cities in China is a plausible question.  However, this is the Pearl River Delta and if there is one trend I have noticed over the last 15 years it’s that there is a strong push to urbanize the entire corridor from Shenzhen to Guangzhou.  So there is little doubt in my mind that these towers will be filled and one day between the two cities there will be an unbreakable stretch of these towers.  So what happens to the abandoned factories?  Assuming there are no toxic chemicals on those sites, which is a big if, then towers will go up.  I’m not sure if China has the equivalent of Superfund sites like we do in the States, and if they did, I am not sure there would be enough political will to designate them as such.  It’s the unknowing or inability to know, assuming one wanted to know that drives me nuts about China sometimes.

It’s the holiday season, even here in China.

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Christmas tree at entrance to my apartment complex

Between the random Christmas trees and holiday music blasting in the shopping centers, including the ubiquitous “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey, it adds a surreal dimension to life in China.

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Holiday festivities at the Garden City Mall

Maybe its my frustration speaking, but there is something zombie-like about taking in this whole China experience as a foreigner.  I already disconnected because of certain personal uncertainties, but Shenzhen is a city built on commerce.  In fact, it’s really the reason it was ever conceived by the central government 30 some-odd years ago.  People mill about in a frenzy of eating and shopping, though I see very few shopping bags, which might lend some anecdotal credence to the stories you read of China’s economy slowing down.  It’s kind of like what it was like going to a mall during the last recession in the States.  People were there, but they weren’t spending.  The malls are more like entertainment zones with hockey rinks, playgrounds, movies, and restaurants.

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A hockey game at Coastal City Mall

Some days it feels like all people do here is eat and shop.  There is no real pervasiveness of the news like back home where big cities have tickers on buildings with the latest stories or elevators at work have the little screens with the day’s top news stories.  No tickers in China and the elevator at my school has pictures of pandas and penguins to go along with the date and time.  It’s a bit of an over-generalization to say that no Chinese people care about current events, but the government has put in place a number of distractions to ensure that people pay as little attention as possible to the world outside, unless it’s necessary to stoke nationalist sentiment as a bulwark for the government.  Of course there are intellectuals and people concerned with these sorts of matters, but they are on the fringes of society.  There are no cable news programs outside of CCTV and other government-run outlets, so there’s no real widespread forum from which people can get alternative opinions.  For better or worse, Donald Trump and his rallies get air time on television and we have a relatively robust network of columnists and commentators trying to make sense of things in our country.

This past Friday, China celebrated its second National Constitutional Day, commemorating its constitution that is supposed to provide for all kinds of freedoms that exist only on paper.  There were no noticeable celebrations here in Shenzhen.  In fact, it seems like the way the government decided to commemorate it was to continue snuffing out various forms of expression, ironically the same kinds guaranteed in the constitution.  Included in that snuffing out was a recently published book by a Tsinghua University (referred by some as the MIT of China for its science and engineering prowess) historian about China’s constitutional transformation.

I guess my frustrations this weekend started small, but have now led me down this path of wondering what is really going on in this country.  It’s hard to tell what lurks beneath the veneer of iPhones (and may iPhone wannabes), fancy shopping malls, and the smiling faces roaming about these shopping malls.  I guess only time will tell.

Home Sweet Hong Kong

November 21, 2015

I’ve been back in Asia over a week at this point and made my first trip to Hong Kong yesterday for meetings.  I’m staying the weekend because my brother and his wife are swinging through at the tail-end of the honeymoon in SE Asia and I am really excited to show them around this city that was my first home after college.

Coming back to Hong Kong is always filled with a mix of nostalgia and awe at both how quickly the city changes and also how so many random points in the city remind me of when I lived here over 13 years ago.  I took the ferry to Hong Kong for the first time from Shenzhen and aside from having to arrive nearly an hour before the ferry and queue up for immigration in Hong Kong, it was a rather easy trip.  It’s just good to be back here.  From the moment I stepped out of immigration at the ferry terminal into, what else, a massive shopping mall, I felt instantly more present.  Now I love China and spending time there is intellectually and (usually) professionally fulfilling, but the personal angle is so much harder to actualize there.  When I was living in Guangzhou for the year, I was very obviously a foreigner and nothing else about my identity mattered to people there.  Now we have an international school in Shenzhen filled with American teachers, which is a pretty cool thing to experience, but it feels like an island of recognition in the midst of the otherness that one usually feels in China.  As a result of feeling this otherness, isolation tends to be the norm in China because no matter how good your Mandarin is or as much as you want to blend in, you can’t.  So coming to Hong Kong, it’s refreshing to just walk the streets and ride the subway and feel a part of something that is more multicultural.

I taught a unit on multiculturalism to my students at Sun Yat-sen University (中大) and when I asked them to list concepts that would be a part of a multicultural society, they were stumped.  It wasn’t until I began writing things on the board that they understood where I was going with the exercise.  I think the difficulty stemmed from this idea that most of China is made up of Han Chinese and anyone else is seen as an other.  That only accounts for the ethnic dimension of multiculturalism, though.  Things like sexual orientation, gender, sex, religion, and a whole host of other things that make up a more multicultural society don’t exist in China.  Now I am being facetious, but while all of these things exist in Chinese society, people don’t tend to see their society as such.  I feel like there is a more simplistic view of society which makes it harder for difference to flourish.

Then you come to a place like Hong Kong, which while not perfect, compared to the mainland is a more open society.  What’s most jarring is that when I am sitting in Shenzhen, I am 15-20 miles from the central business district in Hong Kong, but it might as well be a world apart.  I struggle with how to explain the difference between the two societies, but a few things stand out including Hong Kong’s history as both a British colony and treaty port.  The British legacy lives on, but it’s been joined with other cultures brought by waves of expats who come and go over the years.  At the moment, I have noticed a significant number of French expats milling around, which could have something to do with France’s lackluster economy.  However, it’s not just the expats, but a local population that has always looked outward for its livelihood.  It’s this orientation that makes the city quicker to embrace global trends and more comfortable for people to fit in and go about their business.  There are definitely parts of Hong Kong way out in the New Territories where villages exist much as they did 50 years ago, but even those pockets are changing.

So I am here for the weekend and soon will be moving down here, but it’s the contrast between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, two cities that are so close, that I am wrestling with.  The Shekou district of Shenzhen, where I am staying feels like Hong Kong lite with its shopping malls and new apartment towers.  They even have a part of town on the water called Sea World that is filled with Western restaurants and the most expats I’ve seen so far in Shenzhen.IMG_9392

The picture above is the part of Sea World along the water, but it’s best to think of it like a large town square with restaurants and cafes off to the sides and more restaurants scattered off the main square.  I feel like Sea World could be anywhere, but it’s in China, a country in which I still can’t access Facebook and any apps that rely on it like Words With Friends or the New York Times without a VPN.  Shenzhen is so close to Hong Kong, but brings back none of the multiculturalism that exists there.  Hong Kong seems to only serve as a giant shopping mall for mainlanders crossing the border to visit with little interest in anything else going on there.  Even the metro, which is very similar to the MTR is almost, but not quite right.

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So close . . .

I’ll be in Hong Kong for the next few days, so expect a few more posts from here and then it’s back to Shenzhen for Thanksgiving.

 

Winding Down in Linyi

June 28, 2012

As a follow up to my last post, which was rather heavy, I thought I would use my second-to-last night in Linyi to write about more upbeat things and share some pictures of the university and Linyi that were taken this afternoon on a jaunt down to People’s Square and Calligraphy Square (书法广场).

We just had our last dinner together, me and the other two professors.  Lu is leaving tomorrow afternoon for Beijing and then Lanzhou to see her family and reunite with her son before heading back to the States.  John is going to be around for another three-week session, so I will probably see him at some point before I take off.  I have to say that it was really nice having company these past three weeks, such a different experience than it was two years ago.  The company made the time go by much more quickly and made the experience less isolating than it was last time.  Notwithstanding the 9/11 comment, they were both really supportive and interesting to talk to about China, especially given that they both grew up and went to school here before leaving for the States to pursue other opportunities.

At dinner tonight we were talking about our students and the state of education in China.  As I may have already written, the English level of my students is so poor is because English language study is being de-emphasized by the university and simultaneously the standards have been lowered for my program over the last three years.  The reason for these changes is that the last party secretary at the school was kind of a risk-taker and aggressive in his approach to building ties with foreign universities, in no small part due to the fact that he was an academic.  The current party secretary is a career politician and very conservative in how he spends money and expands programs, all done to prevent rocking the boat with the higher-ups.  As I discovered when I was teaching in Guangzhou, there are two parallel administrative structures at all Chinese universities.  On one side is the typical university administration with the president at the top and on the other side is a party structure with the party secretary at the top.  At most universities there is usually some kind of tussle at the top for supremacy.  At the better known schools like Fudan, Tsinghua, and Beijing University, the president has a chance to trump the party secretary because these schools are China’s higher education beacons to the world.  At more regional schools like Linyi University, the party secretary usually calls the shots, which is clearly the case here.  The result of this power struggle is that the students lose because they have less opportunities available to them as their school leaders choose to play it safe.

Unfortunately these kids educations are compromised long before they get to college.  It’s apparently quite common for students in Chinese schools to enroll in weekend tutoring because they are not learning enough in school during the week.  The kicker is that these students enrolled in weekend classes that are taught by the same teachers who are not teaching them during the week and for the privilege to receive additional tutoring from their ineffective teachers, they pay upwards of 500 renminbi (approximately $70) per month, which is a lot of money for families already struggling to get by.  The extra kicker is that it is the bad teacher who suggests the student enroll in this side tutoring and if the parents do not enroll their kid, the teacher will make the student’s classroom life even worse.  On top of all of this, if a parents wants their child to sit in a better seat in school, they have to slip a “tip” to the teacher to make it happen.  This whole scheme is corruption at the most basic level affecting one of the most important parts of society – educating the next generation.  If this goes on in the classroom, imagine the corruption that takes place at every other level of society.

So as promised, here are some pictures of the university campus.

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View of main library from my classroom

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View across the Beng River (祊河) towards the new part of Linyi

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Linyi Public Library by People’s Square

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Belles Shopping Plaza, Linyi’s newest mall


Statue of Wang Xizhi (王羲之)
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New high-rises going up overlooking Calligraphy Square

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Arch at Calligraphy Square honoring Wang Xizhi (王羲之)

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 Now it’s almost time for bed and my last day of class, which means it’s time for the final exam.

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 . . . 

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 . . .

Back to China (Again)

June 7, 2012

As I sit on the plane heading back to China, I keep thinking back to the first time I made the trip in the summer of 1998. It’s not necessary to go on and on about how the world was a different place with the U.S. as the world’s lone superpower and China still more potential than actual rising power. Fast forward 14 years and the optimism of the late ’90s seems quaint. It’s hard to find many bright spots in the world these days. Even China, which was supposed the be the world’s economic engine during these dark times, is slowing down.

Since I was last in China two years ago, I have gone from being a lawyer to counseling lawyers on their career options. Part of my job is speaking to lawyers on the ground in China and lately the word there has turned decidedly pessimistic. When I was in Linyi in 2010, the city embodied much of the excess of China’s fixed asset investment-led growth. Block after block of empty luxury apartment towers, building a new downtown just because, and unveiling a new international airport to handle its 10-20 daily domestic flights. I’m very curious to go back and see what has changed. Will there be a palpable change in sentiment? My students at Zhongda in 2008-2009 were so smug about China’s rise relative to the U.S.’ decline and probably rightly so at that time in the aftermath of Lehman. This year in China is also when the big transfer of power takes place at the top, so the government is extra-nervous about everything going smoothly. Some of the casualties along the road to a smooth transition have been Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng. Coincidentally, Chen is from Linyi, too. He hails from one of the many villages that ring the urban area, so now when I speak of Linyi to people in the States, they have some context as to where I am going.

Before going to Linyi, I’m stopping in Beijing for two nights to re-acclimate myself to China and try to take in the changes to the city that I’m sure have taken place since I was there three years ago. Then after Linyi, I’m spending a week in Hong Kong to catch up with people. I’m excited to be going back to China after a two-year hiatus. The country still fascinates me and any opportunity to spend time on the ground is always welcomed. However, it’s always hard being away from friends and family, even for four weeks. And it seems to get harder the older I get. But the opportunity come back here to teach and meet people is too good to pass up.

The flight has been relatively uneventful, save for the girl next to me who is sitting with her back against the armrest and one of those neck pillows that keeps bumping into me as I try to nap. There are also the passengers who really enjoy opening the shades and flooding the cabin with light – definitely not conducive for sleeping. Oh well. Minor inconveniences. One personal change is that I am typing this entry on my iPhone. I went from being staunchly pro-PC to traveling with an iPhone and iPad, as well as my PC laptop. Though my next one will probably be a Mac. I still marvel at how versatile my phone is that I can be listening to music whole blogging, switch to a book or take a picture with just a few taps. I also know I’m barely scratching the service of this phone’s functionality. Anyway, in a few hours I’ll be in Beijing, so until then
sit tight until I’m back.

PS – Have to log into VPN on phone to post to my blog and update my Facebook status. Oh how I’ve missed China.