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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Epilogue No. 2

September 12, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

I kind of disappeared from the blogoshpere for the past week because I have been in transit from GZ all the way back to New York via Hong Kong, Vancouver, and LA.  Now I am sitting here in a Starbucks (yeah, a familiar theme this year due to its ubiquitous free wireless) in Chelsea (seriously, where else upon just returning?) back in New York.  I made it back to the city on Saturday after what seemed like one really long journey, but upon returning home to friends and family, it was all worth it.

Flying from HK to LA, I had to connect in Vancouver.  I have never gone to the States via Canada and apparently there is usually a fast-track lane for U.S. citizens to clear both Canadian and American customs, but for some reason it was closed when I disembarked from my plane and I had to stand in line with every Canadian trying to get home from being overseas.  Normally I would be down with this process, but Air Canada only gave me an hour between flights and I kept nervously checking the time as the line inched forward and wondering if I would make my connection.  It was als funny because as I got off the plane, I thought “I love being back in America” and then I realized I was in Canada and had to modify that to all of North America.

Another twist in this tale is that you have to collect your bags after going through Canadian immigration and put them on some other carousel after going through American customs.  No one could give me a clear answer as to exactly how and where this process took place, so I stood by the baggage carousel in Vancouver waiting for my Priority-tagged bags and they were not coming.  I spotted the lone Air Canada agent by the carousel and frantically accosted the poor woman., Marlene Waters  With her calm and extremely pleasant demeanor, which did not go unnoticed after not having slept for the past 20 hours, she explained that I had to go through Canadian customs, claim my bags on a special carousel for U.S. citizens going back to the States, then go through American customs, and finally put my bags back on another special carousel to get to my flight to LA.  Unfortunately in my sleep-deprived state, these directions were a little too much for me and Marlene perceptively picked up on my confusion and decided she was going to hand-hold me through this process.  I basically became a lemming, following her through this maze and so grateful to have found her by carousel 23.  She pleaded with officials, put a fast-track sticker on my ticket, and in the most glorious moment, commandeered one of those golf carts to shuttle me to my gate after clearing security.  Needless to say that I made it to my flight with time to spare, enough of which to get myself a much-needed iced coffee.

Customer service like the one offered by Marlene is quite rare these days and if Marlene, anyone from Air Canada, Vancouver, or someone who frequently travels is reading this post, I just want them to know how grateful I was to have stumbled upon (okay, okay, accosted) her that day.  More people in more service industries should take a page from her book of professionalism and think about how much of a difference going a little bit above and beyond makes in other people’s days.

Now that I have given Marlene my shout out, I think I am going to use the next few weeks of being home to unpack my nearly 200 pounds of things I lugged home, as well as the final weeks in China, and my thoughts about the year that has been.  But right now I am just going to enjoy the feeling of being home.