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.

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Houses of Cards

June 27, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Haze

June 12, 2012

Upon opening my eyes this morning, I noticed a strange smell in my room.  It smelled like something was burning, but it had the slight tinge of incense.  Then I opened my curtains to my hotel room and was greeted with this sight.

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The view from my 12th floor hotel room looking south towards the bus station and the rest of Linyi was obscured by a thick haze.  I thought it might have been fog, but there is not that much humidity in this part of China and the temperature was not quite right for fog.  At breakfast I found out that the smoke had something to do with farmers lighting things on fire in the surrounding villages, but that’s all I was able to gather this morning.  Hopefully when I get to the university this afternoon, someone will be able to tell me what is going on.  As I write this post, it’s still incredibly hazy outside to the point where what was supposed to be a perfectly clear day looks anything but.

Yesterday was my first day of class and my students just finished their freshman year, so they are young.  I am reminded of my students in Zhuhai when I was teaching in Guangzhou.  They are shy, embarrassed to speak English because they have so few opportunities to practice, and snap pictures of me as I am teaching.  It was a bad sign when one of the class monitors came to meet me at my car and walk me to class, but could not answer basic questions about the classroom building and where the administrative offices were located.  How was this student going to follow a lecture about intentional torts and negligence if he could not answer such basic questions?  When I got to my classroom, the students all clapped as I entered.  While it was flattering, I was their teacher and not a performer, so I quickly silenced the clapping and set about getting ready for class.  Class itself was pretty uneventful.  I introduced the U.S. court system and different ways of solving disputes in the States, while trying to get my students to tell me how things worked in Chinese courts.  Sadly, they did not know much about the Chinese court system.  Then again, before law school I am not sure how much I could have really told you about the way the courts worked in the U.S.  One of my students’ fathers is a judge, so that is the class’ only connection the Chinese legal profession.  I asked my students how many of them wanted to work for companies and many hands went up.  When I asked if any wanted to be farmers, they started laughing.  As I was teaching, I worked hard to break the concepts down as much as possible without losing the meaning of the lecture.  It was less important that they know the specific names for the three levels of federal courts and remembered that there were three levels (District, Appellate, and Supreme Court) and that you had the right to appeal decisions at the lower level.  It was after class that my students opened up a bit.  I stayed around for an extra 20-30 minutes and was asked all sorts of questions including whether I played any sports or engaged in online gaming. Some students snapped pictures from afar on their camera phones, others twittered in the corner.  After the first break, I noticed that some of the kids did not come back to class.  In speaking to one of the other University of New Haven instructors this morning, I found out that they had instituted a fingerprinting system to take attendance before and after class.  However, no such system was evident yesterday afternoon.  Keeping track of attendance was also a problem last year, so perhaps I can get the administration to bring back this system for my class this year.

The campus itself has grown dramatically.  They are building a new stadium that looks like something that should be at a Big 10 school and no one could tell me what sports would be played there, but at least the building looks impressive.  The library is also nearly done and it is MASSIVE.

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In other typical China going-ons, I learned this morning that there is no class on Friday the 22nd because it’s a national holiday.  Did anyone tell me before I wrote up my syllabus?  No.  Did any of my students tell me when looking at my syllabus?  No.  But to be fair, they also may not have known.  Did the Linyi University administration tell me yesterday?  No.  I found out from Ms. Lu, one of the other UNH instructors and she also had been given no advance warning that there was a holiday on the horizon.  The moment took me back to my Zhongda days where entire class schedules would be rearranged without telling us.  We would only find out upon showing up to class at the time we thought we were meeting to be greeted with an empty classroom.

I joined a gym yesterday – the Yinzuo Gym, which is the same one I joined last time I was here.  Once again, I was in the middle of my workout when I looked up to find six pairs of eyes on me and a series of thumbs up, all for merely stretching after a run.  And I was reminded how good Chinese food is in China, which sounds like a Captain Obvious moment, but I went back to my Sichuan (川菜) restaurant on the river that I frequented quite often last time I was here and had a simple dinner of cold spinach dressed in sesame oil with peanuts and yu xiang rou si (鱼香鞣丝), which is basically shredded port, mushrooms, ginger, and a really tasty spicy sauce with a hint of sugar.  It never tastes in the States like it does here and it was like eating a perfectly balanced piece of heaven. Of course I had to ask for extra chili sauce on the side because it would not be right without it.

Now I must prepare for day two.  Still no sign of the haze abating, which just baffles me because I cannot think for the life of me what might be causing such reduced visibility.  Perhaps my students will be able to enlighten me.

I arrived in Linyi last night after a flight that was surprisingly on time.  Speaking this morning with the other two University of New Haven instructors arrived a few weeks ago, they informed me that their flights from Beijing were also delayed.  Their experiences combined with mine Saturday night and from two years ago just leads me to believe that the Beijing-Linyi corridor is conducive to delays.

It’s strange being back.  I just returned from the supermarket down by Renmin Guangcheng (人民广成) or People’s Square in the center of Linyi, which is the commercial hub of the city.  As I was in the taxi getting there, I was speaking with the cab driver about different places in the city and he remarked that I knew a lot about the place and asked how long I had been here.  I told him that I arrived yesterday and prior to that had only stayed here for three weeks.  Jiangjie, the head of the international program at Linyi University (oh yes, the name of the school changed), who picked me up last night also remarked that I knew a lot about the place. I guess I got around last time I was here.  Anyway, as I was driving I noticed that half of the new construction going up when I was last here was still unfinished.  The unfinished construction combined with the half empty luxury apartment blocks brought home the point made in the media that China’s growth is slowing.  However, Linyi appears to continue marching forward in other important ways that were not evident two years ago.  The city has not one, but two Suning (苏宁) stores, which are like Best Buys in the States.  There are multiple new malls.  Down by People’s Square, there are now a Dairy Queen and Subway, which probably means that Starbucks is not too far behind.  There is also a Watsons, which is a Hong Kong-based drug store chain akin to Duane Reade or CVS in the States or Boot’s in the UK.  I was also able to buy imported milk in the supermarket, which was not possible last time I was here.  There is something comforting about these things because they remind me of home, but that is not my reason for noting these marks of progress.  Generally when foreign chains come to China, they target cities based on their designation by the central government in terms of tiers – first, second, third-tier and so on.  Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou have been designated first-tier cities and as a result these locales were usually first targeted by foreign chains because the designation usually corresponds with the city’s level of development.  As time went on, foreign chains began targeting second and third-tier cities and continue to move down the chain as they seek out new markets,  Linyi is probably a fifth or sixth-tier city, so it has taken longer for foreign chains to arrive.  When I was here last time, the only foreign chains were McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.  The growing number is indicative of the city’s continued development.

So I did some shopping for basic provisions – milk, yogurt, soda water, beer, apples, and hand soap, among other things.  Then I wandered around the square before heading back to the hotel in a cab.  I have my first class this afternoon, so I am trying to prepare.  There is a chance that my students may be rising sophomores, which means they are going to be even more shy and less proficient in oral English than my students last year who were rising juniors.  I am wrestling with how to approach the class since the material is so dense and I want to make sure they get something out of these next three weeks.  I will have to go in this afternoon and take the lay of the land.  Oh yeah, I was driving past the other campus south of the river and noticed that rather than Linyi Normal University, the school is now simply called Linyi University.  “Normal” in a university name implied that the school was supposed to train teachers in various subjects, but as the number of people going after a university education grew in China, many “Normal” universities became full-blown universities teaching a wide variety of subjects.  When I was last hear, the university was in the middle of a massive build-out to add new departments, so I am assuming with the name change that the transformation is nearly complete.  That would also explain why the taxi driver kept referring to the school as Linyi Daxue (临沂大学) rather than Linyi Shifan Xueyuan (临沂师范学院).

I’m off to finish preparing for my first class, but will continue later.  I’ll leave you with some more fun China packaging from my supermarket excursion this morning.

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