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.

IMG_9563 2

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.

IMG_9560

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.

IMG_9605

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.

IMG_9601 2

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.

Advertisements

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.

It’s Father’s Day back in the States and I already called to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day, but sadly I cannot be there with him to celebrate the day.  So I can do the second best thing and heed his wishes by posting some pictures of Linyi to give a sense of how sprawling this city is.

Image

Blue Sky in Linyi

That’s the view facing east from the bridge on Tongda Road (通达路) heading back from the gym last Friday.  The right side of the picture is the southern part of Linyi and heading in the direction of most of the commercial activity in the city.  The left side is north of the river and the new part of the city where the only real tenant is the city government and lots of new apartments.

Image

This view is facing west towards the university and where my hotel is.  As you can see, there are some cranes in the sky and lots of open space.  The university and bus station are the main anchors in this direction, but a lot of ground has been broken for new housing and in a few years there should also be some commercial development to support the population in this part of the city.  Right now though there is nothing to really talk to from the hotel except for the bus station across the street.

Image

This hole in the ground is on the north side of People’s Square (人民广成) and is part of a new shopping center that is called Osca.  I tried to make out the meaning of the name from the Chinese, but was unable to initially.  Right now there is not much in the way of development except for Linyi’s first Subway and a new Korean restaurant, but the mall is supposed to be the home of other foreign retailers from Hong Kong and further afield.  Of course there will also be a residential component to this development.  I guess this would be considered prime real estate in Linyi because People’s Square really is the center of town and on the weekends is filled with people. It’s also where you can find the city’s Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Watsons, the soon-to-be-coming Tesco, and maybe the city’s first Starbucks (this last one is still wishful thinking at this point).  I think of People’s Square as downtown because there are also lots of office towers in the area.

Image

And the Osca mystery is solved – the complex is named after the Oscars, the awards ceremony in the States.  A bit random, but no more random than a local residential development named Chianti Mansion, like the wine.  Though I did not know the Oscars were such a part of the local culture.  But the Chinese word is Aosika (奥斯卡), so it’s not that far off in its Romanized form.  One other thing that I have been thinking about lately are the artist’s renderings of all of the new construction taking place.  That image above is the completed version of the previous picture.  The artist’s renderings always look so opulent and full of life with grand visions of wealth, happiness, and prosperity.  I know these renderings are supposed to be somewhat aspirational, but the Chinese renderings are off the charts in their optimism for the future.  All of the housing developments look absolutely amazing, to the point where I am staring at the dirt field in front of me and wondering how the developers plan to go from nothing to the most amazing and buzzy mixed-use development complex ever.  I saw a lot of this on the bus ride to Qufu in towns much smaller than Linyi, including Feixian, Sishui, and Pingyi.

So those are some recent pictures of Linyi.  I wish I had taken a picture of dinner tonight while we’re on the subject of pictures.  Lu and I went for Sichuan hot pot (火锅) and it was amazing.  I have not had good hot pot since I left GZ many years ago.  This time we went to Little Swan instead of Little Sheep, our GZ go-to.  Little Swan (小天鹅) is a Chongqing-based chain.  Yes, Chongqing is the same city where Bo Xilai, the disgraced party official was mayor.  This meal was perfection – spicy broth cooking a variety of meat and vegetables. as well as noodles and rice cakes.  I don’t think a picture would have done it justice.  I came back to the hotel and looked up the name of the chain and of course Sequoia Capital, a U.S. private equity firm has taken a stake in the company.  I guess the good news is that perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we get one in New York.  There is already a Little Sheep (小肥羊) in Flushing, Queens, so why not a Little Swan somewhere in Manhattan?

On that note, I leave you all to gear up for week two of class.  Happy Father’s Day, dad.  Until next time . . .

 .

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.

Image

Image