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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It’s New Year’s Eve here in China with the Year of the Monkey slated to begin at midnight and Shenzhen has the feeling of a bit of a ghost town with the streets largely empty of traffic, stores all closing early so that people can spend time with their families, and those that are out moving at a rather languid pace as the week-long holiday gets underway.  I feel a bit like a Jew on Christmas Eve in that my family is 8000 miles away in Jersey, but I can’t even enjoy Chinese food for dinner because all of those restaurants will be closed this evening.  So instead I went down to Sea World, the expat haven of restaurants, and took out some hummus and a Cobb salad from Element Fresh so that I would not go starving this evening.  It’s probably also a good thing that things are relatively quiet today because I need to pack for my trip tomorrow back to the States, which is really a full day endeavor because I cannot stand packing.

It’s been a few days since I last wrote and the past week really felt like everyone going into vacation mode knowing that school would be closed for the week.  I was in double vacation mode because I knew that I was also heading back to the States.  But even though it felt like an odd week, it does not mean that China was taking a break from its usual assault on the senses.

Last night was perhaps one of the odder encounters I’ve had since being here this time around.  I had just taken the ferry back to Shekou after a day in Hong Kong furniture shopping, setting things up for my new apartment, and catching a few drinks with friends.  Trying to be economical, I took the bus from the ferry terminal back to my apartment.  It’s actually quite easy because the ferry terminal is only a ten-minute ride from Apartment One and all the buses that run by there also stop at the ferry terminal, so it would have been irresponsible not to take the bus.  Anyway, I’m sitting on the bus talking to one of my best friends back in New York when I notice an older white man in a leopard-print fleece and his Chinese lady friend get on the bus one stop later and sit directly across from me.  I don’t pay them much attention beyond noting the fleece and continue on with my conversation. Two stops later, they get up to get off the bus and the old man stops right in front of me, puts his hand on my knee and with his boozy breath on my face hisses with a British accent ,”Go back to where you came from you f*#king Moos-lim.”  I was startled and in that split second decided not to engage with this man. It also took me a second for what he said to register because it was so absurd.  He then exited the bus and the few people still on, along with the driver just looked at me.  They knew something had happened, but were not quite sure exactly what.  There were so many things wrong with that moment from his inherent hatred of Muslims to mistakenly identifying me as one to getting in my space and touching me.  I guess my coloring is a bit darker than most people and I am sporting a bit of a winter beard in preparation for winter back in the States, but I had been yammering away in English to my friend and for the life of me cannot figure out what prompted this man to lash out at me in that way. It’s alarming on a deeper level because even if I was Muslim, such treatment is inexcusable an constitutes harassment for something for which one should not be harassed.  A day later I am still baffled by this man’s behavior and while I can easily chalk it up to his inebriated state, there’s always truth in the drink and I believe that this interaction is no exception.

As I watch the presidential race play out and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) distrust and even outright hatred for Muslims on display, including in yesterday’s latest GOP presidential debate when President Obama received flack for visiting a mosque to show solidarity with American Muslims, I experienced some of that here in Shenzhen, China from an old white man in a leopard-print fleece at 9:45pm on a Saturday night.  I wasn’t going to explain what had happened to the bus driver or the other passengers because China has its own complicated issues with Muslims, often using the rationale of terrorism to harass and imprison the Uighurs in Xinjiang who often rail against the Chinese government for more freedom and autonomy.  Even though I am not Muslim, I am alarmed that such hatred exists and that this man would shower his hatred upon a total stranger who was doing nothing by minding his own business having a conversation on his phone.  As for a larger takeaway, I am not sure I have just one, but there a lot of hatred out there and if it’s not Muslims, it can just as easily be another group of people, most of whom have done nothing to deserve such blanket hatred.

Not only am I baffled, but I am shaken that this stranger got up in my video like that motivated purely by his own hatred.  As a Jewish gay American, I have plenty of other identities that easily arouse irrational hatred in people, so while I had this experience based upon something I’m not, I’m acutely aware of the dangers that exist out there in people who harbor prejudices and are not afraid to act upon them.  It was definitely a wake-up call and just drives home the idea that irrational hatred and prejudice is the same for all of us, no matter the specific target, and it’s something those of us who are still rational should do everything in our power to fight and eradicate.

新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le) Happy New Year!

 

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.

I’m giving some solidarity with my snowbound friends and family on the East Coast of the US right now as they get hit with their first major snowstorm of the year.  While there isn’t any snow here in Shenzhen, it’s damn cold.  We’re experiencing a polar vortex of our own with temperatures hitting record lows.  It’s 45 degrees in Shenzhen and it feels even colder because most homes don’t have heat and even with heat, they are built without any real insulation since it’s normally warm and humid.  Add the humidity factor into it and it feels even colder because it’s that raw, wet cold that gets into your bones.  I am sitting here at . . . where else?  . . . Starbucks in the mall in my winter parka and wool beanie because someone had the bright idea to leave the front doors of the mall open even though it’s freezing outside.

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Freezing at the mall

Trying my best to type without gloves, but it’s not easy.

I’ve been meaning to write for the past couple of days, but the combination of work and Internet problems from being behind the Great Firewall have made it hard to sit down and do so.

You’ve probably noticed that the stock markets have had a wild week with most of the turbulence being traced back to the much-discussed slowdown of the Chinese economy.  The government reported it’s growth for 2015 of 6.9%, which while the envy of most other countries, was the slowest rate in 25 years.  It’s hard though to tie the gyrations of the market to just the slowdown of the Chinese economy.  That would completely leave out human nature and the irrational impulses of investors or perhaps the all the rational follow-the-herd mentality that often pervades markets.  A sell-off in one market is usually going to lead to a sell-off around the world, especially in this day and age when everything is so interconnected.  But I did not set out to turn this post into a lesson about markets, investing, or even the global macroeconomy.

China never ceases to amaze me in how screwed up and fascinating a place it can be, usually all in the same moment.  The five booksellers from Hong Kong are still missing, though two have kind of turned up.  One who was allegedly abducted from Thailand (and is a Swedish national) went on national television to confess to killing a young girl in a drunk driving incident in 2003 and the other, Lee Bo, who is a British national, is somewhere in Guangdong province, but no one knows exactly where or why.  It’s galling that nearly a month after Lee Bo went missing, we still do not know where he is. Worryingly, the Hong Kong government has asked the central government and Guangdong officials and all they could get out of them nearly three weeks after he went missing is that he is indeed on the mainland.  Chinese officials do not think that the HK government merits a detailed response and so the HK government and its people still remain in the dark about whether mainland law enforcement officials actually came down and abducted Lee Bo, as well as the other four missing men who are connected to this particular publishing house.  What’s more troubling is that the mainland allegedly took these men away because they did not like the content of the books these men were publishing, which tended to be gossipy take-downs of top mainland officials.  All of this adds up to some serious violations of “one country, two systems”, which was the policy that has undergirded the handover of HK from the British to the Chinese.  China has become more and more brazen about violating this policy and the Hong Kong people are truly powerless to stop it.  In the grander scheme of things, it unfortunately dovetails with a number of other moves on the mainland that reflect a central government still attempting to snuff out any sort of dissent.  From President Xi telling government officials that some questions should not be asked to the continued takedown of government officials on charges of corruption to the conducting off war exercises off the coast of Taiwan the other day, nearly a week after the election of Tsai Ing-wen, reflecting a Taiwanese electorate that increasingly sees itself as Taiwanese and not Chinese.  In one bizarre move last week, nearly 45,000 people, mostly from the mainland, criticized Tsai for her pro-independence stance.  It’s known the comments came from the mainland because they were using simplified Chinese characters versus Taiwan, which uses the traditional ones.  It’s bizarre because Facebook is still blocked on the mainland unless you have a VPN, so many suspect it was the work of government-enlisted individuals who were able to evade the Great Firewall to post on her page.  While some Taiwanese supporters pointed out this irony in reply comments, Tsai probably had the best post of all replying, “”The greatness of this country lies in how every single person can exercise their right to be himself or herself.” (“這個國家偉大的地方就在於每一個人都有做自己的權利”)

Tsai FacebookPretty brilliant reply to what was probably a coordinated mainland response seeking to rattle her so soon after being elected.

And that my friends is a bit of what went down this week that leaves me sitting here shaking my head wondering what’s next, but still insanely intrigued and fascinated by the things that happen in this country.  Stay tuned for more.

Divorced from Reality

January 17, 2016

I spent a large chunk of the last week sitting in meetings with our Chinese partner talking about expansion throughout China over the next several years and one thing I was struck by was how all of the conversations were completely divorced from the macroeconomic reality in China.  There was no mention of China’s economic troubles, whether it be the falling stock market, an oversupply of housing, falling economic growth, overcapacity in the manufacturing sector, or any number of statistics that point to a rapid deceleration of the the Chinese economy.  The only thing that came up was the devaluing the the Chinese renminbi and its mention was prompted by the Americans in the room.  Equally absent was any discussion of the current political situation in China, though that is slightly less surprising.  However, on the whole if we were sitting in a roomful of American or European business executives, the economic climate would have certainly been a part of the discussion and even maybe one or two political quips, including some comment about how unfathomable Donald Trump’s candidacy is and the sad state of American politics.  But there was none of that in these meetings.

It’s often something I wonder about when I see people wandering the mall or around me at a restaurant – what do they think about what’s happening in their country?  Do they even know what is happening in their country?  It’s very likely they may not be fully aware of what is going on since they would need a VPN to read foreign news sources and the Chinese media is largely silent as to the country’s economic doldrums.  Plus most people are too busy watching tv shows and movies on their phones to pay attention to the news, whether it’s CCTV or one of the many government publications sitting untouched in the newsstands around the city.  My meetings last week confirmed for me that there is a disconnect between what the reality of what is happening in China and how people are engaging with that reality.

Much has been written about the housing glut in China and no matter what city I travel to, I’m usually greeted with too many cranes to count as I drive into town from the airport. So many cities seem to be all about building new central business districts replete with malls, office buildings, and more apartments.  And yet the question is the same – who is going to move here?  If the government is seeking to continue its drive to urbanize and move the rural population into the cities, I cannot imagine that they are going to be re-settled in these luxury housing developments that continue to rise all over the country.  The malls are a whole other phenomenon.  How many luxury malls does a country need? Apparently there is no limit, but when I was in Chengdu I walked through a few of these new malls and some were eerily empty, both of people and stores.  Apparently the SCMP and I went to some of the same malls.  In Shenzhen the malls seem to be more for strolling than shopping with most people just wandering the mall, taking pictures, eating and drinking, but not really holding shopping bags.

I think at this point there is no disagreement that the Chinese economy is slowing down. The problem is that nobody quite knows how much.  The official statistics are less telling. It’s more about reading between the lines or anecdotal evidence of such a slowdown. It will be interesting to see what number the government announces on Tuesday for 2015 GDP growth.  There is so much gray when it comes to this country and not only on the economic front.

Over two weeks ago, Lee Bo, a publisher of books critical of the Party disappeared in Hong Kong. He was the fifth person to disappear in connection with this particular publisher.  He was last seen at his warehouse in Hong Kong before New Year’s and since then there have been a series of odd occurrences including phone calls to his wife from a Shenzhen number where he is speaking Mandarin rather than the Cantonese he uses at home and a letter to his wife that he is going to be away for awhile taking care something on the mainland.  The Hong Kong government has asked Beijing where he is and over two weeks later they still have not received an answer.  The issue at stake is that because of the whole “one country, two systems” between HK and China, Chinese law enforcement officials are not supposed to be coming into HK and taking away HK residents.  They are supposed to go through proper legal channels if they have reason to want to interrogate someone.  Coming in and secretly ferreting a HK resident across the border is a serious violation of the principle behind “one country, two systems”. It’s more than problematic that Beijing has not given the HK government an answer as to  Lee Bo’s whereabouts and shows a serious lack of regard for HK and its autonomy.

So I digress.  The point of all of this writing was that I still wonder if Chinese people actually know what’s going on with their own country or simply do not care.  I don’t know if I will ever be able to get a straight answer.

A Monkey at McDonald’s

January 16, 2016

Happy New Year, albeit a bit late.  I must apologize for not writing the past two weeks, but my boss has been in town from the States and only left the other day.  While there were many things I have wanted to write about, it’s been a whirlwind with her here and there have been very few moments where I could sit down and write.  With her departure, things should return to normal and the pace of writing will pick up.  Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised, as I was out getting my coffee at the local Starbucks and some milk and apples to throw into a giant bowl of granola and yogurt, I saw a man with his monkey outside of McDonald’s.

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Outside the McDonald’s by my apartment a man with his monkey

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Yup, it was a monkey

 

More to come tomorrow.  I promise.

Chengdu Cheating

December 28, 2015

I just returned to Shenzhen after what was mostly an awesome weekend in Chengdu, but today started off with an early morning cab ride to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (熊猫基地) where my cabbie tried to bilk me for double the fare.  My hotel hailed me a cab and when we were around the corner, he pulled out his phone and put a price in and said I should pay that.  I told him to turn the meter on and he told me it was too cheap.  Then I threatened to get of the cab, which was stopped at a light, and he finally agreed to turn the meter on.  Later on today, I ordered an Uber to go to the airport and at the toll plaza by the airport, the driver asked me for RMB14 for the toll.  Absent-mindedly, I handed him the money and he paid the toll.  When I was in line for security and received my Uber receipt via email, I saw that I was charged again for the same toll.  Now maybe my driver did not know that the app would include the toll or he decided the dumb foreigner would give him some extra cash.  I’m not sure, but I quickly fired off an email to Uber to alert them to what he did.

I spent a lot of time in cabs today, going to and from the pandas and then to the airport and ending the evening with a cab back to my room in Shenzhen.  I was stunned by the lack of road decorum in Chengdu and to a lesser extent, Shenzhen.  When I am here, I don’t take cabs often because I am not going all that far.  But in Chengdu, no one really follows the lanes noted on the road and at an intersection, cars weave in and out as they’re trying to make turns.  It’s sheer chaos, but somehow it generally works as long as everyone is refusing to play by the rules.  I think the likelihood of an accident goes up if someone actually attempts to drive safely.  It’s offensive driving at it’s best and worst.

This post is meant to tie up a lot of loose ends from the weekend, but I could not help but comment on the fact that China’s rubber stamp parliament passed the country’s first anti-terror law today.  It’s an odd concept in a state where the police and other public safety agencies already pretty much have carte blanche to do that they want to reign in the population when they’re acting out of line.  It will most likely be another way to justify repressing groups or individuals who take actions thought to be against the state.  After so many years, I should not be amazed, but I find myself baffled because upon reading that today, I had the thought that I am making a life for myself out here and interacting on the regular with a state that is seeking total control over or at least the ability to monitor its population in terms of thought, expression, and actions.

But really the best thing to happen today were the pandas.  I arrived at the Base right before 8:00am with the sun just coming up and at least 30 minutes before the first tour buses arrived, so I pretty much had the place to myself.  Though I saw more Westerners there than I had the entire weekend or even in Shenzhen for that matter.  I guess all us foreigners had the same idea to see the pandas on a cold winter’s morning right after Christmas.

So without writing anymore, here are some pictures and videos of today’s main attraction.

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A panda giving face before he tears into that bamboo

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Pandas

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More pandas

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Baby pandas sleeping

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And yet another