Friday, January 30, 2009

Second-Hand Smoke, Warmth, and Chatting with the (Soon-to-be) Inlaws

China's Spring Festival is a time of gift giving. And possibly the most popular gifts of the season are cartons of cigarettes.

From Xinhua News Services:

BEIJING, Jan. 30 (Xinhua) -- Despite knowing all the harms of smoking, Li Pingping, who lives in Shanghai, still decided to buy two cartons of cigarettes as presents for her father back in southwest China's Chongqing.

"When you pick up gifts for the elders during festivals or anniversaries, cigarettes are a nice choice," she said.

Li will take the cigarettes with her on the three-hour-flight to her hometown Chongqing Municipality.

It's Chinese tradition to give cigarettes when meeting new friends or visiting relatives, either to show friendliness or respect.

But the tradition has long stood in the way of the government's and anti-smoking organization's efforts to discourage smoking.

Xu Guihua, deputy director of Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC), said "the lack of understanding and support" has made their job difficult.

Read On
I'm proud to say that I was part of the "problem" this year; Jackie and I gave two cartons of red Hao Mao (translated to "good cat") cigarettes to her dad on Chinese New Year's Eve.

The purchase was actually a bit controversial. Jackie and I bought them at a small store which we figured was legit, ie. wouldn't sell us fake cigarettes. Jackie then went home that night and told her dad that we bought red Hao Maos for him for the holiday. He said that the carton should have a date that the cigarettes were made on them. Our carton didn't and we were a bit worried that we'd purchased fake cigarettes.

On New Year's Eve when we gave Jackie's dad the cigarettes, he looked at the box and thought they looked OK.

The real test was in smoking the cigarettes though.

I watched him as he deeply inhaled the relatively expensive cigarettes. He took a few puffs and then said, "可以。是真的。" Or, "They're real."

He then went on to smoke several over the course of the next few hours.

I've been around Jackie's parents and her extended family all week. During this time span, I was probably exposed to more second-hand smoke than my entire life living in the United States. Jackie's dad, cousins, uncles, and paternal grandma chain-smoked cigarettes nearly every minute they weren't feasting on delicious home-made food (which was a rather large percentage of the time spent over the past week).

I'm a non-smoker, but second-hand smoke doesn't bother me that much. I don't think I'd like to live with a smoker who smokes inside (and yes, all Chinese people who smoke do so inside), but it doesn't bother me that much to be around smokers on special occasions.

And this Spring Festival has been a very special occasion. Honestly, the past week has to be up there with one of the best weeks I've had in China since I came here three years ago.

Although this is the second time for me to spend the Chinese New Year with Jackie and her relatives, this is the first year that I've spent the new year with Jackie as her fiance.

The difference between the two years has been stark.

Last year, Jackie's relatives were very friendly and warm towards me. But this year, they've really treated me as a family member. I've felt an amazing amount of love and warmth from them as we prepared and ate food, got a bit tipsy on baijiu, played ma jiang, went to KTV (karakoe), and did all of the other things which Chinese people do during their most important holiday of the year.

The communication between myself and the family surely added a lot to my enjoyment. This is due to me studying very hard over the past year. I still don't claim to be fluent, but I have had far fewer problems chatting with Jackie's family members this year than I did last year. Her dad and I, particularly, can chat with great ease.

One interesting aspect of our chatting is that I was told throughout the week that I've been speaking 河南话, or the dialect from Henan Province.

I live in Shaanxi Province in the middle of the map. Henan is directly east of Shaanxi.

My manager at work is from Henan and he and I speak Chinese quite often. I don't think I picked up the pronunciation from him though. Instead, Jackie said that I use the 4th tone too often when speaking and a lot of the words/sentences I say end up coming out in a Henan dialect.

Although I am studying 普通话 (standard Mandarin Chinese) and should not be happy about my Henan dialect-like pronunciation, I am thrilled to hear that I speak with one. It shows me that my Chinese is to the level where people can understand what I'm saying, even if it comes out as sounding like someone from a different province. To me, being told I sound like someone from Henan implies that I'm speaking with some degree of proficiency.

I'm back at work today and the holiday is largely over for me. Yet I'm sure I'll see Jackie's parents and relatives a time or two more before the Latern Festival in about ten days. The Lantern Festival is the official end of the Chinese New Year.

This past week reminded me a lot of Christmas at home back in America last month. I'm very content that I can have such experiences both in America with my family as well as in China with the people who are soon going to be my extended family.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Unemployed University Graduates

I've covered the employment problem that has hit China's migrant workers extensively in the past few weeks.

It turns out that those lucky enough to receive higher education are also going to be hurting.

From The Washington Post:

BEIJING - The Year of the Ox is said to symbolize prosperity through fortitude and toil. But, as China celebrates the Lunar New Year this week, millions of anxious college students are finding these qualities do not guarantee success in the country's contracting job market.

The chronic oversupply of graduates in an economy still reliant on low-end manufacturing has been a major concern for the Chinese middle class for the past few years.

Now, as the economic slowdown renders the country's employment situation "grim," their chances of getting a dream job are receding as China's growth slows.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao says 6.1 million graduates expected to flood the job market in June are facing unprecedented competition. They will join 1.5 million graduates from the class of 2008 who are reportedly still jobless.

Read On
While the sputtering world economy certainly has a lot to do with this unemployment problem, another big factor is the woeful education these students are receiving from China's education system.

Here is an interesting snippet from towards the end of this Washington Post article:
Wang Boqing, founder of the Chinese labor consulting firm MyCOS, said many companies are reluctant to hire college graduates even if they have sufficient funds. They fear that graduates will possess few practical skills despite being able to reel off reams of theories as a result of the college system's emphasis on rote learning.

"We need to emphasize a different education philosophy. You have to really understand what you are learning rather than just remembering formulas," Mr. Wang said.

I've had a large number of Chinese university students as both my friends and students over the past three years. Every student I've ever spoken with sees going to university as a joke.

The classes are very easy, students do very little, if any, higher-level thinking, and cheating is rampant.

To emphasize just how bad the cheating is, here is an article from the Washington Post from about ten days ago:
BEIJING (Reuters) - Cheaters in China's famous civil service exams have gone so far as to put micro-receivers in their ears, in order to get answers from audio broadcasts as they sit in the testing room, the Xinhua news agency said on Monday.

One thousand people, the highest number in recent years, were busted for trying to cheat in the annual central government civil servant exam, a Confucian tradition that opens the door to bureaucratic advancement.

The civil service exams are very competitive, with 775,000 people vying for 13,500 national civil service posts.

"In China's highly competitive national exams, where chances of success are very slim, many applicants, especially the less academically inclined, are lured to cheat," Xinhua said.

Read On
I reckon that a significantly large number of Chinese university students could not write a term paper or essay if their life depended upon it. From the time they were five or six years old, their entire academic life has been based upon exams testing their rote memorization.

The stress that these tests cause is unbelievable. There are two tests which are particularly important: the zhongkao (中考) and gaokao (高考) tests. These placement tests determine whether students get to go to good high schools and universities.

In my time as an English teacher in China, I have seen countless students really struggle with the anxiety that comes with these tests.

And because there is such a great emphasis placed on these tests, students are forced by their parents and schools to study, study, and study.

Chinese students often go to school well into the evening and on the weekends leaving no time for any extra-curricular activities or sports. The recreational sports leagues that I grew up playing in America are a completely foreign concept to Chinese people. Their thinking goes something like this: why should little Wang play on a basketball team when he could be studying instead?

I believe that this is terrible.

Being a product of America's public education system from kindergarten through high school, I believe America's education needs major reform. Yet I believe China's needs even greater revamping.

China is producing scores and scores of young people who know very little about anything.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Taylor's China Animoto Video

My buddy Taylor, who came to visit me in Xi'an at the beginning of the month, sent me this video he created on the website, Animoto.

If you've never seen an Animoto slide-show before, I highly recommend cracking a beer open and watching this video (it might actually be best after a few beers have already been ingested).

The video features Taylor's photos from Shanghai, Xi'an, and Cui Hua Shan:

Pretty amazing video, eh? Radically different than any other slide-show I've seen before.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Currency Valuation Rhetoric

China had an interesting reaction to Obama's new treasury secretary nominee's criticism of its currency's value.

From Bloomberg:

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- China took Barack Obama’s views on the yuan seriously. So seriously that it is doing the exact opposite of what the U.S. president would like.

China let the yuan fall the most in a month on Jan. 23, right after Timothy Geithner, Obama’s pick for Treasury secretary, relayed Obama’s campaign position that China was “manipulating” its currency. The reaction was China’s way of telling the new U.S. leader what he can do with his foreign-exchange views.

What should currency traders do now? Is a trade war brewing between the world’s No. 1 and No. 3 economies? Is the yuan about to strengthen? Will Obama risk the ire of the most populous nation to make good on his protectionist campaign-trail rhetoric? Perhaps the answer is for everyone to relax.

Read On
Obama can't serious think that China would revalue its currency to accommodate America's wishes. No, China has its own problems to be worrying about.

Obama's rhetoric surely is in preparation for the protectionism he's about to implement.

I can't quite comprehend why he, or any American consumer, has problems with China's manufacturing. I understand that a young Chinese boy or girl is assembling the products instead of an American man or woman. But America doesn't want to pay a lot of money for cheap goods. Americans thoroughly enjoy Walmart's shelves being full of cheap products made by the Chinese.

America cannot have it both ways. I'm going to get a kick out of the sky-rocketing prices that Obama is going to try to fight after he enacts his protectionist policies.

I suppose in the long run that getting cheap crap to be more expensive will help ween America off its addiction to consumption. That would be a good thing.

But I can't imagine the coming protectionism fulfilling its intended purpose: creating more American manufacturing jobs.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Insanity of Buying Train Tickets

China's train ticket policy needs serious reform. The current system does not serve its purpose.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Wuhan, China -- Railroad tickets are a dangerous business in China.

Retired military man Wang Hanlin opened a travel agency here a decade ago, but found that the best seats disappeared no matter how early you tried to buy them.


But the railroad ticket business remains corrupt and staggeringly inefficient. Its dysfunction is most glaring at this time of year, when 200 million Chinese head to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year, which begins today. It is one of the biggest migrations in the world.

Of all the forms of corruption in China, the trade in train tickets is one of those that most frustrates ordinary people. It is not uncommon for people to spend two or three days at the station trying to buy tickets.

In the weeks leading up to this year's holiday, a 60-year-old migrant worker died of hypothermia while he waited outside a station in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province to buy tickets. Last year, a young woman heading home from college was pushed onto the tracks at a station in Anhui province and killed.

Read On
I have a number of Chinese friends and co-workers who had to deal with the hassle of buying train tickets before the spring festival. It was a nightmare.

Waiting in long lines for hours was a given. If the ticket office actually had tickets, the wait was worth it.

A co-worker of mine from Inner Mongolia was unable to get a ticket after waiting in a massive line at a ticket window. Being denied the opportunity to buy a ticket, he was forced to go through another channel. He used a "ticket agent."

Even leading up to the day of his departure, he was unsure whether the ticket was real or counterfit. Fake tickets are probably as big of a business this time of year as counterfit DVDs.

I assume that his ticket was real since I haven't heard from him for several days. He was lucky I suppose.

Of course lucky is a relative term; by buying a real ticket he was afforded the opportunity of sitting on a hard seat in an oversold car for his 24 hour plus journey.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year!

Today ushers in the Chinese/lunar new year. This year is the year of the ox.

There's been a coordinated campaign from the Chinese (which has been embraced by a lot of foreigners I know) this year to use the phrase, "Happy Niu Year!" See, the Chinese word for cow (and I suppose ox) is pronounced "niu." Niu sounds pretty close to "new." Hence the very cheesy phrase.

I refrained from putting this in today's post's title since it is so lame. Thought it was worth explaining on my blog though.

Hopefully this ox year will be a better year for China than the last one has been, the rat.

Friday, January 23, 2009

China's Fledgling Hip-Hop Culture

The Chinese are going beyond simply liking artists like Eminem and are starting to produce their own hip-hop acts.

From The New York Times:

BEIJING — A week before Americans tune in to the Super Bowl, another televised mega-event will kick off on the other side of the globe. On Sunday more than half a billion people here are expected to watch the annual Chinese Lunar New Year gala. Organized by the state-owned China Central Television, the marathon event showcases the country’s musical diversity with an extensive lineup of Chinese pop stars performing hit songs. But one genre audiences are unlikely to see is Chinese hip-hop, despite its growing popularity among the country’s urban youth.

Over the last decade many students and working-class Chinese have been writing rap as a form of self-expression. Rougher and more rebellious than the well-scrubbed pop that floods the airwaves here, this kind of hip-hop is not sanctioned by broadcast media producers or state censors but has managed to attract a grass-roots fan base.

“Hip-hop is free, like rock ’n’ roll — we can talk about our lives, what we’re thinking about, what we feel,” said Wang Liang, 25, a popular hip-hop D.J. in China who is known as Wordy. “The Chinese education system doesn’t encourage you to express your own character. They feed you stale rules developed from books passed down over thousands of years. There’s not much opportunity for personal expression or thought; difference is discouraged.”

While American rappers like Eminem and Q-Tip have been popular in China since the 1990s, home-grown rap didn’t start gaining momentum until a decade later. The group Yin Ts’ang (its name means “hidden”), one of the pioneers of Chinese rap, is made up of global nomads: a Beijinger, a Chinese-Canadian and two Americans.

Read On
While I'm not into this scene at all here in Xi'an, I can confirm that it exists.

If you go to Xi'an's Bai Hui markets (where tons of counterfit DVDs, clothes, etc. can be found), you will see many shops selling hip-hop style clothing and blaring hip-hop rap music. If you are anywhere where there are young people, there will be the occasional guy with a baggy hooded sweatshirt and jeans hanging down off his ass.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fireworks Rock Xi'an Street

Reading The Shanghaiist yesterday (a very good China blog), I came across this post about a Xi'an street which nearly went up in flames this week.

The original Chinese news article about the fire can be found here. If you click through on the link, you can see a pretty wicked video at the top of the page of what went on at the scene.

Here are a few pictures from the destruction:

The street which caught fire is really quite close to where I live and work. Although the fire happened about a mile or so away from me, I was completely unaware of it. I was probably in class or eating lunch when it happened.

One might wonder how a street could be so consumed with simple fireworks. In fact, it is easy to understand how and why when you consider that stands like these are everywhere these days leading up to the Chinese New Year:

Beginning about a week ago, random fireworks have been going off day and night. Store owners stand outside their shops dropping little firecrackers as they go about their daily business. Children, who are on their winter vacation, also play with them well into the night.

The climax of fireworks will be Sunday night, lunar New Year's Eve. From about 11:00PM until 12:30AM, there will be a steady unceasing stream of fireworks being lit. It is quite an experience.

This year, I will be spending New Year's Eve with Jackie and about 15 of her relatives at her Aunt's house. It is going to be awesome. I can count on eating delicious homemade dumplings, playing ma jiang, drinking plenty of beer and baijiu, and playing with copious amounts of fireworks.

The Chinese know how to do their holidays right!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's Not Just Migrants Who Are Hurting

Readers of this blog could (rightly) accuse me of beating a dead horse when it comes China's soon-to-be out-of-work migrants.

At the moment, millions of Chinese are returning home for the Chinese New Year. The thing I find so startling is that when the holiday ends and it should be time for them to head back to the factories, many of them are going to painfully out-of-luck.

It is true that I'm talking about this phenomenon a lot. I feel justified in doing so though. I believe highlighting the millions of people who are about to be unemployed to be an important news story worth of discussion.

Now that I've laid out my doom-and-gloom disclaimer, here is some more, not-too-encouraging, news.

The Associated Press had a very good article yesterday which was packed full of telling statistics and tidbits of interesting information. Here is a snippet from the article:

The migrants' homecoming is flooding villages where wrinkled grandparents and ruddy-faced schoolchildren are the only residents for most of the year. The masses of unemployed and underemployed pose a major challenge for the Chinese government, which must cope with sinking economic growth while calming vast swaths of countryside that have grown used to large transfers of money from migrants working in factories and construction jobs in urban areas.

Migrant workers have an average annual income of about 8,000 yuan ($1,170), while farmers make about 4,800 ($700), said Zhang Jianping, an economist at Minzu University of China. Research from the People's Bank of China says migrant workers contribute 65 percent of their rural family's income.

China has an estimated 150 million rural migrants. In Yilong County, where Beiya is located, more than a quarter of its 1.08 million residents migrate off the farm to find work, according to the local labor bureau.

Read On

Meanwhile Bloomberg reports that things are getting pretty ugly in the cities as well. China's unemployment rates are poised to be the highest since 1980:

Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- China’s official urban unemployment rate jumped for the first time since 2003 and may climb to an almost 30-year high as exports slump and a slowdown deepens in the world’s third-biggest economy.


“Growth has fallen off a cliff in China in recent months,” said Paul Cavey, chief China economist at Macquarie Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong. “It does already feel like a recession for a lot of people.”

The official figure understates unemployment because it doesn’t include those who aren’t registered, including migrant workers. The state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the rate including migrant workers may be higher than 9.4 percent in 2009.

Read On
The Chinese New Year is nearly upon us. Families are reuniting and China is about to have its best holiday week of the year.

What I saw in America over Christmas last month was that even during tough times, being with family and friends can temporarily cure the ills and stresses which nag at its citizens.

For the sake of everyone in China, I hope it is a safe and joyous week next week. For many, it'll be the last escape from, an otherwise harsh, reality for some time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Xi'an Featured in US TV Commercial

Watching CNN Obama's inauguration yesterday from, I saw this Cisco commercial prominently featuring Xi'an and its city wall:

It looks as if it was shot somewhere outside the south wall. Although I can't quite tell from the video whether this was really shot in Xi'an or not. It looks really clean. Maybe a bit too clean to actually be from Xi'an.

If it was shot in a studio and not in Xi'an, they did their homework. The ad features a number of bridges going over the moat surrounding the city wall which look realistic.

This is the second time Xi'an has been featured in a US television commercial. The first was this Snapple ad from a few years ago shot at Hua Shan:

Watching this ad once again, I just noticed something very interesting.

At the very end of the commercial, you see this shot of the man walking back down the mountain from his visit with the tea guru:

Now check this out.

Here is a picture I took from the exact same spot back in October:

If you look at the staircase and the shrub on the left of the path, I think the Snapple camera man was standing about ten stairs higher up than I was. He probably shot from that stair to avoid the small light post that I caught in my photo.

Craziness. Snapple and I were, obviously, in a strong agreement about this exact spot being a beautiful shot.

奥巴马 a Best-Seller in China

Today, Barack Obama will become the 44th president in United States' history. As an American, I am so proud of my country.

Apparently China is intrigued as well.

From AFP:

BEIJING -- Young publisher Han Manchun was so taken by U.S. president-elect Barack Obama's ideas that he decided to have one of his books translated — and created an unexpected hit in China.


The Chinese version of the book — identical to the original, according to the wishes of Obama's representatives — was published in September.

The first 30,000 copies were snapped up rapidly, and the publishing house has had to re-print it several times.

A total of 100,000 copies have now been sold, without taking into account the pirated versions on the streets, and it is now one of at least 10 books on Obama available for sale in China.

According to a survey released before Obama's election win in November, the former senator was popular with urban Chinese because he represented “the 'American dream' due to his vitality, black skin and special upbringing.”

Read On
After such a depressing and awful four years under George W. Bush, the energy that is surrounding Barack Obama is so wonderful and refreshing.

I love the moves that Obama has made coming out of the gate. I truly believe that the post-partisan rhetoric he's been espousing over the course of his career is not simply lip-service. I fully expect him to be all of America's president, not just the 53% who voted for him in November. The most recent poll numbers seem to suggest that America is realizing this as well.

Obama certainly has his work cut out for him: he's inheriting two wars, a fractured government, the environment at its tipping point, and the largest economic crisis (probably) ever to name a few of the most obvious things.

If there was ever a time in US history for us to have a great president, it is now. I'm cautiously optimistic that President Obama will be that leader.

I'm prouder of America today than I have been in years.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hua Shan - Part 6

Looking for something to put onto my blog today, I came across more pictures from Hua Shan that I felt were worth posting.

My friend Andy took this one

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama's Chinese Half Brother

For months now I've been hearing from Chinese people about Obama's "Chinese brother." I just kind of nodded my head never bothering to look up what everyone was telling me about.

This article from The Associated Press enlightens me on the Obama Chinese brother situation:

SHENZHEN, China — The news release didn't say who Mark Ndesandjo was. Nor did the posters and e-mails promoting the concert Friday in Shenzhen, a southern boomtown where he played piano to raise money for orphans.

But the 200 or so people who showed up for the fundraiser at a posh hotel resort knew the man in a Chinese-style brown silk shirt was the half brother of U.S. President-elect Obama. They had a rare encounter with Ndesandjo, who has been dodging the media since his family ties were made public last summer.

For the past seven years, Ndesandjo has been living in Shenzhen, a freewheeling city just across the border from Hong Kong. The announcement for his piano concert identified him as a strategic-marketing consultant. He also helped start a chain of eateries in China called Cabin BBQ.

Ndesandjo slightly resembles his half brother and shares the same trim, athletic physique. He speaks Mandarin, is a vegetarian and practices Chinese calligraphy.

Read On
Ndesandjo is an interesting side-story to the upcoming Obama presidency.

A lot of the Chinese people I've talked with are optimistic about Obama. I've heard several people say that they think that he'll be good for China/US relations. I've even heard a person or two say that they think that this half brother will help the relationship between the two countries.

Now that might be a stretch, but I'm sure that stranger things have happened. Obama having a blood relationship with a man who is married to a Chinese woman and who has lived in China for years has to personalize the country in some way for him.

Who knows how that personalization will manifest itself as the Obama presidency plays out. It should be fun to watch.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The CCP's 60 Year Anniversary Gala

The PRC's 60th birthday celebration, to be directed by Xi'an's very own Zhang Yimou, is surely going to inspire incredible amounts of nationalism in China while at the same time weird out the rest of the world.

From The Associated Press:

BEIJING: Movie director Zhang Yimou will follow up his successful opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics by orchestrating a celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of communist China, his assistant said Friday.

Directing the Oct. 1 celebration indicates how firmly Zhang, 57, is embraced by the ruling Communist Party after last year's Olympic opening ceremony that stunned television audiences around the world.

For a time, Zhang was considered a troublemaker and had several of his films banned.

Zhang made his career directing films such as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "To Live," unflinching stories about the hardships during China's turbulent 20th century that were not well received by Chinese authorities.

He later directed less gritty works such as "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," which made his work available to a wider audience in China and focused more on historical epic.

Read On
Before people outside of China (or Americans specifically) start criticizing this celebration, they should consider the following which is about to occur next week in Washington DC:

An Obama rally from Kansas City, MO, October 2008

Chicago (PTI): U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20 is expected to cost a whopping $150 million, making it the most expensive in the American history.

Obama's inauguration expenses are likely to be to the tune of over $150 million, overshadowing the $42.3 million spent on George Bush's inauguration in 2005 and $33 million on Bill Clinton's in 1993, media report said.

Part of the spending includes emergency funding announced by the White House on Wednesday to help with the soaring costs.

The costs are likely to go up if it snows during the ceremony, as long-term weather forecast has suggested there are chances of snow on Sunday as well as Tuesday, the day of inauguration.

Further, most of the funding would be to deal with around 1.5 to two million people expected to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the United States' first African American President, a report in the Guardian said.

Read On

Obama is helping out with the funding of this massive event through private donations, with a huge sum of $50 million, yet it looks like the US tax payers are about to shell out $75 million for his inauguration.

I'm not saying that the US or the incoming Obama administration is ridiculous for wanting a lavish celebration. In fact, I believe the American people deserve to have a celebration for the ages marking such a momentous occasion.

No matter what one feels about contemporary China, this year does marks the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the People's Republic of China. The Chinese government, one would think, should have the exact same right to throw a celebration as America's does.

Urban/Rural Disparity Intensifies

It is becoming clear who is being hit hardest and where it hurts most in the current economic crisis.

From The Associated Press:

SHANGHAI, China (AP) — The politically divisive income gap between China's affluent citydwellers and its huge farm population expanded to its widest level ever last year as the economy slowed, putting millions of rural migrants out of work.

Agriculture Ministry statistics show the gap between average urban and rural incomes expanded to 11,100 yuan (about $1,600) in 2008, with the ratio between the richer city residents to those in the countryside rising to 3.36 to 1, the state-run newspaper China Business News reported Friday.

The ratio was 3.33 to 1 in 2007, with the gap then at 9,646 yuan (about $1,400).

While the statistical difference seems small, the trend suggests the economic slowdown is foiling efforts by China's communist leaders to close the long-standing, sensitive wealth gap between the cities that have prospered since economic reforms began 30 years ago, and the villages that have lagged behind.

Read On
It makes sense that those who have been living a comfortable life will be able to ride out the decline that we're currently encountering in relative comfort. It also makes sense that those who've been scraping with newly found riches in factories and migrant work will quickly fall once their services are no longer needed.

A friend of mine told me that he saw a TV program on Xi'an's local channel this week about migrant workers coming home to villages in southern Shaanxi Province. The program said that this one particular village has received an influx of workers returning home after being laid off in factories throughout China. Apparently, many of those workers were bringing skills, technology, and ideas they'd learned in factories with them back to the countryside.

For the sake of everyone involved, I hope that this report from China's state run television has some semblance to reality and is not simply propaganda. It could be a silver lining in, what will surely be, a dark time for millions upon millions of people in China's countryside.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Third Largest Economy

Honestly, I'm surprised that Germany held on to the world's third-largest GDP for as long as it did.

From Bloomberg:

Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) -- China’s economy overtook Germany’s in 2007 to become the world’s third largest, underscoring the nation’s increasing economic and political clout.

Gross domestic product expanded 13 percent from a year earlier, more than a previous estimate of 11.9 percent, to 25.731 trillion yuan ($3.38 trillion), the statistics bureau said on its Web site today. That topped Germany’s 2.424 trillion euros ($3.32 trillion), using average exchange rates for 2007.

China’s economy is 70 times bigger than when leader Deng Xiaoping ditched hard-line Communist policies in favor of free- market reforms in 1978. After overtaking the U.K. and France in 2005, China became the third nation to complete a spacewalk, hosted the Olympic Games and surpassed Japan as the biggest buyer of U.S. Treasuries.

“This number is just one more piece of evidence that China is one of the most important players on the global stage,” said Huang Yiping, chief Asia economist at Citigroup Inc. in Hong Kong.

Read On
It's interesting that Japan and Germany have been the second and third best economies for such a long time. America used to be a lot better at reconstructing countries than it does today.

I've heard a lot of people say to me that China is going to overtake America's economy in the next few years. Many other Chinese people have conceded that it will in fact be some time before China's economy overtakes the US'. As the article states, the United States most likely has about twenty years left on the top.

Of course, considering that China has 1.3 billion people, it makes sense that China's economy should one day be on top.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

China's Pollution to Worsen During Crisis

The economic crisis in which the world is currently engulfed is not what our choking planet needs right now.

From RFA:

BOSTON--China's economic slowdown is likely to result in worsened pollution, setting back efforts to clean up the environment, experts say.

Analysts are concerned that the net effect of China's recent policy decisions will be an increase in emissions, even though thousands of polluting factories have shut down due to the economic slump.

On the one hand, slower manufacturing growth means lower demand for electricity and less air pollution from power plants. But economic stimulus plans will add pollution with new construction projects, said William Chandler, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"It's hard for me to see anything good coming from this economic crisis in terms of the environment and climate change," Chandler told Radio Free Asia.

Read On
It makes sense that, during a time when money is tighter than ever, the extra effort and investment clean energy requires will not be made.

China needs to stimulate its economy. The easiest way to do this is get its massive and unskilled labor force out building things. It's unrealistic to expect that this construction will include solar panels and wind farms.

It's unfortunate that this is the case though. The world seemed as though it may have been close to a breakthrough when it comes to polluting less.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bonzi Takin' Over the CBA

If you're a mediocre NBA player marred by a history of off-the-court problems, what's the best way to resurrect your career?

From AFP:

TAIYUAN, China (AFP) — When Handel's Hallelujah chorus blares out of the gymnasium loudspeakers here it means only one thing - Bonzi Wells has slammed home another dunk.

Wells, 32, has received a warm welcome since coming here last month to play basketball, with the state media dubbing the former NBA star the best player ever to grace the Chinese Basketball Association.

Last week, in a badly needed win against the Beijing Ducks, Wells scored 19 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter as Shanxi turned a close game into an impressive 98-83 win.

In the final period, the 1.96-metre (six-foot-five-inch) guard/forward repeatedly played off the screens of his Nigerian teammate Olumide Oyedeji to beat his defender and race down the lane for slam dunks.

That's when the public address system blared a five-second snippet of Handel's Hallelujah chorus as the frenzied crowd -- few of whom were likely to know the classic's homage to the resurrection of Christ -- stood and cheered.

Read On

Wells' move to China has to be the best career-move for him. Over the course of his short career in the NBA, Wells had become one of the most dislikable players in the league.

Here is a snippet from GQ magazine and their "Ten Most Hated Athletes" article:

Not yet 30 years old, Bonzi Wells, shooting guard for the Sacramento Kings, has played for three NBA teams. “If you’ve got that much ability and you’re traded three times that early in your career,” says ex-NBA player and current ESPN commentator Tom Tolbert, “there’s obviously something wrong with you.”

Words like fumigate come up when people try to explain why GMs trade him. “It doesn’t bother him if his unhappiness infects the entire team,” says Memphis sportswriter Geoff Calkins, who recalls that when Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown was contemplating retirement (citing health reasons), “part of the calculus for Hubie was ‘It’s not worth it,’ and a big part of that was Bonzi. He helped bring Hubie down.”

When Brown’s successor, Mike Fratello, pulled Wells from a game at the end of last season, Bonzi threw a tantrum involving, characteristically, both profanity and projectiles. “This was in the final weeks of the season,” says Ron Higgins, another Memphis sportswriter, “when the Grizzlies were desperately trying to make the playoffs. Other players looked at him like, What the hell are you doing?”

Recalls sportswriter Jason Quick, who covered Bonzi in Portland: “He would flip off a fan and the next day say, ‘I blacked out.’ He’s such a con man. When the TV lights went on, he’d put on that million-dollar smile, then be an ass when they left.” He spat, infamously, on Danny Ferry. He bitched constantly at his coaches. He was fined for bad-mouthing his own fans in Sports Illustrated. He made a veiled threat after a reporter wrote a negative story about him. “He told me, ‘Don’t be surprised one day if you show up to practice with a steak over your eye,’ ” Quick remembers. “And I said, ‘If you want to do that, I’ll be a rich man.’ He said, ‘I’m not dumb enough to do it myself. I’ll have my posse do it.’ ”

It sounds like Wells has had an attitude adjustment since coming to China. He's now "willing to sacrifice himself for the team" and "do anything it takes to win." Only time will tell if coming to China really can straighten out Wells, but at least he's making the effort to clean up his image and his game. If it takes coming to China to get that change, more power to Wells for making the leap across the Pacific.

As the article states, Wells already had some fame in China before coming to play in Shanxi. This fame was largely due to having played on the Houston Rockets.

Playing on the Houston Rockets takes you a long way here in China. One might wonder why playing in south Texas has anything to do with China.

Here's the connection between the Houston Rockets and China:

Chinese people love Yao Ming. Yet they love his teammates in Houston even more.

I often ask Chinese people who their favorite player in the NBA is. Very rarely do people say "Yao Ming." Instead, about half tell me "McGrady." They are, of course, referring to Houston Rockets' guard Tracy McGrady.

McGrady's popularity is objectively evidenced by the results of the most popular selling NBA jerseys in China. McGrady, not Yao, was number one (although this year Kobe is the top seller).

I find China's obsession with McGrady amusing. Most NBA fans see McGrady as an oft-injured player who has never lived up to his potential. Yet the Chinese see him as a top superstar in the league.

More evidence of the benefits of playing on Yao Ming's team can be seen in former Duke University stand-out Shane Battier.

Battier is a decent NBA player who was able to make the 2006 US FIBA squad that played in Japan. But he's no superstar. I'm pretty sure that no American is ever going to see Battier selling sneakers on their TV screens. But in China, he's a hero:

Wells, McGrady, and Battier all prove one undeniable truth: Being Yao Ming's teammate makes you leaps-and-bounds more popular in China than you are in America.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cui Hua Shan - Part 2

These are the last of the photos I'll be posting from my trip to Cui Hua Shan last week:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Profile in Reverse Migration

The following article is a lengthy profile on a young migrant worker and the current state of flux that she and China's migrants are in as the world economy crumbles. I recommend clicking on the link and reading the whole article.

From Der Spiegel:

The promise of prosperity lured Quan Xiaoju from her home in rural China to the assembly lines in the bustling city of Guangzhou. Now, like countless other migrant workers, she is heading back home as the jobs dry up and China's boom comes to an end.

As she bids farewell to Guangzhou, a city of nine million people, there is hardly enough time for a wistful look back -- at the teeming crowds of migrant workers with copious amounts of luggage in front of the city's train station, or at its bold downtown highway, built on stilts, and still packed with cars despite the economic crisis.

The crowd pushes forward relentlessly, literally forcing Quan Xiaoju to enter the station. Xiaoju, a petite migrant worker, quickly places her belongings -- a black-and-white plaid suitcase and a small plastic bag -- on the conveyor belt at the security checkpoint before being pushed onward, then up an escalator and into one of the enormous waiting rooms.

China's global factory is shedding its slave-like workers, cost-effectively and efficiently, almost as if they too were products on an assembly line. They sit in long rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for the trains that will take them back to their home provinces, to the places they once left for China's industrial east, lured by the promise of prosperity. Xiaoju (her name means "Little Chrysanthemum") finally has time to catch her breath and look around. She has a few more minutes left before her northbound train to Hengyang, in Hunan Province, is scheduled to depart.

The station is busy as it would normally be before the Chinese New Year, when companies in Guangdong Province -- the enormous export factory that borders Hong Kong and includes the burgeoning large cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan -- collectively send armies of migrant workers home on vacation. But this time the exodus is involuntary and unforeseen, and likely to last for an extended period of time -- and the mood is understandably gloomy.

Read On
Xiao Ju's story breaks my heart. The circumstances of her existence is so bleak:

A daughter of poor farmers born into China's dying countryside. Goes to the big city to work in a factory where she's given the opportunity to slave away for miniscule sums of money. Then one day she's told to go home. Not because of any problem of her creation. But because nobody wants the shoddy jewelry she makes anymore. She then has nothing left to do but return back to the bleak rural poverty of her home village.

It's even more gut-wrenching when you think about the millions of people like Xiao Ju who are in her exact same predicament.

At the end of the article, Xiao Ju laments that the life she dreamed of one day having in Guangzhou is gone. But she seems confident that one day she'll have the chance, again, to find work in a southern Chinese factory.

Ironically, in Xiao Ju's life, slavery in a factory is freedom. Working seven days a week with toxic chemicals making low-quality goods for pennies an hour is the beacon of hope in her, otherwise, doomed existence.

Such is the tragedy of China's rural migrant population.

What's Next for The Bird's Nest?

In the Bird's Nest Beijing has a very nice tourist attraction and an incredibly ornate building. Yet there is nothing really going on inside the place.

From The Associated Press:

BEIJING (AP) — Just five months after the Beijing Olympics, the Bird's Nest is a cavernous museum searching for a new purpose.

The iconic National Stadium drew acclaim for its daring design, an engineering marvel that borders on sculpture. Now it draws about 10,000 tourists a day — mostly Chinese — who pay 50 yuan (about $7) to walk on the stadium floor, then climb through the expensive seats to a souvenir shop hawking pricey mementos recalling Zhang Yimou's dazzling opening ceremony or the three world records set by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.

A symbol of China's rising power and confidence, the stadium may never recoup the $450 million the government spent to build it, particularly as China's economic slump worsens.

It has yet to draw big-ticket events, has no permanent tenant, and only one date has been announced for this year. Puccini's opera "Turandot," directed by Zhang, is set for Aug. 8 — the one-year anniversary of the Olympics' opening ceremony.

Read On
My friend, Taylor, who is visiting from America has been surprised at how much Olympic-related stuff (propoganda?) is still floating around China.

The TV on the bus we were riding the other day had a cartoon of the five Olympic mascots in a fantasy cartoon program with flying dragons and lizards. Their likeness can be seen on billboards and in street artwork everywhere too.

Based on the amount of merchandise and images you see of the characters, you'd never believe that the games ended almost half a year ago.

It is a shame that nothing can be done with the Bird's Nest. Despite having a population of over 10 million people, Beijing, sadly, doesn't have anything to put in the stadium permanently.

Coming from Kansas City, a city in middle-America of about 2 million people that over the past fifteen years has managed to put 75,000 people into its football stadium several times a year, I think that Beijing's inability to find anything to put into the stadium reflects poorly on the state of the city's, and probably the country's, civil society.

But of course I may just be reading too much into the Nest's perma-emptiness. It does seem to be flourishing as a tourist trap.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Flat Red Bull

I've never been a big fan of Red Bull. But the Chinese versions of the drink is particularly foul. For whatever reason the drink is uncarbonated and completely flat. It is like drinking cough syrup.

The drink seems to have caught on over here though. I see the drinks in every convenient store and super market as well as in night clubs as a mixer.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chinese Savings and American Debt

In an effort to avoid further economic woes, Beijing is encouraging its nation of savers to spend their money.

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Li Wen, the manager of a Citroen auto dealership in south Beijing, is pretty proud of himself. As car sales across China dive, torpedoed by the international crisis, his figures are holding up.

He is the sort of model entrepreneur whose example the Chinese government badly wants others to follow, as the authorities pin their hopes of staving off an economic slump on a boost to local consumption.

"Stimulating domestic demand is the most important factor to cope with the global financial crisis," the governor of China's central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, said recently. "We need to adopt more comprehensive policies to support ... consumers' spending patterns."

One of Mr. Li's own policies – to offer more financing to car buyers – illustrates just how hard it could be to persuade a nation of savers to spend their country's way out of trouble.

Almost all of Li's customers – traditionally wary of falling into debt – pay cash on the nail, in full, for their autos. This year, he hopes to persuade 20 percent of them to take out loans that he has arranged with local banks. "We have to encourage consumers to buy," he says. "We dealers have to provide services to boost consumer confidence."

Read On

Later on down the article, this is an interesting clip:
The average Chinese family saves some 30 percent of its income, partly because China's social security net is weak; people have to rely on their own resources to pay for a hospital stay, for example, or for a child's education.
This savings rate, fueled by a more responsible credit culture than the West, seems to be a good thing to me. Now I understand that demand and spending stimuate economies, but the Chinese, who actually buy what they can afford, seem to be way ahead of the game compared to Americans.

Why am I ragging on the spending-crazy Americans and praising the frugal Chinese? Check out the beginning of this article from The Christian Science Monitor in 2005:
Americans have stopped saving for a rainy day.

Instead, they are living paycheck to paycheck, depending on credit cards to get them through emergencies, and hoping that the rising value of their homes will give them a retirement nest egg.

This personal economic chasm is showing up in the national savings rate, which has been declining for years. Tuesday, the Commerce Department reported that the personal savings rate fell to zero in June, the lowest since a one-month buying binge in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The United States is on track to record a savings rate for the year below 1%, which would be the lowest since the depths of the Great Depression, when the rate turned negative.

There is just a different attitude towards debt and spending in China compared to the US. Although there are signs that Americans realize how unsustainable their lives have been for the past several decades. From CNN on December 11:
NEW YORK ( -- It's a sign of the times: Americans are pulling back on the debt they use to spend and fuel the economy, while their net worth is declining.

The government reported Thursday that household debt in the third quarter fell for the first time ever. Meanwhile, net worth dropped by the largest amount on record based on data going back to 1951.

In China, I pre-pay my electricity, gas, cell phone, and internet. In this kind of society, if I don't watch how much electricity I have on my meter, the lights go out.

This seems simple enough to me now that I've been in China for a while. But when I first came to China three years ago, this lack of credit truly annoyed me. I kept thinking, "Why can't they just bill me for what I spend later?"

Now I can identify that my thinking at the time was unmistakenly one of an American who'd grown up in the most consumptive culture in the history of the world.

When I tell Chinese people about the culture of credit that I come from in the US, they cannot wrap their minds around it. Essentially, they don't understand how we, initially, get something for nothing and are then trusted to pay things back later. That seems so counter-intuitive to them.

The longer I stay in China and outside of America, the harder it is getting for me to understand America's utter dependency on credit and the encouraging of its people to live either beyond their means or to the absolute limit of them.

Cui Hua Shan - Part 1

A snow-covered bridge near the top of Cui Hua Shan

My friend from America who's visiting me, Taylor, and I went to Cui Hua Shan yesterday. Cui Hua Shan is a mountain about an hour south of Xi'an in the Qingling mountain range. The mountain is famous for its rockslides and massive boulders.

Here is a small excerpt of a (Chinglish) write up about the mountain from Xi'an Expat:
Located 20 kilometers away from Xi'an, Cuihua Mountains landside scenery national Geopark is one of the first 11 Geoparks authorized by National Land Resources Department in March, 2001 and, one of the first unveiled national parks in China as well. In the park, the highest peak Zhongnan mountain elevates above sea level by 2604m with total area 32km2 and is one of the developed fullest from landslide. With its most complete diversity of landslide appearance, most typical structure, most intact, largest scale and highest tourism value, the park is the most unusual in China and abroad, as demonstrated with search by Shaanxi Sci-tech Information Research Institute, well-known as Chinese landslide miracle scenery and geological museum.

It was recorded in records on kingdoms in the early stage of West Zhou Dynasty that at the second year (B.C.780) during the You King period of West Zhou Dynasty there had been a great earthquake in the three valleys in the middle part of Shaanxi. And in the year the earthquake resulted in rivers dried and Qishan plateau collapsed. The same record can also be found in 'On historical events' by Si Maqian, an ancient scholar of the Dynasty. It is by inference from literature records on kingdoms in the early stage of West Zhou Dynasty that the Cuihua landslide scenery was caused to from be the earthquakes following.

Read On
Here are a few of pictures I took from the mountain:

Some nice water fall action here

Cui Hua Shan's narrow path winds through thousands of boulders

A path with the peak above covered in clouds

A frozen lake amidst clouds

I love this photo. A man video taping a rooster at the bottom of the mountain.