Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mobile Shanzhai

The Chinese are world-class copy-cats. And they have a strong tradition of counterfeiting too.

From The New York Times:


SHENZHEN, China — The phone’s sleek lines and touch-screen keyboard are unmistakably familiar. So is the logo on the back. But a sales clerk at a sprawling electronic goods market in this Chinese coastal city admits what is clear upon closer inspection: this is not the Apple iPhone; this is the Hi-Phone.

“But it’s just as good,” the clerk says.

Nearby, dozens of other vendors are selling counterfeit Nokia, Motorola and Samsung phones — as well as cheap look-alikes that make no bones about being knockoffs.

“Five years ago, there were no counterfeit phones,” says Xiong Ting, a sales manager at Triquint Semiconductor, a maker of mobile phone parts, while visiting Shenzhen. “You needed a design house. You needed software guys. You needed hardware design. But now, a company with five guys can do it. Within 100 miles of here, you can find all your suppliers.”

Technological advances have allowed hundreds of small Chinese companies, some with as few as 10 employees, to churn out what are known here as shanzhai, or black market, cellphones, often for as little as $20 apiece.

Read On
This part of the NY Times article is great:
So far, however, China has done little to stop the proliferation of fake mobile phones, which are even advertised on late-night television infomercials with pitches like “one-fifth the price, but the same function and look,” or patriotic appeals like “Buy shanzhai to show your love of our country.”
Here is the video that the Times article linked up to:



Love the English in this video.

A couple weeks ago I referenced Peter Hessler's "Rivertown." A truly great book on contemporary China (even if it was written in the late 90s).

There is a fascinating passage from the book where Hessler writes about shanzhai culture in today's society as well as the long-standing tradition it has in China. From page 258 of the book:
The demand for Nalgene-knockoff bottles was much more understandable, especially in a tea-drinking city like Chengdu, where the bottles spread quickly throughout the city's social strata. They were first acquired by cab drivers, who tended to be at the forefront of such trends - cabbies had a certain maverick quality, as well as plenty of money. After that, the businessmen followed suit, and then xiaojies, and finally by summer even the old people in the teahouses were sipping their tea out of fake Nalgene bottles. Soon you could buy them for twenty yuan in any Sichuan city or town.

The bottles came with a label that described them as American-developed Taikong Pingzi - Outer Space Bottles. But they were clearly the product of Chinese factories, because they weren't quite standard and often the label was misspelled. In that regard things hadn't changed greatly from the seventeenth century, when a Spanish priest named Domingo Navarrete described the business methods in China. "The Chinese are very ingenious at imitation," he wrote. "They have imitated to perfection whatsoever they have seen brought out of Europe. In the Province of Canton (Guangdong) they have counterfeited several things so exactly, that they sell them Inland for Goods brought out from Europe."
Some things never change. Modern "Hi-Phones" are just the 21st century manifestation of something that the Chinese have honed for centuries.

I was really surprised to read that the Chinese tradition of copying goods goes back hundreds of years. There really is something long-standing about the Chinese ability to produce high-quality fakes.

This culture of counterfeiting goods passed on through generations is sociologically and anthropologically fascinating to me.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Worthless Degrees

Last month, I talked about the acceptance of cheating and the general poor quality of many of China's universities.

Today, The Wall St. Journal has provided an excellent article on the crisis that many Chinese universities face. The problems go much deeper than cheating:

University students at a job fair in Nanjing

NANJING, China -- Zhang Weidong has been making the rounds at this city's weekend talent fair for more than a month now and can't understand why he hasn't landed a job.

"These companies are looking for employees, and I have a degree," says the 22-year-old computer major, clutching a plastic organizer stuffed with résumés, business cards and company information. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong."

Unemployed university graduates used to be rare in China. But now their ranks are ballooning to critical levels just as the country suffers its worst economic slump in two decades. Up to one-third of last year's 5.6 million university graduates are still looking for work, and this year will see another 6.1 million hit the labor market. Finding jobs for graduates is suddenly a national priority: Earlier this month, the central government ordered local governments and state enterprises to hire more graduates to maintain China's "general stability."

China is suffering from a higher-education equivalent of the global credit bubble. On government orders, China's universities -- most of which are state-controlled -- boosted enrollment by up to 30% a year, year after year for most of this decade, and built vast new campuses. Financing was considered a cinch: New students would mean more tuition to pay off the loans that funded the expansion. But those plans were wildly optimistic, leaving hundreds of universities across China crippled by debt.

More serious for China's long-term prospects is that the expansion was so fast, and the pressures to pay off the debts so intense, that many of the schools turned into diploma mills, churning out poorly qualified students. Mr. Zhang got his degree from a school of traditional Chinese medicine with no history of teaching computer sciences. He looks back ruefully, recalling overcrowded classrooms and a lack of materials: "I wonder if this education was of any value?"

Read On
The article goes on to talk about how universities have built massive "university cities" and the problems some of those schools are having. This phenomenon of "university city" building has happened in Xi'an.

Xi'an has an incredibly large university population. It is the third biggest in China after Beijing and Shanghai. I don't know if every university in Xi'an has done it, but almost all of Xi'an's universities have built secondary campuses in the suburbs of the city. This has made places like the small town of Chang'an a major hub of university students. In many cases, thousands upon thousands of students are now going to school next to farms.

It's not too surprising that universities, like so many other institutions, went a little crazy with over-expansion and are now facing debt problems. While China's push to allow more of its students the chance to get a higher education is certainly noble, because of poor execution, there are now millions of students with "worthless" degrees. The story of the Nanjing Chinese Medicine University in the article above is disgraceful.

It's not just Chinese universities that have problems though. American universities also rode the bubble a bit too hard and now their endowments are tanking. From Reuters:
SAN FRANCISCO, April 27 (Reuters) - Top U.S. universities, whose endowments have been hit hard by fallout from the global financial crisis, are selling bonds to raise money to shore up their financial positions.

Stanford University became the latest top university to sell taxable debt to make up for recent losses in its endowment, the third largest of any U.S. university.

...

Stanford expects its endowment, which provides about a quarter of the university's operating revenue, by the end of August will have declined at least 30 percent from $17.2 billion a year earlier, shortly before financial markets began to crater.

Stanford's projected loss would be in line with the average loss of about 25 percent in university endowments in 2008 and the first part of 2009, said Matthew Hamill, a senior vice president at the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

...

"Assumptions institutions made about how to invest their money short term, medium term, long term all of a sudden got turned on their head when the markets went down," said Hamill.

Read the entire article
While I understand that Stanford and all other American universities needed to do something with their giant pools of money, it doesn't seem right to me that an endowment should lose 30% of it's value in one year.

Ji Wenhui, a scholar and librarian at the Nanjing University quoted in the article above, put it well:
"The reason for expanding had nothing to do with society's needs," Mr. Ji says. "The educational system was pursuing economic benefit."
I'm not sure what the solutions to these problems facing Chinese and American universities are. But I suppose it'd be a step in the right direction if educational institutions were run less like private businesses concerned with expansion and growth and were, instead, primarily focused on providing quality education.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

China: A Barbie World

Barbie, with her blond hair and ridiculous measurements (transferred into real life, 36-18-33), is trying to make a splash in China.

Here is a video from the BBC, reporting from the six floor Barbie shop in Shanghai:



Here is a write-up from The Global Post from March on Mattel's pushing of Barbie in China:

HONG KONG — Tall, blond, impossibly large breasts. Barbie stands out anywhere, but in China, she really turns heads. And that, of course, is exactly what Mattel, the U.S. company behind the Barbie doll, wants.

On Mar. 6, Mattel is opening a six-story, 38,000-sq.-ft. Barbie superstore in Shanghai. In addition to dolls — lots of dolls — the boutique will feature a hair salon, a bar and a $15,000, adult-sized Vera Wang gown.

“This is not just a store for children” said Laura Lai, general manager of Barbie Shanghai. “Girls of all ages will love it.”

Barbie’s made-in-China makeover is part of a push to re-brand the iconic American doll on the eve of her 50th birthday. With domestic sales slumping, Mattel has set its sights on China, hoping to the weather the financial storm in the relative calm of the country's vast — and comparatively untapped — consumer market.

The plan is to turn America's favorite doll into fashion fodder for China's upwardly mobile, trend-setting elite. By moving up-market and focusing on Barbie-branded merchandise, the company hopes to widen profit margins and attract a new demographic: Chinese women.

But, will they buy it?

Summer Wang, an assistant at a film production company, certainly will. "Barbie is beautiful like a princess,” she said. “And every Shanghai girl wants to be a princess."

Read On

One isn't going to be surprised to hear that I think Barbie's penetration into the Chinese market is not a very good thing. To have little Chinese girls, and their mom's too I suppose, buying into everything that Barbie represents is not encouraging.

Whenever I think of Barbie dolls, Lisa Simpson and her crusade against Malibu Stacey comes to mind. This quote from Lisa, on the effects Malibu Stacey has on little girls, is classic:


It's not funny, Bart. Millions of girls will grow up thinking that this is the right way to act; that they can never be more than vacuous ninnies whose only goal is to look pretty, land a rich husband, and spend all day on the phone with their equally vacuous friends talking about how damn terrific it is to look pretty and have a rich husband!
Well put, Lisa.

Photos of the Week - Lijiang's Bar Street

I just searched the internet for a while for a news article to put on here. Didn't find really anything to talk about.

In lieu of putting a mildly interesting news article on here today, I'm going to post some of the photos sitting on my laptop's hard drive. Seeing that my first personal blog was abandoned two years ago and my second blog is gone since I stopped paying for it, a lot of the travel photos I'd posted onto the internet have been lost, or at least buried.

So every week or so, I'd like to share some of the photos that I've taken in my three years in China.

The first place I'll highlight is the "Bar Street" from the old town of Lijiang in Yunnan Province:







I love night photography. This was obviously an amazing place to take photos at night.

I visited Lijiang in the summer of 2006. Unfortunately, I got giardiasis by eating a salad in an expensive restaurant on Lijiang's bar street. The two weeks that ensued were the sickest I've ever been in my life. My 135-pound, already lean, body dipped down to 120 pounds. I couldn't keep anything inside my body and had no appetite. A couple of the toughest weeks of my life, those were. Thankfully an American doctor working at a leper's clinic in Kunming was able to set me straight eventually (it's a long story).

So my memories of Lijiang are mixed. It's a very charming, although touristy, little place. But I couldn't really enjoy it too much as I was getting deathly ill.

Lesson learned, don't eat salads near in China. Especially near the Himalayas.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Terracotta Servants

A Chinese professor of ancient history has an interesting theory on why the terracotta "warriors" near Xi'an were built.

From Xinhua:


XI'AN, (Xinhua) -- A Chinese history academic is refuting the modern interpretation of the First Emperor's terracotta army, saying the figures are servants and bodyguards, instead of warriors as many people believe.

"The clay figures should be taken as copies of the emperor's guards and servants," said Liu Jiusheng, associate professor of history at Shaanxi Normal University. "Their layout in the pits, with chariots and horses, represented grand ceremonies with the emperor's presence."

Many people believe the 2,200-year-old terracotta army, buried around the mausoleum of Qin Dynasty's first emperor about 35 km east of Xi'an, indicated the emperor had wanted the clay warriors to help him rule in the afterlife.

The army is known to most Chinese people as the "terracotta warriors and horses".

Liu, an expert on Qin (221-207 B.C.) history who has been studying the terracotta army for more than 20 years, ruled out the hypothesis.

"It's against the Chinese tradition and value systems to bury clay warriors in imperial mausoleums -- the Chinese traditionally value peace in the afterlife," Liu said.

In his April, 2009, publication on terracotta research, Liu said the clay figures were most likely modeled after imperial court officials, servants and bodyguards, all of whom were people of high social status. "Men of humble origin or ordinary soldiers couldn't have got so close to the emperor, even in his mausoleum."

Read On
The article goes on to say that "Liu's argument is still not widely accepted." This may be because it is dead wrong. I don't really know. I do find the rather bold assertion he's made to be an amusing one though.

For those not too familiar with the terracotta "warriors" near Xi'an, here are a few basics on the place.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang began building the army of terracotta figures in 210 BC in an area about an hour's drive east of Xi'an. In addition to building this massive army, Qin is also famous for beginning the construction of the Great Wall, standardizing weights and measures and currency, and for unifying "China" for the first time.

One aspect of his life and the terracotta army that I find particularly remarkable is his love of mercury. Mystics back at that time period told him that ingesting mercury would give him everlasting life. He started regularly getting acquainted with the liquid metal and obviously lost his mind in doing so. Mercury-induced psychosis and mania would go a long way in explaining why the guy went to the trouble of spending thirty-six years building a massive army of life-like people. His tomb, which has not been unearthed, supposedy has rivers of mercury flowing through the place.

Seeing the terracotta army with these things in mind makes the visit a very enjoyable experience. The warriors, residing beneath airport hangar-like structures, are not that visually stunning. But taking in the warriors in conjunction with the bizarre history surrounding the construction of the site and the man responsible truly do make it a worthwhile place to visit.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Buying Friends

The developing world no longer sees befriending The United States as a solution to their problems. More and more, it is turning to China for aid.

From The Washington Post:

Photo from Xinhua News

BEIJING -- With Jamaica's currency in free fall, unemployment soaring and banks heavily exposed to government debt, the Caribbean island's diplomats went into crisis mode earlier this year. They traveled to all corners of the world to seek help.

Jamaica's traditional allies, the United States and Britain, were preoccupied with their own financial problems, but a new friend jumped at the opportunity to come to the rescue: China.

When contracts for loan packages totaling $138 million were signed between the two countries in March, China became Jamaica's biggest financial partner. Headlines in Jamaica's leading newspapers, which only a year ago were filled with concern about China's growing influence in the region, gushed about its generosity.

"The loan couldn't have come more in time and on more preferred terms," E. Courtenay Rattray, Jamaica's ambassador to China, said in an interview. While the island nation continues to value its close relationships with Western powers, he added, in some respects Jamaica has more in common with China. "Those are developed countries. They don't have such an in-depth understanding of the development aspirations of Jamaica as does China," he said.

Overseas aid and loans are just one way China is asserting itself in its new role as a world financial leader. While polishing China's own image, Premier Wen Jiabao and other top leaders have blamed the West for the global economic crisis. Chinese officials increasingly are challenging the primacy of the dollar, warning other countries about the danger of keeping reserves in just one or two currencies, such as dollars and euros. And as the global economic crisis has eroded faith in U.S.-style capitalism, there's growing talk that a new "Beijing Consensus" will replace the long-dominant Washington Consensus on how developing countries should manage their economies.

Read On

China, seeing an opportunity to assert itself during the financial crisis, is whipping up support and alliances with countries around the world. While this phenomenon surely worries some in the West, China is completely justified in wanting to be the one to fill in the gaps that the US used to be able to before it had such severe problems of its own.

It's easy to see why China could be seen as a preferable partner over the US to work with. Whereas the US aid came with assurances of commitment to free markets, fighting terror, and other things America loves, China, largely, has no guiding principles when it comes to shelling out money. From the Post article:
In a report last month titled "The Beijing Consensus," South Korea's Ministry of Strategy and Finance sounded an alarm over China's aid and loans. Developing countries that accept Chinese assistance, it warned, may lower their guard and gravitate toward a Chinese-style economic model.

Jamaica's Rattray dismissed those fears as overblown. China's financial assistance to his country came with "no requirement to adopt specific macroeconomic policy approaches," he said, and there is "no debate about the government of Jamaica's commitment to a free-market economic model."

China most likely sees these loans as long-term chances to improve its reputation as opposed to remaking the world into its ideological mold (whatever that may be):
Michael Pettis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of finance at Peking University, says China's recent moves are more about public relations and aiding diplomatic allies than a true effort to remake the global financial system or to push a new model of development.
With all of the attention in the media and government now on the failure of Ameria's financial institutions and the subsequent financial crisis, we are largely forgetting the awful foreign policy under Bush and the consequences that his actions and decisions continue to have today.

The US is going to end up spending trillions (yes, trillions) of dollars on the Iraq war. Think about all of the things the US could've done with that money. Instead of fighting a shadow insurgency with a poorly thought-out war plan, it could've invested in developing countries who need the money to grow. That kind of investment, as opposed to inposing democracy through war planes, would've been a lot more effective.

With America weakened, China is seizing the opportunity to use its vast economic resources to position itself better for the future. I say more power to China for being able to do it.

The US blew any chance it had to fill this role when it elected an incompetent president, chose to start a war it didn't need to, spent recklessly on a war it hadn't planned for, and refused to see the writing in the sand and change approaches in the five plus years it's toiled in Iraq.

The US and its politicians are going to increasingly moan about the increasing influence of China, but one of the main causes of China's rise and the US' demise is the US and the disastrous decisions its people and politicians have made over the past decade.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Getting Old

Men grow old, pearls grow yellow, there is no cure for it.
- Chinese proverb

From The Associated Press:

Photo from Daylife.com

BEIJING (AP) — China's rapidly aging population threatens the country's social and economic stability and could affect the prospects of other countries around the world, a U.S. study says.

The current ratio of 16 elderly people per 100 workers is set to double by 2025, then double again to 61 by 2050, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

By 2050, there will be 438 million Chinese aged 60 and over, said the study, jointly produced with the Prudential Foundation. Of those, 103 million Chinese will be 80 or older.

China, however, remains a relatively poor country and only about one out of three urban workers has any sort of pension coverage, the report said. The burden of supporting the growing number of elderly would pass to a proportionately shrinking working population.

By the 2020s, demographic trends may be "weakening the two principal pillars of the government's political legitimacy — rapidly rising living standards and social stability," the report said.

Read On
The report that this article refers to from CSIS can be downloaded here. There are lots of interesting things to note in the lengthy report. This paragraph, in particular, really struck me:
China may be the world's oldest living civilization, but for most of its history it has been a demographically young society. As recently as the mid-1960s when Mao Zedong called on the nation's youth to launch the Cultural Revolution, China's median age was 20, meaning that half of the population were children or teenagers. The elderly made up just 7 percent of the population, about what they had since time immemorial.
This graph, from the report, is a useful way of looking at China's aging problem:



This problem of China getting too old can, more-or-less, be boiled down to the following two things: improved quality-of-life standards that now let Chinese people reach their elderly years and China's one-child policy.

One of the many benefits of China's modernization is that its citizenry can now enjoy a longer and more healthy life. This is mildly surprising given China's pollution problems. But, in fact, modern advancements in medicine and living standards are outweighing any problems associated with pollution. As the report states, the age-expectancy of a Beijing resident is 80 and a Shanghai resident 81, older expectancies than people in most other developed nations enjoy.

Then there is the one-child policy. On China's male/female ratio crisis, I was hesitant to say that the one-child policy is 100% to blame for the problem. I conceded that there are a lot of cultural things in play as well. But on this issue of aging though, I believe that the one-child policy is directly leading to crisis.

It's pretty simple; if children do not replace elderly people, the population will age and ultimately contract. The CSIS report talks about how the people who decided to implement the one-child policy knew that it would eventually cause problems. But the out-of-control population at the time was seen as a bigger threat than too many old people in a generation or two. So the policy was put in place with little thought about the future consequences. (This kind of reminds me of the "don't give up eating for fear of choking" situation I discussed the other day.)

The consequences of those decisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s are now crystallizing.

China is going to have a massive problem when all of the millions of single children out there, the ones who will be responsible for making China a superpower, are going to have to take care of two elderly parents.

I wonder how long China will be able to avoid putting their elderly into nursing homes, a practice that is widely thought to be degrading and undignified in Chinese society. I don't see how China will be able to avoid going in that direction.

The social consequences of a society that is so elderly are going to be massive. Add China's aging crisis in a generation or two to the long list of problems that the country, and the world, are going to have to deal with.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What's in a Name?

Chinese children whose parents wanted them to have a unique name are running into resistance.

From The New York Times:


BEIJING — “Ma,” a Chinese character for horse, is the 13th most common family name in China, shared by nearly 17 million people. That can cause no end of confusion when Mas get together, especially if those Mas also share the same given name, as many Chinese do.

Ma Cheng’s book-loving grandfather came up with an elegant solution to this common problem. Twenty-six years ago, when his granddaughter was born, he combed through his library of Chinese dictionaries and lighted upon a character pronounced “cheng.” Cheng, which means galloping steeds, looks just like the character for horse, except that it is condensed and written three times in a row.

The character is so rare that once people see it, Miss Ma said, they tend to remember both her and her name. That is one reason she likes it so much.

That is also why the government wants her to change it.

For Ma Cheng and millions of others, Chinese parents’ desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order. Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one, complete with color photos and embedded microchips. The new cards are harder to forge and can be scanned at places like airports where security is a priority.

The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that Miss Ma and at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common.

Read On
I thought that these statistics were particularly remarkable:
By some estimates, 100 surnames cover 85 percent of China’s citizens. Laobaixing, or “old hundred names,” is a colloquial term for the masses. By contrast, 70,000 surnames cover 90 percent of Americans.

...

The potential for mix-ups is vast. There are nearly enough Chinese named Zhang Wei to populate the city of Pittsburgh.
I just talked with Qian a bit about why China has so few surnames. She said that it is largely based upon ancient traditions of land-owners giving their surname to all of their servants and everyone that worked for them. So if the Wang family or clan was particularly wealthy, their name would spread. Qian also said that, in some cases, entire villages would change their name to one common surname for identification purposes.

I still don't feel as though I completely understand why Chinese surnames are so limited though. If any readers have good insight into Chinese surnames and their limitations, feel free to share your comments on this post.

The given name issue is different from the surname though. Theoretically, any character could a suitable given name. What I mean is that the universe of choices isn't limited to the one hundred or so characters that surnames are largely constrained to.

I think that the fact that China is currently having problems with the given name part of the name is largely due to Chinese being a character-based, rather than alphabet-based, language system.

In alphabet-based langauges, names are pretty much limitless. There are several variations of common names - Mark, Marc, Marcus - as well as the more non-traditional names that people in alphabet-based languages get named.

Looking at my favorite college basketball team's roster - the University of Kansas Jayhawks - from this past season, one can see a very wide variety of unusual names: Cole, Sherron, Mario, Markieff (variation of Mark!), Tyrone, Tyshawn, Tyrel (a white guy), Quintrell, Brady, and Brennan. In a diverse place like America, given names are truly unlimited.

In China though, there is a very set number of choices - the prescribed characters that make up the language. One can't really make up characters by throwing strokes together in the same way one can make up a name in English by throwing letters together.

For this reason, I can see why China is wanting its people to have some sort of standard when choosing their names. Especially in this more electronic age, it really is a problem if one's name can not become digitized.

While it sounds like there are a whole lot of people like Ma Cheng with unusual names (the article says sixty million) who are running into trouble because their parents tried being unique, a vast majority of parents don't seem to mind choosing from the more conventional choices. In the same way that Johns and Steves and Marks are everywhere in English-speaking countries, a lot of parents don't see a child's given name as the place to try to be inventive.

I don't think the government should have the right to dictate whether one's name is suitable or not. But it is probably a good idea for parents to think about whether the name they give their child is a good one. Handicapping a child with an extremely unusual name, whether in Chinese or English, is not always the best idea.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chinese are Spending

Although China is famous for its enormous savings rate, Chinese people are opening up their wallets during the financial crisis.

From The Wall St. Journal:

Photo from Daylife.com

BEIJING -- Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said Beijing's stimulus measures are helping consumer spending and growth, and while he warned of some "prolonged difficulties" as the financial crisis spreads, foreign auto makers and other manufacturers already are seeing an unexpected rebound in sales in China.

The resilience of Chinese spending contrasts with sharp cutbacks by American and European consumers, and may help China recover faster from the financial crisis.

Mr. Wen said consumption growth has been especially fast in less-prosperous central and western regions, and auto makers' results support that claim.

A torrent of bank lending, spurred by the government, is increasing investment in China. Consumers are out shopping in response to incentives such as lower mortgage rates and tax cuts on car purchases.

Economic growth slowed to 6.1% in the first quarter, as retail sales, after adjusting for price changes, rose 15.9% for the period. While that was slower than the 17.7% rise in spending in the fourth quarter of last year, economists say the growth in consumption is encouraging given rising unemployment in the country and the contrast with shrinking consumption in other major economies.

Mr. Wen has stressed that "confidence is more important than gold or money," and consumer spending levels suggest Beijing's efforts to boost morale are working.

Read On
China's in a much better position compared to the West, and particularly America, because it can, to some degree, spend its way out of its problems. Whereas America is throwing its money into black holes of toxic assets, China can actually do productive things with its money.

The West got so addicted to debt and spending that the only thing its citizens can do at this critical juncture is deleverage and stop spending so much. Racking up debt is a foreign concept to Chinese people. They've only bought and only buy things that they can afford. Such novel concepts.

In addition to being traditionally frugal, China is also unique in that while the eastern regions of the country are already very built-up, the interior of the country is still largely undeveloped. So China can build-up its less-developed parts while the coastal cities are in trouble.

Again, the conundrum that is China. It's a massive, relatively modernized economy, yet it's largely debt-free and still has considerable under-developed areas where it can focus its resources and energy.

The only concern about this news of rising spending rates is that the momentum seem to be based on China's stock market success. From the WSJ article:
Mr. Walker says that while his customers, who can afford to spend more, aren't influenced by state subsidies on car purchases, China's buoyant stock markets are helping. "At the moment all the signals we're getting look positive" for a good year, he says.
I've been talking recently about the amount of free-flowing credit going into the stock market and whether China's gains are in fact a "suckers' rally."

Whether these are serious problems will be known in time. But for now, China can use its unique status as a country whose citizens aren't mired in pyramids of debt and whose interior is ripe for development to its advantage.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Rockstar Status Fading

The financial crisis is making it harder for western guys who've contracted "yellow fever."

From Asia Times:
HONG KONG - As if formerly high-flying Western bankers and financiers haven't suffered enough, now there is an additional indignity: Chinese women have lost interest in them.

According to two recent nationwide surveys by the matchmaking website hongniang.com, mainland women keen on finding a foreign partner plunged from 42% to 16% over the past year.

For that dramatic decline, you can blame the financial crisis, which has made Western society - especially its male avatars - look unstable to Chinese women considering their romantic (which tends to be intimately linked to their financial) future.

...

Mixed marriages, which reached 400,000 last year, had been on a steady rise in China until the US subprime mortgage crisis started a global financial meltdown that has turned a Western partner into a poor prospect in the eyes of many Chinese women. Not only do the hongniang.com surveys show the number of women seeking a foreign mate has dropped significantly, but approval of such unions has also fallen by 20%.

While all this should be good news for Chinese men, their prospects also don't look terribly bright. China's one-child policy, coupled with a traditional preference for male children, has created a gender imbalance that will leave already choosy Chinese women even choosier. And, no matter what choices those women make, 32 million Chinese men face a future without any hope of marriage, according to a study published online last week by the British Medical Journal.

Read On

Photo taken from philawdelphia.files.wordpress.com
This article, by Kent Ewing, is a nice, in-depth look into why Chinese women appear to be losing interest in men and the factors that are involved when a Chinese woman chooses a husband.

In my three years in China, I've seen quite a lot of western men get with Chinese women (I haven't seen a lot of western women getting with Chinese men, but I have seen it a couple times). And of course I'm with a Chinese woman, so I'm somewhat of an authority on this topic.

I've taken the more serious relationship route that many of my peers also have. I'm engaged to my girlfriend and plan on being with her, obviously, for the rest of my life. I have several western friends who've gotten married, are engaged, or are in serious long-term relationships with Chinese women.

Those of us who've chosen this path haven't taken it lightly.

Being with a Chinese woman involves a lot of work on understanding Chinese culture. The expectations that Chinese women have of Chinese men are a lot different than that of western women. Indeed, being in a cross-cultural relationship adds a whole new dimension, and possible difficulty, to the relationship.

In my opinion, being with a Chinese woman has its advantages and disadvantages. Qian would probably not like me to discuss the inner workings of our relationship with anonymous people on the internet, so I will just leave it at that. But be sure that there are lots of compromises to accomodate the other going in both directions.

I like how the article above talks at length about the economic factors a Chinese woman has to consider when choosing a man to be with for the rest of her life. I've seen Qian struggle with this. She has to somehow gel her parents' expectations of what a husband should be and what I am.

The lack of a social safety net - modernized health care, retirement, education, etc. - makes financial stability an absolute must for a man hoping to marry. A man needs to have a good job, a new apartment, and a fair amount of savings before he is "ready to marry."

This is a problem for Qian and me. My salary is relatively high by Chinese standards. But my lack of a purchased apartment and high savings concerns Qian's parents and extended family. Also, going back to America, I have no assurances of a good job. In fact, I have assurances of a terrible job market and, very likely, under-employment.

In the two plus years that I've been with Qian and the times that I've interacted with her family, I believe that they are more-and-more growing to like and trust me. But gaining their trust has not been easy. Qian's family is relatively conservative and they're having to take a huge leap-of-faith on accepting Qian's decision to be with me.

Considering the beating that the US and the West have, justifiably, taken in the Chinese media regarding the financial crisis, it's very easy to see why young Chinese women (and their families), who have to be concerned about financial stability, would be wary of western men.

I'm not implying that Chinese women with western men are "gold diggers" or are out for money. I'm sure some of them are, but a majority of the ones that I know with western men are not. Qian certainly isn't. I've made it clear to her that a philosophy major from a middle-class midwestern American family with very few connections is not going to be a ticket to riches. She understands this. As I'm confident anyone reading this who has met Qian could testify to, she's not that kind of a girl.

Going forward in these times, life is going to be tough. Qian knows this. Being involved with a foreign man adds a whole different wrinkle to her life. But we believe that what we're doing will be worth the added complications.

Although the percentage of Chinese women who'd consider being with a western guy has dropped, I'm sure western guys with visions of women hanging all over them will continue to have, at least some, success.

There is a very large number of young women who are more liberalized and who are willing to have the kind of "casual" relationships that are commonplace in the West. I'd say that this will be the case for at least the next decade.

When that time period comes and the grossly out-of-balanced male/female ratio is in full force though, I have to imagine that there will be severe nationalistic backlash against Chinese women who choose to be with western men.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Don't Give Up Eating for Fear of Choking

The largest dam in the world - the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River - is wreaking all kinds of havoc these days.

From Xinhua News:


CHONGQING, April 17 (Xinhua) -- The rise and fall of the water level in the Three Gorges reservoir has triggered 166 geological hazards and forced 28,600 people to relocate in Chongqing Municipality since last September, local officials said.

Since the water levels behind the dam rose from 145 m to 172.3 m on September 28 last year, these geological disasters including landsides and mud-flows have caused economic loss of 539 million yuan (79 million U.S. dollars). No casualties were reported, said Wen Tianping, spokesman of Chongqing government, at a press conference Thursday.

The people whose houses were liable to suffer damage had moved to safe places where new homes have been built. Some are living with their relatives, he said.

Read On
The problems with this dam are too long to rattle off in one blog post. In fact, we don't even know the extent of the problems that the dam may ultimately cause. New waves of difficulties with the dam are constantly coming to light.

From Earth Times:
Beijing - China's Three Gorges Dam, due to be completed in November, is getting bigger every day on all fronts. While officially the government said it has spent 180 billion yuan (26.35 billion dollars) on building the 185-metre dam and a reservoir stretching more than 600 kilometres, local critics and foreign observers said the real figure could be more than twice that amount, and that's just in the construction phase.

A new figure emerged in local media, indicating that nearly 100 billion yuan would have to be spent over the next 10 years to manage the myriad social and environmental problems that have risen alongside the dam's concrete wall.

The financial magazine Caijing and local newspapers reported that 98.9 billion yuan would be needed over the next decade. Of this, 38.2 billion yuan would be spent on environmental protection.

Read On
Nobody should be surprised by the new problems that are arising on an almost daily basis. The project, from the beginning, has been over-the-top. Everyone involved with the decision to do it took the potential costs into consideration.

I'm about to finish the book River Town, by Peter Hessler. Hessler is a really good writer from Columbia, Missouri who's written for publications like The New Yorker and National Geographic. He, along with Edgar Snow, keeps the tradition of prominant China writers from the Kansas City area going.

River Town is about Hessler's two year Peace Corps experience in Fuling, a city in between Chongqing and the three gorges, in 1996 and 1997. The book is a must-read for any westerner living in China. It's also good for anyone wanting an enlightening read into modern China. I highly recommend it.

I found his writings about the Three Gorges Dam, which at the time was just in its earliest stages of planning and development, to be a particularly good part of the book. Fuling is a city that's been affected greatly by the dam.

To hear the way Hessler describes people talking about the contruction of the dam in the late 90's and the effects it'd have in the future is very interesting.

From page ninety-nine of the book:
I taught my writing class from a Chinese-published text called 'A Handbook of Writing.' Like all of the books we used, its political intent was never understated, and the chapter on "Argumentation" featured a model essay entitled "The Three Gorges Project Is Beneficial."

It was a standard five-paragraph essay and the opening section explained some of the risks that had led people to oppose the project: flooded scenery and cultural relics, endangered species that might be pushed to extinction, the threat of earthquake, landslide, or war destroying a dam that would hold back a lake four hundred miles long. "In short," the second paragraph concluded, "the risks of the project may be too great for it to be beneficial.

The next two sentences provided the transition. "Their worries and warnings are well-justified," the essay continued. "But we should not give up eating for fear of choking." And the writer went on to describe the benefits - more electricity, improved transportation, better flood control - and concluded by asserting that the Three Gorges Project had more advantages than disadvantages.
So there you go. All of these recent developments - land slides, out-of-control costs, increasing amounts of displaced persons - were taken into consideration.

But despite these costs, "one shouldn't give up eating for fear of choking."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Foreign Press' Coverage of China

Is the western media anti-China? A lot of Chinese people think so.

An editorial from Timothy Garton Ash in the Los Angeles Times does a nice job discussing whether there is any truth to this idea:

Photo found on currybet.net

In China, there is a widespread belief that Western media give a distorted picture of what's happening there. There's some truth in this, but it's not for the reasons that Chinese Communist Party members or nationalist "netizens" imagine.

...

However, this slant is not because of "anti-China" policy or prejudice. Hard as it may be for many Chinese to believe -- because their own media reflect the policy of their party-state -- Western governments have almost nothing to do with it. The cause lies in the West's commercial news business, which is going through one of those "gales of creative destruction" that Joseph Schumpeter saw to be characteristic of capitalism.

As they compete fiercely for readers and viewers, mainstream Western media tend to stick with stories that are familiar and interesting to them.

...

Yes, their news stories on China's domestic politics tend to the sensational and the negative -- so do their stories about the domestic politics of their own countries. Those who edit and select these stories are just following the market-oriented rules of their trade: If it bleeds, it leads. Good news is no news. "Many Chinese city-dwellers moderately content with rising standard of living" is not a headline that would sell many papers.

The real problem with China coverage in the mainstream Western media is not its negativity; it's simply that there's too little of it, given the growing importance of China and the fact that Chinese culture and society is so different from ours.

Read the entire article
As you could guess from the frequency that I update this blog, I'm a hardcore China news junkie. I'm fascinated with China and what goes on in the country on a daily basis. There is no other country on the planet that has as many contradictions and nuances as China. It's really a joy for me to try to figure the place out.

One of the strange things about my China blog is that I rarely quote Chinese news sources. Nearly everything on here is from western media outlets. As an outsider, I'm using outsiders' writings on China to get to the heart of what is China. It's very strange.

The reason I can't quote Chinese newspapers very often is, of course, because of China's state-run media. Everything it prints comes with approval from above. Aside from not getting the important stories in the country, Chinese news outlets are mind-numbingly boring.

So it's just a fact of life that my reading of China on a daily basis and what I present on my blog (aside from the perspective I share based on my day-to-day life in Xi'an) depends on good journalism from western media outlets.

Overall, I'm pleased with the China news available. Agencies like Reuters, AFP, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Bloomberg, and a few others are getting a good pulse on China.

In a country as large and populated as China, there are going to be stories missed and mistakes made. Undoubtedly, China is a hard place to cover. But when I compare what I read from these sources to what I see and hear "on the ground" in Xi'an, I feel like there is a solid connection between reality and the things said about China in the western media. These outlets are doing well.

I'm worried about the current collapse of newspapers and the news industry though.

Bill Simmons, a wildly popular columnist from ESPN, has been talking about the death of newspapers a lot recently in his columns and on his podcasts. He's talked a lot about newspapers' problems in terms of sports coverage, but I believe what he's been talking about goes deeper than just sports coverage.

He has a nice section in his column from today about the mysterious end to Boston Celtics' forward Kevin Garnett's season:

There's a hidden sub-story lurking here: It involves the fall of newspapers, lack of access and the future of reporting, not just with sports but with everything. I grew up reading Bob Ryan, who covered the Celtics for the Boston Globe and remains the best basketball writer alive to this day. Back in the 1970s and early '80s, he was overqualified to cover the team. In 1980, he would have sniffed out the B.S. signs of this KG story, kept pursuing it, kept writing about it, kept working connections and eventually broken it. True, today's reporters don't get the same access Ryan had, but let's face it: If 1980 Bob Ryan was covering the Celtics right now, ESPN or someone else would lure him away. And that goes for the editors, too. The last two sports editors during the glory years of the Globe's sports section were Vince Doria and Don Skwar ... both of whom currently work for ESPN.

For the past few years, as newspapers got slowly crushed by myriad factors, a phalanx of top writers and editors fled for the greener pastures of the Internet. The quality of nearly every paper suffered, as did morale. Just two weeks ago, reports surfaced that the New York Times Company (which owns the Globe) was demanding $20 million in union concessions or it'd shut down the Globe completely. I grew up dreaming of writing a sports column for the Globe; now the paper might be gone before I turn 40. It's inconceivable. But this Garnett story, and how it was (and wasn't) covered, reminds me of "The Wire," which laid out a blueprint in Season 5 for the death of newspapers without us fully realizing it. The season revolved around the Baltimore Sun and its inability (because of budget cuts and an inexperienced staff) to cover the city's decaying infrastructure. The lesson was inherent: We need to start caring about the decline of newspapers, because, really, all hell is going to break loose if we don't have reporters breaking stories, sniffing out corruption, seeing through smoke and mirrors and everything else. That was how Season 5 played out, and that's why "Wire" creator David Simon is a genius. He saw everything coming before anyone else did.

Read the entire article

Informed people need quality journalism. China, which is covered domestically by state-run media, needs stories and information flowing out of the country from the foreign press.

If quality journalism starts fading away, the world as a whole is going to be a much more dangerous place.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Keeping Tang Culture Alive

A small group of musicians in Xi'an have taken it upon themselves to preserve the music from the most prosperous, both in riches and in culture, time period China's history.

From AFP:

XIAN, China (AFP) — An obsessive passion to revive a nearly forgotten music enjoyed by China's elite more than a thousand years ago has cost Li Kai his wife, his job and most of his savings.

But the energetic, ever-smiling 57-year-old insists he has no regrets.

"When I play the music, I'm happy -- I don't feel tired, I don't feel hungry, and I'm not bored," he said as he introduced the ensemble he set up almost a decade ago.

"I've been doing this for years, and I've never been ill. I'm happy."

The group plays every week in a pagoda in Xian in the northern province of Shaanxi, once known as Chang'an, grand capital of China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which is widely regarded as a high point in Chinese civilisation.

"I realised that this ancient music was going to disappear as no one was playing it, so I set up this group," said Li, the ensemble's drummer.

"My aim is to revive, transmit, protect and develop Tang Dynasty music. As a Chinese person, I have this responsibility," he said, wearing a green and yellow tunic like those worn by musicians who played this music for Tang emperors.

Read On
Here's a video I took of a Tang-style music performance from Xi'an's Bell Tower when I first got to China is 2006:

video

Xi'an is famous for its history. Its history goes back very far. The terracotta warriors were built around 200BC. But the greatest period of Xi'an's history is not its oldest. It is the Tang Dynasty from about 600 - 900AD.

The Tang Dynasty is known as being a period where arts and culture flourished. During this time when Xi'an (known as Chang'an at the time) was the capitol of the kingdom, Chang'an was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world. Considering a large majority of people in western countries have never heard of Xi'an, this is a cool factoid.

My ancient Chinese history is severely lacking, but from the limited amount I know, it sounds like the Tang Dynasty is a time period which should celebrated and preserved. It, more than other more warring and tragic periods, has a myriad of treasures worth preserving.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Development to the West

As manufacturing hubs and economic powerhouses in eastern and southern China go quiet, the country is looking inward for growth.

From Reuters:

Xi'an, circa February, 2006 when I first arrived in China

SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) - Like a spreading ink blot, messy and uneven, economic growth is seeping inland from the coastal provinces that have been in the vanguard of China's phenomenal growth over the past 30 years.

The shift, which has rough parallels to America's westward migration in the 19th century, has the potential to narrow the noxious income gap between China's vast, neglected interior and a relatively well-off seaboard that has hitherto attracted most of the investment by the central government and foreign firms.

...

"Although shrinking global demand will affect consumer confidence in export-oriented coastal regions, the majority of consumers in interior regions will be much less vulnerable to the slowdown in exports and property markets," said Qu Hongbin, chief China economist for HSBC.

...

"The distribution of scores is a reflection of growth potential identified by businesses. Robust development in the past decade was concentrated in the east, leaving large untapped opportunities mainly in the western and central areas," commented Sherman Chan, an economist at Moody's Economy.com in Sydney.

So it is that the fastest-growing part of China has been resource-rich Inner Mongolia. Between 2003 and 2008, the region enjoyed average growth of 19.7 percent a year.

Mainly rural provinces like Inner Mongolia, where agriculture accounts for over 70 percent of total employment, certainly have a lot of ground to make up. The ratio of urban to rural income per person rose in China to a record level of 3.3 in 2007, government figures show.

Worried by the yawning wealth gap, Beijing launched a "Go West" development policy in 1999 that has gathered momentum since President Hu Jintao took power in 2002. Both Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao cut their teeth running poorer inland provinces.

Read the Whole Article
Growing up in Kansas City in America and living in Xi'an in China, I'm very familiar with how second-tier-ish, land-locked cities operate.

During the recent good times of globalization, they're not quite as heady as more coastal cities. But during the downturn, they don't have as much to lose as the places whose growth had been based on unsustainable circumstances.

To illustrate this point in America, I'm posting a chart I saw the other day from Mainstreet.com that ranked the "happiest states in America" right now during the credit crisis. The states that top the list might be a bit surprising to those who think every person living in "fly-over America" dreams of one day going to the big city:

So while the interior of America didn't grow like some of the other parts of the country during the boom years, it turns out that its economy and its people weren't as addicted to the irresponsible practices that people in other parts of the country got drunk upon during the roaring 00's.

I don't have any neat charts or graphs for China in this regard, but the principle is the same.

Xi'an is a massive city that is growing incredibly quickly by western standards. But compared to the break-neck pace of growth in other parts of China, Xi'an's growth is relatively "sustainable" by Chinese standards.

Xi'an's housing/apartment prices never got out-of-control like coastal cities' (although Xi'an's commercial real estate got a bit crazy) and it's manufacturing isn't as based upon export as other coastal factory hubs'.

When studying abroad in the Netherlands in 2003, I remember meeting some American hippie at the hostel I was at when visiting Amsterdam. He was from New York City. During the course of our conversation when I told him I was from Kansas City, he said, "Kansas City, Jesus. What is it like living there?" I didn't really know how to respond to this ridiculous question. It reeked of the "I don't understand how people don't live in NYC" kind of thinking. I don't remember what my answer to the question was, but I'm sure it was rather condescending and mocking in tone.

While this whole post has been ragging on huge cities and the runaway growth they've enjoyed over the past decade, one day, I would like to get out of living in second-tier cities. I see the value of living in major cities.

Going forward, Qian and I are very open about where we'll spend our lives. In America, places in the west like Seattle, Portland, Denver, or places in California all sound interesting to us. And in the future when/if we come back to China to live (who knows in which country we'll spend most of our time), I'd like to spend some time in Shanghai or Beijing or maybe even Chongqing.

No, I'm not opposed to big cities. But I do get a bit defensive about cities in the interior of both the US and China. While they may not be as exciting, as fast-paced, or as great economically (during good times), there is definite value in the way life is lived in these places.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Texas-Style Xenophobia

Last week, a Texas State Representative made herself look pretty damn stupid.

From United Press International:


TERRELL, Texas, April 9 (UPI) -- A Texas legislator defended her comment that Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with."

Republican state Rep. Betty Brown of Terrell, 32 miles east of Dallas, said through a spokesman her comment was not racially motivated but was an attempt to solve problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes.

During a hearing Tuesday night, Brown responded to testimony from Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans. He had said people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent often have problems voting because their legal transliterated name is often different from their common English name used on their driver's license and on school registrations, the Houston Chronicle reported.

"Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese -- I understand it's a rather difficult language -- do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?" said Brown, whose comments were posted on YouTube Thursday.

Read On

Over the weekend, Ms. Brown rethought her comments, or at least her political future, and apologized.

While it's easy to say that Ms. Brown is an ignorant, minority view, the fact of the matter is that I'm sure there are a great deal of people who agree with her. Brown's spokesman said that 90% of Texans want a voter ID law, an idea which, to me, reaks of being anti-minority. Whether that number is correct or not remains to be seen. 90% is a very high number. But even if the number is off, I wouldn't be surprised if Brown really was speaking for her constituency in at least some sense.

America is the melting pot of the world. It has a black president. But to think that all corners of the country are progressive and colorblind is far from true.

This issue of Asians changing names hits very close to home for me. My fiancee, 耿倩, is going to be changing her name later this year after we get married. While she's pretty sure what that name will be, what she's going to go by on a daily basis is open to some debate.

耿倩 in pinyin (romanized Chinese) is Geng Qian. "Geng" is the third tone and "Qian" the fourth. Chinese family names come first and given names second. So Geng is the family name, Qian her given name.

Chinese people call her either Geng Qian, Qian, or Qian Qian. Qian Qian is a kind of cutesy nickname that friends or family call her.

I don't call her any of these things. I call her "Jackie." Jackie is the English name she chose when she was in high school. There was no particular reason why she chose that name. Just something she liked. She's not sure, but it may have had something to do with Jackie Kennedy and liking her. Jackie has never claimed to be a Jacqueline shortened to Jackie. She's just Jackie.

I met Jackie when working at an English training school. She was a Chinese English teacher and I was a foreign English teacher. In that environment, every Chinese teacher goes by their English name. No foreign teacher at that school knows any of the Chinese teachers' Chinese names. In fact, many of the Chinese teachers don't even know the other Chinese teachers' names. There's no real need to learn them.

So while I was teaching at the school, I worked with a bunch of Chinese people who I only knew by their English names: Kristy, Jane, Tiger, Doris, Bernice, and, of course, Jackie.

Seeing that my relationship with my fiancee was largely based out of the English training school environment we were involved in, I always referred to her as Jackie. I still do. In the two years we've dated, I've never made a concerted effort to stop calling her "Jackie" and to begin using her Chinese name. There just hasn't been any reason to. She fine with what I call her (I've asked) and so am I.

Being from Kansas City in middle-America, I figured that when we eventually go to America one day, she could just be Jackie. While I really like her Chinese name, we are already in the groove of using Jackie and I reckoned that it would just be easier for Americans to wrap their heads around.

Qian is actually a beautiful name. In terms of Chinese names/sounds, I think it's one of the best. To hear what it sounds like, click here. As you can see, it sounds kind of like "Chee" and "An" put into one syllable. To me, Qian sounds a lot better than some other Chinese sounds that I hear all the time. Sounds such as Dong, Wang, or Chang.

When back home this past Christmas, I had a conversation with my mom, Aunt, and female cousin. We were talking about "Jackie" when they asked me what her real name is. I told them "Qian." They all thought it sounded so great and that she should use that when she comes to America. I agreed that it is a nice name but explained that being spelled Qian, I could imagine infinite amount of mispronunciations and difficulties with the name. I wasn't sure if it would be worth the effort. The family members I was talking with, a group of relatively conservative midwestern women, all assured me that it isn't too difficult and that they loved it.

This was pretty surprising to me. I previously had thought that they'd be the type of people with the biggest problem with the name. But in fact, they gave Qian a ringing endoresement.

I told Jackie about the rousing response Qian got back home. She was pleased to hear that. She said, "Well, why don't I just use that when I go to the US?" I had no problem with this and have no problem with it now. Although I'm sure that her transition from Jackie to Qian, if she does indeed go forward with it, will be hardest for me more than anyone else seeing that she's been Jackie to me for the past two plus years.

I'm fine with going for it if it is indeed what she decides to do upon going to America.

If anyone is still reading this ridiculously long post, I'd be curious what you think about Qian Jacqueline and what name she should go by in America. Will Qian be too much trouble for Americans who have no idea the Q in Qian should sound like a CH? Will this be a lot of headaches for her? Would it be better for her to make Betty Brown proud and just be Jackie?

No matter what she does, I hope that Jackie/Qian can have as little contact with ignorant people such as Betty Brown as possible. People who think that being "Qian" as opposed to "Jackie" is somehow un-American don't seem to, in my opinion, have a very good understanding of what The United States of America really is.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Economic War Games

The financial crisis is causing the US to rethink just about everything it does. One of the most important areas being reconsidered is its planning for future wars and its best options for combating future enemies.

From Politico (h/t to The Automatic Earth):

Photos from The Daily Mail and AP

The Pentagon sponsored a first-of-its-kind war game last month focused not on bullets and bombs — but on how hostile nations might seek to cripple the U.S. economy, a scenario made all the more real by the global financial crisis.


The two-day event near Ft. Meade, Maryland, had all the earmarks of a regular war game. Participants sat along a V-shaped set of desks beneath an enormous wall of video monitors displaying economic data, according to the accounts of three participants.

“It felt a little bit like Dr. Strangelove,” one person who was at the previously undisclosed exercise told POLITICO.

But instead of military brass plotting America’s defense, it was hedge-fund managers, professors and executives from at least one investment bank, UBS – all invited by the Pentagon to play out global scenarios that could shift the balance of power between the world’s leading economies.

Their efforts were carefully observed and recorded by uniformed military officers and members of the U.S. intelligence community.

In the end, there was sobering news for the United States – the savviest economic warrior proved to be China, a growing economic power that strengthened its position the most over the course of the war-game.

Read On
Is there even any question at this point in time as to whether China is a superpower or not? It looks like China may even be able to overtake the country that's been the superpower for the past twenty years - the United States.

The Politico article goes on to talk about the lessons learned from the exercise and some reasons why the Chinese were, in fact, the winners of the simulation.
At the end of the two days, the Chinese team emerged as the victors of the overall game – largely because the Russian and American teams had made so many moves against each other that they damaged their own standing to the benefit of the Chinese.

Bracken says he left the event with two important insights – first, that the United States needs an integrated approach to managing financial and what the Pentagon calls “kinetic” – or shooting – wars. For example he says, the U.S. Navy is involved in blockading Iran, and the U.S. is also conducting economic war against Iran in the form of sanctions. But he argues there isn’t enough coordination between the two efforts.

And second, Bracken says, the event left him questioning one prevailing assumption about economic warfare, that the Chinese would never dump dollars on the global market to attack the US economy because it would harm their own holdings at the same time. Bracken said the Chinese have a middle option between dumping and holding US dollars – they could sell dollars in increments, ratcheting up economic uncertainty in the United States without wiping out their own savings. “There’s a graduated spectrum of options here,” Bracken said.
Indeed, the US is in a precarious situation. It's gambled its future on backing up toxic assets and saving its failed financial systems. It now is married to possible adversaries because those countries are financing its "economic recovery" packages.

Seeing how poorly the Pentagon has handled the wars its been mired in so far in the twenty-first century, I'm concerned about how my country would conduct itself if the world economy continues to tank and countries across the globe get increasingly desperate.

Sure, W. is no longer the president. But I haven't seen profound change from Obama and the way he's running things. From the guy in charge of the financial systems to the guy in charge of the military, Obama seems to be very conventional in who he's chosen to help him run the country.

I admit that things are getting better with Obama as president. But to say that the status quo has been completely changed from the Bush presidency just doesn't seem to be true to me. And in the end, the president can only do so much as one person. Even if Obama is leaps and bounds smarter than Bush, if the people around him are the same people who helped run America into the ground with the previous president, well, that's a serious problem.

The fact that these war games brought in such a wide variety of people and agencies shows that the battlefield in future conflicts will be exponentially larger than where soldiers or war vehicles rove. The institutions that Obama builds and that work for him will be the ones that determine the future of the US.

Friday, April 10, 2009

China's Looming Male/Female Ratio Disaster

I've talked about the ticking time bomb that is China's male/female a number of times on my blog before. There is some fresh data today that highlights just how big of a problem it is.

From AFP:

PARIS (AFP) — Selective abortion in favor of males has left China with 32 million more boys than girls, creating an imbalance that will endure for decades, an investigation released on Friday warned.

The probe provides ammunition for those experts who predict China's obsession with a male heir will sow a bitter fruit as men facing a life of bachelorhood fight for a bride.

"Although some imaginative and extreme solutions have been suggested, nothing can be done now to prevent this imminent generation of excess men," says the paper, published online by the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

In most countries, males slightly outnumber females -- between 103 and 107 male births for every 100 female births.

But in China and other Asian countries, the sex ratio has widened sharply as the traditional preference for boys is reinforced by the availability of cheap ultrasound diagnostics and abortion.

This has enabled Chinese couples to use pregnancy termination to prevent a female birth, a practice that is officially condemned as well as illegal.

In China, an additional factor has been the "one-child" policy.

Read On
32,000,000 too many boys. Think about that number for a minute.

It's the population of the Netherlands and Chile, combined.

It's unfathomable to consider just how big of a problem this male/female ratio in China is.

The article goes on to say that the western autonomous regions (which are mostly ethnic minorities who are not strictly held to the old-child policy) are the only parts of China that have normalized male/female ratios. This seems to point to the one-child policy as the main cause of this problem.

China is heading more in the direction of relaxing its one-child policy.

Jackie told me recently that if she was to marry a Chinese boy who is an only child, then she'd be able to have two children. The reason is because Jackie is also an only child. Young Chinese adults, who were on the first generation to be affected by the one-child policy (which went into effect in 1979), can have more than one child if their parents observed the law.

Modifying some rules of the one child policy does not mean that there is going to be a large-scale reform of the law though. In the spring of 2008, there was some speculation about that possibly happening.

From The Associated Press on March 2, 2008:
BEIJING (AP) — China may consider changing its one-child policy because it has succeeded in helping to slow population growth in the past three decades, a Chinese official said Sunday.

The policy, launched in the 1970s, has produced "very good results," said Wu Jianmin spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to parliament.

There would be an estimated 400 million more people in China without it, Wu said.

"The one-child policy was the only choice we had given the conditions when we initiated the policy," Wu told reporters at a news conference the day before the CPPCC convened for its annual session. However, he added, "when designing a policy we need to take into consideration the reality."

"So as things develop, there might be some changes to the policy and relevant departments are considering this," Wu said without giving a timeline or details on which departments would be involved.

Read On

Seeing international headlines that was China reconsidering its one-child policy appears to have spooked the Chinese policy makers. I say this because any thought about doing away with the policy was completely refuted in the press just a couple days later.

From The New York Times a week later on March 11, 2008:

BEIJING -- China's top population official has ruled out changing the country's one-child family planning policy for at least another decade, refuting speculation that officials were contemplating adjustments to compensate for mounting demographic pressures.

The official, Zhang Weiqing, minister of the State Population and Family Planning Commission, said China would not make any major changes to the overall family planning policy until an anticipated surge in births is expected to end roughly a decade from now.

"The current family planning policy, formed as a result of gradual changes in the past two decades, has proved compatible with national conditions," Zhang said in a front-page interview published Monday in China Daily, the country's official English-language newspaper.

"So it has to be kept unchanged at this time to ensure stable and balanced population growth."

Read On

It's pretty obvious that there isn't going to be any drastic change in the one-child policy, which one would seem justified in saying has helped cause this male/female crisis.

This lack of willingness to change official policy seems to support what I've suggested before - that a cultural shift in attitudes is going to have to be the solution here. As I wrote earlier this week, it appears as though things are getting better in terms of Chinese parents being accepting of having young girls, but the country still has a long ways to go in this regard.

No matter what happens now though, young children in China are facing an unbelievable demographic problem. The skewed male/female ratios go back more than a decade. So when the primary school-aged in China right now enter adulthood in about a decade, they're going to be in for tremendous cultural challenges.

Obviously, the tens of millions of men who can't find a wife are going to be affected greatly. But to think that it will only affect them is foolish, I think. All aspects of China's society are going to suffer at that time. I have to imagine that things like crime and violence will go up when there are millions upon millions of sexually frustrated Chinese men stuck in a rut.

I'll feel bad for all Chinese people when these problems start to arise. But at the same time, the country as a whole will be reaping what its sowed. The one child policy is a draconian measure.

In the coming decade, disastrous planning mixed with a, widespread, awful attitude towards having girls as children are going to lead to an unprecedentedly large cultural crisis with no solution or treatment for China and its people.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Conundrum That Is China

Looking at China news today, I was pulled in so many different directions. There is contradictory information and conflicting news stories everywhere. I couldn't really choose just one story to feature.

An article from Reuters on Monday does a nice job of framing talks on climate change by discussing just how confounding a country China is:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Success in winning China's help with global tasks like reviving the world economy or fighting climate change can depend on which China you're talking to: the established economic powerhouse or the developing country.

China the new power holds $2 trillion in foreign reserves, including about $1 trillion in U.S. debt, and increasingly lectures rich nations on economic management. Developing China has tens of millions of rural poor among its 1.3 billion people and falls in the same World Bank per capita income rankings as Cameroon and Guatemala.

The emergence of China as a heavyweight economic player with a relatively poor population has economists scrambling for new definitions, perplexes policymakers in other countries and has some competitors crying foul.

"I can't think of any other instances where an economy at this relative level of development compared to the other leading countries in the world had such a large role to play in terms of world trade, world finance and overall contribution to the world economy," said Eswar Prasad of Cornell University.

Read On
Another article, from the Brooking Institution - a left-leaning think-tank out of DC - tries to define contemporary China for us:

Photo from Reuters
This is the fifth year in a row the Chinese government has targeted 8% growth, but the contrast between 2009 and previous years could not be more vivid. In the last two years, the leadership’s goals were to moderate China’s hyper-growth and regulate its over-heated economy. This year, the concern is on how to ensure the minimum expansion essential for income growth and job creation, issues imperative for preservation of stability in China.

Read On
And then another Reuters article from today states exactly what I'm trying to point out: getting a grasp on what's actually going on in China is not easy:


SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) - Over the past half year, the global financial crisis has wrenched asunder the gritty factory towns in China's Pearl River Delta, but some signs on the ground suggest the workshop of the world is cranking up again.

The slump is not over for the area that churns out a third of China's exports. Many executives estimate that a collapse in orders, mainly from the United States and Europe, has wiped out 20-40 percent of their business. Thousands of factories in low-margin sectors have closed, and the government's latest guess is that 23 million migrant workers have lost their jobs.

But at least the nightmare scenario of widespread social unrest now looks increasingly unlikely. And industrial Darwinism has left leaner factories poised to take up the slack when the West rediscovers its appetite for cheaply made Chinese goods...

Getting a clear picture of Guangdong, the province north of Hong Kong that serves as the world's factory floor, is not easy: as one European businessman put it, sowing confusion is a competitive advantage in the free-wheeling, free-market Delta.

Read On
(Props to Reuters today. I obviously think they've done a lot of good stuff recently. Reuters, with the LA Times, AFP, and a few other news agencies, consistently do some of the best reporting from China.)

There are so many contradictions to be found in China on a daily basis.

It's economy has been booming for years, yet poor migrants are everywhere. It's government is communist, yet it's hard to distinguish its economy from a capitalist's one. It wants to be more of an international player, yet often shuns opportunities to flex its muscles internationally.

These complexities are the reasons why I continue to enjoy reading China news and updating this blog. Trying to understand China is like trying to solve a very difficult and complex riddle. I'm not sure there are any real answers in coming to terms with what or where China actually is in its current form though.

I heard a good quote about China before. I'm not sure who it's a attributed to, but I think about it sometimes when I'm struggling to figure China out. It goes something like:
Travel to China for a week, and you'll be able to write a book. Travel to China for a month, and you'll be able to write an article. Travel to China for a year, and you won't be able to write anything at all.
This is a nice statement on China. The more you get to know the place, the more confusing it is. While I can see why this phenomenon could be frustrating for people, I love it. My fascination with China is going to a life-long one, I'm sure.