Thursday, September 30, 2010

Red China

I saw a disturbing map the other day from a report on China's pollution from the Wall Street Journal (h/t to @danharris):

Here's an explanation of the map:
To get a sense of how China’s air quality compares with the rest of the world, there’s a new map of global air-particulate pollution from Canadian scientists using National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellite data. The verdict: It doesn’t look good.


It’s important to note that the data used for this map are derived from 2001 to 2006. But as The Wall Street Journal noted in July, authorities affirmed that China’s air quality continues to get worse, not better.

According to the NASA post, health officials say fine particulates can get past the body’s hair-like cilia defenses, penetrate the lungs and blood, and lead to chronic diseases, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and bronchitis.

Read the Whole Article
This isn't too surprising. It's still disturbing though.

The biggest drawback of living in Xi'an is its air. It's horrific. The mountains in the (not-too-far) distance cannot even be seen because of the omnipotent smog. When I lived there and was outside for too long on particularly gray days, the air made me feel like I was getting strep throat. When I used to ride my bike, I would wear a cloth facemask in a futile attempt at limiting the number of harmful particulates entering the membranes of my body.

There are plenty of things I miss about China and life in Xi'an. They greyness there isn't one of them. The fiery sunsets of the great plains are a new-found appreciation I've discovered upon coming back to the US.

Friday, September 24, 2010

China Underground

I didn't finish China Underground by Zachary Mexico. I read six of the book's sixteen chapters/vignettes. It's been the only book in recent months that I haven't finished.

In those first six chapters, I read profiles of gangsters in Qingdao blowing ketamine and partying hard with corrupt police officers, prostitutes working at a KTV parlor, and a virtuosic Uyghur guitar player trying to make it in Shanghai (who Mexico smokes hash with).

Now that I'm writing this post, those stories sound pretty cool (except for the prostitute profile which is a played-out topic for me at this point having already read similar accounts in China Road and Factory Girls). The reviews I've read of China Underground - both on Amazon and the internet at large - have been overwhelmingly positive as well. Despite thinking that I should like China Underground, this book didn't do it for me.

I appreciate Mexico's language skills and ability to document a segment of China's population that has been largely elusive to western writers. But I just found China Underground too over-the-top. The stories seemed superficial and the characters didn't resonate with me. I didn't feel as though I gained perspective or learned anything particularly noteworthy from the sections that I read.

I concede that my inability to get into the book may very well derive from me being too big of a square at this point in my life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shaanxi Pomegranates

Qian and I went to the Chinese super market near our house today to buy moon cakes (月饼) for the students Qian is teaching this fall. I enjoy shopping at this Chinese market. We can buy a lot of Chinese food products that I hadn't realize would be available in America before coming back. Every trip to the market is good listening practice for me too; there are always tons of Chinese people there speaking their native tongue (which, unfortunately for me, is usually incomprehensible southern dialects). It really is a nice little slice of China in the middle of suburban Kansas City.

One of the things we saw today was pomegranates. They were expensive - $2.70 for one. We didn't get any hoping that they'll drop in the next couple weeks as we fully enter pomegranate season. But even assuming that the pomegranates do get a bit more affordable, I'm sure the market will never offer the quality of pomegranates I had in China.

Xi'an is right next to one of the pomegranate-growing capitals of China - Lintong, Shaanxi. At this time of year in Xi'an, pomegranates straight from the farms are everywhere. They generally range in price from 1 to 5 kuai ($.18 - $.80) depending on the quality. Over the three falls I lived in Xi'an, I became accustomed to having copious amounts of insanely good pomegranates at my disposal.

Talking about my Chinese home town and one of its greatest flavors, I feel as though I should share this great article I saw recently on Twitter painting a picture of Xi'an and Shaanxi Province:

Resource-rich Shaanxi has seen significant developments in the past few years, as this most traditional of Chinese provinces enters a new century full of hope, promise and a gleaming makeover of its capital city, Xi’an.

Like the most attractive of China’s magnets for investment, Shaanxi can rely on more than one component part for attracting development and creating opportunities. Coal supplies are plentiful and of a high quality, while the province also has large reserves of natural gas and oil. While that does give it a more hardened feel to life here, the province also boasts a rich cultural history, and that, coupled with excellence in engineering academia, gives Shaanxi a fairly unique character not found elsewhere in China. From the historical perspective, Shaanxi is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.


Shaanxi’s mineral reserves are ranked the highest of all the provinces in China, and particularly coal, oil, and natural gas. Communist-led education to exploit this over the years has also led to the province having a very strong pool of well educated workers, ranked third in the country, only after Beijing and Shanghai, while most of Shaanxi’s universities – over 50 of them – provide education in many different engineering disciplines from aviation, dam building to coal and gas extraction, much of it pioneering work. Shaanxi has an additional 2,000 science and technology research institutes, and these have taken a leading role in R&D in aerospace, equipment manufacturing, electronics, and agriculture.

Shaanxi’s GDP has been developing well over the last few years, growing at about 12.5 percent per annum since 2004, and with now the expanding secondary sector accounting for 54.9 percent of this figure. Shaanxi’s nominal GDP for 2009 was RMB818.7 billion (US$112 billion) while GDP per capita was RMB21,729 (US$43,179), ranking it 14th in the PRC. The minimum wage in Xi’an is RMB760.

Natural resources are crucial to Shaanxi’s development – the province ranks third in coal production, and fifth in oil production nationwide. A complete industrial system comprising high technology, fruit, animal husbandry, tourism, national defense, energy and chemical industries also developed and is well integrated. Large reserves of natural resources have been a spur to heavy industry such as oil drills, and equipment for mining, railways, petroleum, and chemical processing. In agriculture, the main produce is fruit and grain. Regulations are also in place to encourage investments in infrastructure, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, machinery, electronics, light industry, and building materials. Utilized foreign investment in the province was US$1.2 billion in 2009, and has proven sustainable at about this figure over the past decade.

Read On
Shaanxi Province is one of China's most interesting. It's the cradle of Chinese civilization. It's topography - largely mountains and loess plateau - is unique. And it's one of the poorest yet fastest-growing provinces in China.

Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is a place that I'd recommend to any foreigner traveling to China or wanting to live abroad. The pace of life for a big city is very relaxed. Another positive is that Xi'an is not as overrun with foreigners as it seems other coastal cities in China (not that having a thriving ex-pat scene is necessarily a bad thing). There are scores of universities and job opportunities there. And as evidenced by the above article, it's not a bad place to get familiarized with for business purposes.

I'm not sure exactly why I'm writing this post. I suppose seeing pomegranates at the Chinese supermarket reminded me of my Chinese 第二个故乡 (second home). I have such warm memories and such a positive impression of Xi'an and Shaanxi in my mind.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

China Shakes the World

"Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world." - Napoleon

There is a ton of valuable information in China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future - and the Challenge for America by James Kynge. Kynge is the former Beijing bureau chief for The Financial Times. He knows his stuff.

The first half of China Shakes the World largely focuses on how China's has affected and is affecting other nations around the world with its rise. Kynge profiles a steel factory from Dortmund, Germany that was dismantled and then reassembled in China, the "China town" of Prato, Italy (which just happened to be featured in the New York Times a couple days ago), and the, now, dreary rust belt town of Rockford, Illinois. These stories are somewhat dated - they are from the first half of this decade - but are still very relevant and insightful.

The second half of the book focuses on China and its domestic issues. Pollution, the social problems arising from the transition from a planned to open economy, and issues regarding China's lack of political reform are all explored. There is a lot to take in from these chapters. I took a lot of notes.

I always try to highlight something that caught my eye in these book review on this blog. It took me a while to decide what to feature in this review. There is so much in this book. I eventually decided to go with a passage from the chapter, "The Collapse of Social Trust," on page 169:
The horrific nature of such cases (the contamination of blood supplies with the HIV virus in Henan Province and the authorities knowledge of such events) provides a bleak commentary on contemporary society. It also detracts from the national image. To some people, that may seem a mere inconvenience. But the reputation of a country, like that of an individual, is of inestimable value. China has much going for it in this regard: an ancient culture, sparkling traditions in literature and the arts, the accumulated wisdom of thinkers over thousands of years, the size of its potential power, the taste of its cuisine, king fu and other martial arts, the diligence and intelligence of its people, the gleaming skyscrapers in cool new cities such as Shanghai, and of course the cuddly giant panda. But against these positive associations are a raft of less alluring images: shabby products, counterfeit goods, ripoffs of intellectual property, exploited labor, human rights abuses, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, official nepotism and corruption, the persecution of religion and other forms of spirituality, a sick environment, outbursts of angry nationalism, and opposition to the exiled Dalai Lama. All or any of these impressions, plus others too numerous to mention, can coalesce to shape the attitudes of people in the West when they read the label "Made in China" on products. The resulting image, or brand, is often far from positive, and Chinese companies pay handsomely every year for the poor perceptions held in the west.
I really like this paragraph. It sums up China's "brand" issue so well.

China just has so much going for it in so many different ways. The mystery and romanticism surrounding some its most ancient and traditional customs are one-of-a-kind. There is not another culture on earth that can compare to what China's has to offer.

Yet at the same time, China has just so much going against it in the eyes of the international community. Kynge's exhaustive list in the paragraph above only scratches the surface. The many positives China's culture brings to the table are tarnished on a daily basis.

Such is the dilemma of being a country with many remnants of its fascinating past developing at an unprecedented pace often at the expense of the rest of the world. Kynge doesn't have the answers to China's "branding" problem. But he does do a wonderful job of laying it out.

China Shakes the World is both meaty and accessible. That is a very difficult thing to achieve. I was reminded a lot of China Road by Rob Gifford as I read this book. I mean that as a great compliment. China Shakes the World makes a great economic-leaning companion to Gifford's book. Being a largely economics-focused book written more than five years ago, it is dated. But that shouldn't keep someone interested in China from reading it. There is more than enough timeless material in this book.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The China Fantasy

The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression by James Mann is a short, quick-hitting book about, as Mann says in the first sentence of his book, the "China he has encountered outside of China." Mann is a China hand who's spent much of his life watching China from news rooms in the United States. The goal of his book is to make his readers re-think their conceptions about China's political system and the direction China is heading.

Mann says that the US political and media establishments are essentially divided into two camps when it comes to China and its political future - those who believe in the "soothing scenario" and those who believe in the "upheaval scenario."

Those in the "soothing scenario" camp believe that "eventually, increasing trade and prosperity will bring liberalization and democracy to China." Basically, the more China opens up economically, the closer China is getting to real political reform. Liberalization under the current regime is inevitable.

Those in the "upheaval scenario" camp believe that "things can't go on the way they are in China and that eventually the current system will be pushed to the breaking point." Basically, China's current Leninist system will not be able to keep control in the coming years and decades. There will be an earth-shaking upheaval. It's just a matter of when.

Mann doesn't believe either of these conventional wisdom schools of thought. He lays out a convincing argument that there might be a "third scenario:"
What if China manages to continue on its current economic path, yet its political system does not change in any fundamental way? ... What if China becomes fully integrated into the world's economy, yet it remains also entirely undemocratic?
This "third scenario" sounds like a very likely outcome to me. Mann does a good job laying out the reasons why he believes that there is a good chance China develops economically but not politically. In fact, in the weeks since I finished the book I've found his ideas to be an insightful prism through which to view China news.

First, I want to highlight a passage from page 98 and 99 of The China Fantasy:
In May 1998, then secretary of state Madeleine Albright landed in China to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Clinton. She had planned to give a speech in Beijing on the subject of the rule of law. Shortly after she arrived, the China Daily "coincidentally" published a story about what China was planning to do to improve the rule of law. When the time came for her speech, Albright proudly help up that day's newspaper to her audience as a sign the situation in China was already getting better. "Clearly, both your leaders and your citizens recognize the need to strengthen the rule of law," she said. She did not seem to grasp that the newspaper story was not some random, independent bit of journalism but had been timed specifically to influence her and her trip.

In that same spring of 1998, while Clinton was deciding whether to visit China, the Chinese leadership suggested on a number of occasions that change was in the air. There was a lot of talk of political reform, of a new "Beijing spring," of a loosening of controls on political debate. In the end, Clinton decided to make the trip. On the day he arrived in China, a handful of dissidents moved to establish an opposition party, the China Democratic Party. The event, too, was taken as a sign of change in China. That fall, when top representative of the Human Rights Commission was preparing her own trip to China, the authorities said they might consider letting the China Democratic Party operate in some provinces.

Clinton and the UN representative had smooth visits to China. Then, at the end of 1998, after all these prominent visitors had returned home, Chinese authorities made their move. They cracked down on the fledgling party, ended its operations, and sent all its leaders to jail. The talk of a a Beijing spring ended, as it often does, with the reality of Beijing winter.
Now I want to highlight an editorial from The Wall Street Journal from a few weeks ago about comments that Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, made about political reform:
As the Chinese nation grapples with a series of disasters — floods, landslides and now a plane crash — some in the Party are clearly trying to prevent what they see as another calamity: the further postponement of political reform.

And it is becoming clearer that Premier Wen Jiabao agrees with them.

Symbolism and celebration matter greatly in Chinese politics. When China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping wanted to restart economic reform in 1992, he made a trip to the south of the country, blessing the Special Economic Zones as the fire of China’s future, singling out Shenzhen in particular.

Over the past weekend, Wen made his eighth visit to Shenzhen since becoming premier. The inspection trip was supposed to be celebratory, praising Deng as the architect of opening and reform, and emphasizing the importance of China not straying from the socialist path of the past 30 years. Wen paid obeisance to much of that sentiment, placing flowers at the foot of a statue to Deng at a Shenzhen exhibit.

Wen’s sojourn to Shenzhen was also intended as support for “talking about economics, not politics” — the central Party dictum under Deng wherein ideology took second place to the great rush toward a more robust economy.

But here Wen went well off-message. Instead of engaging in platitudes, Wen insisted that strengthening socialism depended on producing political reform to protect the gains that economic restructuring had already provided.

Wen did not stop there. People have the right to criticize and monitor the government, he intoned, and the bureaucracy needs to start paying greater attention to those made most vulnerable by economic success. Wen did not bother to use codewords such as “democracy with Chinese characteristics” or “accountability,” and he also lashed out at what he cast as the overcentralized and unrestrained system of power in China. For a trip that was supposed to be a simple celebration of success, Wen’s comments were pointed, and profound reminders of what was still lacking.

None of that made the conservative wing of the Communist Party happy. Cadres in that camp were quick to corral much of Wen’s rhetoric. While the local press felt free to feature the Premier’s remarks in close to full-form, the central Party media offered only truncated versions of Premier’s remarks, and reverted back to an economic focus as the new week began. The official discourse defaulted again to the main line of “no politics, if you please.”

Read On
This seems to be the same thing - CCP leaders giving lip service to political reform - that tricked Madeline Albright over a decade ago. I literally read this story about Wen Jiabao from August 25th minutes after reading that section above from The China Fantasy. It was pretty amazing, actually.

I'm not the only one who sees the emptiness of Wen's comments from late August. Below is an article from The China Media Project highlighting the usage of the words "political reform" from China's leaders:
The issue is now back in the spotlight. Why? Because Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) said on a recent visit to Shenzhen to commemorate the city’s 30th anniversary that: “We need not only to promote economic reform, but must also promote political system reforms. Without the guarantee provided by political system reforms, the results of economic reform will be lost, and the goal of modernization cannot be achieved.”

Was this a bold and forward-thinking statement from the Premier? Did Grandpa Wen go off script?

No, not really.

Any statement on political reform is significant. And at the very least, Wen’s statement offers an opportunity for Chinese media to push more searchingly on this issue. But let’s not forget, either, that Wen Jiabao said the exact same thing during this year’s National People’s Congress back in June, when he delivered his government work report.

Read the whole article
Go check out the full article at the CMP. It's a really interesting study.

Over the past few months, I've come to the firm conclusion that there is little to no chance of meaningful political reform in China in the coming years. I don't think I'll be buying into any of these "soothing scenario" arguments any time soon. Saying that, I'm not much of a proponent for the "upheaval scenario" either. The CCP's grip on power continues to impress me.

Weighing in at only a little more than one hundred pages, The China Fantasy reads more like a think-tank paper than a book. I was disappointed it is so short. Mann's writing style and tone are a bit off-putting as well. But I did find the book to be a very helpful tool in my quest for crystallizing what China is and the direction it is going.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

AmCham-China Podcasts

I found a treasure trove of China podcasts for all of the China news/culture/politics/economics nerds out there. The podcasts are all produced by the American Chamber of Commerce from the People's Republic of China - AmCham-China - and can be found here.

So far, I've listened to the following:

Bill Bishop (@niubi on Twitter) talking about Chinese real estate.

Jeremy Goldkorn (from talking about censorship.

Zachary Karabell talking about the US/China economies and his book Superfusion.

There are dozens more discussions on the site with prominent China thinkers that I look forward to listening to (Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Peter Hessler, Evan Osnos, etc.). The ones I've heard so far have been quality. Go listen.