Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

I talked with one of my friends who still lives in Xi'an a couple hours ago. He told me that Xi'an's Christmas Eve was bumping. Every December 24th, Xi'an blocks off traffic into its city walls and thousands upon thousands of people descend upon the city center. I have to imagine that the number of people swells well over 100,000. There are carnival games on the street corners and people selling trinkets everywhere. It's not exactly a traditional Christmas in a western sense, but its a great scene.

Being able to spend Christmas in America is, of course, one of the great things about living in the US again. Being away from home while I lived in China was always a bummer.

Qian and I had a great Thanksgiving and have had a really nice time spending time with family and friends in preparation for Christmas. Qian started learning piano earlier this year and can now play a number of Christmas songs.

My Aunt and Uncle are coming over to my parents house this evening. Then midnight mass with my parents and Qian. Then over to another aunt's house tomorrow where about twenty-five of my family members will be celebrating the holiday.

The weather forecast says that Kansas City is about to get snow dumped on us. I hope this happens. I'd love to have a snowy Christmas this year.

Happy holidays to all!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some Holiday Tunes

This isn't Christmas music. This is the album I was part of back in 2007. I figured it'd be a nice holiday "present" for anyone visiting the blog.

Because my old blog is now kaput, this music is no longer on the internet. I'd like to make the album available to the masses, for free, once again.

Enjoy the tunes!

Band Name: The Xi'an Incident
Album Name: Wasted Time on Mountains
Recorded in Xi'an, China on September 1st and 2nd, 2007

Natan (London, England)
: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Piano on "Arise," Electric Guitar on "The Long Way Round"

Mark (Kansas City, USA): Electric Guitar

Zhang Ke (Xi'an, China): Electric Bass

Will (Boston, USA): Drums

Tracks for Download (just click the song title and it'll begin downloading):

1. Arise Written by Natan
2. Travel Light(ly) Written by Mark and Natan
3. Open Roads Written by Natan
4. Grounded from Flight Written by Mark and Natan
5. 3 Days Written by Natan
6. The Long Way Round Written by Natan
7. The Jazz Song Written by Mark and Natan
8. Leave it Outside Written by Natan
9. Gezellig Written by Mark and Natan
A few months after we released this album, Natan left Xi'an and Zhang Ke, Will, and I formed a new band for a few shows. The new singer and guitarist was Dave Rye from Norwich, England. The songs in that band were less pop-oriented and more instrumental.

Here are three tunes that the newer group recorded
on my laptop (with surprisingly decent sound quality) at a rehearsal that I'll put up for download:
1. Trippy Jam "Written" by Mark
2. The Jazz Song -> Written by Mark and Natan
3. Disco Written by Mark and Dave
There are also several YouTube videos. But I'll save those for another day.

The album, these songs, and the six shows I played back in 2007 were so much fun. My rock and roll dreams come true. They're things I will always cherish.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Yao Speaking Out on Sharks

I really like Yao Ming. This story makes me like him even more.

From AFP:

SHANGHAI — NBA star and Shanghai Sharks owner Yao Ming urged China on Friday to say no to shark fin soup to stop the overfishing of some species amid growing demand for the delicacy.

The Houston Rockets centre who recently bought his hometown's professional team, unveiled a television commercial aimed at wealthy Chinese which urges them to stop ordering shark fin soup.

"We have species that need our attention and protection," Yao told reporters at a press conference launching the campaign.

"They are endangered by excessive hunting by humans and deprived of habitats due to human greed."

The television advertisement produced for the San Francisco-based conservation group WildAid shows Yao pushing away a bowl of shark fin soup that is served to him in an upmarket restaurant.

"If you could see how shark fin is made, could you still eat it?" a voice asks as Yao looks at an aquarium in the dining room where a bleeding shark flails after its fin has been cut off.

Read On
Click here to see a graphic picture of what shark fins, ripped off of sharks, look like. Not too pretty.

I just did a search on for the video of this ad but couldn't find it. Oh well.

I never had shark's fin in China. Maybe this shows that I have never been REALLY wined and dined to a nice meal. I've eaten plenty of nice meals and banquets, but nothing as nice as having shark fin soup included.

Qian tells me that the cheapest shark fin soup costs about 100RMB (more than $10) for a tiny bowl. I remember seeing dried shark's fin in more upscale supermarkets in Xi'an (Walmart, Metro, etc.) for about 3000RMB (about $400) for a small box.

Although the article says that Chinese people believe eating shark fin is good for one's health, Qian tells me that, from her experience, Chinese people do not see any nutritional value in eating shark fin but instead eat it simply as a sign of status.

The article puts some startling numbers forward:
"Growing demand for shark fin -- driven mainly by Chinese consumers -- had caused populations of some shark species to collapse by as much as 99 percent, WildAid said."
To me, Yao Ming is tackling a noble topic trying to get wealthy Chinese people away from eating as much shark fin as they do.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Compiling My Book

I've started putting together a China photo book the past few days. It has been exhausting. Tweaking the photos, organizing them, and trying to get them into the book-creating software is a huge process. And I haven't even started the captioning yet.

I started making the book at Then, per a recommendation on the last post I made, I switched to the Book Smart software from Book Smart is way better than Lulu's.

We'll see how long this takes. I got a LOT done this past week, but it's still going to take me several more weeks. I'll let everybody know when it starts coming together. It should be really good and professional looking once finished.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Self-Publishing a China Photo Book?

Since coming back to America, I've been flirting with the idea of self-publishing a book of my best photos from China. I'm thinking a soft cover book with, mostly, 5 x 7 inch and smaller photos (ie. not a huge, hard-back coffee table book).

I'm wondering if anybody reading my blog has ever done such a thing. I haven't talked with anyone who's self-published a book. Any advice would be most appreciated.

Also, would any of you, Mark's China Blog readers, be interested in buying a book of my best photos? I imagine that I'd be able to push several copies of the book onto family and friends, but would also like to make it open to a wider audience (if anybody would actually be interested in buying it).

I literally have thousands of photos. Some of them can be found here. Several really good ones are also on the post I made on Sunday. I have many, many more photos that either aren't on this blog or aren't on the internet at all.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Top 10 Travel Destinations in China

I've traveled much more extensively in China than I have America. The people I've met, the things I've eaten, and the scenery I've witnessed in China are things that I'll never forget. China is a HUGE country that has MANY different opportunities for a traveler.

Seeing how many places I've been in China, it'd be prudent for me to publish a "Top 10 Travel Destinations in China" list. This is a subjective list of places that I enjoyed the most. So there is surely room for disagreement or discussion.

I'm going to make one qualifications before I present the list.

No metropolises are on my list. Places like Beijing, Shanghai, and, of course, Xi'an are all great cities. But this list is more focused on specific destinations and sites. I also prefer traveling to natural scenery as opposed to spending my vacation time walking down the skyscraper-laden streets of crowded cities. So while there are many worthwhile major cities in China worth visiting, I'm not including such places on my list.

To the list:

Mark's Top 10 Travel Destinations in China

10. Dali, Lijiang, and Tiger Leaping Gorge (Yunnan Province)

Scene at a lake in Lijiang

I was the sickest I've ever been in my life while visiting these three destinations. While in Lijiang, I made a major mistake; I ate a salad. The ensuing two weeks were hell. I eventually figured out I had giardiasis and fought the sickness with antibiotics.

The experience of being sick in Yunnan certainly tainted my experience there. I couldn't bike ride in Dali. I didn't hike the high trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I was able to walk around a lot in Lijiang, but I couldn't enjoy a lot of the fun things about the village.

Dali is a small village teeming with coffee shops, women in ethnic minority garb, and western hippies. It has an immensely laid back vibe.

Lijiang the perfect place to take a Chinese woman on a honeymoon.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is the deepest gorge in the world. From what I hear, the views from the high trail are more than worth the hike.

Although I was deathly ill in Yunnan, I could tell that it would've been a joy if I'd been healthy.

9. Pingyao
(Shanxi Province)

An alleyway in Pingyao

I wrote a detailed article about my experience in Pingyao here. It's something of an enigma: an oasis of Chinese history and modern travel comfort all the while being dead in the middle of China's coal country. Just walking down the streets here is an experience. Be sure to eat the local specialty - 土豆烧牛肉 (beef and potatoes).

8. The German Concession and the Beaches of Qingdao (Shandong Province)

The German section of Qingdao

I spent ten days in Qingdao by myself in the summer of 2006. I'm pretty sure it was in Qingdao that I realized I don't really like traveling by myself. Saying that, Qingdao is worth a visit.

Qingdao has a lot more character than most big cities in China. To me, it seemed as though there was the German concession area built a hundred years ago, the new skyscraper section of the city, and practically nothing in between the two.

Walking through the winding hills of the German section and the summer beaches with hundreds of swimmers are things you'll remember.

A beach with modern Qingdao in the background

7. Heaven Lake and Turpan (Xinjiang Autonomous Region)

Heaven Lake and Turpan aren't that close to each other. I'm lumping them together because they are both a couple hours (in opposite directions) from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake is what I have always pictured western Canada to look like. Heaven Lake is at an elevation of 6,500 feet and the mountains surrounding the lake tower over 20,000 feet. My brother and I camped out at the lake for one night in the summer of 2007. Although we were there in the summer during peak season, once we started walking along the paved trails, we had the place to ourselves. We hardly saw anyone. Setting up camp, eating, and lugging around heavy backpacks was a very serene day.

Me and my brother riding camels outside of Turpan

A couple days after going to Heaven Lake and taking a day to rest in Urumqi, my brother and I headed to Turpan. Turpan is an old desert oasis town along the Silk Road. It is littered with old sites and relics thousands of years old. It is HOT in Turpan. But eating in the night markets, seeing the old sites, and getting intimate with the small Muslim town is well worth being hot for a couple days.

6. The Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai (Beijing)

We were lucky enough to see a rainbow while at the wall

Jinshanling and Simatai are THE places to see the Great Wall. I've been to the Mutianyu section of the wall. It wasn't bad. But it paled in comparison to Simatai.

Jinshanling to Simatai is difficult. The beginning of the hike is about three hours by bus from Beijing (much further than any of the other sections) and it is steep. One must be prepared for a very grueling hike. In fact, I'd say only healthy people should attempt this section the wall. But the payoff for the hard work is sublime. Be sure to spend 35 kuai and ride the zip line at the end section.

5. Emei Shan (Sichuan Province)

Me, with a monkey on my back

My brother and I refer to Emei Shan as "Monkey Mountain." Talk about a mystical place.

At Emei Shan, one can run across wild monkeys, see some of the most pristine forests in China, see Daoist hermits making pilgrimage, stay in practicing Daoist monasteries, hike some of the most grueling paved trails I've ever seen, and see summits thousands and thousands of feet above ground (and the clouds).

Because we were only at Emei Shan for two days and one night, my brother and I didn't even make it to the (what I hear is) beautiful summit of Emei Shan. Even though we didn't see the entire mountain, climbing half the mountain is, by far, one of the most memorable things I've ever done.

4. Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery (Gansu Province)

My friend, Andy, two French tourists, and I were the first foreigners to visit Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery in months and months last October. The city had been closed since the riots that took place in the run up to the Olympics. Locals in the city told me they hadn't seen foreigners in months before us.

The story of how we got to the city is, indeed, unbelievable.

It involves being denied tickets on a public bus. Finally convincing the ticket sellers to let us get on the bus. Being stopped at a military check point at the outskirts of the city. Having armed guards (with massive guns) run on to the bus and bark Chinese at us (and particularly me since I was the only one of us who could speak Chinese). Being told by a slick, English-speaking government official that we were NOT supposed to be in Xiahe. And ultimately negotiating an agreement where we could see the Labrang monastery as long as we stayed where the government wanted us to, didn't leave our hotel once we got there, went straight to the monastery at 8AM the following morning, left the monastery at noon, and then left Xiahe before sundown the following day.

Yeah, it was intense. I saw a locked down and repressed community first hand.

Despite the drama of geting to Xiahe, we did end up getting to the Labrang Monastery, the most holy Tibetan monastery outside of the Tibetan Autonomous region. Thankfully, once we finally got lost in the maze of Xiahe's narrow streets, the Tibetan monks, Tibetan pilgrims, and Chinese tourists roaming the streets couldn't have been friendlier.

The highlight was being invited in by a monk into his personal residence. As Andy and the two French tourists we were with walked into the small hut, we heard monks chanting and could smell incense burning. Since I was the only person who spoke Chinese, I acted as translator for the four of us and him. We had tea and relaxed with him for about a half hour.

Getting to spend time with a monk given the situation in Xiahe and the monastery was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's something I will never forget.

3. Yangshuo and Longji Rice Terraces (Guangxi Province)

Just outside of Yangshuo

I can't believe that there is a more beautiful place on Earth than Yangshuo. Its terrain is unworldly.

Yangshuo is all about the scenery. Get out and enjoy it any way you can. Go on bamboo rides on the Yulong River. Rent a bike. Rock climb (it's supposedly the best place in China to climb).

The Longji Rice Terraces

While taking a break from adventures in and around Yangshuo, take a day trip to the Longji rice terraces. Built over hundreds of years, they are just magnificent trophies of human achievement.

2. Kashgar and Karakul Lake (Xinjiang Autonomous Region)

A scene from the Sunday market

If you've been putting off a trip to Kashgar, go now. The old city is presently being razed. Once it is gone, a true relic of Uighur culture will be forever lost.

One of the big highlights of Kashgar is its weekly market. I was blown away by the event. Thousands upon thousands of Xinjiangese from Kashgar and the areas surrounding Kashgar descended up the outskirts of town to trade goods in one market and livestock in another. These markets and the old city of Kashgar do not feel like China at all.

Incredibly, a natural scene unlike any other I've ever seen is just a few hours by car from Kashgar: Karakul Lake.

Me at Karakul Lake

Karakul Lake is at 13,000 feet and is surrounded by 25,000 foot mountains in all directions. That pretty much says it all. Pictures don't do this place justice. Camping here with my brother in 2007 was just... I've run out of superlatives.

The exotic feel of Kashgar with Karakul Lake not too far away make for a truly one-of-a-kind travel destination.

1. Hua Shan (Shaanxi Province)

Above the clouds at Hua Shan

After just writing about Kashgar and Karakul Lake, I feel like objectively they are "cooler" places than Hua Shan, a mountain a couple of hours east of Xi'an. But Hua Shan has some kind of special pull for me. I've climbed atop Hua Shan three times. Each one more intense than the last.

I don't know what it is about climbing the thousands upon thousands of steps that take one to the top of Hua Shan, one of the five Daoist holy mountains in China. All I do know is that I've never been to a place more magical than the place.

Compiling this list was fun. I really enjoyed thinking about all of the great places I've traveled in China. I can't wait until I can get back out to China to do some more!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

China's Missing Girls

The lecture I saw at the University of Kansas' Confucius Institute - "Out of the Shadows: Family Planning and Identifying the 'Missing Girls' in Rural China" - was very good. The presenter, Dr. John Kennedy from KU, has done most of his work in rural Shaanxi Province (Xi'an's Province). So that made the talk even more interesting for me.

I'll highlight some of the main points he had last night.

- The 2000 census published in the People's Daily said that there are 116.86 males born for every 100 females. The number is much higher in rural parts of the country though. He had a rate of 123 boys for every 100 girls in Shaanxi Province.

- The ideal number of children for a Chinese farmer is two boys and one girl. This number will allow the family name (姓) to live on and also give the family plenty of resources for a successful family farm.

- Young men are needed to take care of elderly parents. There is no retirement in China's countryside. Old people basically work until they die. If a family doesn't have a son, the daughters will be married off and nobody will be there to take of the parents in their final years.

- Kennedy talked about visiting "bare sticks" villages. "Bare sticks" (光棍儿) are men who cannot find a wife. There are a lot of factors that go into a man being a "bare stick" - ie. being too poor to be an attractive candidate for a woman - but one of the main reasons there are so many is that there simply aren't that many women in villages. He described "bare sticks villages" as being 100% male villages where men work day after day at a factory or on farms with no wife or family. And, of course, no hope for things to get better.

- The farmers and villagers, particularly women, from the countryside who sell fruit and vegetables in cities were discussed. I liked this section because I vividly remember the women on the streets near my apartment selling fruits and vegetables. Dr. Kennedy explained that those women usually travel into the city three or four days at a time, sell their produce to city folk, head back to their family's farm with money, and then do the whole thing again a couple days later.

- Dr. Kennedy, in his time in northern Shaanxi, came across a family with five children. After getting to know the father and having some baijiu with him, the father told him that of his five kids, only two are "registered." The other three 不存在 - don't exist.

Dr. Kennedy's main point was this: There are a lot more unregistered girls living in rural China than the official numbers of the media says there are. He gave three reasons for the out-of-whack sex ratio:
1. Abortion
2. Infanticide
3. Unregistered girls
Whereas the western media and even a lot of academics think one and two are the main culprits, he thinks that the unregistered girls situation is not well-understood and, thus, under-reported.

There are, in fact, lots of reasons for families to keep girls. No family wants to kill babies. Women can be of use around the farm and aren't simply "another mouth to feed." And ultrasounds (which are illegal) and abortions are often too costly for farmers to have.

There are also reasons for local cadres (party officials) to turn their blind eye to unregistered girls. The main things that cadres are responsible for are as follows:
1. Social stability
2. Economic development
3. Birth rate kept down
As long as the local villagers are happy and the cadre can keep his numbers down, then harmony should be achieved (and promotions for the cadre should be had).

There are a lot of questions/issues that go hand-in-hand with the issue of unregistered girls: What do they do when they're adults? How can they become legitimate? Education? He believes that until the phenomenon of unregistered girls is better addressed, these issues will continue to be a problem.

It's important to try to understand the issues that exist in China's country side. As great as it was talking with people like Zachary Karabell and Robert Compton, they, admittedly, don't know a whole lot about rural China. Their experience in China is in the cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen where economic growth is taking place. Seeing that China is such an agrarian country and that more than half of its population is still farmers, learning more about China's countryside is necessary for having a deeper understanding of China.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

China Lecture Tomorrow in KC

The University of Kansas' Confucius Institute has a lecture tomorrow night. Here is the write-up on what the talk will be:

Chinese census reports indicate an abnormally high percentage of male children born in China. Is this accurate? Where are the missing girls? Scholar John Kennedy's research in rural China has revealed large numbers of unregistered, unreported girls in China's villages. What lies ahead for these girls? What are the implications of raising unregistered girls for the girls and for their families? John Kennedy draws from his research and personal experiences in rural China to help us understand the complex issues related to gender imbalance in rural China.

This should be really interesting. I'm not sure if Qian is going to go, but I am. If anyone reading this is in the KC area, check out the website here for details.

In the next few days, I'll try to share some of my thoughts on the event here on the blog.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Crazy Story from SW China

China attracts all different kinds of expatriates.

From The New York Times:

Image of Dali from

DALI, China — Justin Franchi Solondz, an environmental activist from New Jersey who spent years evading charges of ecoterrorism in the United States by hiding out in China, was sentenced to three years in prison by a local court on Friday on charges of manufacturing drugs in this backpacker haven.

After serving his time, Mr. Solondz, 30, who is on the F.B.I.’s wanted list, will be deported to the United States, where he faces charges stemming from what the authorities say was his role in an arson rampage that destroyed buildings in three western states as a member of a group related to the environmental extremist organization Earth Liberation Front. He was indicted in absentia in 2006.

The story of Mr. Solondz’s life on the lam spanned three continents, involved at least two aliases and ended in a smoky bar in one of the world’s most authoritarian countries.

Mr. Solondz’s journey started in the fall of 2005, when he joined his mother in Italy for a wedding and then traveled around Europe and Asia. His parents say he stopped communicating with them in March 2006, just before the F.B.I. announced the charges.

The trail went cold until March 2009, when the Chinese police arrested Mr. Solondz here in the mountains of Yunnan Province after he was caught with drugs and fake Canadian identification, according to his parents. During a daylong trial last month, Mr. Solondz pleaded guilty to drug charges and asked to be deported to the United States.

Read On
Click the link and read this whole article. It is bizarre. An Evergreen State student turned narco-terrorist turned drug peddler in southwest China turned Chinese prison inmate.

I've been to Dali. I went there with my friend, Joseph, in the summer of '06 (sounds like I just missed Mr. Solondz). I'd heard all sorts of things about the place. Most of them did, indeed, turn out to be true. It's a different world there; a true hippie paradise. I was horribly sick my whole time there battling giardiasis so I didn't get to see the place as well as I would've liked. But I saw enough to know that it is a one-of-a-kind place in China.

I was shocked that such a place existed in China. I can't imagine that it will much longer though. The article makes it sound like China is on to what goes on in Dali and that authorities aren't going to turn such a blind eye on the place anymore.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Turkey Day

Today is always one of the best days of the year, here in America. I'm looking forward to a day of food and relaxing with extended family.

Fellow blogger, Josh Summers, from wrote a nice poem about a theoretical Thanksgiving in Xinjiang Province. Josh has lived in Xinjiang for a few years now. After the riots in Xinjiang this past summer, the area could certainly use some reconciliation.

Once upon a time, in a land far to China’s west
where camels did roam and merchants had passed,
where a living was made with the cattle and soil
and no one yet cared for that ugly black oil,

Two cultures collided who shared nothing the same
not music, not language nor deities they claimed.
To celebrate these differences the leaders declared
that they had arranged this fictitious affair.

A large feast was planned and everyone invited
“Bring Your Own Meat” was the theme they decided.
The natives brought lamb and fruit and flat bread
And thankfully the Chinese didn’t cook that pig head.

The locals came wearing all their colorful clothes
surprised at the dull coats their visitors chose.
When Muslim men knelt on the prayer rugs they took
the Chinese read lines from Mao’s little red book.

All raised their glass for the evening toast
The natives said “Welcome” like any good host.
“We’re happy to meet you” the Chinese replied,
“And there’s many more coming on their way from Shanghai”.

The rest is just history, or that’s what I’m told
This friendly beginning has turned somewhat cold.
Now not quite a model of harmonious living
At least we can reminisce about Xinjiang’s first Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Few Tidbits

Haven't had the time/inclination to post the past few days. I apologize to anyone annoyed by the lack of content.

Things are all good here in the US of A. Qian and I are getting ready for Thanksgiving. It'll be my first in four years (!) and it'll be here first.

I was looking around on Google News for some fun China stuff. Found a few interesting things.

- Social networking is becoming a force for change. China's urban middle-class seems to be enjoying the freedom of expression that the internet provides.

- A horrible mining accident occurred in China's northeast this past weekend.

- Some good commentary on Obama's visit to China (h/t PKD). It says that, despite the spin, the trip wasn't a failure.

It's funny. I was really expecting to come back to America and be into the news and happenings of congress and all of that stuff. Now that I'm back, I couldn't care less. I'm so bored/turned off by the news I'm hearing no a daily basis. I'm not sure why this is the case. But I would imagine that the utterly polarized state of our nation has something to do with it (Sarah Palin's book release certainly isn't helping things).

On the other hand, I'm LOVING being back to watch American sports. I could never really get to work very well for me in China. So I was basically completely cut off from sports in the US. When I was abroad in China, I told people the things I miss most are Mexican food and sports. Thankfully, tacos and college football are, once again, a big part of my life.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Recap of Obama's Trip

One of my favorite podcasts - The New Yorker's "Political Scene" - did a great job discussing Obama's trip to China this past week. The conversation can be heard here.

Evan Osnos, The New Yorker's main China writer, knows his stuff.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tis the Season

Christmas tree ornamentation... hmmmmm.

From The LA Times:

Customs officials at the Los Angeles Harbor received a shipment from China listed as Christmas ornaments.

But when they opened the "presents" Tuesday, they found 316,000 bongs and pipes.

“They’re very colorful and big,” said Cristina Gamez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Some of them are like 2 feet tall.”

Gamez said glass bongs and pipes, contained in nearly 860 boxes of cargo, are worth about $2.6 million.

Read On
It's fairly amusing that even this sector of the economy has been outsourced to China. There could be some benefits to the Chinese pipes though. Smoking out of Chinese made glass, given the problems with lead paint and other hazardous chemicals that US products manufactured in China have had in the past, could very well give their users a wide array of added stimulation.

But seriously...

One difference between the US and China that I often told my Chinese friends and former students is the difference in recreational drug cultures. In America, nearly one out of three college students smoke marijuana.

I'm not even going to try to find statistics for China. I can guarantee you that it is nowhere near America's rate. In fact, I couldn't imagine that it is even close to being 1%. Marijuana, from everything that I've seen in China, just isn't popular there. Whenever I told Chinese people (admittedly mostly well-to-do ones) about young Americans' largely lax attitudes towards the drug, they could not believe it.

The only times that I ever really heard anything about marijuana were in foreigner tourist spots - the little old ladies in Dali and stocks of it at hostels throughout Yunnan Province come to mind - and in the expat community in Xi'an, for which foreigners living in Xi'an did actually seem to have a system in place for getting the drug consistently (which I think is insane).

Although marijuana is not being embraced by Chinese people, drugs like ecstacy and cocaine seem to be catching on. Whenever I went out to night clubs with friends, it just seemed like such drugs were around. I wasn't offered the drugs persay, but a large portion of the people there seemed to be on something and I knew foreigners in Xi'an who were in to that sort of stuff (and found it readily available).

I think America's drug policy is screwed up. But China's is even scarier. People are executed for drug related crimes there. Messing around with such stuff in China is not a good idea, in my opinion.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obama to Meet His "Chinese" Family

Obama is going to meet his half-brother, who lives in Shenzhen, this coming week while he's in China.

From The Telegraph:

US President Barack Obama hopes to meet his half-brother Mark Ndesandjo and his sister-in-law during his first official visit to China. Ndesandjo and his Chinese wife live in Shenzhen - a southern city neighbouring Hong Kong - and plan to fly to Beijing to meet his famous relative.

"It will be the first time for Mark to introduce his wife to President Obama," a spokeswoman for AmCham in South China said.

Ndesandjo told China's state-run Xinhua news agency that he wanted his wife, who is from the central eastern province of Henan, to meet the US president as "she is one of Obama's loyal fans".

Ndesandjo, son of Obama's late father and his third wife, Ruth Nidesand, also said that he was delighted that the president was taking the opportunity to see China for himself during his first visit to Asia.

"I am very glad that he is coming here himself to experience Chinese culture," he was quoted as saying.

Read On
Last year about this time, I heard a lot about Obama's "Chinese brother" from my Chinese co-workers and friends. At first, I didn't know what they were talking about. But then I learned about Ndesandjo. Obama's relationship to Ndesandjo and Ndesandjo's relationship to China are, indeed, unique.

I think that this personal connection to China could help Obama's relationship with the country. Such ties to a place undoubtedly change one's perceptions. Of course, there's a lot that goes into the relationship between China and the US and such a connection isn't going to have that much influence. But it could have some.

As I've said many times, I'm confident that the US/China relationship is going to be the most important bilateral one going forward. Obama seems to be doing a good job so far towards China (China's still buying US debt, tensions relatively low, etc.) in a very turbulent time and I hope that such can continue.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Listening to the Chinese

The Obama Administration attempted an interesting public relations experiment yesterday.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Image from

China’s bloggers are a focus of organizers of President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit, echoing similar efforts by the administration to use social-media tools to communicate with Americans.

On Thursday, U.S. State Department officials held simultaneous press briefings for a select group of predominantly Chinese bloggers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, giving a rundown of the U.S. president’s China schedule and took questions from the bloggers.

The attendee list included many influential bloggers, such as journalist Michael Anti, who blogs about freedom of the press, and Rao Jin, whose Anti-CNN Web site scrutinizes China coverage by the news network and other foreign media.

Read On
This symposium with bloggers, along with the meeting with Chinese youth that Obama (says he) wants to have, is very progressive. Bill Clinton had similar open discussions when he visited China in the 1990s. I like to see Obama trying to connect with Chinese people directly. Based on the general positive things I heard about Bill Clinton, I think that Chinese people appreciate these kinds of gestures and attempts to hear what they have to say.

I hope that the upcoming trip goes well. Even if Obama's domestic numbers aren't as meteoric as they were before, he's still a huge asset to America abroad.

It'll be interesting to see how forceful Obama is in China next week. In the past, democrats have been far more critical of China than republicans. Particularly on human rights, democrats have traditionally been more willing to stir the pot than republicans, who were happy to see China's role as a trading partner expanding.

Like Clinton and Pelosi were earlier this year, I would not expect Obama to cause much trouble. He knows that the US needs China on board right now. I can't imagine that the US can or will be combative or overly ideological right now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Open Thread?

I haven't had the time/energy to write a post over the past several days. I'll try to get things going here soon, but can't tonight. If anybody wants to post anything into the comments section, go for it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

iPhone's Meager Launch

There wasn't iPhone hysteria when the product was released a couple days ago.


Image from

With this week's launch of the iPhone in China, Apple became the latest foreign company to seek a slice of the country's booming mobile market. But some analysts point to factors endemic in China's wireless market that are growing too large to ignore -- and which could have serious implications for competitors in the space.

Some industry observers had predicted a tepid consumer reaction to the iPhone's debut in China, where it's being sold by carrier partner China Unicom. So far, those early expectations might not be far off: China Unicom has sold only 5,000 units so far, Reuters reported.

Analysts partly blame the high cost of the iconic handset, which retails for about $730 to $1,000 without a contract, and because of the fact that it's been stripped of Wi-Fi to comply with government regulations.

However, they've also pointed to another factor playing a huge role in Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) aspirations for China: The country's vast gray-market mobile phone business, which research firm iSuppli dubbed the nation's "dirty little secret."

Gray-market (define) handsets are made or sold outside authorized channels, enabling their sellers to avoid value-added taxes and government regulation, and other oversight, like quality assurance testing.

Read On
While "gray markets" may have an influence on Apple's struggles, black markets certainly do as well. A few months ago I wrote about the "Mobile Shanzhai" and the vast availability of counterfeit cellular phones (including the "hiPhone" Apple knock-off).

In addition to off-color markets, Apple simply isn't that popular in China yet. Most of my Chinese friends who saw my MacBook laptop were perplexed by a computer running without Windows. Windows, like it is for a lot of people in the States, is the only thing nearly all Chinese people have ever had any experience with. This unfamiliarity with Apple has to make the expensive iPhone an even harder sell for Chinese people.

I would think (and hope) that Apple's market will grow in China like it has in America. Whereas five years ago I had never actually used an Apple, I now would never even consider going back to a PC. I've never had one problem - either with the hardware or software - with my MacBook. It never crashes and runs fast, smooth, and virus-free. Web-surfing, photo-editing, and more complex stuff like video and music editing are vastly superior on a Mac compared to a PC. And it wasn't that expensive compared to Windows-based notebooks because I bought a refurbished notebook off of Apple's website (something I strongly recommend).

While in Beijing in June, I saw a slick new Apple store in the 三里屯 district. It was the first to open in mainland China. The more people are exposed to genuine Apple products - whether through iPhone, iPod, laptop, or desktop - the more I think they'll come to embrace them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Seeding Snow

Beijing had a good snow on Sunday. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary. Except that the white stuff was man-made.

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Photo from AP

BEIJING – When I drew my curtains on Sunday morning to find thick snow falling outside, I thought something weird was going on.

Saturday had been gloriously warm and sunny. And even if the temperature had plummeted overnight, which it clearly had, Beijing winters are generally dry as a bone.

Monday morning, all was revealed. Beijing’s weathermen had been at work, it turned out, seeding the clouds to make it rain. Or snow, as it happened.

“We have to seize every opportunity to increase precipitation,” the head of the Beijing Weather Modification Office, Zhang Qiang, told the daily Global Times. “Beijing had almost no rainfall in October.”

You may not have a Weather Modification Office in your country. You don’t know what you are missing.

Read On
In the past, I've voiced my skepticism about the ability for these kinds of seeding programs to actually work. This latest snow storm sounds pretty legitimately man-made. Doesn't sound like it could've happened on its own without the push from the "Beijing Weather Modification Office."

I wonder what the limitations to creating rain/snow are. From the sounds of it, the circumstances need to be just right for any tinkering to work. It doesn't sound like rain/snow can just be turned on or off on any random day.

With water tables dropping and rivers dying and pollution continuing, North China needs all the water it can get. Last winter in Xi'an, we had a drought that went on for several months. The dry air combined with dusty and coal soot covered streets made for a pretty horrific atmosphere. For the sake of China and its people, I hope that seeding technology can be refined and used effectively.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Studying Mandarin

China's Confucius Centers across the globe are making it much easier to study Mandarin.

From The Associated Press:

Image from

TAMPA, Fla. — In a small room at the University of South Florida, Maya Ueda and two classmates prepare for a Mandarin exam. A pot of green tea idles nearby and Chinese folk instruments, games and movies fill the cabinets and bookcases.

Although the students are doing their work at a state school on Florida's Gulf Coast, the center they are studying in is part of a global outreach by the government of China called the Confucius Institute. The cultural and language centers have sprung up around the world, hosted at universities eager to boost their Mandarin offerings as China's economic influence grows.


China observers see the Confucius Institutes as part of the nation's efforts to reshape its image from that of a threatening superpower. Such displays of "soft power" are hardly new, though analysts say the Confucius Institutes are unique in the close relationships they establish with universities.

Read On
One of the first Confucius Centers in the United States was at the University of Kansas, near where I grew up. Qian has asked about teaching at the school, but there are only subbing opportunities available since their full time teachers are all on exchange programs from China (ie. they don't hire locals). This is unfortunate since Qian would be a great asset to the Confucius Center.

Qian put an ad on the internet a few weeks ago for tutoring Chinese. The ad has worked pretty well. She has three students - two adults and a young girl - already. None of them have any experience with studying Chinese. Qian has been really impressed with the talent of the students though. They're all doing pretty well with the language.

A fellow China blogger just wrote a really long and in-depth analysis of studying Chinese. The title of Ben's post - Journey Across the Great Hump: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World's Toughest Language.

Ben grew up about five minutes from me here in the suburbs of Kansas City. Although I've never met him in person, I think it's interesting how we both ended up going from Kansas to China and falling in love with the place.

I'm really impressed with Ben's studying of Chinese. He's currently acting as a translator in Chicago. He seems to have taken a similar path as Peter Hessler did in Rivertown - a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in China. Both Hessler and Ben attacked Mandarin and learned it very quickly.

Unfortunately, I did not learn the language as quickly as Ben did. I was too intimidated when I first started and was more interested in learning "survival Chinese" than really perfecting what I was doing. This lack of time and effort in the beginning made my Chinese path much more arduous than Ben's. Whereas he got to a very high level in about two years, I'm still at a more intermediate level after studying for about two years. I regret that I didn't tackle the language more head on when I first got to China (I really wasted my first year linguistically in China thinking I was only going to stay for a year and then come back to the States... I ended up staying for three and a half years).

There's nothing I can do about how I learned Chinese now though. So I'm just trying to do the best I can after my rocky beginning. Although I've left China (for the time being), I'm continuing to use my Supermemo study method and am trying to use Chinese as much as possible on a daily basis with Qian.

I'm not sure I can say that I've cleanly crossed Ben's "Great Hump," but I'm relatively happy with my level. I've crossed many personal "humps." The way I'd put where my level is is that I can have fun with Chinese now. I can chat fairly easily in one-on-one conversations. I still get tripped up from time to time, but I can tackle a wide array of issues and topics. I can't understand a lot of what goes on on TV and am not ready to be a translator, but I'm having, and have had over the past year, a lot of fun. And since starting studying Chinese more seriously about two years ago or so, that's been my goal.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Photos of the Week - Our American Wedding

I still haven't cut up the DVD of our Chinese wedding on our computer yet. I'll do that eventually. It shouldn't be too tough on my MacBook. Just a matter of sitting down and doing it.

Until I get that done, here are some photos of our US wedding from September 6th. It, like the Chinese one, was an unforgettable day. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I feel so lucky to have had two weddings.

There are tons more photos than what I'm posting here. Just am going to give a quick view of the evening:

Edited out photos

All in all, an incredible evening. It went so well. Such a happy experience.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Greening Black

Take a look at these horrific photos of China's pollution (h/t PKD). Seriously, click that link. China's pollution woes are unimaginable for people in the West. But hopefully such dystopian pollution won't be the norm for too much longer.

From The New York Times:

MONTREAL — The staggering economic growth in China has come at a heavy cost, paid in severe contamination of the country’s air, soil and water. But now the Chinese government is aggressively pursuing more stringent environmental regulation, with a particular focus on water distribution and wastewater treatment.

Recent stimulus spending has opened up the Chinese market to green initiatives. And Canadian companies are responding to the call for advanced water treatment and reuse technology.

“It’s not well known that China has set aside more money for the adoption of clean technologies than any other country on the planet,” said Dallas Kachan, managing director of Cleantech Group in San Francisco, which tracks global investment in clean technologies.

The Chinese economic stimulus package of 4 trillion yuan, or $585 billion, announced a year ago, focused nearly 40 percent of its spending on environmental and energy-efficient projects.


China’s water shortage, especially in the northern part of the country, is driving a need for wastewater recycling. “Right now, only 30 to 40 percent of the wastewater gets treated in China,” said Steve Watzeck, president of engineered systems at G.E. Water. “But we understand that Beijing aims to reuse 100 percent of its wastewater by 2013. Implementing advanced wastewater reuse technologies is key to China’s continued industrial growth.”

China’s capability in clean water technology is still underdeveloped. But the country’s solar industry is an example of how quickly it can sprint to the fore. Mr. Kachan of Cleantech Group, points out that Suntech Power, the Chinese company that a year ago became the world’s leading maker of crystalline silicon solar modules, did not exist eight years ago.

Read the Entire Article
China has a long ways to go when it comes to its environment. I understand that the country has done a lot and appears to be doing more. But it still has a far, far way to go. Xi'an's perma-gray skies and oppressive air are things I'm not missing at all.

I like to see that China committed 40% of its stimulus to green growth. Where did America allocate its? Failed banks, Detroit, etc. As the film producer Robert Compton told me a few weeks ago, "China's stimulus is building while ours is bailing." Whereas I've criticized China in the past about saving face to the detriment of its economy and people, the United States could definitely be criticized for the same thing when it comes to shelling out billions to failed companies such as GM and AIG.

Americans, more and more, don't believe in global warming. I'm wondering if this attitude is going to lead us to continue the attitude that we'll be able to drill our way out of any future energy problems. It's apparent that a significant number of Americans already believe such will be the case. If this thinking continues, I have to think that America is going to be left behind.

Shanxi, Shaanxi, and many other Chinese provinces are going to continue to pump out coal and China is going to continue to get oil from Africa and the Middle East. But China does deserve credit for making efforts towards serious green growth.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Frontline: OTC Derivatives

I love the PBS show Frontline. The program always does great reporting.

The feature from this week that I'm embedding here on financial derivatives is both startling and upsetting. It runs about an hour.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that the US has learned its lesson.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another Economics Post

China's had two very strong quarters of growth.

From The Wall St. Journal:

BEIJING—China's recovery is becoming broader and potentially more sustainable, a shift that could provide better support for a still-fragile global economy. Reinforcing those signs is a change of tone from China's cautious government, which is now becoming more confident in a solid rebound.

Economic data released Thursday showed China's gross domestic product growing by 8.9% from a year earlier in the third quarter, following the 7.9% gain in the second quarter. The expansion in industrial output, the backbone of the manufacturing-heavy economy, accelerated further to 13.9% in September from 12.3% in August.

Just as important is evidence that improvements in the economy are achieving a momentum that's no longer totally dependent on the government's massive stimulus program. The key shift in the latest quarter: a turnaround in the financial health of Chinese companies.

"Orders are piling up on our end. Now my headache is how to get our production to catch up," said Su Qisen, vice president of Xiangxing Bag & Luggage Group, located in southeastern Fujian province. Export orders started to rebound around June, he said, but Chinese consumers are also proving more willing to spend on the company's purses, suitcases and backpacks. "The domestic sales are doing especially well, especially our own brand," Mr. Su said.

He plans to hire 4,000 to 5,000 more employees in the next few months to work on 10 new assembly lines, up from around 10,000 workers now. To attract workers in an increasingly competitive labor market, Mr. Su said he is also planning to raise wages by 10% to 15%.

Read On
Things are looking up for China. The article goes on to say that the increased lending that fueled China's growth earlier this year have slowed. But some are still worried that even the slowed rate is not something that can be continued for the long term.

From The Financial Times:
China needs an “urgent” tightening of monetary policy to prevent the huge stimulus measures introduced this year from inflating stock and property bubbles, one of the country’s leading bankers has warned.

Qin Xiao – chairman of China Merchants Bank, the country’s sixth-biggest – says in Thursday’s Financial Times that the government should not be afraid of a “moderate slowdown” in the economy.

“Monetary policy must not neglect asset-price movements,” he writes. “Therefore it is urgent that China shifts from a loose monetary policy stance to a neutral one.”

Mr Qin’s unusually frank warning comes ahead of the publication on Thursday of third-quarter gross domestic product figures that are expected to underline the rapid recovery in China’s economy, with analysts forecasting growth of nearly 9 per cent compared to last year.


“This is the first thing you would expect the authorities to say before they begin to moderate policy,” said Stephen Green, economist at Standard Chartered in Shanghai. But any increases in interest rates or controls on lending were unlikely before Chinese New Year in February, he said.

Read On
China's response to the financial crisis has fascinated me. Is it all going to work? Is China going to continue to grow while much of the Western world deleverages/stagnates? Is China going to pull the world up with it? Is China going to be pulled down by the West?

At this point, I have no idea.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Revved Up

As the US car industry declines, China's is rising.

From AFP:

Image from AFP

BEIJING — China's auto production topped 10 million units for the year Tuesday, the first time it has broken the mark, state media reported, as makers boost output to meet demand in the fast-growing market.

The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM), said the only other countries to attain that mark were the United States and Japan, according to Xinhua news agency.


The manufacturer's group had said last week that output was likely to reach 12 million for all of 2009.

It said at the time that China's auto sales soared 77.9 percent in September from a year ago to 1.33 million units -- the seventh straight month that sales exceeded the one million unit mark.

Last year, a total of 9.4 million units were sold in China, up eight percent from the previous year.

Read On
As I've talked about before, Chinese people are embracing the culture of buying cars.

For a young, urban-dwelling Chinese man, owning an apartment is still the most important prerequisite for marriage. Car ownership is coming in as a close second though. In talking with Qian and my other young adult Chinese friends, I've heard a lot of things like:
He's ready to get married. He has a good (or government) job, his parents bought him an apartment, and he has a car.
Zachary Karabell, in his book Superfusion, speaks about the Chinese people's desire to buy and own cars.

From p. 252 of Superfusion:
As late as 2003, there were fewer than 2 million passenger cars sold in China, compared to nearly 10 million in the United States. Cars were still expensive luxury items in China, which meant that they cost double the price that similar vehicles commanded in the Western world. Yet there was a palpable sense that the appetite for cars would soon explode, just as it had for other goods that were part and parcel of life in the capitalist world. Surverys pointed to a large pent-up demand; young Chinese viewed buying a car as one of the ultimate signs of status and success.
In this passage, Karabell is speaking in the past tense because he is describing when and how established car makers went into China. Having spent significant time in China recently, this feeling that owning a car is a status symbol is definitely still the case.

As China rises, millions upon millions more cars are going to drive off of dealers' lots.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

330k to be Relocated

Beijing is being proactive in getting water from its saturated south to its parched north. The move has significant costs though.

From The Xinhua News:

Image from

ZHENGZHOU, Oct. 18 (Xinhua) -- A resettlement project involving 330,000 people living in central China's Hubei and Henan provinces has started to make way for China's south-north water diversion project, according to resettlement authorities in Henan Sunday.

These people will be relocated from their homes near the Danjiangkou reservoir, where sluice will be built to divert water from the Yangtze River to thirsty north China regions including Beijing, Tianjin, Henan and Hebei.


The Chinese government has issued preferential policies to help compensate for the resettlers' relocation losses. For instance, apart from compensation for unmovable property with the old home, each family to be relocated will be allotted new arable land in the newly built village according to a standard of 0.1 hectare per person, plus an annual subsidy of 600 yuan (about 88 U.S. dollars) a person for 20 years, according to Duan Shiyao, deputy chief of Hubei Provincial Resettlement Bureau.

Read On
The end of this project - providing water to cities that are desperately in need of relief - is noble. But the means - relocating hundreds of thousands of poor farmers - are rough.

A couple years ago on my old (and now defunct) blog, I put a link to a really fascinating story on the the development of waterless north China. I'll link up to that article again now.

From The New York Times:
Hundreds of feet below ground, the primary water source for this provincial capital of more than two million people is steadily running dry. The underground water table is sinking about four feet a year. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.

Above ground, this city in the North China Plain is having a party. Economic growth topped 11 percent last year. Population is rising. A new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city's water table.

''People who are buying apartments aren't thinking about whether there will be water in the future,'' said Zhang Zhongmin, who has tried for 20 years to raise public awareness about the city's dire water situation.

For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China's galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in north China -- even as demand keeps rising everywhere.


A century or so ago, the North China Plain was a healthy ecosystem, scientists say. Farmers digging wells could strike water within eight feet. Streams and creeks meandered through the region. Swamps, natural springs and wetlands were common.

Today, the region, comparable in size to New Mexico, is parched. Roughly five-sixths of the wetlands have dried up, according to one study. Scientists say that most natural streams or creeks have disappeared. Several rivers that once were navigable are now mostly dust and brush. The largest natural freshwater lake in northern China, Lake Baiyangdian, is steadily contracting and besieged with pollution.

Read the Whole Article
I hope that China's attempts to conquer nature can overcome north China's severe water problems. It seems likely to me that such projects will work in the short term. But the long term sustainability of redirecting rivers seems suspect. Especially given the fact that the source of China's main rivers - Himalayan glaciers - are becoming victims of climate change.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

An Easy Populist Target

With a struggling economy, Communist/currency manipulating/rising military power/etc. China is all too easy of a populist target for the US.

From Bloomberg:

Photo from The Center for American Progress

The U.S. view that China is keeping its currency undervalued in order to boost exports will foster a “more contentious” relationship between the two nations, said Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia in Hong Kong.

The convergence of mounting U.S. unemployment and next year’s Congressional elections will make it easy for both Republicans and Democrats to criticize China, Roach said in a Bloomberg Television interview aired today in New York.

“It will get more contentious as we move into 2010,” he said. “There’ll be a lot of cries on both sides of the aisle to do something about the plight of the American worker. China is, unfortunately, the whipping boy in many of these discussions.”

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday criticized China in a semiannual report to Congress, saying “the recent lack of flexibility of the renminbi exchange rate and China’s renewed accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves risk unwinding some of the progress made in reducing imbalances.” The Treasury stopped short of branding China a manipulator of its yuan, also known as the renminbi.

Read On
It really is easier to blame others for one's ills. We still aren't seeing the full ramifications of the the bad loans and mortgages we've taken. We still don't have the ability to part with dinosaur corporations that have let the world pass them by. And we still don't understand why and how the incompetent leaders controlled by Wall Street that we've elected this past decade have dug us a gargantuan hole.

No, our troubles are being caused by the evil Chinese...

Unfortunately, I fully expect this rhetoric to convince the masses that they don't have to change the "American way of life" and that the problems our country has are due to reasons beyond our control. And instead of hunkering down and getting serious about preparing for a future that includes a very competitive China, America will continue to let its belief in its own superiority and infallibility blind it from addressing its real problems.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


This has nothing to do with China. But I saw it the other day and think it's worth putting on here. Enjoy making tunes!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Superfusion by Zachary Karabell: Interview

Last week, author Zachary Karabell was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his new book - Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It - with me.

Here is Mr. Karabell's bio from the back jacket of his book:
Zachary Karabell is president of River Twice Research, where he analyzes economic and political trends, and is a senior adviser for Business for Social Responsibility. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard University and was formerly chief economist and president of a New York-based asset management firm. He is the author of Parting the Desert, The Last Campaign, and Peace Be Upon You. He is a regular commentator on CNBC and a contributor to Newsweek, The Wall St. Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and The Washington Post.
Below is a transcript of my discussion with Mr. Karabell:

Mark's China Blog (MCB)
: Early in Superfusion, you say we have two paths - working with China to refine and develop the system for mutual benefit or falling back to "us and them." You then say that the world of nation-states with national economies is uncertain and that 2050 won't look like 1950. Could you explain what this world you envision looks like and how we could get there?

Zachary Karabell (ZK): Imagine telling a Parisian in 1950 that, in the year 2000, decisions regarding France would be made in Brussels. Nobody back then would've believed that Europe, a collection of nation-states, would be a cohesive unit known as the European Union. My point is that America could very well be tied to China in 2050 in a way that seems unimaginable now.

MCB: About Deng's quote - "Black cat, white cat, what does it matter as long as it catches mice?" - and his ideology in general, you say, "his ability to hold such contradictory beliefs shows he is either a genius or a madman." China, for the most part, has stuck with Deng's system. Towards the end of the book, you question whether the Chinese children of today - who've grown up with a remarkably comfortable and stable life - will demand more political freedom when they are adults. How long do you see Deng's contradiction being sustainable?

ZK: It's a mistake to assume that Jeffersonian liberal democracy is the only system that can meet people's needs and that the Chinese people will demand elections. People need to feel security and in control of their lives. As long as that occurs, the specific form could look like a lot of different things. The Chinese Communist Party needs to be responsible to its citizens and, for the time being, appears to be.

MCB: Your section about data and figures reminded me a lot of one of my all-time favorite books, Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. In that book, Lewis highlights the thinkers in baseball who challenged baseball's conventional wisdom. In Superfusion, you challenge a lot of the numbers - balance of trade, the consumer price index, and productivity - that people use to interpret contemporary national economies. When it comes to understanding the world economy, what numbers do you trust?

ZK: Very few numbers give us a good picture. It's not that I distrust numbers, I don't think they're made up, it's just that I see data as being incapable of telling us a complete story. Official numbers miss capital and idea flow. They miss how businesses are run.

Consumption of raw materials is a number that I look at. Numbers on trade can tell us a lot. One needs to go beneath the newspaper headlines. Look at the numbers used to compile official statistics.

MCB: I found your section on Chinese banks really good. On my blog, I've written a lot about the massive loans given out by Chinese banks this year. You say that a lot of the concerns about such lending is misguided and that loans are simply a means for modernization from the state and that the Chinese believe repayment isn't as important as "getting things done." Is China concerned about the repayment of loans given out this year? And if the US - and the rest of the West - stays in a funk for a year or two longer, can this kind of lending be sustained?

ZK: Comparing Chinese banks to western banks is a mistake. It's not that China doesn't care about repayment. They want the loans to be repaid. But right now, China is building its infrastructure. Internal loans to build up the country are going to be productive no matter what happens.

MCB: In the book, you write, "What China did in the 90s took the states of western Europe more than a century and the US more than five decades." Obviously, the costs of China's industrial revolution are being felt in the form of unfathomable pollution. The thing that concerns me most, having Xi'an as my home base in China, is north China's lack of water. The Himalayas' glaciers are melting. The Yellow River is dying. Northern Chinese cities are being built on falling water tables. How can this dire situation be resolved?

ZK: North China has the double whammy of being the site of the communist industrial revolution under Mao as well as a site of the '90s industrial revolution.

There is a huge draw on the resources there. I can't discount the severity of the situation. Alternative energy isn't an alternative to coal in northern China. But the government seems to have a grasp for where the crisis point is. I sense urgency from the government. They are moving quickly.

One thing about an autocratic government is that when faced with a sense of urgency, they have a much greater ability to address these problems than democratic governments.

MCB: You say, "China's transtition from Maoism to the market has been met with skepticism and mistrust rather than embrace." What does this say about America and the American people?

ZK: Our skepticism and mistrust say that we are having trouble dealing with losing the status of being "on top."

MCB: When the debate about China joining the WTO was going on in '99, the US was obsessed with Lewinski. You talk about how the world missed the development of Chimerica since "nobody analyzes the global economy as a system and because nobody developed a theoretical framework to predict it." Now, after coming back to America after three and a half years in China, I'm hearing reports about China all the time on NPR (National Public Radio). I haven't fully jumped back into the US media though. Does the US know what's going on in China and with Chimerica?

ZK: Americans aren't clueless that China's become a much bigger deal. People are mostly familiar with the populist rhetoric and not much else though. The implications of Chimerica are pretty beneath the radar. Americans, by and large, don't understand the greater meaning of its relationship with China.

MCB: Your discussion of US businesses being lenient on property infractions in the hopes of cashing in on the Chinese market was very interesting. I've written on my blog several times about "shanzhai culture" and the deep and intricate networks of intellectual property infractions in China. Can this shanzhai culture be overcome?

ZK: Complaining about shanzhai has been en vogue for years now. Innovation is going to be key in overcoming the intellectual property infractions occurring in China. Companies are going to have to make it difficult for people to extract income off of the Chinese copy of the product.

MCB: You say that the big difference between China and Japan's rise is that the Chinese have a culture of consumption. If you spend time at a Chinese night club or mall, this embrace of consumption is abundantly clear. But when I lived in China and told Chinese people about buying a house with a mortgage or having a wallet full of credit cards, they usually cringed. Can Chinese consumers come to embrace the culture of credit cards and debt?

ZK: Chinese people are already embracing credit cards and using debt. In fact, not enough companies are offering Chinese people credit cards. Once the Chinese trust paying online, that will also help encourage their consumptive culture.

MCB: For a long time, China's used "poverty alleviation" as an excuse for human rights abuses. Tibetans and Uighurs are obviously getting fed up though. Are these "harmony" issues critical to China's long-term, big-picture goals?

ZK: China needs to be "harmonious enough." Security of the Chinese people matters. The Chinese government understands that keeping people happy is a balancing act. Simply suppressing those angry with the system is not a viable long-term answer.

MCB: You talk extensively about the "feel" in cities like Shanghai and the general optimism of the country. Is China the new "land of opportunity?" Does that "feel" extend to those in the countryside or to migrant workers who've gone to the big city?

ZK: Well, I don't think anyone in China would use the word "land of opportunity." Those words are uniquely American. But the simple fact that migrants are doing everything they can to get out of the countryside and to the cities shows that the "feel" does extend to the entire country.

MCB: The Chinese stock market was up 90% on the year back in August. Housing prices in many cities are at all-time highs. Is there a bubble going on right now?

ZK: It doesn't matter if there is a bubble being created right now. The government popped a bubble in Shanghai in '04. They'll blow them up and pop them as they see fit. The government isn't afraid to intervene and pop. Popping bubbles isn't going to be a derailing phenomenon.

MCB: Does Obama have a coherent China policy?

ZK: Yes, Obama has a coherent China policy. Neither Obama nor the Chinese government seems ready to confront the existence of Chimerica though. Obama is going to China in November. He should have America's top business leaders with him on that trip. Another major need between the Obama administration and the Chinese government is better interest rate coordination.

MCB: I know you're very busy right now, Mr. Karabell. Thank you for sharing your time with me.

ZK: You're very welcome.

I want to thank Mr. Karabell and his publishing company, Simon and Shuster, for arranging this interview and asking me to review Superfusion.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Superfusion by Zachary Karabell: Review

Recent economic travails have triggered intensive questioning of the financial system that was created by the United States and warped by Wall Street. That has led many to reconsider America's place in the world and wonder whether this is indeed the twilight of American power. Yet what remains largely unchallenged is the assumption that the world remains a collection of nations, markets, and companies. For much of the twentieth century, that made sense. No longer. What is perceived as the rise of China is actually much more than that. The most important story is one that yet to be explicitly told, largely because most don't yet recognize what has taken place. In short, over the past two decades, China and the United States have become one intertwined, integrated hypereconomy: Chimerica.
Superfusion: How China and America Became One and Why the World's Prosperity Depends On It, page 3

Over the next three hundred pages of Superfusion, author Zachary Karabell expounds in great detail and in a lively manner how Chimerica came to be and its implications for the future of our world.

Karabell begins the book (to be released tomorrow, October 13, 2009, by Simon & Shuster) by painting a picture of China in the late 1970s just after Mao Zedong passed away. Deng Xiaoping's personality, his breaking with the planned economy, and his wide array of platitudes ("We mustn't stop eating for the fear of choking," "Black cat, white cat, what does it matter as long as it catches mice?" etc.) are chronicled in great detail.

The book then gives an account of "middling US companies" who in the late-80s and early-90s remade themselves into successes in a liberalized China. I really enjoyed this section of the book. Karabell describes how and why companies like KFC, Avon, and the NBA were able to corner the Chinese market and become runaway successes in the country. Not having an extensive background in business, I appreciated these stories a lot.

In addition to case studies of businesses, the book also delves into the political foundation of Chimerica. China's entry into the WTO, the relationship of China and America after 9/11, and CNOOC's botched purchase of UNOCAL are all discussed.

One of the main themes of Superfusion is that nobody, neither the governments of China or the United States nor the populations of either country, saw the big-picture implications of the two countries growing closer and more intertwined.

Karabell argues that very few numbers paint an accurate picture of Chimerica. Statistics, he says, that economists like to look at - balance of trade, consumer price index, and "productivity" - can't capture the nature of the countries' relationship.
All of these factors explain how it is possible for China and the United States to have converged over the past 20 years without anyone noticing. No one is paid to notice; no one has developed theoretical frameworks that would predict it; and almost everyone still thinks of China and the United States as two distinct countries with two sovereign national economies.
Superfusion, page 151
This section of Superfusion on the use of numbers and statistics reminded me a lot of one of my favorite books - Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. In that book, Lewis describes the historian/philosopher of baseball, Bill James, and his destruction of of baseball's accepted conventional wisdom. James says one shouldn't pay attention to batting average, RBIs, or stolen bases to determine baseball players' performance. Instead, James argues, one should focus on statistics like on base percentage, slugging percentage, and home runs.

Unlike James (and Lewis' description of James' ideas in Moneyball), I'm not sure Karabell ever tells the reader exactly what number should be looked at when it comes to Chimerica. But to be fair, I believe Karabell's point is that truly descriptive statistics don't exist. Instead, he thinks a broader view is required.

This section on economic statistics and how we perceive the numbers might have been my favorite in Superfusion.

Seeing that this book is just coming out now in the fall of 2009, Karabell discusses, in depth, the financial crisis and Chimerica's response to it. Karabell describes China and America's bank lending, their stock markets, and their stimulus packages. I don't want to give too much away in this review, but I will say that Karabell's convincing arguments have shifted my views and understanding on the current state of affairs in each country and the fused Chimerica.

I really enjoyed Superfusion. If you are a regular reader of Marks China Blog, you should pick up a copy. The fusion of China and America - Chimerica - is something the people of the world needs a solid understanding of. Karabell's Superfusion has done an excellent job of making such an understanding a possibility.

Tomorrow, I'll post the transcript of an interview I had with Karabell last week.