Saturday, February 28, 2009

Commercial Real Estate Over Development

Earlier this week, my girlfriend and I went to see if there were any sales going on in the relatively new Xing Zheng Yuan Shopping Mall on Xi'an's East Street.

We were dumbfounded when we walked in the doors of the upscale shopping center. Not only were there no customers in the place, all the stores had been vacated by their tenants. The only people we encountered were the cleaners sweeping the pristine, unstrolled-upon floors.

As we made our way through the deserted corpse that is Xing Zheng Yuan, I was reminded of an article I just read the other day about China's commercial real estate catastrophe.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Beijing -- "Empty," says Jack Rodman, an expert in distressed real estate, as he points from the window of his 40th-floor office toward a silver-skinned prism rising out of the Beijing skyline.

"Beautiful building, but not a single tenant.

"Completely empty.


So goes the refrain as his finger skips from building to building, each flashier than the next, and few of them more than barely occupied.

Beijing went through a building boom before the 2008 Summer Olympics that filled a staid communist capital with angular architectural feats that grace the covers of glossy design magazines.

Now, six months after the Games ended, the city continues to dazzle by night, with neon and floodlights dancing across the skyline. By day, though, it is obvious that many are "see-through" buildings, to use the term coined during the Texas real estate bust of the 1980s.

By Rodman's calculations, 500 million square feet of commercial real estate has been developed in Beijing since 2006, more than all the office space in Manhattan. And that doesn't include huge projects developed by the government. He says 100 million square feet of office space is vacant -- a 14-year supply if it filled up at the same rate as in the best years, 2004 through '06, when about 7 million square feet a year was leased.

"The scale of development was unprecedented anywhere in the world," said Rodman, a Los Angeles native who lives in Beijing, running a firm called Global Distressed Solutions. "It defied logic. It just doesn't make sense."

Read On
The numbers in this article are absolutely staggering. Of course, Beijing is a staggering city. I've been to Beijing three times, but don't feel as though I have anything more than a very superficial understanding of the place. My impression of the city is that it is so sprawling and huge that it would take months, if not years, for me to get a decent conception of.

Even if it is impossible to completely wrap one's head around the numbers of Beijing's vacant commercial real estate numbers (or the city itself), it's pretty obvious that its real estate over-development is an unmitigated disaster.

The hundreds (or is it thousands?) of buildings built and billions of dollars put into the projects is absolutely mind-boggling. It's obvious that the organizers of the Olympic Games (the Chinese government) got completely carried away in their drunken orgy of spending that occurred in the early to mid 2000s when credit was flowing like cheap baijiu at my favorite dish restaurant down the street.

It is a misconception to think that this commercial real estate boom was confined to the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing though.

This problem runs much deeper than just empty buildings in Beijing. I know this because I see the carnage of China's slowed commercial real estate development nearly every day in Xi'an (and Xi'an is by no means one of the top "boom towns" of China).

I live very close to Xi'an's Big Wild Goose Pagoda (大雁塔). It's a rather famous tourist spot in Xi'an built for Xuan Zang and his return from "the journey to the west."

The Chinese government obviously decided in the past couple years that the undeveloped area around the pagoda has the potential to be a robust tourist epicenter. Construction crews and cranes building shopping malls, hotels, and apartment buildings have been pervasive in the area for the two and a half years I've lived in southern Xi'an.

Below is a Google Map snapshot of the area just south of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda that I'm talking about. The pagoda is in the top left corner of the picture:

Admittedly, some of the areas in this photo are parks and areas that were never planned to be built up. But a huge chunk of that brown dirt in the bottom and bottom-left hand part of this picture is one day meant to be built up into commercial real estate or upscale apartment complexes. The area directly south of the pagoda which is currently completely unfinished will, supposedly, one day in the next few years be a massive upscale shopping city.

But recently I've begun to be skeptical about whether the pictures on the walls of the construction sites around the pagoda will ever be taken down to reveal buildings behind them. The cranes meant to be building up China's consumptive dreams seem to be stuck in place. This has to be because the free-flowing credit and capital that fueled these real estate-based fantasies has dried up.

I can't imagine that massive new shopping centers will continue to be built when places that have already been built are empty. (Many malls in Xi'an are in fact still bustling, but a lot of those malls are in the middle of 30% to 70% off fire-sales at the moment.)

The upscale Xing Zheng Yuan Shopping Mall that I mentioned at the beginning of the post on Xi'an's East Street is a ghost town only about a year and a half after it opened. Dozens of Italian shoe stores, Hong Kong-based jewelry stores, and designer watch outlets have all left. Walking on the second floor of the place, where the only store we saw still with a tenant was a Mickey Mouse brand shoe kiosk, is a very eerie experience indeed.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Counterfeiters Demand the Right to Pirate

Recently shut down counterfeit goods sellers are angry. They want China to allow them to continue to break the law.

From The International Herald Tribune:

BEIJING: Any tourist who has stepped foot in this city's famous Silk Street Market can testify that it is home to some of the wiliest, most tenacious vendors who ever tried to pawn off a fake handbag on a naïve foreigner.

So when the market managers temporarily shut down 29 stalls this month for selling counterfeit goods, no one expected the merchants to quietly acquiesce to the loss of business.

"We expected trouble," said Zhao Tianying, a legal consultant with IntellecPro, a Beijing intellectual property firm representing five foreign luxury-brand manufacturers who sued the market for trademark violations. "But we never imagined this."

The vendors have responded with the same ferocity with which they nail down a sale. Dozens of them have staged noisy weekly protests at the law firm, mocking the lawyers as bourgeois pawns of foreigners. They have confronted witnesses who had provided evidence of trademark violations and filed their own countersuit, claiming only the government can shutter a business.

A few characters scrawled in pencil on the wall outside IntellecPro's office sums up their message: "We want to eat!"

Read On
While I can understand that the sellers want to have the opportunity to do the work that they've chosen to do in their lives, I don't have too much sympathy for them. They're blatantly breaking intellectual property laws and probably making a decent amount of money doing so.

In the post I made a few weeks ago entitled "Fake Chic," a reader, Alex, left the following message:
It would seem that our Western obsession with abstract notions of "real" and "fake" mean nothing in a part of the world where filling your belly is not a certainty.
Now I agree with Alex that a lot of rural China and the poorer people who buy "shanzhai" goods don't even have very concrete concepts of what real and fake are. But I do not believe that Alex's sentiments apply in this situation: the Beijingers currently protesting, who sell fake Prada hand bags to westerners, are probably not struggling to eat. And the buyers of their goods are mostly westerners, obviously people not struggling to eat.

I know that the owners of the hundreds of fake goods' stalls in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter are famous (maybe notorious is a better word) for being shrewd and rich from their sales of fake goods.

I have a slight bit more sympathy for the shanzhai transactions that go on in the countryside or outside of major metropolitan areas. While still wrong, I can at least understand why the buyers need the cheap items and that both parties in the transaction are, to a degree, ignorant of the laws they're breaking.

But sellers of blatantly fake Louis Vuitton bags or Rolex watches in Beijing or Xi'an or Shanghai, who are most likely making very good money off of their transactions, know what they're doing is wrong. For that reason, this story of their shops being closed down certainly doesn't break my heart or anything.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mandarin Taking Over the States

Seeing that I'm an American who's put a decent amount of effort into learning how to speak Mandarin Chinese, I like reading this news.

From The Boston Globe:

The little boy answered the teacher's question in perfect Cantonese, which until recently would have earned him praise at the Kwong Kow Chinese School in Boston's Chinatown.

But the teacher shook her head.

"No," said Catherine Lui, peering at the boy over her eyeglasses as he stared up at her from the front row. "You have to use Mandarin."

Say hello - or better yet, ni hao - to Chinatown's rapidly expanding language, Mandarin. The official language of mainland China is sweeping into Cantonese-speaking enclaves across the United States, the result of increased immigration from across China and an urgent push by parents to teach children the language of one of the world's most powerful nations.

China's growing global clout, already inspiring suburban parents of varying backgrounds to enroll their children in Mandarin classes, is now looming large over tiny Chinatown, where 9,000 people are squeezed into a bustling neighborhood of shops, red-brick tenements, and narrow, winding streets. Mandarin is being heard everywhere, on subway platforms, under the blow dryers at hair salons, and at the 93-year-old Kwong Kow School.

Read On
This transition from Cantonese to Mandarin was inevitable. There just aren't that many people who speak Cantonese compared to Mandarin. As you can see on this map, only people in the magenta part of China speak Cantonese:

Historically, a very large portion of Chinese emigrants to America came from southern China and the Hong Kong area. Wikipedia has a good explanation as to why this was the case:
Chinese people were some of the early immigrants to live in the U.S., but then were banned from emigrating between 1885 and 1943 - when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Immigration of Chinese was heavily restricted until 1965. During the 1970s, the vast majority of ethnic Chinese immigration into the United States was from Hong Kong and followed by Taiwan with relatively few immigrants coming from mainland China, which almost completely banned emigration for most of the 1960s. During the 1980s, in part due to the liberalization of emigration restrictions in the mid-1970s, immigration from the mainland China became a larger fraction of ethnic Chinese immigration into the United States.
But now that China's economy is growing and mainland China has liberalized, the demographic of Chinese Americans is changing. More and more Chinese Americans will be speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese in the future.

As Peter Kiang, the director of the Asian American Studies Program at UMass-Boston, said in the article:
"Everyone just realizes that Mandarin is the language of the 21st century," he said.
It makes me feel better that my study of Mandarin has the chance of being useful in America as well as in China. Now I just have to get my Chinese more fluent so I can chat with any Chinese person I encounter. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Chinese Peasant Responsible for Financial Crisis

It turns out that the "math wizard" who created the mathematical formulas behind the world's collapsed financial systems comes from rural China.

From Wired:

A year ago, it was hardly unthinkable that a math wizard like David X. Lee might someday earn a Nobel Prize. After all, financial economists—even Wall Street quants—have received the Nobel in economics before, and Li's work on measuring risk has had more impact, more quickly, than previous Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the field. Today, though, as dazed bankers, politicians, regulators, and investors survey the wreckage of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Li is probably thankful he still has a job in finance at all. Not that his achievement should be dismissed. He took a notoriously tough nut—determining correlation, or how seemingly disparate events are related—and cracked it wide open with a simple and elegant mathematical formula, one that would become ubiquitous in finance worldwide.

For five years, Li's formula, known as a Gaussia copula function, looked like an unambiguously positive breakthrough, a piece of financial technology that allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before. With his brilliant spark of mathematical legerdemain, Li made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels.

His method was adopted by everybody from bond investors and Wall Street banks to ratings agencies and regulators. And it became so deeply entrenched—and was making people so much money—that warnings about its limitations were largely ignored.

Then the model fell apart. Cracks started appearing early on, when financial markets began behaving in ways that users of Li's formula hadn't expected. The cracks became full-fledged canyons in 2008—when ruptures in the financial system's foundation swallowed up trillions of dollars and put the survival of the global banking system in serious peril.

David X. Li, it's safe to say, won't be getting that Nobel anytime soon.

Read On
This is a very interesting, though very complicated, article. I'd be lying if I said I understood everything in it. But while it, and the basics of the financial crisis, are hard to figure out, I believe it is important for people to try to understand what is going on and why it came about.

There are a few different explanations and sources of information which I've found to be particularly enlightening on this subject.

First, the National Public Radio program "This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money" did a fantastic piece last May profiling a number of the people responsible for the crisis and the basics of contemporary finance. I already mentioned this program on my blog a couple weeks ago, but I believe the program is so good that it is worth bringing up again. The program can be heard for free here. I highly reccomend listening to this hour-long show for a thorough explanation of the financial collapse in layman's terms.

Second, the Public Broadcasting Services program "Frontline: Inside the Meltdown" profiled the collapse of Bear Stears, Lehman Brothers, and the fallout of those bankruptcies in a program that aired last week. The hour-long program can be watched for free on the internet here. This show helped me understand why and how the demise of Lehman Brothers nearly ruined the global economy a few months ago. It also does an excellent job of profiling the most important people trying to contain crisis: Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner.

Third, this short video from Jonathan Jarvis attempts to give a visual explanation of the credit crunch. If you have about eleven minutes free, this is worth watching:

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

And finally, I think that this article on "Complexity Theory" is insightful in explaining how a crash in our complex world was inevitable:


A discernible change is taking place in the forum of environmental awareness. As the subject matures and our insights deepen, specific concerns are now accompanied by a general uneasiness as leading philosophers and scientists begin to examine the structure of our modern civilization and question its viability. One of these new avenues of consideration is Complexity Theory.

Complexity Theory argues that societies become progressively more unstable and vulnerable as the network of interconnections within them increases -- not particularly good news for a globalizing system in which increasing complexity is precisely the thrust of economics, finance, manufacturing, technology and almost everything else we do. The sobering implications may explain why many proponents of Complexity Theory preface their comments with an apology. "We don't want to tell you this," goes the essence of their message, "but we think you should know."

When the New Scientist published two articles on Complexity Theory (Apr. 5/08), its editor anticipated some reader discomfort. "We are predisposed to pay attention to bad news," noted the editorial. "There is a good reason for this. We need to be warned of difficulty and danger so we can protect ourselves.... [But] if the warning is too scary or distressing, we attack the messenger as a doom monger."

Complexity Theory comes with its hint of doom, ominously reminding us that no civilization has ever survived the stresses of history, with the possible exception of China and Byzantium -- in a much reduced state for 450 years following the 15th century Arab invasions. But Sumer, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Maya and even Rome all collapsed, primarily because they succumbed to overwhelming complexities.

Joseph Tainter, writing in The Collapse of Complex Societies, explains why. "For the past 10,000 years, problem solving has produced increasing complexity in human societies" (Ibid.). Food production is a classical example. Each time people find the solution to a food shortage -- irrigation, fertilizer or plants with higher yields-- the population rises to meet the food supply and the next problem to solve is more complicated and challenging. Every solution adds extra levels of organization, complexity and interdependence, which adds inefficiency and diminishing returns for the total amount of energy expended.

Progress is a process of perpetual problem solving, with each new solution adding more specialists and more layers of peripheral tasks that don't directly address the problems being solved. A civilization finally peaks at its maximum level of complexity when all its efforts are being used just to maintain its equilibrium. Then an unusual adversity arises: invaders, crop failure, disease, climate change, depletion of a critical natural resource, or anything that stresses a structure already precariously balanced. Then the civilization collapses and reorganizes itself at a simpler level.

Read On
Although Complexity Theory says that our contemporary societies are doomed for collapse, I find something comforting in the idea. I don't think I'm sadistic or anything. Instead, I like how the theory highlights the absurdity that is life in today's world.

The lead on the David X. Lee article is great. When things were booming, the minds behind our world's complexity were destined for Nobel Prizes. Now, they're the objects of scorn to the millions upon millions of people who were burned by the interconnectedness they gave the world.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Chinese Coming Back to China

Although millions of young Chinese people dream of studying in America, the ones who actually get the opportunity don't necessarily want to stay in America after they graduate.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Shanghai and Los Angeles -- Xun Jia, a doctoral candidate in theoretical physics at UCLA, expected to find a job on Wall Street crunching complex financial formulas upon his graduation.

But after meeting with 10 recruiters to no avail, the Chinese native is looking for new opportunities -- in the country he left behind.

"I'm definitely considering moving back," said Jia, 27, who always envisioned himself establishing a career in the U.S. first but is now firing off his resume to contacts in China. "They need people to go back."

The Chinese government is counting on people like Jia -- nicknamed "sea turtles" because they journeyed across the ocean and then came back -- to help retool its economy and find paths to expansion beyond the cheap exports on which the country has relied for so many years.

Late last year, the government launched an aggressive campaign to lure them back and is spending millions to entice accomplished investors, bankers, researchers and engineers to come home.

Read On
Most Americans believe that their US citizenship is the dream of every other person living outside of America. It is true that hordes of people from around the world still want to immigrate to America and do so, but it probably isn't alluring as it has been at other times in history.

As one Chinese man stated in this LA Times article:
"You can find most things you were used to in the U.S. in Shanghai now," said Greg Ye, a graduate of Harvard Business School who returned to found NewMargin Venture, a private equity fund. "I feel like there's lots more opportunity here."
Now I'm not going to try to argue that China is a better place than America or anything. I'm just pointing out that the creature comforts that define America's lifestyle can now be found in many major Chinese cities.

While a Chinese person living in Shanghai may not have the "freedoms" that he or she would have living in New York City, there are other benefits (such as culture, language, food, being closer to family and friends, etc.) that are reasons for a Chinese person to want to stay in China. And although China is not immune to the economic crisis, things are probably going to be better for a US-educated Chinese person in Shanghai than it would be in, say, New York City.

This issue does hit close to home with me. My fiancee, Qian (Jackie's given Chinese name, pronounced like this), and I are planning on making the transition from China to America later this year.

We're excited about this next stage in our life and the life we can begin in America, but it has never been Qian's dream to go to America. She's never disliked America , but at the same time, it's not been one of her goals in life to go to one day go to the United States. She'd be perfectly happy if we stayed in China for the rest of our lives.

I believe that America has lost some of its appeal to foreigners in the past few years. The economic crisis has a lot to do with this, but I believe it is even deeper than that.

One shining example of this is while I was back in America in 2007, I was charged $1,500 for a blood test at a hospital. I couldn't believe this at the time and thought that there had to be a mistake. We called the insurance company and the hospital to see if the charge was an error. After a few phone calls, we found out that it wasn't. A freaking blood test actually cost $1,500.

As upset as my family and I were about this, Qian nearly lost it. I can still remember her saying, "You had to pay over 10,000RMB for a blood test! What is wrong with your country?!" I didn't have a very good answer for her. A similar procedure in China would cost less than 100RMB, or about $10.

Medical care is only one area where America has really lost its edge. With the recent economic crisis, the list is nearly endless.

Qian and I are still excited about going to America later this year. But it is, by no means, a fairy tale-like story of Qian leaving repressive China for the "land of the free." Qian's life has been very comfortable in China and she doesn't necessarily feel as though she's "upgrading" by going to America.

With the directions the two countries are heading, I'd be lying if I tried to convince her otherwise.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Clinton Throwing Around Chinese Idioms

During her trip to China this week, Hillary Clinton took on the daunting task of using four character Chinese idioms.

From McClatchy Newspapers:

Here's a lesson on when to use Chinese proverbs and who to use them with.

Short answer: It's probably best for Westerners not to try to out-proverb the Chinese, especially when speaking with Premier Wen Jiabao.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just passed through China, and she displayed a propensity to throw Chinese proverbs into her public statements, exclaiming at one point: "I love Chinese proverbs!"

She tossed out her first Chinese proverb before even departing on her weeklong trip, and in some ways it was apt.

In a speech on U.S.-China relations to the Asia Society on Feb. 13 in New York, Clinton used the aphorism "tongchuan gongji," which means roughly "when on a common boat, cross the river peacefully together." The proverb was made famous in "The Art of War," the book by the ancient philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu. Most listeners probably got the gist of what Clinton was seeking to say: The United States and China have common problems and should work together.

Like most Chinese proverbs, this one contains four characters (and four syllables) but is loaded with historical and literal meaning.

Read On
The article goes on to show that while Clinton was making her points with the idioms, the phrases she used usually had double entendres which didn't help her case or was immediately out-proverbed by Premier Wen.

Studying four character Chinese idioms is something I have a bit of experience with. Using Chinese idioms is a very important step in learning Chinese. One's proficiency in Chinese is directly linked with one's ability to use idioms.

Here is a nice write-up on Chinese idioms from
Four-character idioms, or chéngyǔ (Traditional Chinese: 成語; Simplified Chinese: 成语, literally "to become (part of) the language") are widely used in Classical Chinese, a literary form used in the Chinese written language from antiquity until 1919, and are still commonly used in Vernacular writing today. Classical Chinese can be compared to the way Latin was used in the Western world in science until recently. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chengyu in Chinese, though some dictionaries list over 20,000.

Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature. The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. As such, chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic.

Chengyu in isolation are often unintelligible to modern Chinese, and when students in China learn chengyu in school as part of the Classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which the chengyu was born. Often the four characters reflect the moral behind the story rather than the story itself. For example, the phrase "破釜沉舟" (pinyin: pò fǔ chén zhōu) literally means "break the woks and sink the boats." It was based on a historical account where General Xiang Yu ordered his troop to destroy all cooking utensils and boats after crossing a river into the enemy's territory. He won the battle because of this "no-retreat" policy. The phrase is used when one succeeds by burning the bridge. This particular idiom cannot be used in a losing scenario because the story behind it does not describe a failure.

Read On
When it comes to using idioms, my lack of proficiency in Chinese really shows. I can maybe use about ten in daily conversation. Off the top of my head, here are a few of the ones I could come up with:

入乡随俗 - (ru xiang sui su) - "When in Rome, do as the Romans." - The word "Rome" is not in this idiom. Literally, the idiom reads something like, "When entering a village, follow their customs."

- 重色轻友 - (zhong se qing you) - "Lover is more important than friends." - I suppose this is the exact opposite of the English idiom, "Bros before hos."

- 张三李四 - (zhang san li si) - "Any Tom, Dick, or Harry" - This idiom is funny to me. Literally it reads, "Zhang three, Li four." The idea behind this idiom is that Zhang and Li are probably the two most popular sur names is China.

- 马马虎虎 - (ma ma hu hu) - "Alright" or "OK" - The literal translation of this one is pretty awesome - "horse horse tiger tiger." This one is really easy to use in daily conversation.

- 人山人海 - (ren shan ren hai) - "A large crowd" - This one literally reads "People mountain, people sea." An interesting way to say, "China is way too crowded."

- 人生如寄 - (ren sheng ru ji) - "Life is short" - I don't really understand the logic behind how these characters mean this statement. Just have memorized it.

- 无处可去 - (wu chu ke qu) - "No place to go" - I like how this one sounds. The phrase is very logical to me too.

I'm near certain that my Chinese will never get to the point where I'll actually be able to throw around Chinese idioms with any sort of regularity or skill. The ability to use idioms really is vital to being a Chinese speaker. I'm not going to get too caught up in the difficulty of using Chinese idioms though, I'll still be able to make strides in Chinese. Just won't ever be the next Da Shan or anything.

Other than Clinton's attempted usage of Chinese idioms, I vaguely kept up with her trip to China. It sounds as if the confident and rather blunt Clinton accomplished what she went to China to do. Pragmatism and keeping China on board with funding the United States' ever-increasing debt and spending certainly was the focus.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Himalayas' Melting Glaciers

There is ominous news today about the long-term sustainability of the source of a majority of Asia's great rivers.

From Science Daily:

ScienceDaily (Feb. 22, 2009) — Glaciers that serve as water sources to one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on earth are melting at an alarming rate, according to a recent report.

A three-year study, to be used by the China Geological Survey Institute, shows that glaciers in the Yangtze source area, central to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in south-western China, have receded 196 square kilometres over the past 40 years.

Glaciers at the headwaters of the Yangtze, China's longest river, now cover 1,051 square kilometres compared to 1,247 square kilometres in 1971, a loss of nearly a billion cubic metres of water, while the tongue of the Yuzhu glacier, the highest in the Kunlun Mountains fell by 1,500 metres over the same period.

Melting glacier water will replenish rivers in the short term, but as the resource diminishes drought will dominate the river reaches in the long term. Several major rivers including the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus begin their journeys to the sea from the Tibetan Plateau Steppe, one of the largest land-based wilderness areas left in the world.

Read On
I first realized the magnitude of the Himalayas' melting glacier problem from Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." In the documentary, Gore explained that Himalayan glaciers are the source of the the most important rivers in Asia, and thus billions of people.

The melting of the glaciers is going to feed the rivers with more water in the short term, but dry them out in the long term. Because the water is melting quickly, the next twenty years or so should see raging rivers flowing down from these glaciers. But because the glaciers are losing so much water, they are going to be gone before too long.

As I've talked about before on my blog, North China is drying up. Deserts are spreading, water tables are receding, rivers are polluted and dying, and rain is sporadic. Adding in this new caveat that the remaining rivers will dry up in a few decades and then the sustainability of North China becomes very grave.

One can only hope that it is not too late to reverse things and that societies across the globe will begin seriously addressing the toll unrestrained CO2 emission is having on the environment.

The realist in me says that it probably is too late to reverse course on these melting glaciers and that humanity isn't ready to put curbing CO2 emissions at the top of the problems that we need to solve though.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Resilient Migrants

While southern China has had its share of issues since the Chinese New Year, northern China has, so far, been able to avoid any serious problems with restless migrants.

From Newsweek:

Over the last 30 years, as its economy has raced ahead, China has witnessed the world's largest internal migration, with some 250 million farmers and others abandoning its impoverished heartland in search of factory work and a better life on the coast. Now, as the economy slows—exports for January plunged 17.5 percent compared to the same month last year—many of those factories (including nearly half of the toymakers in the Pearl River Delta) have shut down, and unemployment is thought to have hit 10 percent. That's sending threatening waves throughout Chinese society. Among the most worrisome effects: some 20 million migrant workers have returned home, flooding areas where able-bodied youngsters were recently a rarity.

Perhaps hardest hit is hardscrabble Henan Province, whose population is thought to account for a full 10 percent of China's newly jobless. Local officials say some 2 million unemployed workers (out of a total population of 94 million) came home to stay during late January's Chinese New Year holiday, the traditional time for paying off—and laying off—workers. The real number is probably much higher, and it's sure to grow further as layoffs mount. Already it's producing great anxiety among Chinese officials, who have begun warning of civil unrest in unusually stark terms. The fear is that jobless workers—many of them young men—will band together and turn to violence or crime.

Avoiding those dangers by reabsorbing and redirecting these masses won't be easy. But if Henan is a guide, local governments are off to a good start, and may even manage to turn the infusion of new (or returning) blood to their advantage. Henan officials are working on a two-track strategy: first, finding jobs for as many returnees as possible, which generally means reexporting them by posting ads and hosting recruiters from elsewhere. Second, Henan is looking for ways to retain the best-qualified returnees in order to boost the province's depleted workforce and develop new businesses.

Read On
Even those who are not getting any cut of these infrastructure projects or training and are struggling to find anything to do with themselves are not anywhere near a "tipping point."

From Reuters:

ZHENGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Whatever the uncertainties as jobs vanish for China's migrant workers, two things seem clear: they will become neither rebels nor farmers.

Officials estimate that 20 million rural migrants are already out of work, fuelling fears that idle, frustrated young men will turn to protest and sow instability that could throw China's economy badly off course.

The global financial crisis has sent Chinese growth tumbling to below 8 percent, a level widely regarded as a minimum for China to create enough jobs for those entering the workforce.

A key plank of the government's strategy to mitigate the threats posed by job losses has been to encourage the unemployed to return to the countryside, where incomes are low but most have a piece of land to call their own and keep themselves fed.

A few weeks into peak job-hunting season after Chinese New Year, the back-to-the-farm plan has come up short. But Beijing's protest nightmare is not becoming a reality.

Read On
These articles show to me just how resilient a lot of these laborers really are. After being cut off from their "ticket out of poverty" (working in factories), they just get on with life and keep going.

I'm curious to see how long this grace period of "getting on with life in a difficult situation" for North China's migrants lasts though. It could very well be quite protracted or it could be another couple months.

If Beijing's economic stimulus package were to keep enough people busy, it doesn't sound like these migrants need much to stay happy. I'm pretty sure they'll be satisfied as long as they have a job they can toil at everyday and a small wad of cash to take home each month.

But if a large number of people are forced to return back to the farm because there truly is nothing going on for them, frustrations will surely build. Returning to the farm just won't do for most of them.

Handling these millions of unemployed migrants throughout all of China will be a huge test for China. As China's President, Hu Jintao, said in December:
"Whether the pressures can be turned into a driving force and the challenges turned to opportunities ... is a test of our ability to control a complex situation, and also a test of our party's governing ability," Hu said.
Hu is indeed right about the severity of the economic crisis and its impact on China. The coming year and the Party's ability to manage the the crisis will surely be be a more difficult and exhausting task than organizing the Olympics or managing run-away growth over the past couple decades.

Notice Hu in his quote talking about turning "challenges into opportunities." I had a lengthy discussion about this fallacy a few weeks ago. Through a bit of research I discovered that, in fact, the Chinese word for crisis is not a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity.

Life would be so much easier if "crisis" had an intrinsic "opportunity" aspect built into it. But alas, it doesn't. The coming year is going to be very difficult for everyone and there will be no guarantees for anyone.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Pingyao Article at has made my article on the charming little town of Pingyao a "Travel Feature" on the site's front page.


If you're traveling between Beijing and Xi'an, stop off at tiny Pingyao for a side trip that might just turn into a highlight. I don't believe there's another city in China that can match Pingyao's combination of a relaxed atmosphere and ancient Chinese architecture.

As my girlfriend Jackie put it at the end of our four days in Pingyao: "I don't think we could've come to a more lovely and romantic city than Pingyao." I couldn't agree with her more—much to my surprise.

After arriving at the train station, we expected to see a line of taxis waiting to take us into the heart of historic Pingyao. Instead, a row of motorized rickshaws sat waiting for our business.

The look in the drivers' eyes when we walked out of the train station was if they had just spotted breakfast. It was a cold, quiet Monday morning in the off season. They all began yelling "OK!" while frantically preparing their rickshaws for us.

Read On
As I say in the article, Pingyao is a very worthwhile trip if you are traveling around North China. Jackie and I had a very lovely time there just about a year ago. Sometime in the near future, I'll get some of the best pictures I took there back up to this blog.

Seeing that my old blog - - bit the dust last year and I lost a lot of the links from it, I'm re-posting links to the published articles I've had on China.

Kashgar: The Far West of the Far East
Published by the website
This travel article is about the far west Chinese city of Kashgar, experiencing the weekly Sunday market in Kashgar, and the stunning Lake Karakul in the Pamir Mountain range. This article won the distinction of being one of the Top 10 travel articles published in 2008 at

Hua Shan: Shaanxi's Sacred Mountain
Published in the Xi'an English language magazine China Grooves
This travel article is an account of climbing Hua Shan at night and watching the sun rise at the East Peak in the morning.

Helping Xi'an's Neediest One Bowl at a Time
Published in the Xi'an English language magazine China Grooves
This article tells the story of Tony Day and the work he's doing here in Xi'an. Tony started the first soup kitchen of its kind in China.

Now that I'm focusing at least half-hour a day to my blog, I haven't been writing much of anything outside of "Mark's China Blog" recently. This is unfortunate, but at the same time I'm happy with the way my blog is going.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Intellectual Property Compromises (in Chinese, tudou 土豆 means potato) is fighting a legal battle for its right to purvey copyrighted material.

From Forbes:

For all the rampant piracy in China, there are signs that Chinese Web sites are feeling the heat of a mounting legal offensive from the country's own film, television and music industries. China's homegrown version of YouTube,, may have made the first concession.

However, Tudou is willing to offer only a compromise, not actual compensation, for the copyrighted content it shares on its Web site. Arguing that the "ocean" of cybercontent out there makes it financially untenable for the popular video-sharing site to pay for everything, Tudou is willing to offer "revenue sharing" instead. It remains to be seen whether any other Chinese video-sharing sites, such as Youku and Ku6, will follow in Tudou's footsteps. Whether Chinese film, television and music groups will be satisfied with their share of profits is another matter.

Buried under a mountain of lawsuits, Tudou has agreed to yield some of its advertising revenue to content providers. How much? That is still unclear, but Chief Executive Gary Wang told Chinese media last Thursday that the company may share 10% to 30% of ad revenue, after it takes a closer look at sales data for content. First in line for this revenue-sharing arrangement will be Shanghai Film Group, Shanghai Oriental Film & TV, Zhejiang Television, Jiangsu Television and NEPTV, all groups that have worked with Tudou in the past.

Read On
Recently, I've been wondering how and why companies like Tudou and Baidu continues to profit while blatantly break all kinds of intellectual property laws. I assume that this is because China's intellectual property laws are lax and not enforced.

Yet at the same time there are massive amounts of TV shows and movies freely available to watch on Tudou and China's other big video site,

Not that I officially endorse this pracrive, but which show do you feel like watching for free right now: The Simpsons, Entourage, or Desperate Housewives? Seeing that these Chinese sites are messing with American TV shows and movies, it's surprising to me that these sites continue to flourish.

I suppose it's worth asking; can Americans or other people not in China reading this right now access these links that I just provided? Or have they been blocked in America? I know that America doesn't go around blocking sites like China does, but I'm under the impression that US ISPs have been known to block sites which are the source of rampant pirating.

It'd be surprising to me if media companies actually agreed to sharing Tudou's proposal of sharing the profits made off of their illegal sharing. Seems to go against media distribution companies' core principles of anti-piracy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Unholy Oil Alliances

In these tough economic times, China and Venezuela are stepping up their relationship.

From AFP:

CARACAS (AFP) — Venezuela and China agreed to boost economic relations Tuesday, as Vice President Xi Jinping began a two-day visit to the country and Beijing continued to expand its presence in Latin America.

Xi and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez agreed to establish a joint business committee to foster contacts between business leaders in both nations and increase ties in the service, trade and investment sectors.

"I ask you to unleash all your creativity to lead this business committee to a map full of achievements," Chavez told a meeting of Venezuelan and Chinese business leaders.

"We're sure that through our joint effort the mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Venezuela will know a brighter future," Xi said.

Read On
According to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is prepared to "provide China with all the oil it needs for the next 200 years."

Hugo Chavez and the United States obviously do not have the best relationship. But seeing that Venezuela is the third largest foreign oil supplier to the United States with 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, the US doesn't really have much room to criticize China for its ties with the country.

But the other alliance China's strengthened this week is sure to make right-wing Americans' heads explode.

From The Associated Press:

SHANGHAI - Call it planning ahead.

While China's exports plunge and millions of laid-off workers hunt for jobs, the country's big state companies are spending billions of dollars securing access to oil and other scarce resources the country will need in coming decades.

The $25 billion energy agreement signed late Tuesday by China and Russia was the biggest of several deals signed this month, with state financial backing, that are expanding Beijing's overseas resources base at a time when most banks elsewhere are not lending and most governments are barely scraping by.

"Obviously, now, those are holding cash can speak louder than those who have resources," said Qiu Xiaofeng, an analyst at China Merchant Securities, in Shanghai.

"The global economic crisis has given China a rare, good opportunity to trade our abundant currency reserves for other countries' oil resources," Qiu said.

The long-awaited deal signed Tuesday provides a $25 billion loan to Russia in exchange for 15 million tons of oil annually (300,000 barrels per day) for 20 years. The China Development Bank will lend $15 billion to Russia's state-owned Rosneft oil company and $10 million to Transneft, its state pipeline monopoly.

Read On
China made strides this week towards securing its future energy needs. And when one also takes into consideration the oil arrangements that China has developed with Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, China has obviously done a really good job in getting a disversified arrangement of oil suppliers.

Looking at the countries and considering the billions of dollars that are going to be thrown at them though, ending our addiction to oil has never sounded like a better idea. For as long as we are addicted to oil, countries that have little to no conception of human rights and who are responsible for horrible atrocities will continue to be propped up by oil exports.

While I've gone over the list of countries that China is strengthening ties to, I'm not so impressed with the pandering that the United States is forced to resort to to keep its energy supplies flush either. The US' alliances may not be quite as shady as China's but they are by no means saints when it comes to dealing with oil producing nations.

Unfortunately, I don't see much reason to be optimistic that China, the United States, or the rest of the world will be ending its addiction to oil, a natural resource sustaining many of the most underhanded nations in the world, any time soon.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Chinese Ghost Towns

Although South China's demise may not be as bad as Dubai's, things have fallen off a cliff in former Chinese boom towns.

From The Telegraph:

In the heyday of China’s economic miracle, buyers from all over the world flocked to Yiwu, an unremarkable city in the southern province of Zhejiang.

Inside the halls of Futian Market, which sprawl over the equivalent of 800 football pitches, they haggled over hundreds of thousands of low-cost goods – everything from candles and fake flowers to eyeglasses and DVD players. Their orders would then be shipped across the globe to high street shops and supermarkets, fuelling China’s incredible growth.

Li Xuhang, the city’s deputy mayor, said: “If you spent only three minutes with each Chinese manufacturer and spent eight hours here each day, you would need over a year to make your way around the whole market.”

During the decade-long boom, Yiwu attracted buyers not only from American and European companies, but also increasing numbers of Arabs, Russians, and Africans. Scores of Pakistani, Korean and Middle-Eastern restaurants line the streets and there is even an Iraq Hotel.

But now, as the Chinese economic miracle unravels, the labyrinthine halls of Yiwu have emptied of foreign buyers. The latest figures from China’s customs office show exports plunged by 17.5 per cent in January, the biggest fall in more than a decade.

Read On
And of course when people lose everything, they have nothing to lose.

From Reuters:

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Public security will be "grim" this year given the financial downturn, with rising crime rates expected and possible instability from laid-off migrant workers, a top Guangdong police official said on Tuesday.

Guangdong, which manufactures around a third of China's exports, has in recent weeks seen the return of migrant workers, many of whom have struggled to find work given a slew of factory closures and an estimated 20 million lost jobs.

"Faced with the complicated changes in public security in society, especially given the impact of the international financial crisis, we expect the public security situation to be grim," said He Guangping, the deputy head of the Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department.

Economic crimes have risen -- including mobile phone scams, currency counterfeiters, and "black bosses" refusing to pay workers -- leading to the arrests of 5,200 people, and the recovery of more than 3 billion yuan (307.8 million pound) in ill-gotten gains last year, He said.

"All kinds of illegal and criminal activities will continue to increase ... The task of safeguarding social stability, law and order overall is still arduous," He told reporters on the sidelines of Guangdong's annual National People's Congress session in the provincial capital Guangzhou.

Read On
People, both in the West and now in China, often value their life based on their earning power and material possessions. Now that their riches are slipping, the economic tough times becomes psychological tough times.

In my mind, the only way to get through the economic crisis will be to get away from the ideas of keeping up with the Joneses and viewing material wealth as the grandest achievement in life.

Will making these adjustments be easy? No. But I believe it will be an inevitable outcome in an economy which no longer allows its citizens to consume the way it has been for decades.

I'll finish today's post with a video of economist Peter Schiff. Schiff began espousing the move away from runaway consumption years ago. Here are a few of his appearances on a number of different American financial TV shows.

If you despise the talking heads on Fox News and CNBC and the faux financial booms they cheered on over the past decade, you'll really enjoy this video:

As much as I like this video for the way Schiff handles himself and the predictions he makes, I like the video even more for the reactions of the other panelists to Schiff and the mocking tone they take with him. It'd be fun to watch this video in the same room with Art Laffer, Ben Stein, or Charles Payne today.

If only there'd been more people speaking like Schiff earlier.

Monday, February 16, 2009

No More Fake Doctors on Medical Ads

This news is going to greatly affect the medical infomercials that seem to be on all day on just about every channel of Chinese TV.

From Reuters:

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has banned actors and other "non-accredited personnel" from playing medical experts in advertisements for drugs after an Internet-led witch-hunt exposed a number of bogus experts, state media reported on Monday.

A Chinese Internet user late last month exposed 12 fake experts selling medicine under various guises and names on television stations in eastern Shandong province, sparking an online uproar over false endorsements.

China's fair trade watchdog, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) vowed punishments after local hospitals and universities queued up to deny any affiliation to the "experts," local media reported.

Non-accredited personnel would be banned from such advertisements and other health programmes carried on television, Xinhua news agency said, citing a notice jointly issued by the SAIC, China's health ministry, the country's media regulator and two other drug quality watchdogs.

Read On
Although I have never played a medical expert on TV, a few of my friends have. (Having white skin gives one endless possibilities in China.)

About a year ago, a few of my friends were told they could make an easy 1,000RMB by simply showing up to a set, putting on a white lab coat, and speaking English into a camera. Their faces would also be on the ubiquitous medical infomercials which plague Chinese television. Of course they accepted the offer.

The first advertisement a couple of my friends participated in was for a nasal spray product. The infomercial was about fifteen minutes long, which then played on a continuous loop. My friends were probably on screen for a total of one minute each.

There was music and a Chinese guy talking over my friends' voices, but if you listened carefully you could hear what they were saying into the camera.

I remember Mike saying directly into the camera, "I'm pretending to be a doctor. I have no idea what I'm talking about. They are paying me lots of money to pretend to know what I'm talking about." This kind of stuff.

And then they had Richard sitting in front of a computer in his lab coat. The speaking part they used from him was him listing off different countries from around the world. During his part, pretty much all he was saying was "Canada, America, Korea, Denmark" very slowly.

The second commercial was one of my friends, Paul, talking about the benefits of erectile dysfunction pills. They dressed him up in a US Army uniform and had him sit on a panel discussing how the pills had worked for him. This commercial was hilarious.

Again, the creators of the ad asked him to just speak English into the camera. They didn't speak any English so he could say whatever he wanted. Paul had been screwed over by the school we were working for on his visa. So during his five minute or so free talk on the health benefits, he just talked trash about the school and the management of the school while talking directly into the camera.

Unfortunately, I don't have copies of these videos. I'm pretty sure a friend of mine in Xi'an still has a DVD of their performances. I'll see if I can find that DVD and put those videos onto YouTube. Would be really funny to see again.

Anyways, if my friends were to make this video now, the companies employing them would be reprimanded. That is OK, I suppose. It's not really fair at all to the gullible Chinese consumer to be lied to by either foreigners or Chinese pretending to be doctors.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

New Senator Showing Off Her Mandarin

Hillary Clinton's replacement in the senate is getting off on the right foot in connecting with the hordes of Chinese in New York City.

From The New York Times:

She had them at “Ni hao ma.”

When Senator Kirsten E. Gillebrand grabbed the microphone at the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown two weeks ago, she blurted, “Ni hao ma, zenma yang?” in Mandarin, or “Hello, how’s it going?” Later that day, after wrapping up a meeting with local leaders at a senior center, she walked by a few card tables and said, “Hao bu hao?” or “Are you doing O.K.?”

It is customary for politicians eager to connect with ethnic voters to butcher a few words in Spanish, Chinese or other foreign tongues. But Ms. Gillibrand is no ordinary politician when it comes to linguistic and cultural comfort: as an Asian studies major at Dartmouth, she studied for six months in China and Taiwan, becoming proficient enough to absorb stories in Chinese newspapers, and later spent four months in Hong Kong as a corporate lawyer.

Ms. Gillibrand’s Chinese is rusty now. But she tells her 5-year-old son, “Man man yi diar,” or “Slow down a little,” and calls chopsticks “kuaizi,” out of habit. And she can still converse for a few minutes, as evidenced when a reporter from a New York City-based Chinese-language newspaper trying to learn her Chinese name unexpectedly found an enthusiastic Ms. Gillibrand on the line.

“She definitely understood what I was saying, and she had good pronunciation,” said the reporter, Yan Tai, who writes for The World Journal. “Actually, I was very impressed.”

Read On
As this article alludes to, if you are a foreigner and have made any effort towards learning Chinese, Chinese people are easily impressed. Chinese people realize that their language is hard for foreigners to get into. Most Chinese people are quite enthusiastic and supportive of foreigners who try to speak even a little.

While she knows a bit, it doesn't sound like Senator Gillebrand's level is too high. There's another world politician who's definitely got her beat: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Here is a video of Rudd blingin' his Chinese on China's biggest TV night of the year, CCTV's New Year's Eve Gala:

When talking about foreigners who've can speak good Chinese, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Da Shan.

Don't recognize this guy? Nobody outside of China does. But in China, he's a mega-celebrity.

Da Shan, aka Mark Henry Rowswell, made a name for himself while studying Chinese in Beijing during the 1980s. The Canadian is famous for his Chinese because it is "better than Chinese peoples'."

He speaks all kinds of dialects and can perform the traditional Chinese dialog performing art xiangsheng (相声), which a friend told me "takes some serious Chinese skills." I've seen xiangsheng a few times. I can understand parts of it occasionally. It is loosely translated to English as "crosstalk." Da Shan said the closest thing to xiangsheng in English is the "Who's on First?" bit by Abbot and Costello.

Here is a video of his xiangsheng performance at this year's CCTV Spring Festival Gala:

From what I've heard other foreigners say about Da Shan in my three years in China, it sounds like most hate the guy. I'm not quite sure why. Sure, he's cheesy. But I, personally, admire his Chinese greatly. He's got some serious skills.

Seeing Rudd, Da Shan, and to a lesser extend Gillebrand, I'm encouraged to keep studying Chinese. It is good to know that if the effort is put in, the language can be learned. It is also good motivation to know that if my Chinese can continue to improve, it could open doors for me down the road.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chinese Gays Take to the Streets

Seeing that Xi'an is not one of China's more liberal cities, I didn't see any of these demonstrations yesterday.

From Reuters:

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese gays and lesbians took to the streets on Saturday hoping Saint Valentine's Day would help them attract support for same-sex marriage in the conservative society.

Thirty people gathered on a street in the Chinese capital, close to Tiananmen Square and its stern portrait of Mao Zedong, to hold mock wedding photo sessions. They drew gasps, smiles and an occasional scowl from passers-by. Organisers said similar events took place in three other cities.

Their goal was to win more acceptance in a nation that has long frowned upon open displays of sexuality. Campaigners gave out roses and a slip of pink paper urging support for same-sex marriage.

Police did not interfere. Same-sex marriage is forbidden in China, where for many homosexuality is abhorrent or unknown.

"A lot of people around me don't see the gay community, they don't even know there are any of us around. They think we are very seductive and strange," said one participant, a student who used the name Dana.

Read On
I don't have any openly gay friends here in Xi'an. I have a friend or two who I think might be gay, but I'm not sure that these friends in question have admitted this to themselves yet. So I'm not really much of an authority when it comes to knowing what an openly gay person goes through living in China. But I have to imagine that it's a pretty difficult experience.

Coming from middle-America, I'm used to very religious and not-so-tolerant people. My home state is Kansas for god's sake. While I don't consider Kansas to be part of the bible-belt (which is more in America's Southeast), Kansas is the state that put teaching the theory of evolution in public schools on trial and concluded that "science that does not preclude supernatural explanations." So in a way, central China and Kansas aren't that far apart when it comes to their conservative social attitudes, they just come to these same conclusions via different routes.

Saying this though, it has to be easier being a homosexual in Kansas City than it is in Xi'an.

The pressure on young men and women in China to couple-up and marry is unbelievable. Even in big cities, which are more progressive than the countryside, this is the case. There are no ifs ands or buts when it comes to getting married in China. To your typical city-dwelling Chinese family, a Chinese woman by the age of twenty-seven or so and a Chinese man by his early thirties, simply, must be married. The social consequences for not tying the knot here are huge. It just doesn't seem to happen too often at all.

This might be different in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and other more liberal and open places. I'm just speaking from what I've seen and heard here in Xi'an over the past three years. Even if things are different, I imagine that there aren't as many single thirty-somethings running around Shanghai as there are New York City, London, or Paris.

This pressure to marry surely forces people in the gay and lesbian community to mask themselves and hide their true feelings. For these reasons, I reckon it is a very traumatic and difficult experience being gay in China.

I hope that the younger generation of Chinese, like the younger generations of Americans, can be more open and accepting of gay and lesbian people. I, personally, have no problem with what other people do with their lives. And it's not like gay people chose to be gay. It is just the way they are.

Valentine's Day

China's paramilitary soldiers hope you have a very romantic Valentine's Day!

Valentine's day in China traditionally falls on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. So it'll be sometime in July or August.

Chinese people are celebrating the February 14th version more and more though. Here, you can read how Chinese people struggling with the economic crisis are celebrating the holiday today.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Has Western Fast Food Hit a Wall in China?

It appears that the Chinese population is beginning to realize that western fast food is unhealthy and too expensive.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Shanghai -- Down an alley from a KFC, McDonald's and Pizza Hut in Shanghai, Li Hong sat inside a dingy little storefront that serves full-course dinners for a dollar.

Her tray was filled with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, a chicken leg and rice, plus soup. A Western fast-food meal would have cost her three times that much, said the young woman, who works as a sales clerk. "Why should I go there?" she said.

In the U.S., fast-food chains often thrive in tough times. But not so in China, where Western quick-service food isn't the cheapest stuff in town and, in target markets like Shanghai, there's too much competition. Plus, a growing number of consumers see it as unhealthful.

Read On
Reacting to the competitive and deteriorating market, McDonald's has cut prices significantly in China.
McDonald's Corp. (MCD) is slashing menu prices by nearly one-third for some items in China amid the country's sputtering economy.

Among the new offerings is an "Everyday Super Value Meal" that includes combo meals for 16.5 Chinese yuan ($2.41) and some individual items for CNY6 ($0.88).

McDonald's said these new prices and meals will save customers up to 32.6% off previous prices.

The fast-food giant is also offering a loyalty card that gives customers 20% off certain meals at the company's 1,050 China locations.

I can't say that I'm that surprised that Chinese people may move away from eating western fast food as much as they have been.

First, western fast food joints in China aren't cheap. In America, when you eat the crap that fast food places serve up you at least don't have to spend much money. That can't be said for China.

In Xi'an, a bowl of my noodles (臊子面) from my favorite little restaurant costs 6RMB. The sandwich (肉夹馍) that the restaurant also serves costs 3RMB. And then a bottle of Fanta costs 1RMB. So at this place, I can spend 10RMB and be absolutely full on delicious food.

There are literally thousands of restaurants all over Xi'an serving noodles, dumplings, fried rice, and other Chinese staples for between five and ten RMB a plate.

For comparison, the cheapest meal at the KFC down the street from my apartment is 20RMB. And more often than not, spending 20RMB there won't fill me up. McDonald's might be a bit cheaper now, but it is still at least 50% more expensive than the little restaurants that dot Xi'an's streets.

In addition to being more expensive, the food served at fast food restaurants is obviously junk food. I believe that Chinese people eat healthy compared to the people from middle America where I grew up. Nearly every Chinese person I've met is at least conscious about the benefits of eating a balance of fruit and vegetables. They generally don't eat as much of the greasy and fatty food which are staples of American "cuisine."

There are so many more western fast food restaurants in Xi'an now compared to when I came here three years ago. There are three KFCs, two McDonald's, one Pizza Hut, and one Subway all within about a twenty minute walk from my house. McDonald's and Subway are not as ubiquitous as KFC, but I've seen a lot of signs advertising their opening of new restaurants for the coming year.

KFCs, on the other hand, are everywhere in Xi'an. I cannot emphasize how many you will see if you take a bus from one part of the city to another. I can think of at least two places in Xi'an where there are KFCs on each side of the street facing each other. In my opinion, KFC has over-saturated its market here. I don't see how there is room for growth in Xi'an for the company.

I can't imagine that Chinese people's tastes for western fast food will evaporate overnight, but I'll be curious to see how much growth is left in an economic crisis for restaurants that serve food without nutrients and charge twice the amount of a normal Chinese meal.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


China is getting proactive with the drought going on in northern China.

From Xinhua News:

WUHAN, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) -- A third air force freighter is to attempt to bring two showers during the coming week to Hubei Province, which is suffering from a devastating drought, said a local meteorological officer Wednesday.

Xu Yonghe, Hubei Weather Modification Office's chief engineer, was equipping the An-26 freighter with artificial rain enhancement facilities at Yangluo Airport in Wuhan City when the reporter spoke to him. The freighter arrived from south China's Guangzhou City on Tuesday evening.

Xu said the facilities included cloud-seeding equipments and a GPS system. The plan is to create a shower between Feb. 12 and 14,and another between Feb. 15 and 17. "They could increase rainfall by 10 to 20 percent."

Read On
In recent days, I've heard a lot of Chinese people talk about getting "artificial rain" to help farmers struggling with the current drought. Not really knowing what artificial rain is, I did a bit of probing into this issue. It turns out rain can indeed be man-induced and I've just been clueless that such things even exist.

Here is an excerpt of an article I found from ThingsAsian on China's practice of inducing rain from 2004:
"The widespread use of this technology in northern China more than anything reflects the prominent shortage of water we have," Hu said. He added chemicals like silver iodine, liquid nitrogen and calcium chloride were being distributed into clouds by airplanes, rocket shells and anti-aircraft guns to build up moisture in the clouds and increase rainfall.

The work aims to enhance or multiply tiny particles of ice in clouds which become the building block for precipitation as they gather moisture and eventually fall out of the clouds as rain, hail or snow.

According to state press reports, from 1995 to 2003 China spent 266 million dollars on rain-making technology in 23 provinces and regions and now boasts some 35,000 people who work in the field.

In 2003 alone, the state spent some 50 million dollars dispersing chemicals into clouds through the use of 30 airplanes, 3,800 rockets and 6,900 high artillery shells.

"Man-made efforts to influence the weather is an important method by mankind to use modern science and technology to prevent and reduce disasters, and is already receiving a high level of importance in our country," Qin Dahe, minister of the State Meteorological Bureau, said earlier this year. Chinese scientists are also researching how to expand the technologies to disperse fog, stop hail from ruining crops and reduce frost and air pollution. Last week, meteorologists in Shanghai announced they would use the technology to induce more rain as a way to cool the city down and avoid the summer spike in electricity demand that has been attributed to the city's air conditioners.

Read On

Looking at the Wikipedia page on cloud seeding, I found that the practice of trying to create rain artificially is not just used by the Chinese. It is also used by the United States. In fact, the practice very long history dating back to the early 1900s.

Most interesting, there are even some interesting conspiracy theories surrounding the practice of cloud seeding:
In 1969 at the Woodstock, various people claimed to have witnessed clouds being seeded by the U.S. military. This was said to be the cause of the rain which lasted throughout most of the festival. This remains one of the many conspiracy theories put forth by members of the hippie movement at the time.
Silly hippies...

If cloud seeding actually works, and there is a lot of dispute whether it does, I suppose it could very well be a good thing. There is something a bit 1984-ish about the whole thing though.

Even if it is creepy that the government could feasibly control whether it rains or not, I hope that right now it can bring rain to Xi'an and relief to the farmers of northern China.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Reworking Fine Art, Chinese Style

A collection of Chinese bloggers have done an awesome job at pointing out the absurdity that is surfing the net in China.

From AFP:

SHANGHAI (AFP) — Chinese Internet users angered by censorship in cyberspace have dressed up images of famous renaissance nudes in a protest against Beijing's crackdown on "vulgar" online content.

Images posted as part of the protest include Michelangelo's statue "David" shown in a Mao suit while black socks and a strategically placed necktie were added to the artist's depiction of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The protest began last week after a user of the social networking site complained that images of several paintings, including Titian's nude "Venus of Urbino," had been deleted from an online photo album.

Read On

This recent crackdown on pieces of art shows just how clueless the people controlling the internet here are. Although I don't agree with it at all, I can at least understand why they want to crack down on pornographic content. But fine art, give me a break.

I think that the following is a pretty good definition of pornography: "the creative activity (writing or pictures or films etc.) of no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire." Obviously these works which were being questioned do not fall under that category at all.

As the article goes on to say, the photoshoppers who pointed out the ridiculousness of this filtering won and the works of art which were being questioned now aren't.

This story is a testament to the power of a meaningful, well thought out, and subtle standing up to the Man.

Xi'an's Lantern Festival

Today was the official end of China's Spring Festival lunar new year celebration, the Lantern Festival. Jackie and her mom cooked me a delicious lunch, we relaxed in the afternoon, and then Jackie and I went on a walk near Xi'an's Wild Goose Pagoda at night.

Another awesome Spring Festival-related day. It's been a truly great two weeks.

I've been wanting to visually share my Spring Festival experiences on this blog. Today I finally got the chance to take out my camera and take some pictures.

The following photos help show what I experienced this evening:

This one came out pretty trippy... a lantern-face

热闹得很 - a very lively atmosphere

Hordes of people on 雁塔西路 (YanTaXiLu)

Jackie explained to me that on the Lantern Festival Eve people put up little riddles on pieces of paper

A man examining and thinking hard about this riddle

Lantern Festival toys for sale

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

I made this panorama of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda using Canon's Photostitch

Fireworks being sold.

I've talked before about the importance of fireworks during Chinese New Year. This is my third year to experience Spring Festival and each year I'm surprised by the amount of fireworks lit that night. It seriously sounds like a war zone for hours.

Although tonight couldn't compare with New Year's Eve, there were still plenty of fireworks lit.

Here are a couple videos as evidence:

My first day in China, February 12, 2006, was Lantern Festival. So today marks my three year anniversary living in China (according to the lunar calendar).

How interesting and wonderful these three years they have been!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

NFL Struggling in China

Chinese people assume that the NBA is America's favorite sport. They don't understand that it isn't at all. In fact, as of January, 2008, the NBA was America's sixth favorite sport behind the National Football League, Major League Baseball, college football, auto racing, and the National Hockey League.

One can't blame the Chinese for thinking the NBA is king in America though. America's actual favorite sport, football, is still a complete mystery to China.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Beijing -- Super Bowl Sunday arrived in China's capital at daybreak Monday, but by kickoff it was standing room only at the Goose 'n' Duck, a British-style sports pub near sprawling Chaoyang Park in east Beijing.

The vast majority of the nearly 350 football fans who braved the frigid morning temperatures were expatriate Americans, many already with beer in hand despite the hour.

But in one corner of the two-story complex was a rabid group of Chinese fans watching the English-language broadcast with the help of two Mandarin-speaking commentators, perched on stools with microphones in hand, who had been hired by the National Football League.

The party, along with a gathering in Shanghai, was one small part of a six-year effort by the NFL to sell its sport in a country where the league has struggled to find a fan base.

Even at its own Super Bowl party, the challenges the NFL faces in China were on full display.

Although the Super Bowl was broadcast nationwide by state-run CCTV, Chinese authorities put it on a 30-minute delay, so organizers of the NFL party piped in a live feed from a Philippine satellite broadcaster. And though local fans were enthusiastic, they frequently stared blankly at TV screens during complicated penalties and on-field rulings.

Read On

When I was a young kid, I was always under the impression that the Super Bowl was the world's biggest sporting event. Sometime in the past several years though, I've come to realize that this is woefully inaccurate. It is, indeed, America's biggest sporting event, but it doesn't even make a peep elsewhere in the world.

As an American, I completely understand America's fascination with football. I grew up in Kansas City, which arguably has the best NFL fans in America. In addition to the supporting the Kansas City Chiefs, Kansas City is also instrumental in supporting the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and the University of Missouri football programs.

Where I grew up, football is a very serious past time.

But living for a significant period outside of Kansas City, and America for that matter, I have grown to see why (American) football has not and, most likely, will not take off outside of America.

The two things that I see as absolutely fatal death blows to football's popularity outside of America are its complicated rules and its constant stopping and starting.

The first difficulty for people who didn't grow up with football are its myriad of obscure rules. Even to someone who grew up with football, rules like intentional grounding, neutral zone infractions, and illegal shifting can be counter-intuitive and confusing. For people who are trying to get into the game for the first time, these rules are a major barrier of entry.

Next is the fact that, inherent in the nature of football, there is a constant starting and stopping throughout the whole game. One could very reasonably say that football never gets flowing. A short burst of activity happens (usually about five to ten seconds) and then is followed by a much longer period of down time (at least thirty seconds).

A blogger at Wired Magazine recently did an interesting study. He took a stop-watch and timed how much action actually occurs in an NFL game (he did the experiment during a Kansas City - Denver game). His results are pretty astounding:
So, during the two hours and 56 minutes the game took to complete, throughout the 60 minutes of regulation time, the ball was in only in play for 12 minutes and 8 seconds.The rest of the time, players were standing around, plays were being reviewed and I was being bombarded by a multitude of beer commercials and truck advertisements.
I believe that this never-ending lack of action in a football game, which is endimic in the sport, cannot be changed. It is how the game is played.

As that study mentions, indirectly related to this constant stoppage in play are the ridiculous amount of commercial breaks that a viewer of a football game is subjected to. After living abroad and being away from football for a while, this really bothered me when I watched a bit of football while I was back home in December last year.

With commercials and a dragged out half-time, the average NFL game lasts a ridiculous three hours and fifteen minutes. College football games last even longer because the clock is stopped after every first down.

A couple years ago, I talked with an English bloke who'd studied at Pennsylvania State University. College football fans know that Penn State has one of the most storied traditions and best football teams in the country. Yet despite the great level of play this English man had been exposed to, he could not understand why everyone was so into American football. As he said, "People get together and stand around for three hours with an occasional play occurring on the field."

Despite the diatribe I'm currently going on against football, I am still a fan of the sport. Particularly, I like college football. I feel it has much more passion and pageantry than the NFL, which in recent years I've found to be stale.

My favorite team, the University of Kansas Jayhawks, have enjoyed an unprecedented amount of success (in their history) over the past few years. Getting to watch them from afar has been a treat.

I'm not saying football isn't worth watching or that Americans are silly for liking it. Instead, I'm saying that expecting people from abroad to sit down and watch a three hour plus game with all sorts of crazy rules being played by players and teams that they are vaguely familiar with is quite a tough sell.

And the NFL is having trouble getting a foot-hold in China for these very reasons.