Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dust Storm/Acid Rain Pollution Paradox

All of China's environmental problems come together in Beijing. Between its nearby desertification and the resulting dust storms or coal-powered power plants and their resulting smog and acid-rain, it's pretty much a "pick your poison" scenario living in China's capitol.

Strangely, it turns out that the dust storms and the sulfur from power plants engage in a yin-yang like balancing act that somehow protects the city from toxic acid rain.

From Discovery News:

March 31, 2009 -- Powerful dust storms that whip across China's north and central deserts are infamous for blotting out the skies over Beijing. They wreak havoc with transportation and industry, and pose a serious health risk to the 17 million people who live there.

But they may be a blessing in disguise. According to a new study, the dust is protecting the city from a horrible case of acid rain.

And government reforestation and farmland management programs may be backfiring, inviting corrosive precipitation into the country's capital region.

Acid rain is a known scourge in China's heavily industrialized southern and northeastern reaches, threatening soil quality, forests and food supplies.

But for all its smog-ridden reputation, Beijing remains comparatively acid-free; an island amid the country's sea of coal-burning, sulfur-belching power plants. The reason is the region's regular dust storms. The calcium-rich dust acts as a buffer, neutralizing sulfuric and nitric acid particles before they fall to Earth.


"This is a time bomb waiting to happen in China," Gene Likens of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York said. "Once you clean up the dust particles, all that material that was buffering and neutralizing the acidity is gone."

Read On
The Olympics put Beijing's ridiculous pollution problems on the world stage. It was common knowledge that China is a polluted place, but the smog-filled days leading up to the games genuinely surprised the world at large.

But to anyone who'd visited China, let alone anyone who'd lived in China, the pollution problems exposed to the world were already common knowledge.

When people ask me about living in China (or in Xi'an particularly), I invariably tell them that pollution is the biggest drawback to being here. Waking up in the morning and walking out into acrid smoggy air is not something I'll ever get used to.

Xi'an, like Beijing, has out-of-control pollution. Xi'an's problem has a lot to do with the surrounding area's geography. Xi'an has exceptionally good feng shui. This can be seen in its name; "Xi" means "west" and "An" means "peace." Basically, Xi'an is considered a very safe and peaceful place because of it being in a cradle of the Qingling Mountains.

This Google Earth terrain map helps visualize Xi'an and its mountainous geography:

While these mountains give Xi'an good feng shui, they wreak havoc on Xi'an's air quality. The dust that comes in from nearby desertification and the pollution that comes from a fair bit of manufacturing in and around Xi'an makes for a pretty rancid mix. The pollution in and around Xi'an just stagnates in the city. It's awful.

The Google Earth terrain map that I just posted is helpful, but this Google Earth satellite photo of near where I live is even better for understanding Xi'an's pollution problem:

Notice the milky color here. That's the air. Not so nice.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Plastic Surgery Booming

In a strange twist, the economic crisis is actually injecting new demand into China's fledgling plastic surgery industry.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Shanghai -- In this crummy job market, Stephanie Yang figures any little advantage will help. Even double eyelids.

So on a cold January morning, the 21-year-old college senior walked into one of dozens of plastic surgery clinics here and plopped down $730, the equivalent of one year's tuition. An hour later she came out with two big bandages over her eyes.
When she removed the dressing the next day, Yang was aghast at her red, puffy eyelids. But now she looks out with her round eyes, a sharp crease across the upper lids, ready for the next interview.

"They may not say it openly, but during the process they will pick the prettier one," she says.

Judging by the boom in plastic surgeries lately, a lot of young Chinese would agree.

In the U.S., the recession has led to a steep drop in cosmetic surgeries, which generally aren't paid for by health insurers. Nose jobs aren't covered in China either, but that's not stopping consumers here. Job hunters know that a pleasing face helps to get a foot in the door.

"I've been surprised how busy it is," says Dr. Liao Yuhua, president of Shanghai Time Plastic Surgery Hospital, one of the largest in the city. Business began to increase last November, she says, and in recent weeks has been running 40% higher than a year ago. At its busiest in January, Liao says, her team of 10 surgeons was doing as many as 100 procedures a day, raising noses, cutting eyelids and chiseling angular faces into the shape of smooth goose eggs.

Read On
As a shorter guy (5'6"), I found this section particularly interesting/disturbing:
No wonder some Chinese pay thousands of dollars to have doctors break their legs and have steel pins inserted in their bones; these surgeries typically add 3 inches to a person's height but are considered very dangerous.
And this part is just insane:
Even for government jobs, applicants are graded for yibiao, or appearance. In one extreme example, Hunan province in central China required that its civil servants have "symmetrical breasts." The policy was scrapped after applicants protested a few years ago.
As an American, I don't really have much room to criticize excessive plastic surgery. But I find it pretty unfortunate that China is going down this path.

The "double eyelid" surgery is an interesting procedure to me. As the owner of double eyelids, I don't exactly see what all of the fuss is about. Of course, I'm not a Chinese woman and am not held to Chinese standards of beauty, so it's not really fair for me to say it's silly.

Here are a couple before-and-after photos of double eyelids operations:

Photos from Drmeronk.com

Double eyelids, white skin, bigger breasts, height - all things that most Chinese woman are deficient of naturally - are the things that Chinese women are obsessing over. One could also say Chinese men are preoccupied over these things too, seeing that they ultimately have a lot to do with defining what beauty is.

It's true that during a down economy and a cut-throat job market, good looks will become more and more important. This is unfortunate. Having genetics, rather than achievement, being the determiner of one's job prospects is a pity. Such is life though and I'd be a fool to think that this will go away any time soon.

As I said earlier, I'm a short guy. So I'm, without a doubt, going to have my job prospects be affected by my appearance. Don't expect me to be commissioning a plastic surgeon to break my legs anytime soon though.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cyber Espionage

News that Chinese hackers have infiltrated computers across the globe isn't going to do any favors for China's reputation abroad.

From InfoWorld:

Photo stolen from some religious right-wing hack blog

A 10-month cyberespionage investigation has found that 1,295 computers in 103 countries and belonging to international institutions have been spied on, with some circumstantial evidence suggesting China may be to blame.

The 53-page report, released on Sunday, provides some of the most compelling evidence and detail of the efforts of politically-motivated hackers while raising questions about their ties with government-sanctioned cyberspying operations.

It describes a network which researchers have called GhostNet, which primarily uses a malicious software program called gh0st RAT (Remote Access Tool) to steal sensitive documents, control Web cams and completely control infected computers.


Although evidence shows that servers in China were collecting some of the sensitive data, the analysts were cautious about linking the spying to the Chinese government. Rather, China has a fifth of the world's Internet users, which may include hackers that have goals aligning with official Chinese political positions.

"Attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading," the report said.

However, China has made a concerted effort since the 1990s to use cyberspace for military advantage "The Chinese focus on cyber capabilities as part of its strategy of national asymmetric warfare involves deliberately developing capabilities that circumvent U.S. superiority in command-and-control warfare," it said.

Read On
The servicemen specializing in PR techniques for the Chinese military would be a big help on damage-control for this story.

Although this story just broke and the details are a bit sketchy, it sounds like specific political motivations are probably what's behind this powerful spyware. Some things never change.

I'm not really sure what to think about this story. It's disturbing, no doubt. But I have to imagine that this is just a case of the Chinese being sloppy, acting recklessly, and getting caught.

The kind of software that China was, supposedly, sending out has to, I reckon, be employed by governments across the globe. The Chinese use it on the people and groups they think are its biggest threat. Whereas I have to imagine the US uses such techniques to combat terror and stuff it deems evil.

Nobody can say for sure who the US and its CIA and Department of Homeland Security watches. Especially during the Bush Administration and the paranoid times it ruled over, the country was probably watching a very wide array of groups and people (including its own citizens).

Saying that, the list of groups that this malicious Chinese spyware had infiltrated seem pretty innocuous:
The University of Toronto report classified close to 30 percent of the infected computers as being "high-value" targets. Those machines belong to the ministry of foreign affairs of Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Brunei, Indonesia, Iran, Latvia and the Philippines. Also infected were computers belonging to the embassies of Cyprus, Germany, India, Indonesia, Malta, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
This kind of "social malware" will surely get worse and more prevalent as we move forward. I'm not sure what one can really do to protect one's self. Probably nothing.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The State of Mark's China Blog

As March winds down, things have never been better at Mark's China Blog.

The new year of 2009, and especially March, has seen exponential growth in traffic here. It looks like there are going to be just about 5,000 visits and 7,000 page views for this month alone.

In addition to increased traffic, the comments left by you, the readers, have never been more plentiful or of higher quality. There have been numerous instances where user comments have clarified a point I'd made, given a different perspective, or have simply refuted what I'd written. That is great.

Over the past few months, there have been a number of links from influential outside sources referring to my blog. I want to take a minute to recognize these instances.

Blogs.com, a site that tries to organize the blog-surfing experience, rated Mark's China Blog as "One of the Ten Must-Read China Blogs" on the internet. Being on this list with some of the best China bloggers out there is flattering.

The Wall St. Journal's China Journal has linked up to a few posts of mine over the past few months. Getting recognition from such a storied enterprise is awesome. Sky Canaves and the other writers at The China Journal do a really good job of keeping a pulse on China news.

Chinatravel.net and the editor there, Rebekah Pothaar, have been very kind to me. I'm happy to have cultivated a relationship with them and hope to continue to do work with them in the future.

The wildly popular website, The Shanghaiist, has linked up to my site a number of times.

But by far the biggest endorsement I've received over the past few months is from Richard over at The Peking Duck. If you're not familiar with The Peking Duck, it is one of the longest-running and highest-quality blogs about China. Period. I've been reading his blog for years. For him to give me the ringing endorsement he did last month, well, it really makes all the trouble of writing this blog worth it. His link in itself has tripled my daily traffic.

I'm not posting these things to brag or say that I'm great or anything. I do want to give credit to the the people and places that have helped me get to where I currently am though.

Over the past few months as Mark's China Blog became a China news commentary site, I've certainly alienated my friends and family who, for a couple years, had been coming to my site to read about my daily experiences and thoughts on living in China. I wrote the more personal kind of blog for about two years. At some point (in 2008, I think), I just got tired of doing that. I felt my knowledge of China had grown to the point where I could do more than talk about the cultural differences I found interesting and post photos from my various excursions.

I feel as though my personal experiences are still, in fact, very present in the present form of Mark's China Blog though. I certainly get into the nitty-gritty of China news, but always try to add my own perspective for relevance.

Updating the site daily with fresh China news and then commenting on that news is turning into a real passion of mine. I really like the way this blog is going. I hope that you, the reader, are learning something about China as we go along. I certainly am by writing it.

Some people may not understand why I put in the effort to this blog. I don't have a very clear answer for people who ask this question. I'm not getting rich (in fact I'm making $0 off of it). I'm not getting famous (I'm not deluding myself about the endorsements that I've received over the past few months). And I'm not sure if all the time I'm putting into this will ever help me get a job (I'm not holding my breath about ever getting the chance to be a professional blogger, although being a full-time blogger would be incredible).

Saying that, I'm going to try to keep going with what I'm doing. The intellectual, cultural, and maybe even spiritual growth that I get from writing Mark's China Blog is more than enough satisfaction to keep me writing. I can't guarantee I will continue at the furious pace I'm going at now (88 posts in 88 days so far in 2009), but I will keep doing what I'm doing for as long as I can.

If you like reading Mark's China Blog and have some extra money sitting around (since I know everyone does these days), feel free to donate whatever you want to me and this site. Again, I'm not blogging for money. But I wouldn't be opposed to earning a buck or two if you think this site is worthwhile to donate to.

If you do want to contribute a little bit, click on the PayPal "Donate" button on the upper left hand part of the page.

Thanks for reading Mark's China Blog. I'm glad that you are exploring China with me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Subway Expansion

China's rapidly developing car culture and appetite for massive construction projects are running together in the building of huge subway lines in several Chinese cities.

From The New York Times:

GUANGZHOU, China — Chan Shao Zhang is in the race of his life.

After four decades of false starts, Mr. Chan, a 67-year-old engineer, is supervising an army of workers operating 60 gargantuan tunneling machines beneath this metropolis in southeastern China. They are building one of the world’s largest and most advanced subway systems.

The question is whether the burrowing machines can outrace China’s growing love affair with the automobile — car sales have soared ninefold since 2000. Or are a hundred Los Angeleses destined to bloom?

And even as Mr. Chan labors to bind Guangzhou together with an underground web of steel, the city is spreading out rapidly above ground, like a drop of ink on a paper towel.

The Guangzhou Metro is just part of a much broader surge in mass transit construction across China.

At least 15 cities are building subway lines and a dozen more are planning them. The pace of construction will only accelerate now that Beijing is pushing local and provincial governments to step up their infrastructure spending to offset lost revenue from slumping exports.

“Nobody is building like they are,” said Shomik Mehndiratta, a World Bank specialist in urban transport. “The center of construction is really China.”

Read On
I didn't ride its subway when in Guangzhou last week. Not being too familiar with the city, we thought it was more trouble than it would've been worth.

This NY Times story hits close to home for me because in 2011, one will be able to ride the subway currently under construction in Xi'an.

Here are some of the basic details on Xi'an's project:
Xi'an Subway is a metro system currently under construction to serve the city of Xi'an, the capitol of Shaanxi Province in the People's Republic of China. Line 2 is currently under construction and Line 1 will begin construction in 2009. Four other routes are also planned to start in 2013 and finish around 2020. When completed, the total system will span 251.8 kilometers (157 miles).
So eventually, Xi'an's system is going to be a pretty sizable one. At the moment, the construction is hugely inconvenient. Several of Xi'an's busiest streets and intersections are unusable. But the project should, hopefully, make the city a better place in a few years.

Some of the issues brought up in the article I linked to on Guangzhou's subway also will be problems for Xi'an though. Specifically, Xi'an's rapidly expanding car culture and sprawling suburbs will surely test the effectiveness of the proposed subway.

Xi'an is a very convenient place to own a car. It's not particularly dense and there are plenty of places one can park a car. The things the article mentioned that a place like New York City does - implementing heavy tolls and expensive parking - aren't currently found in Xi'an. Your average Xi'an resident can't afford a car, but scores of people every day are realizing the dream of purchasing an automobile.

The economic planner of the subway in Guangzhou is a nice example of this car problem and how it might underut the effectiveness of Chinese subways. Chen Haotian is responsible for helping build one of the largest mass transit systems in the world, yet is in love with his new car. As he said about his automobile:
“On my salary, the maintenance costs are a pressure,” he said. “But it gives me great pleasure and the feeling of a higher standard of living.”
The other issue is suburban flight. Xi'an's city limit is moving outward in every direction. As a friend of mine put it the other day, "If you go out south of the city towards the mountains, it is beginning to resemble a concrete hell." Indeed, as Xi'an grows, it's expansion outwards is getting pretty extreme.

As is the case in American suburbia, rich people who have the means to buy a car probably will. They also aren't interested in riding public transportation.

How in love the average Chinese gets with cars and living outside of the city in suburbia are going to be the things that determine how useful these massive subway projects in Xi'an and the rest of China eventually become.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

China and the Copenhagen Climate Change Agreement

Over the past few days, I've been reading some of the back-and-forth and jockeying for position among the global players in preparation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year. From what I'm reading, a lot of people are hopeful that Copenhagen will provide a sustainable framework for growth over the coming century.

Seeing the beast of an emitter China has become, their participation and input into the agreement is vital.

They have a few items that they want to make clear before they agree on anything though.

One of the main points of contention that China makes is that a sizable amount of the pollution it emits is done so for the sake of Wal-Mart and its American consumers.

From Environmental Leader on March 18th:

Photo from Wired

Consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere should pay for carbon emissions spewed out by Chinese factories, or so says China’s top climate negotiator, according to The Guardian.

China’s position, laid out by Li Gao, could present a stumbling block for the Obama Administration in advance the next round of UN climate change talks, set for December in Copenhagen. Gao is on China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission.

Most observers agree that for the international accord to have meaning, China and the United States have to come to an agreement. China in 2006 became the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and it remains heavily reliant on coal.

“As one of the developing countries, we are at the low end of the production line for the global economy,” Li said. “We produce products and these products are consumed by other countries… This share of emissions should be taken by the consumers, not the producers.”

Li said up to 25% of China’s global warming emissions were the result of exports.

Read On
China's position here makes sense to me. If all of the factories that are producing the goods that American and Western consumers want, it seems reasonable that these emissions are the "responsibility" of the people who consume/demand the products. "Penalizing" China for these emissions doesn't seem fair if one thinks about it in this way.

This week, China pointed out another area it thinks is unfair.

From Reuters:

Photo of China's pollution from NASA

BEIJING (Reuters) - A top Chinese state think tank has proposed a global greenhouse gas trading plan to reflect the different historic emissions of rich and poor nations, indicating deepening discussion in Beijing about climate change policy.


The Beijing think tank's plan seeks a solution to the divide between developed nations, with high per capita accumulations of greenhouse gas emissions, and developing nations, including China, with low levels of per capita emissions that are set to rise in coming decades.

China's 1.3 billion people currently emit about 4 tons per person in greenhouse gases, compared with the United States at about 20 tons per person.

The answer, the think tank says, is to set emissions rights for each country, based on historic accumulation, and then let nations trade portions of those rights in an international market.


The plan says all countries should develop an "historic account" of past emissions. That account would be used to measure whether current emissions fall above or below appropriate levels calculated from population, accumulated emissions and total global reduction objectives.

Each country would then hold a national account projecting future annual emissions entitlements up to a set date -- the authors offer 2050 as an example. How countries keep emissions within agreed levels would then be left to governments to decide.

Read the Full Article
I also see the point that China is making here.

It doesn't seem just that the US and the wester hemisphere got to pollute the hell out of the world for a century and a half with no penalties whereas China, and the rest of the developing world, are going to be held to a high standard during their development.

It's true that the US' development took place in an era when we didn't know the ramifications of what it was doing to the planet. And of course China's development is taking place during a time period when emitting carbon-dioxide is believed to be the cause of global climate change. But there's no doubt that the United States is responsible for a vast majority of carbon-dioxide emissions in the past century.

While China has already overtaken the United States in term of emissions, if one looks at the history of the two countries, it is completely irrational to say China's recent boom in emissions are the main culprit for climate change. Surely China's development is adding to the problem, but a ton of damage had already been done before they started seriously emitting greenhouse gases.

If the developed western world takes the attitude that China "has to do as it says and not as it did," it will be treated by the Chinese as a flimsy argument.

Knowing what we know now, China should be held to a different standard. But whether that standard is the same as a developed nation should be questioned. Forcing China to abandon its massive coal resources while America depleted its reserves over the past century just doesn't seem fair to me.

I think about this point of "climate change responsibility" a lot. Everywhere I look in Xi'an there are traffic jams, massive smoke-sputtering busses, new buildings going up, etc. There are literally tons of greenhouse causing carbon-dioxide being put into the atmosphere every second here in China. It worries me to think that this country is just beginning to develop.

But then when I think about America and its suburban sprawl, car culture, Hummers (for Gods' sake), etc., I can't help but think that America and its decades-long history of this stuff is much more responsible for the climate crisis than China is. No matter how convenient a target China is.

Realizing how delicate the US/China relations on this issue are going to be on this issue, the American think-tank - The Brookings Institute - released a policy recommendation yesterday for both governments' leaders.

From The Brookings Institute:

Photo from The Guardian

Climate change is an epic threat. Concentrations of green-house gases in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in human history and rising sharply. Predicted consequences include sea-level rise, more severe storms, more intense droughts and floods, forest loss and the spread of tropical disease. Each of these phenomena is already occurring. Every year of delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions puts the planet at greater risk.

The United States and China play central roles in global warming. During the past century, the United States emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country - a fact oten noted, since carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere for roughly 100 years. However, in 2007, China may have surpassed the United States as the world's top annual emitter of carbon dioxide. Together, the two countries are responsible for over 40% of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year.

For the world to meet the challenge of global warming, the United States and China must each make the transition to a low-carbon economy. Far-reaching changes will be needed. To date, however, each nation has used the other as one reason not do to more. Enormous benefits would be possible if this dynamic were replaced with mutual understanding and joint efforts on a large scale.

Yet cooperation will not be easy. he U.S. and China are separated by different histories, different cultures, and different perspectives. Opportunities for collaboration in fighting climate change and promoting clean energy are plentiful, but moving forward at the scale needed will require high-level political support in two very diferent societies and systems that have considerable suspicion of the other. This report identifies major barriers to cooperation and recommends ways to overcome them.

Download the Full Report

This report is long. I have not read the whole thing. I like the tone of their abstracts and basic reccomendations though.

Climate change is something the world is going to have to come together to tackle. Demonizing other countries and their relative position in development is pointless. As an American living in China, I understand where both countries are on the issue.

I realize that this may sound hypocritical coming from an American based on what happened with the Kyoto Protocol, but I hope that the world can come to an effective agreement this winter.

The ability to find common ground and a framework for cutting down on carbon emissions and producing renewable energy is, in many respects, going to determine the fate of humanity.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Capital Punishment Capitol

With Governor Bill Richardson banning capital punishment last week in New Mexico, the United States is once again questioning the morality of the practice of state-sponsored killing of criminals for their infractions.

Don't expect any such moratorium from China.

From Bloomberg:

Photo of Zheng Xiaoyu from Reuters

March 24 (Bloomberg) -- China carried out more executions than the rest of the world put together last year, Amnesty International said today as it pushed for nations to abolish capital punishment.

Of 2,390 recorded executions in 25 nations, 72 percent, or at least 1,718, were in China, the London-based human rights group said in a report. Amnesty didn’t give comparable data from previous years.

“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” said Irene Khan, Amnesty’s secretary general. “Beheadings, electrocutions, hangings, lethal injections, shootings and stonings have no place in the 21st century.”

China, along with the U.S., Iran, North Korea and Sudan, objected in November when the United Nations General Assembly voted to support a global moratorium on the death penalty. The government in Beijing said in a policy paper last year that while it retains the death penalty, it has a policy of “killing fewer with caution” and exercises strict controls.

Read On
In discussion classes with both teenagers and adults in the past, I've brought up the topic of whether capital punishment is actually a just form of punishment. The answer from my Chinese students has been a resounding "yes." In fact, I don't believe I've ever heard any Chinese person say that they disagree with the practice.

Surely, part of this reason is because of the "No why situation" which was discussed the other day in my post on China's culture of cheating. Chinese people probably don't realize that there is a debate about whether capital punishment is a good thing or not. They just know that it happens to criminals in China. They've surely been told, either explicitly or implicitly, that it deters crime and is the best policy for dealing with those who've committed serious crimes.

One thing that amazes me about China's capital punishment policy is how swift the whole process is.

In early 2007, China's top drug regulator, Zheng Xiaoyu, was found guilty of accepting $800,000 in bribes and allowing pharmaceutical companies to sidestep regulations. A score of people worldwide died as a result.

Zheng was found guilty by the Chinese court system on May 29, 2007. Zheng was then executed on July 10, 2007. He had a little more than a month between sentencing and execution.

The Chinese aren't messing around when it comes to carrying out death penalties. Unlike the US, which hears appeal after appeal, justice is very quick here in the Middle Kingdom.

I don't want to get too into the morality of the death penalty. It is a complicated topic that is worthy of a greater discussion than I'm giving it here right now. All I'll say is that I find it refreshing that more and more states in the US are questioning the practice and outlawing it (or at least putting a moratorium on it). It'd be great if China started moving away from the practice more too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Das Kapital: The Musical

The financial crisis has triggered a rejuvenated interest in the father of communism: Karl Marx.

From AFP:

SHANGHAI (AFP) — High-kicking Chinese Marxists are set to bring communism's most famous tract to life -- as a musical.

An all-singing, all-dancing stage version of Das Kapital is being produced in Shanghai to show how the thinking of Karl Marx is as relevant in today's economic crisis as when his book was first published in 1867, producers said Monday.

"The entertainment and theatrical elements will help ordinary people better understand why the financial crisis is happening," said Zhang Jun, a Fudan University economics professor, who is an advisor on the production.

He said his role is to ensure Marx's ideas are accurately represented in the stage spectacular.

"I've given an introductory briefing to the crew. They are still working on the script," Zhang added.

"The director, He Nian, will incorporate modern elements in the show to make it easily connect to people's lives and feelings."

The musical will revolve around a group of office workers who discover their boss is exploiting them and each responds differently, the China Daily newspaper reported.

Read On
China's relationship with Karl Marx, and all of the other figures in international and Chinese communism, is a fascinating one. While China is still technically a communist country, its (previously) booming economy and rising is directly related to its open markets and commitment to capitalist ideas.

That's not to say that Chinese people have forgotten their communist past though.

Nearly every Chinese public school I've ever been to has pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao on the wall. Here is a picture I took of one while going on a trip to a school in Shaanxi's countryside with Xi'an's Library Project:

Lenin, Sun Yat-sen, and Mao look over Chinese students as they learn

Although there is definitely some indoctrination of communist theory into China's youth, it is very rare to hear a young person say anything about Marx or communism. It's just not something that is relevant to their lives or holds their attention.

Jackie has explained the phenomenon to me like this: Older people, who see Mao as having defeated the Japanese, still hold reverence for Mao and, possibly, communist China. Younger people though are really not so interested in that kind of stuff. If the younger people have any interest in politics or political leaders, they tend to like Deng Xiao Ping and his "to get rich is glorious" ideas.

That is quite a contrast. Walking down a street in China, you may cross paths with an old-timer smoking a pipe in his Mao coat while one second later bumping into a young business owner on a cell phone with thousands upon thousands of RMB in his pocket.

Such is the fascinating experience of living in China.

I'm a bit surprised that a Marxist musical is coming out now. It makes sense that the financial crisis could trigger such emotions in people who've been exposed to his ideas though.

I feel comfortable in making the following predication: No matter how bad the financial crisis gets, Marxism and communist ideology is not going to sweep over the youth of China and their unbelievably materialistic wants and dreams.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Culture of Cheating

In China, primary school and high school are difficult and college is a breeze. Ridiculously easy. Nobody is forced to think or do anything and everybody cheats.

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Three professors at a leading Chinese university – including one of the country's top experts in traditional medicine – have lost their jobs in a new plagiarism scandal. And the government finally seems to have been jolted into tackling the academic dishonesty that plagues many faculties here.

Experts are not holding their breath, though. In a culture where knockoffs are normal, from sportswear to DVDs, it will not be easy to expunge deep-rooted academic habits, they warn. But some say hope may lie with a new generation of internationally trained teachers.

The latest fraud to rock Chinese academia centers on He Haibo, an associate professor of pharmacology at the prestigious Zhejiang University. He now admits to copying or making up material he submitted in eight papers to international journals and has been fired, along with the head of his research institute.

The affair has drawn particular attention because a world-renowned expert in traditional Chinese medicine, Li Lianda, lent his name as coauthor to one of the fraudulent papers. His tenure will not be renewed when his contract expires soon, the president of Zhejiang University has said.

"This biggest-ever academic scandal is for sure a wakeup call that the Chinese universities are facing a crisis of credibility," editorialized the state-run "China Daily."

Read On
When I first came to China, I taught an adult class at the English training school I worked at. The class was a higher lever discussion class. Most of the students were university students. They all were very eager to practice English and take part in discussions.

Every class, I assigned the students "homework." I'd ask them to write about whatever topic we'd discussed that class period. It was not required, but if they wanted a foreigner to look at and correct their writing, I'd do it. Most of the students took advantage of the opportunity and wrote a few hundred words a class to turn into me.

Despite most of the students very good oral English, most of their written English was pretty poor. Tons of grammatical mistakes and poor language usage.

There was one student who wrote nearly perfect English though. Every class, I was more and more impressed with what he was writing. I'd write comments like, "Have you ever considered writing for an English publication? Your writing is incredible!"

Then one day the work that he turned into me had nothing to do with the topic that I'd assigned. This was very strange. And then the next class, he did the same thing again.

At that time, I put two and two together and realized that this kid, whose writing was perfect yet who didn't speak in class, had not been able to find any articles about what I'd assigned on the internet and had just copied some article that he thought I'd be impressed by.

On the second essay, I wrote comments something to the effect of:
"Bruce, you are going to an English training school. Your grades here don't matter. Why are you wasting your time copying things off the internet to hand in to me? The whole point of these writing assignments is to improve yourself, not impress me."
After class, he came up to me and apologized for plagiarizing the works. He didn't really have a good explanation, just told me he was sorry.

I believe this example highlights just how rampant and ingrained cheating are to Chinese university students. This kid was paying a few hundred kuai a month so he could come to my English discussion class. The class had no bearing on his future other than hopefully improving his English fluency and possibly his writing skills. The certificate he received at the end of my course is not even worth the paper upon which it was printed.

Yet when I asked him to think and write about his feelings on whatever topic we'd discussed that class, he couldn't do it and simply copied others' work off of the internet.

My friend Richard, on his blog, has discussed the Chinese education system at great lengths. His post on "No why situations" is a particularly enlightening about Chinese students and their inability to think.

As the article I linked up to above goes on to say, Chinese universities are in a serious legitimacy crisis. Some of the quotes from the article are downright comical (or sad, I suppose):
"There is a long tradition of plagiarism in Chinese universities," Stearns wrote in an e-mail last week. "Some Chinese professors actually teach their students to plagiarize."


"Corruption and fraud are very common in China and academic corruption and fraud just reflect the social situation," he says.


Stearns says that he and his colleagues at Yale "do not believe letters of recommendation from Chinese professors, for we know that many of them are written by the students themselves," and merely signed by their teachers.
I'm so grateful that I grew up in America's education system as opposed to China's.

When I was young, I had the chance to be a kid and enjoy life. Chinese kids are given no such chance. When I was in college, I was given the opportunity to study something I loved (major in philosophy) and expand my mind in unbelievable ways. Chinese college students' minds stagnate after having spent their whole lives cramming for tests.

And I haven't even gotten into the social lives of China's college students. Instead of going out to bars and having unadulterated fun like western kids, they go to net bars and play Counterstrike or internet games with their friends. Their universities lock their gates at 11:00PM and the lights (and electricity) are cut off around that time too.

So yeah, in addition to not learning anything, Chinese college students don't even get to have fun or experimentation when they finally get to leave Mom and Dad's apartment.

I feel sorry for Chinese students.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Banks of Pingyao

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about my time in the quaint Chinese city Pingyao. This week, The New York Times did a feature on Pingyao, the collapse of its ancient banking system, and any relevance those banks' collapse have on today's crisis.

From The New York Times:

PINGYAO, China: It was a time of new wealth, a gilded age in which entire families came into fortunes overnight.

To move the money, businessmen here in this city in northern China opened banks, the first in the nation's history. Soon branches sprang up across the country, and they began making loans. Money flowed this way and that.

Then, as quickly as it started, the entire system crumbled. The banks shut down and the city fell into ruin.

So went the history of China's first banking capital, which bloomed here in dusty Shanxi Province in the mid-19th century, during the Qing dynasty. With the global economy now reeling from the banking crisis that began in the United States, and as the explosive economic growth of China begins to slow, the rise and fall of Pingyao could be read by some as a cautionary tale.

But the present-day financial crisis has reinforced the sense of nostalgia surrounding Pingyao, which with its 33-feet-tall Ming dynasty walls is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the country.

"The banks tell a history of Chinese financial development, like how China started to transform from feudalism to capitalism," said Ruan Yisan, a retired professor from the architecture department of Tongji University in Shanghai who has been instrumental in the restoration of Pingyao.

Read On
China's old banks sound pretty insane. Housing opium dens, prostitutes, and ma jiang parlors, they must've been pretty happening places.

Unlike today's banks though, it doesn't sound as though Pingyao's fell due to egregious business practices. Instead the chaos that ensued after the end of the Ming Dynasty was responsible for the city's collapse and subsequent falling off of the map.

Pingyao's had a reawakening in the form of tourism over the past few years though. The city now is a mini-tourist theme park with western restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and expensive guesthouses lining its streets. It's spot on the the backpacker trail is well established. Residents of the place have certainly gained many new fortunes.

But the people of Pingyao have been in this situation before.

The saying known around Pingyao that the author put at the end of the article is pretty haunting:
"Wealth does not last for more than three generations."
As leisure tourism cools down during the financial crisis, it's certainly possible that the people of Pingyao will once again have to get reacquainted with this idea of losing their wealth.

Friday, March 20, 2009

China's Military Taking PR Classes

China is taking an imporant step in elevating its appearance of sophistication. It's pushing PR training for its military personnel.

From The Associated Press:

Photo from The New York Times

BEIJING (AP) — China's military is training propaganda teams for the first time to explain its actions to the outside world, as the traditionally insular and secretive force engages more with other countries' militaries and deploys its ships and personnel abroad.

An initial class of 51 officers graduated this week in an effort to "raise the opinion-forming ability of the force's foreign propaganda team and advance the innovation and development of the military propaganda work," the official People's Liberation Army Daily reported Friday.

The two-week training course included classes dealing with China's recent dispatch of ships to carry out anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, as well as joint China-India anti-terror drills and other international missions, it said.

Course work included mock news conferences with reporters from the PLA Daily and the official Xinhua News Agency, the PLA Daily said...

"The Chinese army needs to know about international practice. They need to know how to show friendliness when meeting foreign military officials, and they need to learn how to give public speeches in front of the media," Yan said.

Read On
When thinking about how China handles its image abroad, I often think about a conversation with my South African friend Joseph in 2006.

Joesph, a former English teacher in Xi'an, is a "Jew from Joburgh" (Johannesburg). In addition to teaching me a lot about South Africa (about which I knew very little), we had a lot of discussions about Israel and its foreign relations. A lot of our discussions took place while traveling in Yunnan Province in the summer of 2006 when Israel was shelling Lebanon relentlessly.

At that time, I remember discussing the international community and media's reaction to Israel's large response to Lebanon's rocket attacks. The tone and implication we were getting from the reports we watched on CNN International (as we played Scrabble in a youth hostel) was that Israel's response was disproportionate.

I asked Joseph whether he thought Israel's reaction was disproportionate and whether Israel should be concerned whether the international community deemed it so. His response was something to the effect of:
No, I don't think Israel's response is too much. And no, I don't think Israel should be concerned about what other counties think of what it does.

First, Lebanon was shooting rockets into Israeli cities. What is it supposed to do when that happens? What would happen if that were occurring in America? Israel has the right to protect itself when someone else threatens its people.

Second, people are always going to dislike Israel's actions. Why? Because Israel doesn't care what any other country thinks and doesn't take those concerns into consideration when it acts. It resides in a region where every other country around it wants it destroyed. If it doesn't do what it thinks is best for itself, then it is basically committing suicide.
I've though a lot about Joseph's points when thinking of both the United States and China and their actions abroad. His idea that "Israel is going to do what it's going to do whether others like it or not" seems to fit well both with the United States and China.

For the United States, it's obvious that its foreign policy has not taken into consideration what others think for some time. The list of actions that fit this are probably quite long, but the two most obvious to me are the Iraq War and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. The rest of the world had (or still has) major qualms with these actions, but the US went ahead and carried them out anyways. If others didn't like it, well, too bad.

America, realizing that PR is important, sent out Donald Rumsfeld every day to press conferences. While the rest of the world may not have been too impressed with these performances, America and its media were enthralled.

The same phenomenon of its own citizens being impressed where the rest of the world is disapproving can be seen in so many ways in China. I'm not going to get into the details since many of these events revolve around politically sensitive topics in the People's Republic of China, but anyone who follows China's news at all will have a pretty good idea of what areas I'm talking about.

This popular support within the country and unpopularity abroad was very obviously seen in last year's Olympics. While there were tons of reports about controversies revolving around the opening ceremonies, the age of the athletes pollution, and a number of other issues, those things were ignored by the Chinese media. And subsequently, the Chinese population at large is under the impression that not a thing went wrong at the 2008 Olympics.

(I may be off on this seeing that I lived in China, but my impression is that the Olympics were largely seen as being "successful." I'm sure that's open to debate though.)

So China is doing fine in terms of convincing its own people that what it does is right. It just needs to clean up its image abroad. (The US, on the other hand, has been in need of a revamp in regards to just about every aspect of its image abroad and internally. Hence, Obama and his message of "Change" which made the international community happy as well as the country that voted him into office.)

Israel, America, China all do what they want when they want because they are strong enough and have "earned" that right. While world governing bodies like the UN and others are still important, superpowers and countries with mighty militaries will do what they want regardless.

A sustained PR push could have the potential of helping China get up to current standards of international diplomacy and might even bring more countries on board with what it does and wants to do. It could also placate the rest of the world which wants a China that plays the game according to international rules and formalities.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Back to Xi'an

Will be headed back to Xi'an later tonight.

I'm happy to be leaving Guangzhou. I think there is a different kind of pollution that is bothering me here. My throat has been hurting and I feel like I have a bit of a head cold. As disgusting as it sounds, I'm actually looking forward to getting back to Xi'an and the pollution that I've gotten used to there.

It looks like Jackie and I will have to come back here in the next few weeks to get her visa. So this won't be our only try to Guangzhou. Fun!

How Stimuli are Affecting China

Despite the anecdotal evidence I provided the other day of the frenzy that is Guangzhou's bustling streets, things down here aren't all rosy.

From The Associated Press:

Photo from Daylife.com

Desperate for new customers, Chinese factories have been bombarding Josef Jelinek with e-mails everyday. One wants the British businessman to order a shipment of whirling toy helicopters. Another touts a multi-media gizmo called the V-disk.

"They've been coming thick and heavy over the last few months. This never happened before," he said.

Jelinek has no interest in toys or electronics. His main job is scouring China for lead pipes and other construction materials for a shopping mall project in Cairo.

The blind, mass-mailing approach targeting him, however, highlights the growing anxiety among Chinese exporters as they near a crucial period — the time when they get the bulk of their orders for the summer season and Christmas.

The early signs are pointing to a bleak year. The phones aren't ringing. Web sites aren't getting clicks. Old customers aren't visiting plants.

Companies are already complaining that orders are sharply down. Industry experts say thousands of factories are idle or haven't even bothered to open since the Lunar New Year holiday ended in late January — which usually marks the start of the busy season. Millions of migrant workers are jobless, especially here in southern Guangdong province — one of the world's biggest manufacturing hubs and the source of one-third of China's exports.

"Peak season is May to September. That's when this place is booming. I don't think it will be booming this year," said Rick Goodwin, the American chairman of Concept Holdings, a company that links up foreign buyers with Chinese suppliers.

Read On
As the article goes on to say, some of the people involved in China's manufacturing industry are optimistic that China's massive stimulus package will get things going by the end of the year. There appears to be little relief from such programs at the moment though. Orders are down and factories who used to pick and choose who they wanted to work with are now desperate for business with anyone. These people are truly struggling to stay afloat.

To contrast this struggling, China's stimulus funds are already benefiting one of America's most important, and desperate, brands.

From Bloomberg:

Photo from The New York Times

March 19 (Bloomberg) - General Motors Corp. can thank U.S. taxpayers for $13.4 billion in loans that have kept it running. The carmaker can also thank China’s government, which is kicking in subsidies of as much as $1,170 to help it sell vans.

The automaker’s China minivan venture boosted sales 32 percent in the first two months after a cut in retail taxes on small vehicles. The government is now giving out 5 billion yuan ($731 million) in subsidies to spur auto sales in rural areas.

GM doubled its 2009 forecast for China’s market growth as the tax cuts and subsidies revived demand, helping the country pass the U.S. as the world’s largest auto market so far this year. By contrast, the Detroit-based carmaker’s domestic sales have plunged 51 percent, forcing it to seek as much as $16.6 billion more in government aid.

“Every farmer in China wants a new vehicle, all 800 million of them,” said Yale Zhang, a consultant at CSM Asia in Shanghai. “It looks like the government wants to make that happen.”

Read On
Minivans, huh? You see a lot of minivans around China. I'm not surprised to hear that China is getting into buying the things. It is amazing to think that Chinese peasants buying minivans fueled by tax incentives from the Chinese government is what is keeping Detroit's dying car industry afloat though.

While it's debatable whether spreading America's gasoline-addicted living across the globe is a good thing, it is clear that China is serious about stimulating domestic demand and getting more of its citizens to become drivers.

Comparing the factories in Guangzhou that are struggling or that have already closed with the farmers who are currently buying new minivans is interesting. On the one hand, people are struggling for their survival or have already returned to the countryside. And on the other, poor farmers are buying what they think will help take them out of poverty.

It seems like a contradiction that such events could happen simultaneously in the same country.

On the surface, it appears as though the West's attempts at stimulating the economy are failing (China's idle factories) and that China's are more effective (a large number of first-time car buyers).

Time will eventually tell whether this is actually the case though. If the West's economy stays depressed, I doubt that China's new consumer class will be able to prop the world's (or China's) economy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Jackie had her visa interview today. It turns out that we didn't provide the proper information on a couple of the myriad of forms we filled out. Her visa to the US is being delayed for at least a couple months as a result.

This really screws up our plans for the next several months.

All day I've had a feeling like someone just punched me in the stomach.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Shanzhai City

I just spent the morning with Jackie and her cousin shopping at Guangzhou's famous Baiyun Shopping Center. What a surreal place.

The place is a complex of hundreds upon hundreds of shops selling fake designer goods. Stall after stall was filled with fake Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Chanel items. It dwarfs anything that I'd ever seen in Xi'an, even though I thought the stuff I'd seen in Xi'an was staggering large.

We were shocked by the number of foreigners walking around the place.

Most of the foreigners weren't American or European though. They were predominantly African and Middle Eastern buyers of bulk orders wanting to ship goods back to their home countries. While shopping, I tried as best as I could to listen to their bargaining with the shop owners. All sorts of languages were being thrown around. I saw a number of Middle-Eastern men and women scoping out products with, what I assume were, Arabic-Chinese interpreters.

In the past, I'd heard a couple of the African guys I know who teach English say that they come down to Guangzhou pretty often to do business. Now I know what their business is.

I snapped a few photos of the place. I could tell that people were not happy to see a foreigner with a camera and one woman even confronted me about having my camera, so I didn't get too many shots.

Here are a few of what I did get though:

The entrance of the complex. I was able to catch a bit of the Hornets/Rockets game (and the freak that is Shane Battier).

Small stalls the size of bedrooms like these are the connections between factories and buyers that supply Africa and the Middle East with fake designer goods.

For my St. Louis homies

Seeing all of the activity going on at the shanzhai complex today in Guangzhou, it struck me that despite the thousands of factories that have closed and the millions of unemployed migrants, southern China is still doing incredible amounts of manufacturing. Indeed, Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta is still a bustling part of the world.

Here is an article on Guangzhou from current issue of The Beijing Review:

Image from Wang Jing & Co.

Guangzhou is the capital city of Guangdong Province in China's developed southeast coastal area. Zhang Guangning, deputy to the 11th National People's Congress and Mayor of Guangzhou, told Beijing Review that the goal for Guangzhou's GDP growth in 2009 is 10 percent.

Beijing Review: How has Guangzhou been affected by the financial crisis? Will its economic growth decline?

Zhang Guangning: Exports account for 43 percent of Guangzhou's total economic volume. The global financial crisis has put big pressure on Guangzhou's economic development. In 2008, the city's GDP totaled 821.6 billion yuan ($120.11 billion), up 12.3 percent. Per-capita GDP reached 81,233 yuan ($11,876), up 10 percent. In 2009, we will strive for the goal of 10-percent GDP growth and 8.5-percent per-capita GDP growth.

How will you realize this goal?

Sustaining economic growth is the top task of Guangzhou, and expanding domestic demand is the fundamental way to reach this goal. According to the Outline of the Plan for the Reform and Development of the Pearl River Delta and the arrangements of the Central Government and Guangdong Provincial Government, Guangzhou will grasp the opportunity of hosting the Asian Games to accelerate the formation of a new economic growth pattern driven by domestic demand. Meanwhile, we will try to maintain exports and foreign investment for stable and fast economic development.

Read On
Although Xi'an has a huge population (around 7 million), my Chinese hometown feels like a back-water compared to Guangzhou. I've been to Beijing and Shanghai before, but it's been a couple years. Being in Guangzhou is showing me China's booming economy much better than Xi'an does.

Jackie and I are not in Guanzhou by choice (the American consulate is here), but I'm glad that I'm getting a chance to see the engine of China's export-based economy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Made it to Guangzhou

Jackie, her cousin, and I made it to Guangzhou last night.

This morning the three of us went to a hospital where a few dozen girls were getting checked out for their coming visa interviews. It was surprisingly quick, only about two hours in total. We have to go back there pretty soon to get the results so we can take them to her interview Wednesday morning.

We don't have anything to do with the visa tomorrow. I don't we really have anything planned except shopping though. Although Guangzhou is one of the biggest cities in China, I don't think there are too many interesting things for a tourist to do.

For lunch today, we ate some "typical" Guangzhou food: seafood and vegetables, roasted chicken and pidgeon, and a couple other vegetable dishes.

I took a couple photos of the more interesting pieces of the meal:

Pigeon, including the head

Chicken head

Seeing all these bird heads around, I got curious about them. Jackie and her cousin assured me that eating its brain would help my brain. As you can see from this picture, the area just behind the eye had just been eaten by me.

I'm sure we'll continue to eat interesting food the rest of my time here. I'll be sure to snap a few more photos of what we consume.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fake Medical Ad Video Finally Uploaded to YouTube

Several weeks ago, a post I made on China cracking down on fake doctors garnered a small amount of attention from the China-blogosphere. That was mostly fueled by the well-trafficked website Shanghaiist linking up to my blog.

At the time of my posting, I promised to ask my good friend James whether he could find the DVD with these videos with my friends pretending to be doctors on it. He looked for a few days, but could not find anything. He said he'd keep looking, but I gave up hope.

But then the other day, James called me and told that he'd found the video! I got the DVD from him, figured out how to transfer the video from DVD to my computer, edited the video from thirty miuntes to less than ten minutes, and then converted that ten minute video to YouTube (complicated... the original was an MPEG-1 Mudex).

The video he gave me is of my English friend, Paul, acting like a US war general. The medicine is either for prostrate or impotence medicine. Maybe both. I'm not quite sure exactly what the product is.

Here is the YouTube video:

I've watched the video and took notes on some of the highlights:

0:00 - Comes right in with "Saving Private Ryan" and "Blackhawk Down" clips.

0:09 - The loss of the soldier's leg here adds an interesting effect.

0:58 - Haven't seen this movie. Some nice shots of Washington DC.

1:49 - Nice phallic imagery.

2:31 - They're saying something about Houston here.

2:53 - Soldier gettin' intimate with his lady.

3:07 - War planning.

3:14 - 9/11!!!

3:27 - The Honorable POTUS John Voight.

3:48 - Back to reality.

4:23 - My friend Paul on TV. I love that English accent on a US general!

5:01 - "I have no idea what I'm talking about."

5:27 - Close up of US Army patch.

5:37 - Pretty sweet graphic here.

This whole section - "So, what happens then..."

And then the rest of the clip is just talking by the Chinese experts on the show.

The original video is thirty minutes long. I had to cut this one down to less than ten minutes because of YouTube's uploading policies. Ten minutes of this is enough though.

I wasn't really listening to the Chinese on it. Most of it is over my head. I'd have to watch it really really slowly to try to pick it up. For anyone watching this video who can speak Chinese, more detail on the Chinese would be most appreciated.

In another matter, I'm headed down to Guangzhou tonight with Jackie for our visa interview on Wednesday. Heady times!

I'm bringing my camera and am hoping to get a sense of southern China and my first visit to the Pearl River Delta. I'm going to try to post on here as much as possible down there.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Premier Wen Speaks Out on US Reserves

China's attitude towards unquestioningly fueling America's debt by buying US Treasury Bonds is changing. As I chronicled a few days ago, in less than a month a lot has changed on this front.

Yesterday, the trend that I'd noticed continued to the top of China's hierarchy: Premier Wen Jiabao voiced his concerns about the security of China's partnering with the United States.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Photo from Bloomberg

Reporting from Shanghai and Beijing -- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao voiced concerns today about the security of China's massive investments in U.S. government debt, even as he expressed confidence in the economic leadership of President Obama.

"To be honest, we are a little bit worried," Wen said, speaking at the closing press conference of China's annual legislative session.

"We have loaned huge amounts of money to the United States, so of course, we have to be concerned. . . . We hope the United States honors its word and ensures the safety of Chinese assets."

China is America's biggest foreign creditor. About half of China's estimated $2 trillion of foreign exchange reserves, the largest in the world, are invested in U.S. Treasury and other government-backed bonds. China's continued holdings and future purchases of American debt are seen as an important part of financing Obama's $787-billion economic stimulus plan.

Wen's comments, coming after a string of otherwise upbeat pronouncements about China's own economic prospects, were unusual in that he has rarely spoken up on the issue, nor in such frank terms. Analysts said they doubted the remarks were impromptu; rather, they may have been intended in part to send a message, perhaps to Americans in particular, about just how much they are reliant on the Chinese for their economic security.

"I suppose you could kind of view it as a shot across the bow," said Mark Williams, Asia economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London.

Read On
Knowing how vital China is to America's economic and financial health, the Obama administration had a quick response attempting to quell Premier Wen's concerns.

From Bloomberg:

Photo from Politico

March 13 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration sought to ease Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s concern about the security of his country’s investments in U.S. government debt, reiterating pledges to cut the budget deficit in half in four years.

“There’s no safer investment in the world than in the United States,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today.

Wen earlier said that China, the U.S. government’s largest creditor, is “worried” about its holdings of Treasuries and wants assurances that the investment is safe. “I request the U.S. to maintain its good credit, to honor its promises and to guarantee the safety of China’s assets,” he said at a press briefing in Beijing.

President Barack Obama is relying on China to sustain buying of Treasuries amid record amounts of U.S. debt sales to fund a $787 billion stimulus package and a deficit this year forecast to reach $1.5 trillion. Investors abroad own almost half of all U.S. debt outstanding, and China last year overtook Japan as the biggest foreign buyer.

Read On
It's probably too early to say that China is going to stop buying US treasuries, but the rhetoric is certainly heating up.

But as the anonymous poster pointed out in my last post on this matter and the China/America (Chimerica) relationship I explored a couple a couple weeks ago, it is unlikely that China is going to do anything too severe to rock the boat. (Yes, the boat metaphor here is a double entendre.)

China needs the US as much as the US needs China.

Saying that, it seems reasonable to me that China would be concerned about its investment in America. The US has chosen to fight its debt problem with truckloads more debt. The US is betting its future on the trillions its hoping will somehow restore its economy.

China, in my opinion, should be questioning whether the US is in fact helping itself with all of the mountains of debt its burdening itself with.

As an American citizen, I'm gravely concerned about the health of my home country and the path its heading down.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Foreigners Still Not Studying Mandarin

Living in China, it seems to me like there are foreigners everywhere studying Chinese. It turns out that there are a lot here doing so, but not so many outside of China.

From Reuters:

Photo from Reuters

BEIJING (Reuters) - There has been a big rise in the number of foreigners learning Chinese, but still too few are studying the language, officials said on Thursday, worried this may affect efforts to soften China's global image.

China began setting up Confucius Institutes in 2004 to teach Chinese and they are now in 81 countries, but efforts to expand them are being hampered by too few teachers and poor teaching materials.

"At present, the basis for the studying or teaching of Chinese is very weak, unlike for English, French or Spanish, which have been popularized for hundreds of years," said Xu Lin, director of the Confucius Institute Headquarters.

Xu, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of China's annual meeting of parliament, said that in the United States more students studied Latin at middle school than Chinese.

"Though the desire to learn Chinese is very high, there is a lack of teachers and teaching materials," she added, referring specifically to the Confucius Institute.

Read On
The fact that Latin, a dead (although in its own way very useful) language, is more popular than Chinese says a lot about how far Chinese has to go.

I believe Westerners believe studying Chinese is simply too hard. I know when I first came to China, I thought it would be impossible for me to ever really learn the language. Therefore, I put very little effort into my studies.

After being here for about six months, I realized that the language was not beyond my reach and began studying in earnest.

I've been studying Chinese for about two years. It is very difficult. I'm still not "fluent" by any means. I'm "conversational," but still run into trouble every day with my language skills. If I'd been studying Spanish and living in Spain for two years, I have little doubt that I'd be very "fluent" and would be at a much higher level than where I am with Chinese.

This difficulty level surely hurts Chinese when it comes to attracting interested students.

Saying that, there are a number of ways to study Chinese other than formally attending classes or going to the Confucius Institutes.

One method, chinesepod.com, has really taken off. From The Financial Times (h/t Peking Duck):
Ken Carroll is challenging a basic tenet in the global economy: that we all need to learn Mandarin Chinese to conquer the world’s largest market – but that learning Chinese is boring. Mr Carroll, a Shanghai-based language teacher turned internet entrepreneur, says that does not have to be so: he has pioneered a painless podcast method for learning Mandarin, and nearly a quarter of a million people worldwide are using it on chinesepod.com, which sends daily Man­darin lessons to iPods and Google phones around the world.

Chinesepod revenues have defied the global economic downturn, too, rising 250 per cent from December 2007 to the same month last year and climbing strongly again in January, according to the company. Study without suffering may sound too good to be true, but there seem to be plenty of people willing to listen to this particular siren song, especially now that more professionals are taking enforced vacations from the workforce, giving them time to learn new skills such as languages.

Investment analysts think education in China could even prove to be a recession-proof business. Bejing’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language says 40m foreigners studied Mandarin last year. Chinesepod is riding that wave: with China’s economy expected to grow by 8 per cent this year – compared with a flat global economy – learning Chinese has rapidly begun to look like a clever investment.

Read On
Chinesepod is very popular amongst foreigners living in China. I've heard a number of friends talk about their experiences using the site.

I believe Chinesepod's popularity shows just how much more popular studying Chinese is with business people or people living abroad compared to younger students living outside of China. Older people who don't have the time to formally study a language yet realize that learning Chinese is going to get them ahead are turning to means such as Chinesepod.

Personally, I don't use Chinesepod. I know I should. I have four hours of one-on-one lessons a week instead. It'd be great if I had the motivation to sit down and listen or study on the Chinesepod.com site a little bit every day, but I don't. When I eventually do come back to America, it'd probably be a good idea for me to get into Chinesepod.

That, and speaking more Chinese with Jackie. I still stand by the fact that having a Chinese significant other who speaks great English isn't much help with studying Chinese. It is just too easy for us to revert back to English. Jackie and I just don't speak Chinese with each other very well.

I'm hopeful that Jackie and I can speak more Chinese once we leave China though. I think it'll be a lot of fun speaking Chinese with Jackie in America when other people will have no idea what we're talking about. It'll be like our code language where we can say whatvever we want when we don't want others to understand.

From the strikingly low numbers of people studying Chinese abroad, I don't think we'll have too much trouble with people understanding what we're saying if we do resort to using Chinese as code language in the US.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Decentralized Stimulants

I learned something today about China's massive stimulus package: Beijing is going to ask puppet banks and agencies to get the economy started while it largely watches from the sidelines.

From Reuters:

Photo from China Daily

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Beijing may criticize American consumers for spending money they do not have, but the truth is Chinese leaders do the same, they just make sure it doesn't end up on their account.

In its $585 billion economic stimulus package, the central government is contributing just a quarter of the funds needed, leaving the rest of the tab to banks, local governments and the private sector.

By comparison, the U.S. Treasury is expected to fund all of America's $787 billion economic recovery plan by incurring more debt through the issuance of Treasury bills.

But just like in the West, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The Chinese central government might have successfully transferred most of the risks and financing costs to banks and local governments from its own balance sheet, but if bad debt piles up the chickens will still come home to roost in Beijing.

China and the United States leverage themselves in different ways. America uses government credit to raise money directly from the market. China uses quasi-government financing, so that the real costs of the plan -- though indirectly ultimately a cost to Beijing -- are impossible for investors to gauge.

Read On
I had to read this report a couple times. It's a bit confusing. But my take on things is that China is simply pushing the burden from the central government to institutions backed by the central government.

By funneling the money widely through government-backed banks and other agencies, it seems as though China can spend an unlimited amount of money in the name of "economic stimulus." It basically gives them a blank check. The whole process will get so muddled up that it'll be very difficult for anyone to understand how much money is being spent.

Seeing that China's government is (rightly) very concerned about stability, I can see why they choose to stimulate the economy in this manner. They need their plan to work.

Deflation may be beginning in China. It's very possible that things are going to get worse before they get better. China wants to have as much ammunition as possible to keep China's economy moving in the right direction.

Only time will tell whether China and its tricky stimulus methods will be effective enough to stop the worldwide credit crunch.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Xi'an Now Grapefruit-Friendly

In the past when people have asked me what I miss most about America while living in China, my response has usually been: college basketball and football, good Mexican food, and grapefruit.

Although I still have trouble finding the chance to watch college sports and eat good Mexican food, my grapefruit fix has been filled.

All I have to say is, "Having Walmart in Xi'an is awesome."

Several months ago I found the 100% grapefruit juice . Then one day I randomly found the grapefruit face wash. Finding these grapefruit-based products were pleasant surprises, but I was still lacking the the ability to actually purchase an unadulterated grapefruit.

But then in January when my friend Taylor was here, we went looking for exotic Chinese fruit in Walmart's auxiliary fruit section. While going through a bunch of fruit I'd never seen before, I saw a sign for 西柚. I couldn't believe it. I never expected to see grapefruit in Xi'an. I bought one so I could see if it was any good.

To my delight, the grapefruit I bought was incredible. Walmart in China carries the "Ruby Red" variety of grapefruit (as opposed to the more light-pink variety), my favorite.

Ever since finding grapefruit a couple months ago, I've had at least a once-a-week Walmart grapefruit-run. They're pretty expensive actually, about 11RMB a piece, but I think that they are completely worth it.

Now if only some Mexican immigrants would relocate to Xi'an...