Beijing Dinner, last call

It looks like it will be quite a group. The restaurant is centrally loacted near Kerry Center and they serve Peking Duck! I am not posting the address on the site; please email me for it. We meet at 5:30 PM. [Emile, still haven’t heard from you and I don’t have your email address!! Email me ASAP.]

Sorry for the longest silence since I started this site. My laptop broke in Taiwan, and I was also very busy with the job hunting (full report on that soon). And after a couple of days of frustration, I realized just how relaxing it was not to worry about updating this blog, which can be a full-time job in itself. Last night I arrived in Beijing, which looks absolutely beautiful, at least the quaint Tuan Jie Hu neighborhood where I’m staying. It feels great to be back in this part of the world, and I can tell I’m going to have a hard time leaving.

I don’t expect to get back to regular blogging for a while as I finish my vacation and get ready for the next adventure. But with Martyn and Lisa doing such an amazing job I’ve become somewhat irrelevant. I am lucky to have such spectacular guest bloggers.

Okay, I’ll see our Beijing friends tonight, and the rest of you later.


Control and Resistance

By Other Lisa…

The Christian Science Monitor follows up on the Li Datong/China New Youth Daily story, seeing it as illustrative of both the increased control of media by Party authorities, and the “sometimes sophisticated resistance to it by Chinese journalists.”

The larger backdrop (to the Li Datong story) is a nearly two year push by the powerful central propaganda department to more firmly control and limit expression.

News services are under orders not to quote Chinese intellectuals not approved by the party. Newspapers may not report events or issues in other parts of the country unless a regional party paper has first reported the news. Popular Internet discussion groups have been blocked. Cellphone text messages are filtered.

China Youth Daily itself has steadily been reshaped to be more of a party organ than a newspaper. In the past year senior editors at the paper have resigned, free exchanges between internal news departments have been banned, and Chinese political leaders have started being praised in language reminiscent of the brutal Cultural Revolution period. One story this summer described Chinese president Hu Jintao’s words as being, “like a light house beacon, pointing out and illuminating the direction of China’s students.”

While many protesting journalists, including Li, praise President Hu for his genial persona and for understanding how modern media works, they are opposed to what appears to be a move in the central propaganda department to allow deification and worship of Chinese leaders. They point out that Chinese youth find such language old and silly, and that it actually decreases respect for the venerable paper.

“This is not only happening at our paper,” says one China Youth Daily staffer speaking on condition of anonymity, “it is a problem at papers everywhere in China.”

The Chinese government has argued that a strong, unchallenged hand is needed during a time of uncertainty and instability, as China undergoes a rapid economic expansion.


As I Was Saying…

By Other Lisa…

From today’s New York Times:

Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and a secular Sunni leader, said he agreed with much of what was in the new constitution but was troubled by its more overtly Islamic provisions, like the ones giving clerics a role in adjudicating family law.

Mr. Pachachi, one of the Americans’ closest friends in Iraq, said he was growing increasingly worried about the overweening power of the cleric-dominated Shiite political leadership, which maintains extensive ties to the Iranian Islamic government next door.

“They want to inject religion into everything, which is not right,” Mr. Pachachi said of the Iraqi Shiite leaders. “I cannot imagine that we might have a theocratic regime in Iraq like the one in Iran. That would be a disaster.”

Indeed, under the constitution now completed, Islam will reign as the official state religion and as a main source of Iraqi law. Clerics will in all likelihood have seats on the Supreme Court, where they will be empowered to examine legislation to make sure it does not conflict with Islam. They will be given an opportunity to apply Islamic law in family disputes over matters like divorce and inheritance.

Those provisions have raised concerns here, especially among Iraqi women and secular leaders, who fear that they are laying the groundwork for a full-blown Islamic state.

If I were an Iraqi woman with no means of leaving the country, I’d be thinking about getting to “Kurdistan,” stat.


“Girls Are More Emotional”

From Martyn…

With all the comments on the “What’s Going Down” thread below about “Feminist Ideology”, I couldn’t resist highlighting the comments of Mr. Hu Zhiguang of China’s blog-hosting service provider in a BusinessWeek interview earlier this week. Unfortunately, Mr. Hu’s English name “Kos” provides us with only false hope as to his liberal leanings:

Q: What’s your user base like?

A: Sixty percent of our users are female.

Q: Isn’t that surprising, since China’s Internet has long been so male-dominated?

A: Boys and men don’t have time to write very much. Girls are more emotional, more articulate about their feelings. Besides, a lot of boys are busy playing online games.

I’m sorry? Boys and men don’t have time to write very much? Busy doing men’s stuff I suppose. “Girls are a lot more emotional”? I fear that Mr. Hu has done Chinese men a great disservice. After all, he isn’t an elderly farmer from the inner provinces whose thinking is still firmly rooted in the old world. He’s supposed to be a savvy, 27-year old Internet entrepreneur. Alas, Mao’s previous exultations that “Women hold up half the sky” seem to ring rather hollow at this point.

Thinking about it, I worked for three companies in Britain and, in two of them, both my Section Head and Department Head were female. In Asia, my former company’s country managers in both Thailand and Taiwan were also female when I worked there. However, here in China, the only females in my last office were the secretaries and the office manager.


China’s Forex Piggybank

By Martyn…

By the end of 2005, China is expected to hold foreign exchange reserves in excess of US$900 billion, replacing Japan as the country with the largest foreign reserves. In 1995, China had US$75.4 billion, rising to US$610 billion last year. Compare that to the US? reserves of US$79.5, Britain? US$48.1 and the Philippines US$17,7 (June, 2005).

The big question is, what should China actually do with these forex reserves?
From today’s (unlinkable) South China Morning Post:

How China chooses to invest this money will have a profound effect on interest rates in the US and the level of the dollar.

Since it opened its doors to the outside world in 1979, China has been careful in hoarding foreign exchange. But in the past three years, the volume has grown beyond all expectations.

What should China do with all this money? It holds more than US$200 billion in US treasury bonds and an unknown amount of instruments in other currencies, including the euro, yen, sterling, Hong Kong dollars and Swiss francs.

Some commentators in the US argue that China will reduce its US Treasury bond holdings for commercial reasons related to the weak dollar. The US would then have to raise interest rates, they warn.

In a more dramatic scenario, some fear that in a trade war or a conflict over Taiwan, the mainland would take a political decision to sell. But neither of these moves is likely in the foreseeable future, just as Japan never exercised such options, even when trade relations deteriorated sharply.

Most economists expect China to remain a major holder of treasury bonds, while it diversifies its holdings of instruments of other currencies.

Some Chinese officials argue that the money would be better spent recapitalizing the state banks or to import oil and build up strategic reserves, of which it has none. Others say the money should be used to fund overseas acquisitions by Chinese firms.Conservatives want to keep the money in financial instruments. They say, quite rightly, that the inflow of hot money is only a temporary phenomenon and point to the billions of dollars of liabilities in bad loans held by the state banks, pension and welfare liabilities and debts owed by securities firms.

There is also the possibility of trade disputes or a trade war with the US or the EU, which would sharply reduce the trade surplus, or a financial crisis at home or in Asia.

China’s wealth is not as substantial as it appears; in per capita terms, it’s still very poor. The country needs the reserves to absorb financial and other shocks that lie ahead.


Wednesday, Thursday…

A mid-week thread for your commenting pleasure…


Does Deng Xiaoping Theory Include Free Checking?

From Martyn…

The biggest threats to China’s long-term growth are the insolvent, badly-run, poorly-regulated state banks whose employees have such notorious sticky-fingers. Just before the Royal Bank of Scotland unveiled its deal to buy a 10% share in the beleaguered Bank of China, the former chief executive of Bank of China’s Hong Kong operation, Liu Jinbao, was handed a death sentence for graft. And Hong Kong was one of the banks better-run branches.

Following the government’s recent injections of US$22.5 billion each in Bank of China and China Construction Bank and US$15 billion into Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to ease the massive burden of non-performing loans accrued through years of government-directed lending decisions and mismanagement, particularly during the lending frenzy of 2003, and with the banks facing the very real possibility of another collapse of the housing bubble which would see the banks lose billions, it’s heartening, nay encouraging to see the People’s Bank of China responding to these dangers and battling to become viable commercial entities by……organizing a nationwide English competition and exulting all employees to study Deng Xiaoping thought:

In what can only be good news for China-watchers who don’t speak Chinese, the central bank has taken time out from managing the yuan to organise an English competition for its 160,000 employees.

“We hope young comrades at the People’s Bank of China can use the English contest as a starting point, treasure time as gold, study hard and work diligently,” the Financial News quoted Vice-Governor Xiang Junbo as saying at the finals of the competition on Wednesday.

He also urged bank staff to study the theories of scientific development and of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

I won’t keep you all in suspense. The three-month contest was won by the central bank branch in Jinan, capital of the eastern province of Shandong.


The Collapse of China

It’s not what you think…

From Martyn…

China seems to be a country currently under construction. Gaze at any city skyline in the PRC, particularly Beijing, and you’ll need to remove your socks and shoes in order to fully count the number of construction cranes that loom across the horizon. China’s cities, with their newly-approved underground train extensions, apartment complexes shooting up like mushrooms after spring rain, new roads, flyovers and shopping malls, especially shopping malls, have turned urban China into one big construction site.

It’s probably no surprise that the majority of China’s Central Committee (‘Politburo’) are engineers. While socialist China essentially started from nothing over 2 decades ago that still doesn’t fully explain how, in 2005, fixed asset investment is still a ridiculously high 53% of GDP. China currently uses more than two-fifths of the world’s annual output of cement, one-third of its iron ore and one-quarter of its lead and steel.

To put China’s building boom into perspective, in 1985, the city of Shanghai only had one single tall building, 20 years later, it now has at least 3,000 high-rise buildings with another 2,000 planned. No wonder the entire city (Shanghai is built on a drained swamp) is sinking at an astonishing rate of 1.5cm per year.

Driving around Guangzhou, it never ceases to amaze me just how quickly these new buildings are going up. In only a couple of weeks, a building under construction would normally have added several stories to its height. Migrant workers scurry about like ants. Time is money.

The problem is, however, a lot of those pretty buildings and apartment complexes are coming down almost as quickly as they go up. Like so much in China, it’s a case of style over substance. A glossy façade hides a rotten core.

An apartment block opposite where I used to live in Guangzhou, with shops occupying the ground floor used to have chunks of concrete rendering drop off the frontal elevation every few weeks. One time it even made the local Southern Metropolitan News after a chunk of concrete the size of a small car fell from the 10th floor. The chunk left a small crater in the pavement below. It was only sheer luck that no one was killed.

While Mainland Chinese people have many admirable qualities, civic responsibility and a strict adherence to the laws of the land are, in many cases, not among them. The name of the game for the big developers and local governments is making money. Infrastructure projects as well as private developments are the heavyweights of Chinese corruption. Skimmed off money, kickbacks, bribes, inferior building materials and an over-riding attitude that everything must be done at the lowest possible price in the fastest possible time.

How long will most of these buildings last? Millions of people in London still live in Victorian-era housing. Indeed, much of the British capital is still serviced by underground drains and pipes installed when Charles Dickens was still alive. Here in China, buildings start falling apart after 10 years. The natural settlement of the soil is usually enough to cause cracks in the cheap building materials, inadequate and poorly laid foundations and weak concrete mixes.

Recently, a friend of mine was enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon in his expensive Guangzhou apartment when suddenly the entire living room ceiling collapsed. Fortunately, the only damage came from his girlfriend who, amazingly, took great exception to the fact that he took more interest in his new plasma television than he did of her. Trying to diffuse matters by reminding her much it cost was a mistake I think. Following this incident the neighbours informed the couple that similar incidents had been occurring all over the estate. As well as bits of the building literally falling apart, the electrical wiring in several apartments had also packed in. Not good for an 18-month old building of ‘executive’ apartments.

My biggest worry, however, concerns natural disasters. Over 200 Chinese cities are located in zones at risk of a Richter scale ‘magnitude 7’ earthquake or higher. Twenty cities are in a ‘magnitude 8’ risk earthquake zone. Beijing is situated along the North China Yanshan fault. We have entered a period of relatively high earthquake risk. More than 100 medium and large cities are below the flood stage of rivers. China has some of the worst windstorms in the world. Risk in cities with the rapid rush to modernization many poorly constructed houses are at special risk for fire or other accidents.

Japan and Taiwan, two countries that suffer frequent earthquakes, have, for the most part, buildings regulations that are strictly adhered to. Indeed, only the very strongest recent earthquakes have caused any widespread property damage. In China, the buildings tend to fall down by themselves. The shoddy buildings throughout China could easily result in mass slaughter if a decent earthquake was to hit any Chinese urban area. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

(Other Lisa’s note: you’ll appreciate the irony that Martyn has been trying to get this post to TPD for the last two days – but his electricity kept going out…)


Uighurs At Gitmo

From Other Lisa, cross-posted at the paper tiger

“Ironic” doesn’t really begin to cover it. Read this Washington Post article about the plight of some Chinese detainees in detention at Guantanamo:

In late 2003, the Pentagon quietly decided that 15 Chinese Muslims detained at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be released. Five were people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, some of them picked up by Pakistani bounty hunters for U.S. payoffs. The other 10 were deemed low-risk detainees whose enemy was China’s communist government — not the United States, according to senior U.S. officials.

More than 20 months later, the 15 still languish at Guantanamo Bay, imprisoned and sometimes shackled, with most of their families unaware whether they are even alive.

They are men without a country. The Bush administration has chosen not to send them home for fear China will imprison, persecute or torture them, as the United States charges has happened to other members of China’s Muslim minority. But the State Department has also been unable to find another country to take them in, according to U.S. officials and recently filed court documents.

This is a horrific story. These men are from all accounts innocent of any terrorist or illegal activity, and yet they are locked up indefinitely in Guantanamo, kept as prisoners, at times chained to the floor. They were not even informed by US officials that they’d been cleared of any wrongdoing against the US for several months after the fact.

And, in spite of all this, the Bush Administration refuses to grant these men asylum in the United States:

This month, lawyers and human rights groups appealed to the United States to take in the stranded Uighurs. “It’s not like these people were once considered to be a threat and now are not,” said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. “These people need to be released, either in another country or the U.S. They’re America’s responsibility.”

But the Bush administration has balked at allowing them to enter the United States, even under restricted supervision, or to appear in a court that is hearing two of the men’s cases, according to U.S. officials and court documents.


“Don’t Build Dams Everywhere”

From Other Lisa, cross-posted at the paper tiger

Three Gorges Probe began as an organization dedicated to covering that controversial dam project and all its ramifications. They’ve expanded to cover other projects and the implications of power generation in China. Here is an English translation of an article by Chen Guojie, a senior researcher at the Chengdu Institute for Mountain Hazards and Environment, who warns of the hazards of overdeveloping hydropower in China’s river-rich Southwest. In the rush to build, it’s impossible to even get an accurate count of how many dams are being planned for the region, and regulatory oversight has been sorely lacking:

A recent survey by the Sichuan Electric Power Bureau found 128 small-scale hydro stations with the “four no’s”: no feasibility study, no official approval, no environmental assessment and no acceptance certificate. In a few extreme cases, small dams have been built on river sections that are just a kilometre long. The situation is reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, when crude steel smelters cropped up in every backyard.

What is particularly worrying is that in most cases, no comprehensive planning for the development and environmental protection of the valleys involved has been undertaken. Each dam builder administers its own affairs, with no regard for the collective interest.

Who should be responsible for these unchecked activities and how can this chaotic situation be brought under control? I’d like to characterize the situation as “anarchism under government rule.”

The environmental consequences of this free-for-all are potentially devastating, particularly given the “terracing” of dams planned for the region:

Building cascades of dams has become the pattern of future development not only on the upper Yangtze and the Pearl but also in the Lancang and Nu river basins. If the current trend is allowed to continue, the Yangtze, Pearl, Lancang, Nu and Hongshui will no longer be natural rivers; they will be like staircases — a series of sections interrupted by hydro stations. So the water of the Yangtze will no longer come from heaven1 but from these “steps,” and our free-flowing rivers will disappear forever….

…The upper reaches of the Yangtze and the Pearl rivers, and both the Lancang and Nu rivers, are important habitats for aquatic life that thrives in fast-flowing water. There are 153 fish species — including 44 species unique to the Yangtze — in the main channel of the river alone, where their breeding habitats are also concentrated. The widespread construction of hydropower stations, especially in the form of terraced dams, has left these species little room for survival. Construction of the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams on the Jinsha River [upper Yangtze], for example, is making the “Yangtze Hejiang-Leibo rare fish species protection zone” much smaller, with the breeding habitats almost totally destroyed.

China’s environmentalists have repeatedly warned about the consquences of such irresponsible, unplanned and unchecked development. The problem, Chen reports, is that the decision-makers simply do not listen:

It is interesting to note that almost all the experts who have expressed views about the Three Gorges project that diverge from the official position have never been invited to take part in any other feasibility studies or subsequent environmental assessments. Local governments and the authorities in charge of proposed hydro projects only want to invite the participation of “yes men,” to help push the schemes forward, while those who view the projects with a more critical eye are excluded. This is a long-standing and peculiar situation, which by now is just taken for granted in China.

Chen questions whether the proliferation of dams will lead to profits for anyone, beyond local officials who benefit from kickbacks and skimming from resettlement funds:

Local governments like the idea of building hydro stations, especially small dams, in the hope of accelerating the development of the local economy. However, whether local owners will actually be able to sell to the grid the electricity generated from small dams is uncertain given that the grids are controlled either by the national or regional grid companies.

Unchecked development of hydropower resources could lead to a glut on the market, with many regions unable to sell their hydroelectricity as a result. Local hydro project owners would then face a dilemma: In the wet summer season, they could produce abundant power but have difficulty selling it. And in the dry season, there would be demand for their electricity but they wouldn’t have enough water to run the turbines and produce the power.

Many hydro stations in the southwest are built with bank loans, and the revenue generated from the projects cannot even cover the interest on the loans. How can owners make a profit from hydro stations in such circumstances?…

…While it is true that local governments can benefit from the project-related resettlement schemes and from the construction of new towns, it is also the case that local officials associated with resettlement operations tend to grab the opportunity to pocket some of the public funds earmarked for the schemes. Dam construction projects have become breeding grounds for corruption and degenerate behaviour.

Certainly the majority of these projects have not benefited the common people, many of whom have lost not only their homes but the farmland which once generated their income. Chen notes that the vast majority of those displaced by such projects are still living in poverty, years later.

It’s past time for this chaotic situation to be brought under strict control, Chen states. The question is, does anyone in the Chinese government have the power to do so?