Maureen Dowd: G8 Frat House

Above-average Dowd.

Animal House Summit
Published: July 19, 2006

Reporters who covered W.’s 2000 campaign often wondered whether the Bush scion would give up acting the fool if he got to be the king. Would he stop playing peekaboo with his pre-meal moist towels during airplane interviews? Would he quit scrunching up his face and wiggling his eyebrows at memorial services? Would he replace levity and inanity with gravity?

“In many regards, the Bush I knew did not seem to be built for what lay ahead,” wrote Frank Bruni, the Times writer who covered W.’s ascent, in his book “Ambling Into History.” “The Bush I knew was part scamp and part bumbler, a timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup, a weekday gym rat and weekend napster, an adult with an inner child that often brimmed to the surface or burst through.



Criticizing China

Good story, good comments. Check it out.


Typepad, Geocities, Blogspot blogs banned in India

Because terrorists are allegedly passing along information via blogs. Or at least that’s what some bloggers there are claiming/ If true, the ban is totally stupid, as one wry observer comments:

An Indian political blog is reporting that the ban was initiated by the Indian intelligence service to stop terrorism: Link. According to their source, the terrorists are using blogs to communicate. Not only is this useless (because the terrorists can simply use proxies), it’s akin to shutting off the country’s telephone service because terrorists talk to each other through phones.

All I can say to that commenter is, Shut up before you start giving Bush ideas.


Is Chengdu the place to be?

This article sure makes it sound that way.

Cheap labor and lower start-up costs are luring foreign companies to Chengdu, helping to revitalize an ancient city in western China determined to close the gap with the more prosperous east.

Chengdu, China’s western cultural and economic capital for centuries, has engineered a partial revival by raking in record foreign investment over the last six years, and vaunts the presence of 78 blue-chip companies.

Motorola, IBM, Intel, Coca Cola and Toyota have led the charge of top brands that together have poured hundreds of millions in new factories, with Swedish retail giant Ikea and German software giant SAP set to be the newest arrivals.

Chengdu’s economic boom can also be seen in the towering new five-star hotels which host a growing number of foreign trade delegations drawn to the river city, teeming with new restaurants and luxury retail boutiques.

“Companies are considering Chengdu because everything is cheaper here,” Wang Yi, an official with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, told AFP.

“The start-up costs are much higher in the eastern areas of China and the competition is fiercer.”

I have to admit, my curiosity is piqued. (Actually, I first became curious after one of my Taiwanese colleagues left the company because he wanted to live and work in Chengdu.) It’s now on my list for my next trip to China.


The Lynching of Saint Ken

A former Bush attack dog who has since rejected the Bush Doctrine writes a stunning obituary article on Ken Lay for the Times of London.

In the pews were a former president, George Bush, former first lady, Barbara Bush, and the Bush famiglia dignitaries, James Baker and Robert Mosbacher. And then the coup de grace: the white-collar convicted criminal was compared to an innocent black man, James Byrd, brutally lynched in Texas not so long ago, tied to the back of a truck and dragged through dirt roads until his body split in two.

“Ken Lay was neither black nor poor, as James Byrd was, but I’m angry because Ken was the victim of a lynching,” the minister said to huge and hearty applause.

Welcome to the strange new world of conservative evangelical Christianity, where government torture is no big deal, Lay is a martyr, and the death penalty is God’s will. In this version of Christianity what matters is not so much what you do – but what’s in your heart. And if you have committed to Jesus Christ and attend the right church, a little corporate larceny is no big whoop.

And so a president who has abandoned the Geneva conventions and signed more death warrants than any other American alive is regarded by many as sincere in his desire to do good, to help others, and to bring healing to the world. In this George W Bush is like Lay – a man who, while bilking share owners and employees out of their livelihoods, was, by all accounts, personally generous, charitable and devout. A true Christian. A giver. Of other people’s money.

Amen to that. Read the rest for some grim statistics on what the great Christian giver Bush will be handing over to all Americans after he leaves office. (Lots and lots of debts.)


Book Idiot Zhou

A lengthy excerpt from John Pomfret’s new book, Chinese Lessons.

My full review of Pomfret’s book is here.


A day at the market



Shanghai’s high-end retailers: “less than meets the eye”?

Now this is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but was waiting for a piece to appear in the established media that would help to back up my personal observations. With this article, I have my opportunity.

Amid the towering glass-and-steel splendor of the Plaza 66 mall – with boutiques from Dior, Prada, Cartier and other luxury brands – shop clerk Xu Junyuan idly scratched his bald head as a lone shopper browsed the deserted aisles.

“I’m just bored,” said Xu, who works at the jeans boutique Diesel.

At Fendi, black-suited clerks yawned as they propped themselves against counters. At the palatial Louis Vuitton shop next door, a 7-foot-tall plasma television played to no one.

In this populous city of fanatical shoppers, Plaza 66 is what some locals call a gui gouwu zhongxin – a ghost mall. The prices are so high that no one buys much. But then, no one really cares.

Just as Stalin erected Potemkin villages to display the glories of communism to outsiders, Shanghai is creating its own illusion of prosperity out of the world’s most luxurious brands.

Offering cut-rate rents to top-tier fashion houses, this city of 18 million is determined to make itself look like a world capital of high fashion. And retailers such as Burberry, Hermes and Chanel are happy to join the charade.

“Most leading luxury brands will need to have a flagship store in Shanghai if only to put Shanghai along with London, Paris, Milan on their bags,” said Paul French, founder and China chief of Access Asia, a marketing research firm in Shanghai.

The illusion is so thin that some stores don’t bother to carry much stock. Others might have lots of clothes on the racks, but only in one size: medium, which is too big for most Shanghai women.

Some shops “don’t ring up a single sale for days,” Xu said.

Interesting issue. I wrote one of my most controversial posts ever on this topic long ago on the now defunct site known as Living in China, and I stupidly failed to post it on TPD so it’s lost. This topic, questioning whether the Chinese middle class as perceived by the West truly exists, raised unusual ire and defensiveness. I think that was mainly because the argument was misunderstood; the key phrase in the previous sentence is italicized: as perceived by the West.

Only an idiot could deny the existence of a huge middle class in China. However, to become a member of that middle class you need to have an annual income of $5,000 (see the comments to this post for reference; unfortunately most of the links are now dead). That’s nothing to sneeze at in China. But when we in the West are fed stories of China’s vast middle class, it is in the context of the expected wave of Chinese tourists making international voyages, buying Armani suits and Louis Vuitton bags along the way and maybe a Lexus while they’re at it. The Western middle class does those things. (I have an Armani suit, and I guess if I wanted to I could buy a Lexus on my middle class salary, albeit I’d be paying it off for quite a few years.) And therein lies the myth. Only a fraction of China’s middle class (as defined by China) can afford to do these things and continue living at a middle-class level. On $5,000 a year, it’s simply impossible. [For some more eye-opening numbers, here’s the original article that kicked off this debate back in 2004.]

Anyone who’s walked around Shanghai’s more prosperous areas (and Beijing’s as well) is well familiar with the glut of luxury stores, with Bulgari and Gucci boutiques everywhere you look. This always fascinated me – the sheer number of such places in areas where I knew there couldn’t possibly be enough customers to ensure sustainable long-term profitability. I would sometimes stand outside the shops and watch for as long as half an hour (I didn’t have much better to do on the weekends). I remember seeing the shopkeepers going to fantastic lengths to look busy. One of them kept dusting the shelves obsesively. Another kept a book (or maybe a magazine) discreetly under the counter, at an angle where she could read while keeping an eye on the front door. One kept rearranging her hair. Another must have had the best-filed fingernails in all of Asia. This wasn’t a scientific study, of course, but based on what I saw with my own eyes I was convinced the high-end luxury goods stores had been overbuilt, and that eventually they’d either have to pack up and leave or keep eating what had to be painful losses.

I’ve heard different schools of thought on this issue. One of my colleagues assures me these high-end stores are thriving, and that there are enough Chinese nouveau riche to keep them going. The numbers (again, see the article that first got me writing about this topic) and my own observation tell me it just isn’t possible. I also know, as a PR person who has worked with some of the big brand names, that everything isn’t coming up roses for them in China (although all of my own clients are doing fantastically well, of course). Among these companies, there seems to be a somewhat ingrained belief that goes something like this:

“We must be in China. This is the last great market left and even if we lose money for years, that is simply an investment for the future. 1.3 billion people: if we can only attract one-half of one percent of that market….”

Of course, anyone who’s read the classic China Dream knows the folly of this kind of thinking. (The book tells the classic story of the P&G executive telling his sales team the potential for deodorant sales: “2 billion armpits!”) And i think today’s plaintive article on Shanghai’s ghost malls really says it all: China has incredible potential (duh), a fast-growing middle class, but nothing at all to compare with the purchasing power of the middle class of developed countries. Not yet.

Go read today’s article. I love Shanghai, and quite honestly I hope to live there some day. But let’s be real. A lot of it is tinsel and window dressing. It feels so good and it’s so wonderful – I admit, I am totally enchanted with it. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is a lot less to Shanghai than meets the eye.


What civil war? (Part CLXVI)

Damned liberal media.

The battle lines of a full-scale civil war in Iraq have been drawn in Baghdad.

Highway 60 has become one of the bloodiest fronts in the war between Sunni and Shia. Known to its frightened inhabitants as the “street of death”, the road in the south-east of the capital is a symbol of the sectarian violence that is pushing the country ever closer to the abyss.

An American armoured vehicle patrols a road south of Baghdad

A nondescript suburban street containing half a dozen schools, the local hospital and a children’s nursery, it has become the dividing line between the Sunnis and Shia, who once lived side by side yet now face each other across a mile-long strip of no man’s land.

Members of the once mixed community have been forced to move their homes to what are, in effect, two sectarian enclaves.

In an escalation of the violence which is claiming hundreds of lives in Baghdad each week, the skies above Highway 60 resound, day and night, to the blast of home-made mortars as militiamen shell each other’s communities – safe in the knowledge that they will not be harming their own.

How do we define civil war? What has to happen before America acknowledges that Iraq is no longer in danger of slipping into civil war, but that it is there already? (And this article is from the conservative Telegraph, not the Village Voice.) Wake up, people.


Bob Herbert: The definition of tyranny

The Definition of Tyranny
Published: July 17, 2006

Congress is dithering and the American public doesn’t even seem particularly concerned as the administration of George W. Bush systematically trashes such fundamental American values as justice, due process, respect for human rights and submission to the rule of law.

In the kangaroo courts that the administration concocted to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a defendant could be prevented from seeing the evidence against him, would not have the right to attend his own trial and would not have the right to appeal the sentence to a civilian court.