10 ways to improve quality of life in Beijing

And I agree with every one of them.


News of the Future: Guanxi 2.0

I recently wrote a fictional piece at my inactive blog, Musing Under the Tenement Palm, purported to be an American newspaper article written after the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I’ve decided to take another crack at a fictional article from China’s future. This one is more of a stretch than the last one, but I hope it still manages to be entertaining and interesting. All links refer to real-life present examples, mostly in the United States.

Guanxi 2.0 – China’s Data Nightmare
South China Morning Post, October 18, 2010

Zhang San (张三) looks haggard as he walks into the Mingtian Coffee Language Cafe for our interview. “I can’t sleep,” he mutters, knocking back a cup of Nescafe. “I spend every day waiting in line, speaking to receptionists, clerks, minor officials. But all that happens is they refer me to someone else, who I spoke to before who led me to them in the first place. I’m going in circles everyday and meanwhile my life is falling apart.” Mr. Zhang, 33, may lose everything he’s worked for in the next few weeks – he has been blacklisted and ostracized from Chinese society, a non-entity to be shunned. This might carry echoes of the Cultural Revolution when put this way, but this is not political. Mr. Zhang is the victim of mistaken identity, the result of the China’s Data Revolution. “The worst part of it all,” says Zhang, “are the snakeheads who call my mobile phone demanding 50,000 yuan for smuggling my sister to New Zealand.”

“I don’t have a sister!” he nearly shouts, and the waitress refilling our coffee nearly spills it all over the table.



Wal-Mart = Satan? Discuss!

Hot on the heels of bowing to the will of the All China Federation of Trade Unions and allowing union branches in its China stores (but not in its American counterparts), comes the announcement that Wal-Mart is buying a chain of one hundred “hypermarkets” in China from a Taiwanese company:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is bidding about $1 billion for a chain of 100 hypermarkets in China in a deal that could vault it ahead of competitors to become the country’s biggest food and department store network, reports said Tuesday…

…Foreign retailers are rushing to tap China’s fast-growing economy, large population and expanding middle class.

The Wal-Mart deal, if completed, would follow the Bentonville, Ark.-based company’s recent exit from both Germany and South Korea.

Such a deal would vault Wal-Mart past its rival, Carrefour SA of France, in the number of hypermarkets in China. A hypermarket combines a supermarket and a department store in a giant facility with a full line of groceries and general merchandise.

For background on why Wal-Mart might be a tool of the devil, read this Pulitzer Prize winning series in the LA Times, “the Wal-Mart Effect.” It’s stunning.


Vietnam and Angkor Wat

Vietnam 102.jpg
Richard’s five minutes of fame in front of a Vietnamese news crew.

The last 17 days or so constituted the longest period of time I’ve been away from this blog in more than three years. I simply forgot about the Internet when I was traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia with my family, only rarely checking email or throwing in a comment to one of the superb posts provided by my guest bloggers. No, I made a conscious decision to forget about The Peking Duck and my job and focus instead on the people I love and rarely see, and to pursue my favorite pastime, which I’ve neglected for way too long, i.e., reading. In two weeks, I consumed nearly three entire books (all of which I’ll review shortly). What a pleasure, letting go of all the daily routines that make up my life. Not that I don’t love blogging, but we all need a break sometimes.

This will be a short post, and I plan to continue blogging less and less as I focus on my Chinese classes. I started working part time this week, and my Chinese teacher remarked that she never saw me looking so relaxed and happy. We went on to enjoy the most productive lesson I’ve ever had. (Fear not – guest bloggers will continue to populate these pages with fresh posts, and no matter how much I insist I’m slowing down, I know I’ll keep at it.)

Vietnam was gorgeous, a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the taste buds. I went with my mother, my sister, my mother’s sister and my best friend, and I’ve never before felt so close to any of them. It was magnificent. We went to Hanoi, Hue, Saigon and Angkor Wat, and enjoyed a two-day cruise along Halong (sp?) Bay.

The photo above records one of the most interesting moments, when we were visiting caves along Halong Bay. A television news crew spotted me sporting a T-shirt of the Vietnamese flag, and they asked if they could interview me about tourism in Vietnam. In the photo, I am describing the thrill of seeing the huge limestone mountains that rise sheer from the water along the bay, making the traveler feel small and humble. They told me the clip would appear on the evening news throughout the country, thus ensuring my immortality.

The photo below is a beautiful shot of Angkor Wat captured by my friend. There’s too much to say about this day for one short post, so let’s just say it’s clear to me now why this is one of the seven wonders of the world. You stand there amidst the ruins, and you know what God and man is.

More descriptions of Vietnam, and more photos, to follow in the days ahead. Yes, it was a sublime experience, but it’s also good to be back.

Vietnam_Cambodia 120.jpg 2.jpg


We’re in Deep Shiite

UPDATED: Jeff Stein, national security editor at the wonderful Congressional Quarterly, has a terrifying Op-Ed in the New York Times:

FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

A ‘gotcha’ question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

Then he asks Willie Hulon, Chief of the FBI’s brand new National Security Bureau, this question:

So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. ‘The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,’he said. ‘And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.’

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran – Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. ‘Iran and Hezbollah,’ I prompted. ‘Which are they?’

He took a stab: ‘Sunni.’


Al Qaeda? ‘Sunni.’



Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

‘Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?’ I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: ‘One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.’

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. ‘Now that you’ve explained it to me,’ he replied, ‘what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.’

Mr. Everett is considered a shoo-in for re-election this November in his district of Alabama.

Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

‘Do I?’ she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. ‘You know, I should.’ She took a stab at it: ‘It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.’

Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?

‘Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,’ she replied. ‘I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.’

Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials’ puffery when they came up to the Hill?

‘Oh, I think it’s very important,’ said Ms. Davis, ‘because Al Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.’

Al Qaeda must be Sunni because they are more radical… oh. my. God. You don’t have to be an Islamic scholar, lady, but if someone said the IRA must be Catholic because they’re more radical, well, that’s what you just said.

Clap… clap…. clap…. oh, bravo.

If I were one the CIA spooks who had to testify to this woman about recruiting spies in the Islamic world, I’d go straight to the CIA cafeteria and get recruited into the private sector. Same work, but better pay. Good chance of less testifying, too.

Jo Ann Davis is heavily favored against her Democratic challenger Shawn O’Donnell in Fredericksburg, Maryland, and has ten times as much money raised. You can read more of Jeff Stein’s interview with her, including her thoughts on CIA reform, here.

UPDATE: Radar Magazine has a great rundown of Americas Dumbest Congressmen, which doesn’t include Davis or Everett. Classic. Is Radar supposed to be the new Spy Magazine?


Dick Cheney Bites Head Off Live Chicken

This post is a trial run by Dave

Or at least that’s what I’d like to see when the New York Times describes Dick Cheney’s visit to Topeka, Kansas as being “like a rock star coming to town”. And that’s just in the words of the mother of a 6 year old Cheneyphile. Yes, the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich has injected some humor into the Grey Old Lady. Can it possibly be inadvertant humor that he uses the term “Cheneyphiles” and describes 6 year olds looking at pictures of old men on the Internet, all while Foleygate is still burning? After all, Leibovich also writes:

There were no audible requests for Mr. Cheney to crowd-surf, shed his tie or perform ‘Free Bird.’

Yes, he’s definitely trying to be funny. I think when you’re discussing Topeka, all you really can do is laugh at them. Or cry. I’ll take laugh.

And then there was this quote:

‘It’s just such a big thrill to see and hear this man,’ says Marvin Smith, a farmer and former teacher.

Mr. Smith says most people he knows feel the same way, ‘except for a few of those peacemakers.’ He means protesters, a smattering of whom are picketing down the street.

Did that guy just use the word “peacemaker” as… a put-down? By “peacemaker”, does he mean people like David Lane, arrested in Denver, Colorado for telling the vice president to his face, on the street “I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible”? Or by “peacemaker”, does he mean Jesus-like? If so, shouldn’t he be outside?


China’s New Left

Lengthy article on China’s “new Left” movement and one of its main proponents, Wang Hui, editor of the journal Dushu. I’m not going to try and summarize this long piece, but Wang deals with the contradictions in a China that has embraced turbocapitalism and yet still calls itself a socialist country:

More than four million Chinese participated in the 87,000 protests recorded in 2005, and these statistics may not fully convey the rage and discontent of Chinese living with one of the world’s highest income inequalities and deteriorating health and education systems, as well as the arbitrary fees and taxes imposed by local party officials. Much of this, Wang said, could be laid at the feet of the “right-wing radicals” or neoliberal economists who cite Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek (advocates of unregulated markets who inspired Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 80’s) and who argue for China’s integration into the global economy without taking into account the social price of mass privatization. And it is they, Wang added, who have held favor with the ruling elite and have dominated the state-run media.

Wang challenges the Western notion that free markets will automatically bring democracy:

For Wang, democracy is not just a simple matter of expanding political freedom for the middle class or creating legal and constitutional rights for a minority already substantially empowered by market reforms. Democracy in China, he said, has to be based upon the active consent and mobilization of the majority of its population, and be able to ensure social and economic justice for them.

According to this piece, “New Left” ideas are increasingly reflected in the rhetoric of the Central Government. It will be interesting to see if their ideas on democracy and social justice are reflected as well.

Lots of food for thought here. Read the whole piece and let me know what you think.

Thanks to the TPD reader who alerted me to this piece – afraid I don’t remember who it was!

UPDATE Reader Brendan refers us to this excellent post from J. at the Granite Studio on Wang Hui – J. makes the point that, for all of Wang Hui’s merits, “he still views the CCP as a force for change.” Writes J.:

Far from being a bulwark of socialism, the CCP actually fosters a climate where legal protections and social programs can be placed on the books at the center and effectively gutted of all meaning by the time they trickle down the party bureaucracy to the local areas. It’s the nature of a one-party system that punishes dissent.

Be sure to check out that discussion as well.


Work for the Union Label?

The New York Times reports on a proposed new law that would dramatically increase the power of China’s labor unions – at least on paper:

China is planning to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980’s.

The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American and other foreign corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here…

…It would apply to all companies in China, but its emphasis is on foreign-owned companies and the suppliers to those companies…

…But it is not clear how effectively such a new labor law would be carried out through this vast land because local officials have tended to ignore directives from the central government or seek ways around them.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. China’s only legal union is controlled by the state – but still, giving an organization of workers the ability to negotiate contracts and working conditions brings with it the possibility of empowerment outside of strict CCP control. The article also notes:

In a surprisingly democratic move, China asked for public comment on the draft law last spring and received more than 190,000 responses, mostly from labor activists. The American Chamber of Commerce sent in a lengthy response with objections to the proposals. The European Chamber of Commerce also responded.

The law would impose heavy fines on companies that do not comply. And the state-controlled union – the only legal union in China – would gain greater power through new collective-bargaining rights or pursuing worker grievances and establishing work rules. One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”


I thought it was “harmless fraternity pranks”…

He really said this:

Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, who is in a tough re-election fight, said Friday the Abu Ghraib prison abuses were more about pornography than torture…

…”Now I’ve seen what happened in Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture,” Shays said at a debate Wednesday.

“It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops from (Maryland) who were involved in a sex ring and they took pictures of soldiers who were naked,” added Shays. “And they did other things that were just outrageous. But it wasn’t torture.”

Oh, and whose fault is it? Why, the liberals, of course! James Wolcott brings us this excerpt from Dinesh D’Souza’s upcoming book, “The Enemy At Home”:

“Although I do not believe that Abu Ghraib reflects America’s predatory intentions toward the Muslim world, I can see why Muslims would see it this way. In one crucial respect, however, the Muslim critics of Abu Ghraib were wrong. Contrary to their assertions, Abu Ghraib did not reflect the shared values of America, it reflected the sexual immodesty of liberal America [my italics]. Lynndie England and Charles Graner were two wretched individuals from red America who were trying to act out the fantasies of Blue America… This was bohemianism, West Virginia-style.”

Wolcott elaborates:

The theme of The Enemy at Home, as in so many conservative tracts, is that whatever goes wrong, liberals and liberalism are always the ones at fault. Conservatives may make mistakes, but their mistakes (such as Bush’s on WMDs and the welcome we would get in Iraq) are well-intentioned and rooted in idealism, not in the moral rot where liberalism pitches its tent. Indeed, when conservatives–heroes in error, to use Ahmed Chalabi’s memorable phrase–go astray, it’s often because they’re following liberals’ lousy example. “In trying to defend the indefensible [at Abu Ghraib], conservatives became cheap apologists for liberal debauchery.” To my knowledge, liberals haven’t been blamed yet for the recent slaughter-execution of Amish schoolgirls, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time before they hang that one on us too.

Words fail me. Thankfully they don’t fail Wolcott.


Hu to Hove: No Big Pimpin’ in Shanghai

Dave has returned from Macau…

I woke up and Jay-Z has been banned from doing a show
in Shanghai, says the BBC, due to “vulgar” lyrics. CCP bein’ supa ugly. They just addicted to the game, but they can’t knock the hustle.

The irony that “Big Pimpin'” is not allowed in a country with an estimated 20 million prostitutes (economist Yang Fan), well, I was just in Zhuhai and Macau, and all I can say is “Jigga what? Jigga who?”

Meanwhile in Taiwan, Cecilia Cheung and Chow Yun-Fat are gonna be feelin’it. At least someone knows what girls like. Streets is watchin’ Hu. Can I get a…

Bonus: Check out the illegal but downloadable Grey Album, Jay-Z’s a capella album set to beats from the Beatles White album. None less than Robert Christgau has given it the holy blessing of “phat”.