Bad, bad Bill O’Reilly

As if we didn’t know already. Still, this wonderful round-up (blogspot site so use your proxy) is devastating and will leave you pondering the scary fact that somehow this creature has become America’s most-watched television “pundit.” His rampage against Daily Kos is a frightening example of the old blacklist mentality. It’s just too bad the Kos response is to campaign for advertisers to stop sponsoring Fox, leaving them wide open to similar charges of blacklisting. There’s got to be a better way to alert the public that this fiend is a conscious and persistent falsifier of information and is intentionally and insidiously deceiving his audience, generating a lot of misplaced rage and hatred along the way. Then again, anyone who at this point is still among his audience is probably unsalvagable anyway.

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Yahoo lied.

For those of you who still think Yahoo’s cooperation with the police in the Shi Tao “incident” was innocent and necessary, read this killer post (needless to say, most of the links are blocked here in the motherland).

It appears Yahoo has consistently lied about its role in Shi Tao’s persecution right from the beginning – both its Beijing and Hong Kong offices They knew from the start this was an investigation into someone accused of “revealing state secrets.” Yahoo can’t claim any more that they had no inkling of why the security police wanted this information (this claim allowed them to argue that it could have been a murder investigation, child pornography or similar heinous crime, and thus they had to cooperate).

Read it all, plus the comments, to see on-the-record samples of Yahoo’s prevarications. The fact that they seem to have known from day one that this was about “revealing state secrets” – not murder or a kidnapping or terrorism – seems to make irrelevant earlier arguments that Yahoo had little choice in the matter and did not do anything wrong because they had no idea what kind of crime the security police were investigating.

About this blog: Yes, it seems to be dying a slow death, and it will continue looking that way for months to come. I have no choice – I can’t put up ten posts a day like I used to; even one a week is difficult. I’ll do my best.

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Beijing: A Room with a View

Photos through a Beijing window.

I’ve been walking around the past few days at lunchtime, wondering just what’s in these low-hanging clouds that smother all the buildings and wrap the city in a noxious haze. Rest assured, however, that it’ll all be gone by August 8, 2008. We’ll see.

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eChinese Learning and Chinese Pod: Mandarin on my terms

This will be a brief post (famous last words). It’s about a topic I am sensitive about, namely, learning Chinese. I am frequently frustrated that unlike a number of of bloggers who started learning Chinese either in college or even earlier, I came here much later, when I had a fulltime job and extremely limited study time. Some of my peers in similar situations simply chose not to study Chinese at all, while most did the best they could, using a tutor for a couple of hours a week, which can be quite useful for learning some basics, though it will never make you even close to fluent.

I made the most dramatic strides back in Taiwan, where for about 10 weeks I took lessons every day for two hours. My teacher there, literally the best in the world, forced me to study hanzi, unlike any of my previous tutors. She insisted it would help with my pronunciation, speaking and understanding of Chinese grammar. And she was right. I would sit at Starbucks and write Chinese characters for hours, and so much about Chinese became clear to me as I realized that many of the homonyms I was speaking actually shared pieces of one another – and seeing how pieces of those characters manifested themselves in other characters was eye-opening. Suddenly the language began to make sense.

Those days were short-lived, interrupted by my totally unexpected transfer to Beijing, where I have next to no personal time, either for blogging or for studying Chinese. My teacher in Taiwan (who came from Beijing, by the way) told me I had learned about 800 characters, but I didn’t believe it – I could recognize several hundred, but often I couldn’t be sure unless I saw the characters in context. Anyway, once I moved to China, my reading skills rapidly deteriorated. I am still getting tripped up over simplified characters, and with no daily lessons and no time to sit at Starbucks filling endless pages with clumsily scribbled characters, I’ve rapidly been forgetting a lot of the things I’d learned in Taiwan.

I tried to book lessons with a tutor here but my schedule had been too insane. I never had time and was cancelling most lessons. So ironic, that I come to China and my Chinese gets worse! There’s now some light at the end of the tunnel; my company recently allowed me to hire a few new people, so I am not forced to do everything myself. So now is the time for me to get serious again about Chinese, the most important goal in my life.

An unexpected email helped push me to action. Last week a company I hadn’t heard of, eChineseLearning, offered to give me a free lesson, and their timing was perfect. They explained to me that I would have my own “virtual” teacher and a customized web-based lesson based on my speaking ability, which they determined with a pre-class phone call. Well, why not? It was free, and all I had to do was download Skype and turn on a webcam, and we were ready to go.

I have to admit, it was a little unsettling at first, working with a teacher who was God-knows-where. But after a few minutes you get used to it, and I really enjoyed it. The teacher was first-rate (though no teacher compares to the one in Taipei). She quickly picked up on my weak spots and strengths (if I have any) and we hardly spoke a word of English during the 50-minute class. She used one of my favorite Chinese text books, Contemporary Chinese, and when I had trouble with a new word she would write it on the board and go over it with me. I was surprised I could see the board so clearly; it was almost as if she were right there in the room with me. Anyway, this was a totally positive experience, and most astonishing was the price. Let’s just say that their lessons are incredibly affordable, especially considering you have a live teacher giving you a customized lesson. Honestly, I don’t know how they’ll break even unless they have a huge volume of customers.

When I first spoke with the people at eChineseLearning, I mentioned I was a big fan of their competitor, Chinese Pod. No, they insisted, Chinese Pod is a friend, not a competitor. Maybe. I can actually see how one can enhance the other – if you have the free time to work with both. I’ve been a big fan of Chinese Pod for well over a year, and I’ve twice ponied up the cash to be a paid subscriber. Nearly every day I use a phrase that I learned from Ken and Jenny and John (and sometimes Aggie, but is she there anymore?). And I wonder how many men in China, if not around the world, go to sleep fantasizing about Jenny’s mellifluous, velvety mezzo voice, which somehow manages to be sensuous and sensible at the same time. Quite a phenomenon.

I do have some beefs with Chinese Pod, however. Unlike the Pimsleur tapes and any good textbook, there seems to be little continuity of material, little building upon what you learned in the last lesson and carrying it to the next level. Grammar is almost never mentioned, and Ken seems to want to avoid breaking down sentences grammatically like the plague. But the sad news, Ken, is that grammar is important and I wish there were discussions about it incorporated into the podcasts, as opposed to simply offering us examples of grammatical usage. If we understand the grammatical rule, we can apply it to other sentences and not just the one we memorized in your latest podcast.

Watching Chinese Pod evolve has been fun. Compare the Intermediate lessons now to those of 18 months ago, and you can see they’ve made quantum leaps. Usually I download the lower Intermediate and more challenging Elementary lessons. (The intermediate ones can sometimes be a bit challenging for me but extremely useful, while the elementary are often on the easy side – I guess there’s no happy medium.)

The addition of John Pasden was a stroke of genius; Ken is magnificent for the elementary lessons, but John adds a level of detail and insight that makes the intermediate lessons far more useful. He seems to know exactly what words Jenny should repeat for the readers’ sake and when to have her tell us their tones. He is also funny, in his squeaky-clean, Beaver Cleaver way that makes him so endearing. (We just know that under that all-American white bread veneer there’s a devilish side somewhere, though we almost never get to see it.)

Okay, so Chinese Pod is unsurpassed for quickly learning useful phrases and words. John’s Ken’s and Jenny’s voices stay in our heads because they are so good at what they do, and just so nice. And funny, too: we tend to remember things we find funny. The 60 seconds or so of banter at the start of most lessons is fine; it relaxes the listener and prepares him for what’s to come. Ken and Jenny and John play beautifully off of one another. Even the podcasts’ sound effects have been getting better and better; again, a then-and-now comparison will drive home how much more sophisticated they’ve become.

My main issue with Chinese Pod, along with the lack of building blocks, is the price. After twice paying $30 for a month’s subscription, I came away disappointed each time. On the Internet, $30 is a high price for a monthly service, and if you’re going to fork over that much every month you expect a lot of bang for the buck. The interactive copy and lesson plans and flash cards they offer simply didn’t cut it for me. I think they’d attract a huge number of new customers if they’d slash the $30 price to a more palatable $19.95 a month, and $9.95 a month if the customer commits to a full year. $30 a month crosses a psychological barrier many e-customers will shy away from. Especially when so much of the good stuff is being given away for free.

All of that said, nothing can keep me away from Chinese Pod. I love their podcasts, their blog and their people. I can see why an advanced learner may find it rather tame, but for someone like me, it’s a godsend. Meanwhile, as I work with eChineseLearning in the weeks ahead I’ll be giving periodic reports; as I said, their first lesson truly won me over. Definitely check it out if, and supplement it with Chinese Pod. I’m sure Ken will change the rates right after reading this post.

Well, I guess this turned out to be a not-so-brief post after all. I can only write posts this long on weekends, at least for now. From tomorrow through August 13 I will be under the gun once again with 14-hour days and not even enough personal time to read my emails. Only 13 more months to go…. Okay, “time to say, ‘zai jian.’”

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Quote of the day

I know, I’ve been silent for days, and it’s not changing anytime soon. Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan has written a breathtaking post on Bush’s Messiah complex and how he sees himself as commanded by God to bring “freedom” to all people – something that is not in his job description. These delusions would be droll if people weren’t dying because of them:

Such delusions actually destroy lives, liberties, societies, civilizations. And what has this messianic maniac in the White House done? He has set loose a fantastically murderous war in Iraq, he has sacrificed thousands of young Americans with the result not of restraining but empowering our enemies, he has done incalculable long-term damage to the country’s fiscal standing, he has indirectly caused the massacre of tens of thousands of innocents, he has come close to wrecking the military of the United States, and he has robbed the United States of its long and hard-won record of humane and decent warfare.

This is not the work of a conservative statesman; it’s the mark of a delusional fanatic. If you define liberalism broadly as the belief that human society is perfectible, that heaven can be created on earth by force of will, then Bush is one of the most recklesss enemies of conservatism who has ever held high office in America. It is a conservative duty to expose and restrain him from any more mischief in his final months. He has refused every olive branch toward sanity. He has balked at every face-saver. So he must be stopped. Above all else, he cannot be allowed to determine the future of this country’s foreign policy in the Middle East. He has done enough damage already.

“Read the whole thing” if you haven’t yet overdosed on reports of Bush’s insanities. This is our president. Eighteen agonizing months to go. My trip to America last week confirmed my belief that this is the best time ever to be living abroad.

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China Shakes the World by James Kynge

When I first came back to China in January, I was talking with my office director about books on China, and he told me, “The best book on modern China has to be China Shakes the World. Get a copy as soon as you can.” He gave a copy to our company president in New York, who promptly bought 100 copies to give to clients interested in dong business in China. Essential reading has a whole new definition.

I didn’t get around to buying it until May (to my knowledge the Bookworm is the only place you can find it for sale), and I read much of it on the plane to and from Germany that month; it was the main inspiration behind a post I wrote at the time that really seemed to push some readers’ buttons. My manager was right. This book is unsurpassed in terms of exploring and analyzing just how enormous an effect China is having on the entire world. And anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that China is shaking the world is either in a state of willful denial or is living in a cave.

The book gets its title from an unconfirmed and in all likelihood mythological quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep; for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Well, China has woken and the quote has proven to be accurate, no matter who actually said it. What makes this book special is its approach to the subject, focusing on the effect of China’s rise on other countries and other peoples. It’s not just another roundup of stories about the “China miracle” and how much Western CEOs are loving doing business in China.

The book begins at what was once the site of Germany’s largest steel mill, now only “a scar.” Kynge describes how the Chinese bought the ailing business and transported the entire mill – 25 football fields in size, 250,000 tons in weight, with 45 tons of documents telling how to reassemble the plant – to China. 10,000 German jobs were gone, and a 100-year-old business, the lifeblood of the city of Dortmund, vanished. (It was not China that caused the mill to go bust; that process started before China’s meteoric rise, due to fierce competition mainly from South Korea.) Kynge’s description of how the Chinese took the mill apart, dangling from walkways 60 meter above the ground without safety harnesses and completing the job months earlier than planned, is spellbinding. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking. The mill is a metaphor for many of the traditional businesses that for decades, even centuries, the Europeans thought of as “their own,” only to discover that competition from Asia threatened their very existence.

The China “economic miracle” has been in the headlines since the 1990s. The first sign that China was about to shake the world, however, occurred in 2004, when manhole covers began to disappear from streets all over the world. This was a wake-up call: China’s thirst for raw materials was about to affect all of the world’s markets. It was with the disappearing manhole covers, Kynge says, that China “telegraphed its arrival” to the world. “Whatever else happened, China had to be fed…A new era in international relations dawned, one defined by the geopolitics of scarcity.”

Looking over the book now, I see that I’ve dog-earred just about every page and written notes in many of the margins. There’s so much, it’s hard to condense it into a single blog post. So allow me simply to give some impressions of various points Kynge makes, in no particular order.

What Kynge manages to do better than any author I’ve read to date is to capture in words just how strange a trading partner China is, and how it resembles no other great power. Examples are plentiful – companies that make semiconductors and tomato catsup; companies that thrive on the theft of intellectual property; companies that produce an insane over-supply of products; companies that operate on an entirely different moral and cultural plane from their global counterparts. Kynge’s vivid anecdotes paint a picture of a country that in many ways is downright freakish and unbelievably unfair and corrupt. A country that is just so different.

And yet…. Kynge is always clear-headed and balanced to a fault. After enumerating the many bizarreries that make China seem so peculiar, he offers some important balance:

It must be said that from a global perspective, China’s emergence is of enormous economic benefit. The value created by the release of 400 million people from poverty, the migration of over 120 million from farms where they perhaps raised chickens to factories where they churn out electronics, the quantum leap in educational standards for tens of millions of children, the construction of a first-class infrastructure, the growth of over 40 cities with populations of over a million, the commercialization of housing and the vaulting progress up the technology ladder have helped unleash one of the greatest ever surges in general prosperity.

You come away from this book enraged at China and in awe of China, hating it and admiring it. Perhaps the most hackneyed phrase about China is that it’s a “land of contradictions,” but such phrases only become hackneyed because they contain a strong element of truth. Kynge brings us all the contradictions and spins them into a narrative that kept me turning from page to page throughout my flight to Munich. One story about a girl whose life is for all intents and purposes stolen from her by a corrupt official who stole her identity so his daughter could get into a good university will bring tears to your eyes. And stories of the sheer guile of Chinese workers , like those who dismantled the Dortmund steel mill, will make you smile. And his description of just how inequitable the competition from China can be will leave you hopelessly frustrated:

The Chinese fixed the value of their currency against the US dollar, keeping it undervalued so as to give their exports greater competitiveness. They provided little or no welfare for their workers, so their costs were artificially low. There were no independent unions in China, so the safety standards…in Chinese factories would have been illegal in America. The state banking system provided cheap credit to state companies that could default without consequence. The central government gave generous value added tax rebates to exporters that were not available to US retailers. Restrictions on emissions were lax, so companies had to pay relatively little to keep the environment clean. Chinese companies routinely stole foreign intellectual property, but it was difficult to prosecute them because the courts were either corrupt or under government control. Finally, the state kept the price of various inputs, such as electricity and water, artificially low, thereby subsidizing industry.

Kynge is outspoken on Western Europe’s (in particular Germany’s and France’s) lack of competitiveness underscored by Germany’s 35-hour and long vacations. And yet, how can they possibly compete against China, no matter how many hours a week they work, when all of the cards are stacked in China’s favor, mostly due to maddeningly unfair government intervention (or lack of intervention)?

But for all of China’s ruthlessness and seemingly unstoppable growth, crushing anything that gets in its path, Kynge leaves us more with a sense of doubt than of fear (though there’s plenty of fear, too). Doubt, because China’s problems (and here comes another hackneyed clichee) are so immense, so overwhelming that its ascension to the status of a global superpower still remains in question. And if it does join the superpower club, surely it will be the strangest member. There has never been a superpower quite like it.

Although China is poised to overtake the UK to become the world’s fourth largest economy, on a per capita basis it ranks just above the world’s poorest nations, with an average income of just over $1,000 a year. Even if the country’s gross domestic product one day becomes as large as that of the US, simple mathematics ordains that its people at that time will on average be only one-sixth as wealthy as Americans.

Again, I can’t offer anything more than a snapshot; there’s so much here, and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Even though I finished it in May I still carry it around with me, revisiting the sections I found most fascinating (and that’s a lot of sections). In terms of balance, perspective and brilliant analysis of what China is today and where it is going tomorrow, this is the best book you can buy.

Update: I just reread my recent post about Germany, which is really all about China Shakes the World, and it should be read along ‘with this post – it delves more deeply into the comparison of Germany and China based on Kynges arguments, and some of the comments there are first-rate.

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Olympian efforts to upgrade Beijing’s infamous public toilets by 8-8-08

Still traveling, but thought you might want to check out this beautifully written and meticulously researched article on one of everybody’s favorite topics by one of my favorite reporters.

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China Development Brief shutdown

Beijing silences pro-China Briton

The Telegraph reports today that the China Development Brief has been shut down by the Chinese authorities.

A Briton who has spent years trying to convince foreigners through a newsletter that China is unfairly portrayed as repressive by the Western media has been ordered to stop publication by Beijing.

Nick Young claims that he has also been threatened with deportation from China over articles he has edited in the China Development Brief, which monitors social progress and reports on the activities of non-governmental organisations.

About a dozen officials from the Beijing Public Security Bureau and the Beijing Statistical Bureau visited the office of the newsletter last week and accused Mr Young of violating the statistics law by conducting “unauthorised surveys”. Mr Young has since been ordered to stop publication of the Chinese edition and has been questioned by police.

Of course Mr Young was not some sickening apologist, but I think this is a good example of the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude. It doesn’t matter whether you like or hate China, are pragmatic or idealistic, etc. If you do “certain things” it doesn’t like, you’ve crossed that invisible red line they hide from view so as to ensure they can move it around whenever convenient (to stop anyone staying a millimetre on the legal side) and then say:

“Ah, very sorry – you break Chinese law so we must take action.”

Translation:

“You’ve done something we’ve arbitrarily decided we don’t like, so we’re going to shut you down because no one can stop us.”

Sad, isn’t it, that the Chinese authorities censure someone who tried to argue things weren’t as bad as they’re sometimes shown abroad?

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Theft

[UPDATE: Be sure to see the comment below from Roger. The power of blogs.]

Kind of funny, how blase some Chinese institutions are about stealing copy word for word from other web sites and passing the material off as their own. This is an old story, but here’s a new example that’s even more brazen than usual. Amazing, when you consider this is an “Institute” with an official-sounding title, a group you’d expect to be serious and scholarly.

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“Only 9/11 stopped the US from going to war with China”

Quite a claim, no? See what James Fallows has to say about it.

And yes, I’m still out of the country (the PRC) and the blog remains semi-closed. Maybe this and Lisa’s earlier post will encourage the abandonment of the last swollen thread, which would be good for humanity in general.

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