Happy New Year (how original)

Have a good New Year’s Eve. Forget about blogs and other nonsense and start writing your resolutions.

In just a few hours this will be the 8th year this blog has been in existence. Thanks for sticking around.



I missed this story from two days ago, and it’s a great one, an important reminder that as a lot of good things happen here and people’s lives improve, there is still the same horror of corruption that pervades all levels of society here, right down to the teachers. That photo at the beginning of the couple clutching the photo of their murdered teenage son….

A couple of years ago I basically stopped posting stories of corruption in China because it’s such a common topic and it’s always the same story with different players. This one, however, is especially heart-wrenching and more than just an individual story – it’s a panoramic view of the problem that’s blighted China since its “economic miracle” began, adding an atrociously dark side to one of history’s most stunning success stories.

The story begins with the maddeningly familiar anecdote of corruption destroying the lives and dreams of innocent Chinese people:

The last time his parents saw Liao Mengjun alive, he was heading to school to pick up his junior high school diploma.

A few hours later, they were called to the morgue. They found that their lanky 15-year-old son’s forehead had been bashed in. His right knee jutted through the skin. Both his arms had been broken. He had several stab wounds, internal injuries and a swollen foot. His index finger was slashed, suggesting his tormentors had tried to make him write something in his own blood.

As if things could be worse, writer Liao Zusheng and his wife, Chen Guoying, concluded that they knew who had killed their son: his teachers. And they believed they knew why: because of their bitter, public complaints about unauthorized fees and systemic corruption in schools and across Chinese society.

Corruption is an everyday experience for millions of Chinese that taints not just schools, but relations in business, on farms and in factories, and potentially any contact citizens have with officialdom.

That’s just the starting point. By the time you get to the end your blood pressure will be up several notches. The most infuriating aspect is that there’s so little hope for change. The central government is paralyzed, because it needs the support of the local officials carrying out most of the outrages. The argument that the central party is impotent against them won’t fly. They intentionally let it go, for their own survival.

“Even if the central government wanted to see justice carried out at the village level, it is afraid of losing the support of local officials,” said Tang Jingling, an activist based in Guangzhou. “They need them to control society since they’re scared to death of any sort of unrest. And to do that, they must let them run their fiefdoms.”

It’s fine to love China and hope for the best for its people. But you can’t ever forget that a lot of bad things happen here, the kind of things most societies with rule of law could deal with quickly. On New Year’s Eve as we get ready for the parties, let’s not forget that there’s more to China than the glitter and glitz and glamour, and that a big chunk of the population lives in what is in effect a police state. So much progress and hope, and so much criminality and rot.

Read it all. Maybe there’s a tiny glimmer of something that might be called hope at the very end, where the reporter describes protest banners let fluttering in the wind – proof that at least the people can get their story told, and appear increasingly willing to challenge the criminal officials. But it seems a small and futile step, and there’s nothing like a happy ending. Quite the contrary.

Obligatory disclaimer: The US killed Native Americans, kept slaves and did all sorts of awful things under Bush. I condemn those things as heartily as I do the evils of the officials described in this article, and the system that encourages evil to thrive so the CCP can maintain its iron-grip on power. I write positive posts on China as well as negative ones and choose to live here of my own free will. You can’t write about China and ignore this elephant lurking in the corner.



It’s not a totally absurd notion. When people lose their livelihoods and their homes, and see the investment bankers who brought this upon us continuing to reap fat bonuses after receiving taxpayer-funded handouts of unprecedented size, there’s no telling where their emotions might lead them. Expect to see more articles like this in early 2009, as people begin to realize exactly what’s at stake here. The troops are standing by. Those giving the order for them to do so know what’s coming down the road.


Open Thread?

[Note: Moving this up to keep it on top.]

Big question mark in the headline. Things have been slow, it’s the Holidays, comments have been relatively thin. But I’ll be in classes most days and want to offer a space for posting links, random thoughts and whatever, especially to keep extraneous comments out of the threads.


Indoctrinating China’s children

Simply beyond belief.

A commenter compares this to saying the pledge of allegiance in the US or having a flag in school. I beg to differ, strongly. We were indoctrinated in America’s schools, too (I still remember the USDA poster on the wall extolling the benefits of drinking milk and eating beef), but nothing like this. Not even close. A taste of the toxic chorus:

Lead: Earthquakes, shifting back and forth like the positions of Sarkozy, with his dirty tricks, trying to shake the great China

Lead: Did China retreat?

All: No. The Shenzhou-7 launched. We are victorious!

Lead: Pathetic Europe will never stop the insurmountable force of our great dynasty

All: Just the aftershocks from the earthquake would destroy France!

Watch the video. A shocker. And we wonder what makes the anti-CNN crowd so hostile. It’s surprising they aren’t hunting down French people in the streets with machetes.

Update: Speaking of propaganda, stop what you are doing and go here now. A moving, Karaoke-ready tribute to the Chinese heading to the Gulf of Aden to fight the Somali pirates.

With lofty sentiments, the Chinese navy heads for the deep blue
Braving wind and waves, the warship’s flag flutters,
The Chinese navy, a bright sword to harmonize the ocean.
Chinese warriors, valiant men with iron wills….

Has to be a parody, right? Harmonize the ocean?



No, not the musical – the debate raging in Guangdong on whether or not to eat them. Photos and message board comments and lots of passion.

This is a hard one, Do we not eat animals that are adorable and/or smart? Because no animal (aside from man) is as smart as the pig, and some of them can be quite adorable. Being a cat lover, I could never eat one, but does that mean others shouldn’t be allowed to? My emotional impulse is to answer Yes, but I’m not sure that argument would sway the jury.

Update: Speaking of pets, please take a look at this heartbreaking post by a fellow China blogger whose dog may be dying due to Optima dog food made in the US but apparently contaminated in China:

Allegedly, the reason for the contamination is because during the Olympics the Chinese gov’t set tight restrictions on ports of entry for importing. All the dog food was therefore brought in through the hot and humid Guangzhou, where it sat in a non-temperature controlled warehouse long enough for the aflatoxin to develop in the food.

So sorry to read that post, and hope Addie pulls through. Ryan sounds uncharacteristically upset; I would be, too.


Vineyard Cafe

I just want to say Vineyard Cafe is now my favorite restaurant in Beijing. Their food is consistently excellent, the service is great, the manger is cool, the environment is fantastic and it’s the only restaurant I can find that isn’t playing piped-in Christmas carols at ear-splitting volumes. In fact, today they weren’t playing any Christmas carols at all; I was in heaven.

Their English-style brunch is the best in town for the money (if you want to spend a lot more, this place is highly recommended), their pizza and salad lunches are a smoking deal, and their apple pie with fresh cream has been my dessert of choice since I discovered this place four months ago, thanks to my friend and co-blogger. It’s also right around the corner from a subway stop making it easy to get to, and it’s on a street with so much “local charm” I’m willing to place bets it’ll be the next Nanluoguxiang not too long from now.

I wasn’t paid anything for this, but wrote it simply because I love the place. Last Sunday I was invited for brunch at my earlier haunt, Steak & Eggs, and the entire time I kept asking myself why I hadn’t suggested Vineyard instead. Why eat (barely) adequate when you can eat great for the same price?


China to emerge “relatively unscathed”?

It’s painful here. Worse than I ever thought it would be. Everyone, down to the taxi drivers and the lady who washes the cups at my language school, is talking about the crisis. I got a near-tearful call today from someone I know who works for a not-unprominent company here, asking if I had any suggestions for his keeping his sanity. “There are rumors everywhere. Everyone says a big reorganization is coming, that even the chairman of the company is leaving. The worse thing is that they won’t say anything formally but they’re all whispering about it. We all know the layoffs are coming, maybe up to 20 percent. But we are all in suspense. We can’t sleep, we can’t think about anything else.”

I told my friend to relax because a.) he is only 30 years old and he should thank God he is witnessing this kind of misery while he’s young and not when he’s getting ready to retire, and b.) there’s not a damned thing he can do, except keep as cool as possible and try his best to hang on to what he’s got.

But the call was deeply troubling. The anxiety level has reached the clicheed “fever pitch.” From many expats you’re hearing a lot of, “This is definitely a good time to be living in China and not America,” but also a lot of, “My company just laid XX people off, freezed hiring, cut expat packages, canceled all bonuses and stopped all travel.” Yeah, it’s a good time to be in China, but it’s not a fun time to be in China. Or at least not as fun, by a long shot, as the heady pre-crisis, pre-Olympic days, when money poured like wastewater into the Pearl River Delta.

China is scared. Everyone’s scared. Some businesses have been hit way harder than others, but everyone’s feeling the pressure. What still seems to separate China from the West, however, is the sense that even in the face of an unthinkable catastrophe, China still has more going for it than the West and this is still the better place to be. And for now, I tend to agree, cautiously. I’m not nearly as confident as I was a few months ago, when I was convinced China’s own domestic economy woud keep the engine roaring. It may keep the engine humming, softly, at least keeping the flame alive. And that is still more than you can say for the US, where it appears the lights are being extinguished one by one, leaving entire states and cities in the black. (Case in point from yesterday’s paper; this is not an exaggeration.)

Which brings us to the link of the day, an article from Foreign Affairs that begins with an agonizing description of just how deep the precipice is for the West, throwing into question the very foundations of free-market capitalism and wrenching us from what was a market-driven system to one driven by the government. After scaring us as much as he can, the author then turns to the “bright side” of the equation, i.e., the powers that may emerge stronger as US influence wanes. Need I state which of these powers comes out ahead?

No country will benefit economically from the financial crisis over the coming year, but a few states — most notably China — will achieve a stronger relative global position. China is experiencing its own real estate slowdown, its export markets are weak, and its overall growth rate is set to slow. But the country is still relatively insulated from the global crisis. Its foreign exchange reserves are approaching $2 trillion, making it the world’s strongest country in terms of liquidity. China’s financial system is not exposed, and the country’s growth, which is now driven by domestic activity, will continue at solid, if diminished, rates.

This relatively unscathed position gives China the opportunity to solidify its strategic advantages as the United States and Europe struggle to recover. Beijing will be in a position to assist other nations financially and make key investments in, for example, natural resources at a time when the West cannot. At the same time, this crisis may lead to a closer relationship between the United States and China. Trade-related flashpoints are diminishing, which may soften protectionist stances in the U.S. Congress. And it is likely that, with Washington less distracted by the war in Iraq, the new administration of President Obama will see more clearly than its predecessor that the U.S.-Chinese relationship is becoming the United States’ most important bilateral relationship. The Obama administration could lead efforts to bring China into the G-8 (the group of highly industrialized states) and expand China’s shareholding position in the International Monetary Fund. China, in turn, could lead an effort to enlarge the capital base of the IMF.

Kind of ironic, suggesting we turn to one of the world’s poorest countries to shore up the IMF. But that’s one of the peculiarities of China, verging (perhaps) on superpower status “while ranking just above the world’s poorest nations.” And yet there we are.

This is an immense article, like a book. Allow me to paste a final snip

[China] will suffer a lesser blow from the global crisis. It is experiencing some economic pain. Its export markets, led by the United States and Europe, are slowing dramatically. China is also suffering from price declines in certain urban real estate markets. Its growth slowed to nine percent during the third quarter of 2008 — a rate that other nations would envy but was China’s slowest in five years. These factors explain why the Chinese leadership is implementing a multiyear economic stimulus plan worth over $500 billion, or approximately 15 percent of GDP. Still, the IMF is projecting that the country’s economy will grow by 8.5 percent in 2009.

In financial terms, China is little affected by the crisis in the West. Its entire financial system plays a relatively small role in its economy, and it apparently has no exposure to the toxic assets that have brought the U.S. and European banking systems to their knees. China also runs a budget surplus and a very large current account surplus, and it carries little government debt. Chinese households save an astonishing 40 percent of their incomes. And China’s $2 trillion portfolio of foreign exchange reserves grew by $700 billion last year, thanks to the country’s current account surplus and foreign direct investment.

This means that although China, too, has been hurt by the crisis, its economic and financial power have been strengthened relative to those of the West. China’s global influence will thus increase, and Beijing will be able to undertake political and economic initiatives to increase it further. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are just concluding an agreement that would create the world’s largest free-trade area, and Beijing could take additional steps toward Asian interdependence and play a stronger leadership role within the region.

China could also expand its diplomatic presence in the developing world, in order to further its model of capitalism and, in places such as Angola, Kazakhstan, and Sudan, satisfy its thirst for natural resources. In the midst of this crisis, it might also help finance emergency loans, either directly, through bilateral financing arrangements, or indirectly, by creating an additional facility at the IMF that could expand the organization’s available credit beyond what current quotas allow. China should also be expected to make strategic investments through its sovereign wealth funds. Given China’s appetite for natural resources, this is one likely area of interest; its relatively underdeveloped financial-services infrastructure is another.

Well, it sure sounds optimistic. I’ve written before about how well Hu has built relations with strategic partners in a Machiavellian way with only one thought in mind: how will this benefit China, morality be damned? Does China have the finesse and diplomatic skills to pull it all off? Looking at how clumsily they handle their own media relations, I would say no. But then, looking at how smoothly they ran the Games and how, when they set their minds to it, they can make things happen (again, morality – and the environment and safety, etc. – be damned), I’d say it’s not at all inconceivable.

In PR pitches, we often tell clients they are at “an inflection point,” a pivotal moment when they can achieve greatness or be lost in the crowd (which is why they need our services). The term has lost a lot of its meaning, but if ever there was a genuine, burning, 100-percent certified and documented inflection point for China, this is it. More than the Games, More than getting into the WTO. Yes, China is reeling from the shock waves and is getting hit by a sledge hammer. But the West is in a different boat, one with no life preservers. It won’t drown, but it won’t emerge from the water anytime soon, and when it comes up for air it won’t be the America we used to know. China will still be China, I believe. Its ruthless government, with money in the bank and massive support of its population, despite the fear and protests and angry anecdotes, is in a much better position to hold onto its power while keeping systems largely intact.

Sorry for all the metaphors. Read through the article if you haven’t yet reached saturation levels with grim news outlooks on our “crisis-opportunity,” as they say here. And please don’t misunderstand: I am not convinced China will achieve all that the authors claim it’s capable of. I think there’ll be misery aplenty along the way. But everything is relative. And China is in a better position than the US, relatively. For whatever that’s worth.


Suing the Chinese Government

[Update: the suit was rejected, as a commenter points out.]

This blog was home to a spirited argument some months ago regarding the government’s efforts to bribe and/or silence parents of the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake who were demanding accountability. Now 57 of those parents are trying to have their day in court, but it is not at all clear whether the court will hear them.

A group of parents whose children were among the 127 killed in the collapse of an elementary school during the May earthquake that devastated western China have confirmed that they filed a lawsuit against government officials and a construction contractor. The lawsuit is the first filed by grieving and angry parents who say shoddy construction cost the children their lives.

Radio Free Asia reported the lawsuit in early December, but China’s official news media have not mentioned it. This weekend, the parents confirmed the filing in telephone interviews. They said the court has yet to tell them whether it will hear the case.

The lawsuit was filed on Dec. 1 in a court here in the city of Deyang, in Sichuan Province, the region hit hardest by the May 12 earthquake, which left 88,000 people dead or missing. Up to 10,000 schoolchildren were killed as some 7,000 classrooms and dormitory rooms collapsed across the quake zone, according to government estimates.

That they have gotten this far is pretty remarkable, though I doubt they will get much farther. Possibly all of them have signed an agreement with the government not to speak about the issue. The only bright side of the story is that the Chinese people are far more willing to speak out than they were just a few years ago, and they are beginning to see their right to protest and complain as a given.

In similar legal action, parents in three provinces filed lawsuits this fall against dairy companies after tens of thousands of children across China fell ill and at least four died from drinking milk and baby formula tainted with a toxic chemical called melamine. Local officials had been involved in covering up the poisonings, and judges have so far declined to hear any lawsuits.

After the earthquake, the central government assigned a committee of experts to look into the school collapses, but the committee has yet to issue a final report. In September, an official from the committee, Ma Zongjin, said at a news conference in Beijing that a rush to build schools during the Chinese economic boom might have led to shoddy construction that resulted in the student deaths. He said more than 1,000 schools had one of two major flaws — they were built on the earthquake fault line or they were poorly constructed.

Government officials at all levels have tried to suppress discussion of the school collapses.

So it’s a maddening situation, where you can protest, but only so much. Rule of law and accountability are still abstractions. You can complain and sue and speak up on the Internet and even in the media, and the government may actually investigate (which is why I bolded the text above – in the earlier thread there was a lot of skepticism of whether there would be any investigation at all). But when it comes to demanding accountability, don’t get your hopes too high. It’s great that these parents can sue the government. Until the courts start to act and hold officials accountable for their actions, however, it’s little more than a gesture.

Note: If you want to be reminded of the very human nature of the school tragedy in Sichuan, please revisit this famous post. I still get chills when I look at those faces.


Taiwan and China reunited

Well, not quite but they’re certainly heading that way. The economic crisis is pushing them closer together and making what just a few years ago would have seemed like very strange bedfellows.

China offered 130 billion yuan ($19 billion) of loans for Taiwan companies operating on the mainland as the ruling parties of both governments laid out proposals to boost financial ties.

Beijing would provide the financing over three years and also purchase $2 billion worth of flat-panel displays from the island’s companies, Wang Yi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, said at the conclusion of a weekend forum.

The meeting between officials of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang and their Chinese counterparts sets a blueprint for further government-level talks after a nine-year suspension. Taiwanese businessmen have invested an estimated $150 billion in China and are clamoring for the island’s financial firms to be permitted to offer services to ease access to funding and capital.

“Cooperation at this time is especially meaningful as the global financial crisis will soon spread to the manufacturing industry,” said Schive Chi, chairman of the Taiwan Stock Exchange. “As both China and Taiwan have few foreign debts and both have high savings ratio, we should really actively use up the huge savings to help boost our economies.”

Comb through the article to see just how extensive the cooperation is, and what it will mean for Taiwan businesses that have invested huge amounts in China and are now being hit hard by the crash.

What is significant to me is the tone of the dialogue on both sides (“The consensus reflects the expectation from people from the two sides and will have an active influence over the policy- making of the governments of both sides,” said Jia Qinglin, a Chinese Communist Party Politburo member.”) You would never have read an article like this just a year or two ago. They sound like two lovers separated by a war who have just re-found one another.

Like it or not, this is one more milestone in a new era of increasing cooperation and mutual dependency, and it’s only going to intensify. Will they reunite and live happily ever after as one? Not anytime soon, and maybe never. But it’s a stake in the heart of the Taiwan independence movement, for better or for worse. Whether independence is a noble goal or not is irrelevant. All that matters is reality, and the reality is that Taiwan and the PRC are moving closer together, and that will carry enough advantages for all sides to keep independence off the table.

Staying in touch with many of my friends in Taiwan, I know that only one thing matters right now, and that is the economy and the jobs that come with it. If they see this as step toward economic improvement, the enthusiasm over the independence movement, which has already sagged dramatically, is dead in the water. A pity perhaps, but there we are.

They might keep up the old arguments about which pinyin to use and how Taiwan should be referred to by Google Earth, etc., but if the Taiwanese and the Chinese see the relationship as economically mutually beneficial, they’ll happily go along. There’s a reason regular direct flights between Shanghai and Taipei started a few weeks ago. Tough times call for pragmatism. And times haven’t been this tough for Taiwan for decades.

This is just the start. Once we begin to emerge from the crisis in four or five years, expect to see a whole new world order of alliances and agreements, and a whole new balance of power. Yes, America will still be up there at the tippy top, but it won’t be there alone and it won’t carry the weight it did from the end of WWII to 2001.